Dave Ramsey and the End of Community

I once spent a little too much money on a coat at a small, struggling mall store owned and solely-staffed by a really nice Christian man. This was apparently un-Christian of me.

The Dave Ramsey Show

The Dave Ramsey Show (Photo credit: .imelda)

Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University has found a vibrant marketplace in churches across America. The program of responsible spending and saving that Ramsey has packaged together speaks to many of Christendom’s historic values; temperance, wisdom, and modesty, to name a few. Particularly in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession, FPU has been instrumental in helping many people responsibly live within their means.

Ramsey has, of course, clumsily talked his way into the Culture Wars as of late, but I don’t want to use this space to pile on his comments about the poor. Instead, I’d like to reflect on the consistency of his Financial Peace with the the notion of Christian Peace.

I too have gone through the program, which was a series of videos and homework assignments designed to systematically identify belt-tightening and investment opportunities in the student’s actual finances. I won’t spoil the details of Ramsey’s system, but I will say that it was, in an amateur’s opinion, pretty logical advice.

I was never entirely comfortable with the enterprise, however.

For one thing, there was, to me anyway, a crassness and a brashness about Ramsey’s on-stage persona that often made me squint like Clint Eastwood in an old Spaghetti Western. His beaming self-confidence, his carefully manicured “working-man’s clothes,” and his absolute faith in individualism can at times make one feel as though they are watching a particularly bad TED Talk.

These particular complaints all spring from personal preference however, and, though I find these rhetorical strategies to be an uncomfortable fit with the Christian ethics Ramsey tries to tie his product to, they are not what most unsettles me about the enterprise.

What is most disturbing about Christendom’s relationship with Financial Peace University is the extent of Dave Ramsey’s influence and the fact that his ideas are not simply taken as wise advice about personal finance, but as a broad philosophy about the nature of human communities. In short, the problem with Ramsey is not one of kind, but of degree. To live within one’s means is good. To live within one’s own isolated economic reality is not.

Without giving away any of his specific financial success secrets, I came away from Dave Ramsey’s sales pitch with an overall sense that the responsible person will seek to take such command of his or her own finances as to completely withdraw from any shared economic relationship with others. In the Ramsey-verse, all debt is evil, while goodness is found in the individual consumer prying the lowest price from a retailer, no matter the social cost.

This is not simply advice, it is philosophy, and it is a socially dangerous one. It is not dangerous because it favors the Wal-Marts of the world over local businesses (though it certainly does). No, the danger of Ramsey’s philosophy lies in its lack of imagination about what human beings are. It reduces each of us to isolated economic functionaries whose value is primarily measured by purchasing power and accumulated liquid wealth.

What this philosophy undercooks is the fact that humans need other humans. In fact, part of what makes us human is our dependence upon relationships with one another. Those relationships are social, sexual, and even economic.

Many of the Bible verses we’ve committed to memory – “Do unto others” etc… – emphasize the need to de-centralize self-interest in Christian community. Not many people in Christendom would seriously advocate self-centeredness as an ethical standard in friendships or romantic relationships, yet our wholesale adoption of Ramsey’s product (and I keep emphasizing this basic fact of the enterprise’s nature) basically advocates centralizing the self in our economic relationships. This puzzles me.

People will surely argue that I am ignoring moments when the product mentions the ethics of community, and certainly I remember a few obligatory nods to things like giving to charity and so on. And sure, I suppose that if an individual becomes rich, they can conceivably give away more money.

This is theoretically plausible, but in the context of FPU’s overall emphasis on self-empowerment, even this act of giving is itself one of power, not of the powerlessness that is the emphasis of the Christian Gospel.

Save your money and spend it wisely.

Give your life away to others recklessly.

I leave it to the reader to reconcile those two philosophies.

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Mark Driscoll and Christian-on-Christian Crime

By now, most people who would care about such things already know about the allegations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll, the Seattle-based megachurch pastor. For those who wish to get caught up on the situation, Slate ran a fabulous take-down of Driscoll that should fill in the gaps, here.

Pastor Mark preaching at the Temple of Artemis

Pastor Mark preaching at the Temple of Artemis (Photo credit: Mars Hill Church)

His guilt or innocence is less interesting to me than the public conversation about him. I frankly have rather low expectations for much Christian writing, so the idea that a Christian Bestseller is less than academically rigorous is not exactly world-shaking to me. Andy Crouch wrote what I think is the best response to this situation, and he makes that same point. Crouch’s main point, however, is a brilliant one; that the major problem with the Driscoll plagiarism affair is that is an example of a dangerous idolatry among believers, a point I will return to at the end.

I am, however, still haunted by the question of how people of faith should respond to one another.

One thing I constantly try to do in class is to get my largely Christian students to think critically about their faith. “Critical” is the critical word here, because this goal necessitates casting suspicion upon people who ostensibly believe as they do. This sometimes causes friction with students who take an broad “us against them” view of the role of salt and light in the world. 

This conflict spilled over into my personal life as well. Like many people, I posted a snarky link to the above Slate article on my Facebook page, with a comment along the lines of “Hey Driscoll, is it the kick-butt Jesus or the panzy Jesus that cites his sources,” alluding to (and let’s just admit it — poking fun at) Driscoll’s famously hyper-masculine view of the Christian faith. There was a pretty good conversation that followed that link, but I later noticed, in other friends’ feeds, status updates that complained about Christians publicly complaining about other Christians (I know, I know. The irony of that was not lost on me either. It was all I could do to refrain from pointing it out — you guessed it — publicly). 

Being who I am, the whole thing reminds me of any number of Philip Roth stories. The Ghost Writer, for example, spends much of its narrative energy chronicling young Nathan Zuckerman’s conflict with his Jewish community over the scandal of his fiction. The story naturally bears striking parallels to Roth’s own personal history with his community’s reaction to his work going back to the beginning of his career. Essentially, the conflict boils down to “is it good for the Jews.”

The communal fear on display in this story is not without merit, but also not healthy from a perspective of self-reflection. I wonder if Roth’s work offers parallels that Christians might make use of as we adjudicate Driscoll’s actions in public. Primarily, we must ask if it is truly bad for the Christian public image for believers to show that we are thinking beings and that we demand certain ethical standards be met in spite of our “oneness.” Is it really better that we remain publicly silent while the culture of idolatry that Crouch identifies proliferates and is rewarded?

I believe this all points to a paradox built into the very fabric of the faith. I’m sure than many Christians who prefer the “Thin Blue Line” approach to controversy point to New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 6 as their guiding scripture. The edicts of those verses demand that Christians show a united front to non-believers and that they not bring public lawsuits against one another. There is, of course, much wisdom here, but I think it must be doing more than asking “is it good for the Christians?” It is asking of believers to rise above the crassness and self-interestedness of their non-believing neighbors. If Crouch is right, then are Driscoll’s critics not identifying a similar crassness in his public-celebrity persona?

This is a complication, but the paradox I mentioned above lies at a different level. The passage from 1 Corinthians. Has that letter not become a public scolding of Christians by another Christian? Does the visibility of that fracture within Christendom not build respect for the faith? What is good for the Christians?

 

 

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