Ask most people to describe materialism and you’ll hear references to big-screen TVs, computers, SUVs, spacious houses, and overpaid CEOs. A few might mention “consumerism” and “greed.” Most would agree with the idea that materialism has been a major obstacle to relieving world poverty. Some would say it’s the cause of that poverty.
But what if materialism isn’t really what most people think? We could fall prey to materialism unawares or reject good ideas we have misidentified as materialism. In seeking to help the poor, we could waste our efforts opposing what really contributes little to the poverty problem.
So what is materialism? I’ll pursue a definition by countering four popular myths.
A widespread attitude, especially among Christians, is that materialism involves attaching value and importance to material things—and that these things are not truly important.
But wouldn’t that make God the first materialist?
Consider creation from a before-and-after perspective. Before Genesis 1:1, there was nothing—no material at all. Apparently, God considered this situation and decided that He wanted material to exist. He created matter, energy, time—an entire, mind-bogglingly huge universe of material. Before He created it, He invented it. After He created it, He repeatedly declared it to be “good” (Gen. 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, etc.).
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon against gluttony—and that’s saying something. I’ve attended Bible-preaching services multiple times per week for more than 40 years. On the other hand, I’ve seen writers depict gluttony as one of the greatest evils of our time and the lack of preaching against it as the top—or near-top—failing of the modern church.
To be sure, some have exaggerated its importance. But are they right that it’s a neglected topic?
As I’ve researched gluttony in Scripture and in church history, it’s become clear that I’m not yet ready to answer that question. But I do want to offer some points to consider in order to frame the question.
Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.
These words of Marx and Engels (Communist Manifesto, 3:I:a) suggest that Christianity may be initially quite useful for the socialist cause. Even though the abolition of all religion is ultimately a necessity in their suggested system, Marx and Engels recognize the practicality of incremental progress toward their goals. Hence, they welcome a slight retasking of Christian ideas in order to facilitate societal drift toward socialism, and ultimately toward communism.
“For these 10 lottery winners, cashing in turned out to have been the worst decision of their lives”
The Edmonton Oilers traded star left winger, Ryan Smyth, to the New York Islanders in February of 2007. Every sports trade has its multifaceted reasons. This one was about money—yet about so much more.
Ryan Smyth ranked among the National Hockey League’s elite skaters. He was adored by the hockey-crazed Edmonton fans for his work ethic, courageous heart, and fundamental hockey skills. Smyth was also among Edmonton’s most respected citizens. Exemplary in behavior, winsome in demeanor, and revered for his charitable contributions to the community, Ryan Smyth and the Edmonton Oilers seemed to be a match made in hockey heaven.
A native Albertan, Smith had been drafted by the Oilers in 1994—the team he idolized as a child. By 2007, his wife and two daughters were happily settled in Edmonton and the 31-year-old’s career was winding down. In reach was the rare opportunity to finish with the team that drafted him. The Oilers management wanted nothing less for “Captain Canada.” Then new contract negotiations started.
Smyth’s agent, Don Meehan, insisted the Oilers pay their star $27.5 million over 5 years. He reasoned this was a mere $250,000 more per year than the contracts two similarly gifted players, Alex Tanguay (Calgary) and Simon Gagne (Philadelphia) had recently inked with their clubs. Whether to feed Smyth’s ego or to line Meehan’s pockets, making a pittance more per year than Tanguay and Gagne became paramount.