The perils of prosperity

Culture | Irish villagers, e-traders, and early Christians face challenges brought on by success in the marketplace

Issue: "Unholy matrimony," Feb. 13, 1999

Lottery follies
Ned Devine always wanted to win the lottery, but the day he won he dropped dead. His neighbors in a tiny Irish village still want to share a little of the joy in the hit comedy Waking Ned Devine (Fox; rated PG for adult themes). After all, good old Ned would have wanted it that way. The whole mess starts when mischievous Jackie O'Shea (Ian Bannen) discovers that the winning ticket was bought in the village, so he schmoozes everyone around. Then he discovers Ned dead in his chair with the ticket in his hand. So he cooks up a scheme for everyone to share a piece of the pie in exchange for pretending Ned's alive long enough to collect the check. Mixed in with all this is Jackie's best friend Michael (David Kelly), who becomes his accomplice and Ned-impersonator. There's also a single mom who is in love with a pig farmer but can't marry him because of his smell. Added to this stew is a mean, crazy lady who wants to turn everybody in so they'll all go to prison and leave her undisturbed. Then there's the nice Lotto Man from Dublin who just wants to make sure everything's kosher. There's no defending what these people do. Love of money really is the root of all kinds of evil. Still, the movie brims with a they-don't-make-them-like-this-anymore sweetness. Think of Waking as Frank Capra's vision of small-town life, spoken with an Irish brogue and oodles of gorgeous photography (of the Isle of Man, which substitutes for Ireland). If this had been a normal studio project, it would have been reduced to yet another retread Walter Matthau/ Jack Lemmon old-guy buddy movie à la The Odd Couple II (see WORLD, April 25, 1998). What is amazing about this movie is that its characters are older and rural, instead of being urban twentysomethings from the cast of Friends. Waking Ned Devine is an ocean away from the Hollywood stereotypes of rural America, yet it has done surprisingly well at the box office; this may inspire more films with more non-glamorous characters. The free market online
Do I hear $300 for this gold watch? Or $103 for a baseball signed by Joe Dimaggio? How about $1 for a postal scale? This sort of haggling is the stock and trade of eBay, one of the most ingenious and controversial ideas to hit the Net. The company has been one of the darlings of Wall Street's high-tech stock craze; its stock shot up more than 1,000 percent in just a few months. Pop over to and everything from overpriced Beanie Babies to Louis Berkhof's Manual of Reformed Doctrine might be found on the auction block. It's a grand Turkish bazaar. In the last three months of 1998, eBay hosted 13.6 million auctions. One survey says it is the second most popular site on the Web (behind Yahoo!). People go there to make a deal because eBay doesn't actually sell anything on the Net. Instead, these online auctioneers let people from around the world post listings of their wares. Then buyers come and bid on the items. Then, when the auction is done, the winning bidder contacts the seller and pays his money, with a commission going to eBay. A few people can make a living selling artwork, Hot Wheels cars, and even antique Parker pens to eBay's 2.1 million registered users. With all this wheeling and dealing, somebody is bound to get ripped off. EBay says it only gets about 27 fraud complaints for every million auctions, but the fear is real for some. Last month, New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs launched an investigation into whether all the "one of a kind" sports memorabilia on the site is legit. And whether or not eBay can be held accountable if someone sells a fake baseball. Perhaps eBay is such a hit because it is a microcosm of everything about the Net. After all, it seemingly offers everything. People talk to strangers, grab unusual trinkets, and everything moves in the blink of an eye.

The problems of success
Here's a culture war played by different rules: What happens when Christianity is on the rise? This was the challenge of the church that lived in the gap between the ancient and medieval eras. As in America today, Christians were not persecuted, but they still struggled against a cosmopolitan, pagan elite. The fourth through sixth centuries were full of debates about how not to be defiled by the world, says historian Robert A. Markus in his book The End of Ancient Christianity (now in paperback from Cambridge UP). "There was a wide no-man's land between explicit pagan worship and uncompromising Christian rejection of all its trappings and associations," he writes. In such a world, Christians had to determine what parts of the post-Roman world were and were not a reassertion of old idolatry. Against this backdrop came a revivalist called Pelagius (who preached sinless perfectionism) and Augustine (who said that was impossible). Then there were the ascetics, who fled everything and strove for the marriage-free, shared community of the monastery. For Christians who wanted to be one of those reputed to be the spiritual elite, the desert beckoned. This was also a time when the church learned something about time-that the Lord's return might not be in the immediate future. Not surprisingly, this was the era when the BC/AD calendar divide emerged. The church calendar was brought in (for better or for worse) as competition for paganism's series of sacred days and festivals. Meanwhile, the cult of the martyrs was on the rise and their relics invaded the church. Mr. Markus does an excellent job of explaining the thought processes behind these developments. This period is often ignored by those who want to focus on big events, but it set the stage for many of the theological battles fought in later centuries-including those of today.

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