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Money mysticism

Culture | America's real religion is shopping

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

The stockmarket is up and unemployment is down. Inflation is at a standstill, consumer goods are getting cheaper, and money seems plentiful. Not only are the rich (and the middle class) getting richer, with successful welfare reform even the poor are getting richer. So what is all this prosperity doing to the spiritual life of our nation? Many Americans are blending their abiding interest in "spirituality" with the new materialism. The result is a new religion in which Mammon takes the place of God. A book by James Twitchell with the rather blasphemous title Lead Us Into Temptation (Columbia University Press) argues that America's true religion is shopping. And this is a good thing. Shopping, he says, is the way Americans make meaning. The accumulation of possessions is the way we find fulfillment. The brands we buy establish our sense of belonging with a particular social group. Our possessions define our identity. "Getting and spending," Mr. Twitchell says, "has been the most passionate and often the most imaginative endeavor of modern life." He attacks time-honored notions such as "money can't buy happiness." Sure it can, he insists. In fact, since Mr. Twitchell defines religion as creating order in a meaningless universe, shopping has religious significance. As our primary "meaning-making" activity, shopping is a matter of redemption. "Whereas the Heavenly Host organized the world of our ancestors, the Marketplace of Objects does it for us; they both promise redemption: one through faith, the other through purchase." "Modern consumerism is not a replacement of religion," he writes, "but a continuation, a secularizing, of a struggle for order. Salvation through consumption is not a contradiction, but a necessity." If it is in shopping that we find redemption, the means of grace has to be money. More and more get-rich-quick schemes are invoking God-or pagan gods-as a money-making totem. Titles such as Jesus CEO, God Wants You to Be Rich, God's Plans for Your Finances, and God's Money-Back Guarantee: The Seven Steps to Financial Security fill Christian bookstores. Other self-help business books-presumably purchased by hard-headed, practical business executives-invoke New Age mysticism. The key to gaining wealth is to "create your own reality" by summoning the power of the god within. Ironically, many churches are trying to cash in, by giving the spiritual consumers what they want. In New York City, the historic Trinity Church-where George Washington once worshipped-has been sponsoring a TV show featuring Suze Orman, the queen guru of money mysticism, holding forth in the church's nave. Ms. Orman's book The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom sold more than 1.6 million copies and was the top nonfiction title of 1998. Her new book The Courage to be Rich went straight to No. 1 on the bestseller lists. Much of her advice is common sense: Avoid credit card debt; don't waste your money; invest in the stockmarket. But what is unique is the way she turns money-making into a path toward spiritual enlightenment. Josh Getlin of the Los Angeles Times described one of her sessions, as televised from Trinity Church: "Bathed in TV light, America's top-selling financial author and investment guru looks sternly at a young businesswoman who confesses to the sin of credit card debt." "OK," says Ms. Orman, playing the role of pastor-confessor, "you have to create a new truth." This new truth involves her principle of mind over money: Believe that you will be prosperous, and the money will come to you. "Your new truth should be: 'I have more money than I'll ever need.'" After making the maxed-out businesswoman repeat this after her, Ms. Orman says, "You know what I think happens? God looks down and says, 'I better make that come true!'" The theology is crystal clear. God is not the creator-truth, meaning, and reality itself are created by the human being. We do not exist to serve God. In Ms. Orman's universe, God exists to serve us, to be at our beck and call ("I better make that come true!"). Prosperity is a blessing, but, as the Bible keeps warning us, it is a dangerous blessing. Being secure from financial want can certainly free a person for greater service to God and to neighbor. And it is certainly true that positive character traits-such as discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work-can pay off in this life. The new money mysticism, however, seeks to shortchange this process by what is, in effect, magic-cultivating alleged spiritual powers to do one's bidding. Having rejected the true God in favor of shopping, the new spiritual consumer has devised a new religion that is very much like the old pre-Christian religions. The Deity or deities are reduced to good luck charms to be placated or manipulated. Objects are worshipped. The real goal of religious practice is personal empowerment. When times are hard, people tend to depend on God for their daily sustenance, but when times are easy, God is often ignored. Proverbs strikes the right balance: "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God" (Proverbs 30:8). Riches can become idolatry. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. We can become so heavy-laden with all of our shopping that we can't squeeze through the eye of the needle.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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