Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bugis, NAFA and Materialism

Everytime I meet certain clients at Bugis, several long hours are spent trying to inculcate me into the scintillating world of Mammon and the great happiness (vaguely defined by well-appointed houses in several countries, fancy cars, the perks of platinum cards, valets and maids, flying in a Michelin-starred chef of your choice to cook dinner, a private jet for a weekend in Paris or a shopping trip in New York, a fleet of yachts, an island or two...) that success would hand me on a silver platter.

After tactfully avoiding offers to buy me lunch/dinner, I either escape to the Sony shop downstairs for a run on their display-set PSP or take a long walk around the environs to clear my head of visions of grandeur.

On one side of Bugis Junction, there are the colourful, pungent, crowded restaurants lining Liang Seah and Tan Quee Lan streets filled with backpackers, mat rockers, fagging indie folk and zombified office workers.

On the other side of Bugis Junction, past the boring ubiquitous facade of the usual fast food restaurants are dark sweaty alleyways misty with cheap cigarette smoke squashed with shops offering better than the usual pasar malam clothes, jostling among secondhand mobiles, international calling cards, S$7 CDs, S$5 sunglasses, drinks mixed in huge plastic tubs, Hakka abacus beads, kueh tutu steamers, and cheap watches.

On the second storey, a more Harajuku-meets-Far East Plaza's Level One/The Heeren's The Annex/Bugis Junction's Edge counts amongst its tenants a sex shop with a very bored proprietor, a tattoo studio and a cafe that sells large palm-sized cookies.

Inevitably, I end up at the familiar grounds of the old campus of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Unlike the cold new monstrosities campuses, the old one sounded and smelt just right: wet clay drying as you entered the side door, silhouettes of unfinished sculptures in dark corners, a central courtyard filled with strains of strings or muffled piano from improperly-closed studio doors. Classrooms had the comfortably lived-in smell of generations of wet watercolour paint and freshly-ground 墨水. Water-coolers were sometimes clogged with paintbrush hair and algae. The ancient lift was cranky and tempermental and sometimes made us *very* late for someone's debut recital.

The thing about not selling out to Mammon or material success is that it's not a particularly Christian virtue. It was a code of honour concept at my alma mater that one didn't do art for *shocked and insulted expression* money. "This piece was commissioned!" they'd whisper with some venom at the exhibition. "He takes in too many students..." some would sniff darkly at the mention of a particular practitioner. Art for art's sake was ideal. Sacrifice and suffering for one's art was noble, untainted by the vulgar material considerations.

So is there a difference between a Christian's view and an artist's view of materialism?

Yes!

The Christian thinks that materialism is good. :-)

*******

See also an article by Phillip Jensen reproduced below:
This present age: Our struggle not to covet
Originally published in Briefing #280 (January 2002)

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim 6:17-19).

Money. We’re to enjoy it, but not to love it. There is nothing wrong with being rich, but wealth is a great snare. We are to receive all good things with thanksgiving, but at the same time build up our riches in heaven. It seems that a right attitude towards wealth is a constant balancing act between extremes, and there is no one level of wealth which is ideal; being rich may lead to self-satisfaction, being poor might make you resentful. How on earth are we to know whether we have the right, Christian attitude towards money?

The passage above from 1 Timothy 6 is a good place to start talking about riches, for here we have encapsulated the great blessings and the great dangers of wealth. Wealth does tempt us to be haughty. Wealth means other people will serve us; and it is very natural to become arrogant towards others when you know they’ll do whatever you want. Wealth generates confidence, for it seems as if you will always be safe. Banks, insurance agencies and financial management companies all tell us the same thing: wealth is the way to make the future secure, so you can have peace of mind as well as comfort now.

In fact wealth does not give security, for it can disappear overnight, as survivors of stock market crashes can testify. All wealth, whether inherited or earned, is a gift. The family into which you were born, the economy, the time in history—all these are a gift from God. At this time in history, to be born into an Australian family means the possibility of a wealth not even dreamed of by most Afghan families.

But wealth is not wrong; God provides it to be enjoyed. This is part of using wealth well—as is being generous and using wealth to store up treasures in heaven. The last point is crucial: whether we are rich or poor materially, our real wealth is spiritual. That is the wealth we should value; that is the wealth on which we should judge ourselves. That is the wealth that matters. And in having this attitude towards money, Christians are at odds with the atheistic world, and also with other religions.

Material realism but not materialism
The secular world is materialistic. It believes philosophically that this life and this physical universe is all there is; and so it is not surprising that it preaches a doctrine of amassing material wealth. What else is there? There is no other ultimate justification, no other reward, nothing else worth having. The best we can have is material comfort, so we might as well devote everything towards that end.

It is an entirely self-centred view, and for that reason it is terribly anti-social. Westerners care about the country’s economy only because it affects their own wealth. Other people’s interests might be addressed to the extent that together we can all create more wealth for ourselves; but other people do not really matter. There is a story circulating that some American business people, on seeing the planes crash into the World Trade Centre, reached for their telephones to sell shares. Whether or not this is true, the sad thing is we can well believe it could be true. We can easily imagine people whose immediate attitude to disaster is to think of how it affects their money. We can easily imagine it, because we could do it, too.

Christianity is not the only religion to oppose this self-centred materialism, but it does it in an unusual way. Buddhism and the philosophies of Hinduism, for instance, are anti-materialist both philosophically as well as practically. Their doctrines teach that this physical world is not just passing, it is essentially an illusion—an evil illusion. Reality is found when the illusion of material existence can be overcome. This is done through denial, through asceticism and meditation. The physical world must be rejected entirely.

Christians, however, believe in creation. The material world is good, because God created it to be good. It is the doctrine of demons to reject the material world, to live in asceticism and denial of the generous gifts God gives us. Material things are good. Stereos and big houses and harbour views are good. Large salaries are good. It is better to be rich than poor, it is better to have food and clothes and beautiful things than to be without them. Poverty is not a godly state and money is not the root of all evil—although the non-Christian world generally thinks that we preach that.

No, the love of money is the root of all evil. You cannot serve both money and God. In serving God, however, money is a great thing to have. It is useful to consider the advice given to the exiles in Babylon, in Jeremiah 29:1-9. Build houses and live in them, God told them. Plant gardens and eat their produce, marry and have families. Even more, seek the welfare of the city and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

We are in exile, in the spiritual Babylon while we wait to get into the Promised Land, our spiritual Jerusalem. We should never forget Jerusalem; but while we are here, we should go about the business of living. The exiles in Babylon were tempted in two directions: to undermine Babylon as the enemy, or to enjoy living there so much they forgot Jerusalem. God told them to do neither. We have exactly the same two temptations: denial of this world or denial of the next. Well, in theory we do. Most middle-class Western Christians are in no danger of asceticism. Our danger is all the other way.

Paul tells us, in Philippians 4:11-13, that he has learned the secret of facing both plenty and hunger. With the power of God, he has learned to overcome the temptations of both. He has learned not to covet, which is the real evil at the heart of both riches and poverty. He has learned not to envy his neighbour, not to live in enmity with others who might have more. He has learned by the power of God to be content. How might we learn the same thing? How can we beware of the greed in our hearts?

The rule is simple: don’t covet—but the material circumstances that go with coveting can be anything from billionaire-hood to utter poverty. Just about any action, from buying a lolly to selling a mansion can be done in a greedy manner—or a godly one. It is up to us to examine our own hearts. But there are things that, at least, should make us pause and do some reexamination. I have noticed recently a few clarion-call indicators which we should take as a signal that materialism may have moved in quietly and taken hold. The first issue, gambling, is one on which most Christians probably agree; after that we will get to the touchier ones—children’s education and minister’s salaries.

Gambling
The basic rule for Christians is, no gambling. This is not because there is anything inherently bad about games of chance—but then, the essence of gambling is not chance, but covetousness. Gambling is wanting something for nothing. It’s wanting something that you don’t have, that you want to take from someone else without paying for it. It almost inevitably involves taking somebody else’s money. It doesn’t feel like it, when the organizing body orchestrates the money exchange; but the money you win from a lottery, or a bet, or a marketing competition effectively comes from the other people who also want the prize. If none of you were so covetous, there would be no prize.

But what about sport? What about winning a trophy? What about investing on the stock market? There are a thousand different applications of gambling, some of which seem quite innocent. What about when a company offers you a free food processor if you ring up and leave your address? They’re going to give it away anyway! In all these things, the evil is covetousness. If you need a food processor, go and buy one. God is quite capable of providing you with a food processor. He can give you the money, or provide a Christian friend who will give you one. By participating in the "competition", you are encouraging the system whereby people are motivated by their greed to read a company’s advertising. Greed is the evil.

Of course, some activities can be practised without gambling. You can invest in the stock market in order to support a certain company that produces goods that help society. Or you can gamble on the stock market, investing without caring what the business is as long as it will increase your money. You can go and watch horseracing if you happen to like watching horses run. You can even play a game with yourself or a friend to see who can guess which horse will win. That is still different to betting on a horse. No doubt every reader can think now of an exception to these claims. It is the attitude of the heart that creates a gamble; the odds are irrelevant.

Schooling
How to divide your church in one easy lesson: preach on whether you should send your children to private or public schools.

Recent debate on schooling in New South Wales has produced some interesting definitions regarding the difference between public and private schooling. The private school, it is said, is the place where you bond. It’s a close, protected environment where children make strong relationships with the other children, who will most likely be from similar backgrounds. Parents send children there because they want the child to bond with that group, for intellectual, cultural, religious or social reasons.

Public schools, on the other hand, force children to bridge. Because the other children could be from any background or socio-economic group, children have to learn how to relate to different kinds of people. They must be able to build bridges across social gaps and form friendships with those from different backgrounds.

Of course it is not as clear-cut as that. Private schooling may involve some necessary bridging. Public schools generally draw children from one suburb, which in itself will involve a similar socio-economic background. A small public school in a country town may comprise children of more diverse backgrounds—although, of course, they will all have in common being country children. A school experience where real bridging with a totally different social group takes place is very rare.

Christian parents want to protect their children (as do almost all parents). They are also prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of their children. Parents also generally want their child to have a quality education, which is achieved most often in schools with small classes and many resources—private schools. These may be good reasons to send children to a private school. The question for parents is—are they actually the reasons that motivate you?

For as well as any such noble motivations as described above, private schools will also set your child on the upwardly mobile track to economic success. The other children they bond with will be the future high earners, so your child is likely to be up there with them. It is the private schools that give the high TERs, the entry into the good universities which lead to the profitable careers. In short, private schooling for children can very easily be a Christianised way of loving money. It may be for your children instead of yourself, but it’s still a form of materialism.

It is not good for a country to have all its education controlled by the state. The freedom of choice in education is a necessary part of freedom of life. But we must not let our children’s education become a way to indulge in love of money. There are so many ways in which a good cause like this—children and their education—can be twisted by our covetous hearts. For many people, private schooling is prohibitively expensive, so parents sacrifice home time for work in order to afford the schooling. But education is ultimately a parent’s responsibility, and it requires relating to the children. Parents can make themselves so busy providing for their children that they have no time to know their children. Is private schooling really worth that?

Of course we want to provide good things for our children. It may be time, however, for some to pause and take stock. What are we buying for our children? What do they actually need? Love of money can appear anywhere, even in our love for our children.

Clergy salaries
Another issue which can fall prey to materialistic thinking is how much we should pay someone to minister the gospel.

Consider a minister in a poor suburb. Everyone in the suburb lives in three-bedroom fibro houses. The minister wants to fit in with his people. The church organization he works for, however, has a standard policy for ministry salaries and housing. So they build him a brick rectory—the only brick house in the suburb—and pay him about five times what his neighbour earns. His congregation just can’t relate to him. They’re jealous of his wealth and feel uncomfortable being entertained in his house.

Consider the minister a few suburbs away, in a very wealthy area. He’s paid the same salary, but in this suburb it gives him a house a quarter the size of his neighbours. When he entertains people, they can’t believe how shabby the carpet is. He makes his decisions according to bus timetables. He never goes to the same restaurants, plays or concerts that his congregation members do. His congregation simply cannot relate to the way he thinks. He seems to be a walking insult to them all the time, not someone whose message might be listened to.

We must be able to reach people. In impoverished areas you simply cannot maintain nice middle-class standards and still do your ministry well. Missionary societies have known this for years—missionaries to impoverished areas are generally prepared for the fact they will probably have to reduce their standard of living. But ministers in Sydney, for example, still get their big brick houses in the ‘fibro’ suburbs. On the other hand, gospel ministry can be just as damaged by insisting on poverty in a rich suburb as it can by living in luxury in a poor suburb.

How do we live by the gospel with greedy hearts in this fallen world? Only by the power of God. We must work at learning the art of contentment. We must learn to live amongst riches without being seduced by the love of money, and in poverty without resentment. Some ministers will earn more than others will, even more so as our society becomes more diverse economically. What every minister should earn, however, is as much as he needs to live. Then all are equal whatever the suburb.

In the end, the salary is not what creates a problem of greed amongst clergy; sinful hearts create greed. We do not want a situation that haunts some areas of the United States, where ministers angle for rich ministries in order to grow rich. Neither do we want an equality of pay so rigidly enforced that no one has what he or she needs. Ministers must always beware of the love of money. Do not covet more than you need. We have been given immeasurable riches in the kingdom of God. Be satisfied with them.

© 2004 Matthias Media. All Rights Reserved.

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