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Volume 16, Issue 4: Recipio


Ben Merkle

Religion always gives us an interpretive lens through which we see the world. So it is a matter of great importance for us to ask ourselves, "What lens am I using?" As we interpret the world around us, are we thinking like Buddhists? Muslims? Marxists? What is our foundational assumption about what makes the world go "bump?"

Ignore the fact that you are being set up for a moment, and ask yourself a question. If a young man came to you and asked you for guidance in how to train himself up to be a competent and complete young man, aside from expertise in his particular vocational calling, where would you direct him? Your answer here says a lot about what you think about the world we live in. Augustine's father thought the answer was rigorous training as a rhetorician. Alfred the Great's father thought hunting and fighting. Calvin's father raised him to be a lawyer. Each had a view of what made the world run and each thought they knew what it would take to succeed in that world. And, to varying degrees, each had sons that would later beg to differ.
More and more often, the answer that Christian men give is an education in business. There is this assumption that learning business will give a young man the basics for surviving in life. Wherever you go, there will always be money. Money is the underlying power driving everything. Therefore, if you just understand money, you will always be able to take care of yourself. Restaurant, school, barber shop, or whatever—each endeavor becomes a question of doing the books. Each is reduced to the foundational skill of business, with the assorted specialty skills, like cooking, teaching or haircutting, sprinkled on top.
But we need to ask ourselves about the assumptions that go with this advice. Is money management really the foundational skill for living successfully in this world? Is money really the foundational reality of this world? To ask the question should be enough. We all know that answering "yes" would come across as completely materialistic. However, it should be noted that the problem isn't necessarily with greed or the vice of materialism. Although greed and this mistaken notion of business frequently run hand in hand, it's not the problem of being too in love with wealth that is at issue here. The question is our understanding of how God made this world to work. Someone can shun the vice of greed, diligently tithe, and yet still believe that success is a question of profit and loss statements. But as a Christian enters the business world, can his success as a Christian businessman really be summarized on a spreadsheet?
This view of the world is soulless, but even worse, it can actually make the world soulless when put into practice. Everything becomes a question of numbers. Imagine food cooked by someone whose number one concern is the balancing of the books. Powdered mash potatoes might make great sense on the spread sheet, but they are awfully dismal glopping off the spoon and onto your tray. The early nineties saw the fad of the microbreweries. They sprang up across the country by the hundreds. But most of them went under within only a few years. The reason they went under was not hard to discern. Their beer was usually not very good. It takes years to learn how to make a good beer, but many businessmen seeing the economic potential, thought to themselves, "I know, I'll be a brewer." Oddly, the obsession with business skill is really a problem of bad business skills. Men who are interested primarily in the numbers and not in their product usually end up with a lousy product and lousy numbers to boot.
And now let me make the ever-important qualifier. The step I am taking issue with is the idea that money is some sort of underlying metaphysic supporting the world, the idea that the knowledge of the rules of capitalism can form the foundation to an education. Of course understanding money and how to use it wisely is important. In fact, if we read Proverbs, we see that this sort of knowledge is a kingly virtue. And so understanding these things is important, the same way understanding how to eat healthy is important. But when someone makes healthy eating the essence of the Christian life, they are bringing idolatry into the Church (and usually ruining dinner at the same time). Likewise, when the laws of finance form the bedrock for a man's understanding of how to be successful in life, idolatry has crept in. As Aslan informed the Witch, there is a deeper law from before time.
Frequently, I hear young Christian men say that they desire to start a business. When I ask what sort of business, they are not sure. They just want to own a business. They start with the spreadsheet and the numbers. These kinds of businesses are obvious the moment you walk though the doors. Hours of agony have been spent pricing every piece of merchandise to get just the right profit margin, and little time has been put into the actual merchandise. But the Christian life begins with love—love of God and then love of neighbor. Mingled somewhere in there, and too often overlooked, is the love of your product. A Christian furniture maker should begin his trade because he loves the smell and feel of wood and slowly shaping it into a work of art, not because he knows the markup will be amazing.

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