David Bentley Hart and the God of Mammon

The essay in question was Hart’s “Christ’s Rabble: The First Christians Were Not Like Us.”[1] Aside from being a provocative title, this also prompted me to ask, “In what way?” Having voiced this aloud to myself in the dusty recesses of my parents’ basement, fear and anxiety came pouring in, and I felt over-powered by what I can only describe as a dark spirit's compulsion to read the chapter in question.

Under an intensity of passion that is singularly reserved for the truly depraved, Hart had the audacity to suggest that an actual engagement with the texts of the New Testament clearly reveals the inescapable fact that this disparate collection of letters and writings, constantly and consistently asserts that following Christ entails giving up commitments to wealth, private property, and the pursuit of worldly gain. Instead of simply declaring that too strong an attachment to monetary goods was the issue (as all morally upright theologians do), he dared assert that Jesus and the authors of these diverse writings declared riches as such to be evil. In Hart’s words, “Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such” (339).

What an abomination I found here! Even a cursory glance through the tomes of church history makes it clear that Jesus only wanted to make sure that wealth was not more important than commitment to him. Throughout the ages, preachers and teachers have reassured me that what matters is just a bit of detachment, a flexibility, that, come what may, wealth isn’t the predominant or guiding force in one’s life. Hart, indwelt by what was clearly an unclean spectre, boldly claimed that there is just no basis for this position in the texts themselves. Front to back, the New Testament declares that wealth is a barrier to faithfulness. Full stop.

As I kept reading, I found that this peddler of deception intensified these claims in the piece “Mammon Ascendant.”[2] Here he baldly asserted that it was capitalism that had led to the emergence and flourishing of secularism. How could I respond to such a preposterous claim? Capitalism itself is a divine bestowal, based upon nothing less than that glorious doctrine of original sin. I knew to my core that our economic system had sprung from the very theological convictions I had fervently held since I was a wee lad, and which continue to grip me so thoroughly and inflexibly up to this very moment.

I returned to the offending text to see if it had been a momentary enchantment that had bewitched the words into such a blasphemous configuration, but No! the font remained steadfastly affixed to the page in its declaration that “Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation” (313). Going on, Hart continued to spew forth profanity in his caterwauling that “Capitalism has no moral nature at all” (315). Finally going full-bore with this dastardly affront, he concluded that “the claim that capitalist culture and Christianity are compatible...seems to me not only self-evidently false, but quaintly (and perhaps perilously) delusional” (320).

Growing up, I had the What Would Jesus Do bracelets, the tracts, the t-shirts, the bumper stickers, the CDs, and the dating books. I knew Christianity was about the consumption and commodification of religious beliefs, displaying them visually on one's person and property, and that capitalism had allowed shopkeepers and gatekeepers to amass a stunning heap of wealth, precisely through the monetization of Jesus and all things pertaining to Jesus. Denying this good would be like denying the Gospel itself.

Though this devilish onslaught sent my blood pressure sky-rocketing and my theological foundations a-tilting, I shut my eyes and hurriedly asked Mill, Smith, and Hayek to aid me in my hour of need. As I feverishly repeated this mantra, my breathing slowed, my nerves steadied, and my head cleared. With my newfound clarity of vision and purpose, I recognized once again that capitalism comes from the very hand of God. Much as Israel needed the Law, so too we need capitalism. Capitalism restrains our sinful inclinations, but even more, harnesses them for the blessing of all. Against Hart, it was clear that we might even say that capitalism is good news, Gospel.

As I regained my balance and serenity returned, I could at last utter the only sensible exclamation:

“Hogwash! Capitalism is of God.”

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Jesus believed this, why don’t we?

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[1] David Bentley Hart, The Dream Child’s Progress And Other Essays, (Kettering: Angelico, 2017) 335-346.

[2] Ibid, 309-320.