Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Consumerism


John Sloan: The City from Greenwich Village, 1922

John Sloan: The City from Greenwich Village, 1922

    Down through the centuries Christians have had to face daunting challenges of every sort, from physical deprivation to deep discouragement to outright persecution. Yet Christians in the western industrialized nations may be facing the deadliest challenge of all, namely, the challenge of material prosperity. To understand why this particular challenge is so deadly, it is instructive to examine a biblical picture of a prosperous civilization. The example we have chosen is the lamentation over “Babylon” contained in Revelation chapter 18.

    The chapter describes the judgment of God on “Babylon the Great.” In trying to understand what “Babylon” represents, we believe that many commentators have overlooked an important and obvious detail: Babylon is described in the chapter as a very wealthy commercial power. Therefore the figure cannot represent an ecclesiastical entity, such as the Roman Catholic Church, nor can it symbolize all secular political power as it has existed throughout the church age, for not every great political power has been economically successful. Rather, Babylon represents a certain type of secular power, namely, a power that has grown wealthy through extensive commerce. It is this financial prosperity, moreover, which creates the distinctive spiritual conditions that are so typical of “Babylon.” That is the picture we have before us in this passage.

    Why, then, does God pour out His judgment upon Babylon? What is so wrong with being prosperous?

    First of all, we are told that Babylon “lived luxuriously” (Rev. 18:3,7,9; NKJV), that is, she maintained a life-style that was marked by the ostentatious display of wealth, or as we would call it today, “conspicuous consumption.” We get a picture of what kind of life-style this was from the list of merchandise she bought contained in verses 12 and 13. It includes precious metals and gems, fine clothes, costly building materials, rare spices and fragrances, as well as livestock and vehicles, much of it imported from as far away as Africa, Arabia, and China. The denizens of this city obviously had a taste for the finer things of life, and spent their money lavishly to acquire them. In a word, Babylon is the very epitome of a materialistic society.

    Secondly, she is proud. “. . . she glorified herself,” and said, “I sit as queen, and am no widow, and will not see sorrow” (v. 7). In a similar passage in Ezek. 28, it was said of the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre,

        “By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your riches, And

         Your heart is lifted up because of your riches.” (Ezek. 28:5).

    Prosperity tends to make men proud of their achievements, and give them a sense of self-sufficiency. The begin to become more impressed with what they have done for themselves than with what God has done for them. Eventually their philosophy conforms to their hearts, and secular materialism is born.

    What is especially significant, however, is Babylon’s ability to corrupt others with her wealth. “For all the nations have drunk the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury” (v. 3). “. . . for by your sorcery all the nations were deceived” (v. 23) Apparently the idea here is that Babylon’s tremendous wealth had seduced the other nations to partake in her idolatry and other abominable practices. Men were all too willing to compromise their moral and religious principles for the sake of financial success, and thus they were corrupted by Babylon’s imposing wealth and decadent life-style.

    And finally, Babylon persecuted the saints. “And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who were slain on earth” (v. 24). If men do not worship the true God, they will worship a false one; and a false religious system cannot tolerate a competing religion that threatens to expose the lie. Thus the opposition must be crushed brutally, and true Christians typically pay with their lives. This, then, is Babylon the Great: materialistic, proud, seductive, and brutal.

    Is this not, in large measure, a picture of our own society today? We are proud of our free market economy, and it has produced the highest standard of living in the world. This, by itself, poses a serious threat to the church. Robert L. Dabney, who was once a professor of church history, made this trenchant observation: “The past answers that there has not been a single instance in which the spiritual health of the church has survived a season of high temporal prosperity. She has survived the sword and the fire. Like the burning bush, persecutions have not consumed her. The power of kings and commonwealths and the gates of hell have not been able to prevail against her; but never, in a single case, has she failed to succumb before the miasm of temporal ease and plenty.” (Discussions, Vol. I, pp. 699-700).

    The reason is not hard to find. Over 3,000 years before, God had warned ancient Israel to beware, lest, when they have prospered in the promised land, “your heart is lifted up and you forget the LORD your God . . . then you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth” (Dt. 8:11-17). Prosperity leads to a false sense of self-sufficiency, and this in turn causes us to forget God who is the real source of our blessings. Is it any wonder that the church today is spiritually dead, always looking for the quick fix, but never willing to make any real sacrifice for God?

    It is important to observe, moreover, the morally corrosive effects of a free market economy. Private enterprise is in business to make a profit, and to do this retail merchandisers must sell products. In order to sell a product, the retailer must convince the public that a need exists, and that his product will meet the need. This he does through advertising. Thus an extensive body of propaganda is generated aimed at convincing the public that happiness and fulfillment can be gained through the acquisition of various material possessions. This phenomenon is known as “consumerism.”

    Eventually, as consumerism begins to take hold, a popular culture develops which reflects these materialistic values. With time, there is an inevitable slide into outright hedonism, as an every hungry public refuses to be denied any kind of pleasure. This hedonism is especially pronounced in the communications media that are heavily dependent on advertising revenue, such as magazines, and commercial radio and television. Today, teenage girls and young women in particular are subjected to a barrage of propaganda aimed at convincing them that happiness consists in clothes and a boyfriend, and that the way to get the boyfriend is to wear the suggestive clothing advertised in the fashion magazines. The articles in the magazines reinforce the message in what amounts to an outright assault on morality. Thus, in a sense, the morals of our young women are being corrupted by our business community. Sadly, American films, television programs, and popular music are exported the world over, thereby drawing other nations into our sin.

    What Christians in such a society must realize is that they are surrounded by Satanic propaganda on every side, deceiving and enticing in every manner possible. The warning we have been given by God , however, is contained in Rev. 18:4: “. . . Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues.” We must turn off the TV, put down the magazine, and stop the CD. To drink from the poisoned cup is to invite spiritual death. If we value our souls, we will not allow ourselves to be defiled by the pollution of the world. May God give us grace to flee from Babylon the Great!

Note: this blog post originally appeared as Chapter 24 in The Road to Heaven: A Practical Guide to the Faith of Our Fathers, by the blogger, copyright 2004.

Two Books by Robert Wheeler

[Editor’s note: Not too long ago we reviewed a book by Doug Sayers entitled Chosen or Not? Today Doug returns the favor and in a guest blog post reviews two books by myself.]

In his two books, “The Road to Heaven” (RTH) and “America’s Deadliest Enemy” (ADE) Bob Wheeler demonstrates that he is not only a zealous reader of books (especially the Bible) but is a very capable author as well.

His first, The Road to Heaven (2004), is a careful and thorough explanation of the Christian experience/life as it ought to be lived. The second (2008) expands upon the giant potholes, wrong turns, and potentially fatal cliffs in, and along, the road to heaven. Bob’s style is straight forward and no nonsense. There isn’t much color commentary in his writing; he tends to be a little long on explanation and short on illustration. Bob reminds me of Sargent Joe Friday and his signature line in the old Dragnet TV series: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Bob should be commended for his ardent pursuit of the truth; as this is absolutely essential for anyone who wishes to write books about Jesus, who is The Truth.

If you follow Bob’s recommendation and read only a little bit each day you will find the biblical description of how to get on the road to heaven and even more instruction on how stay on it. Unlike most modern GPS systems and roadmap software, Bob not only gives sound directions but he also points out the many detours to avoid; he explains how to keep our “car” running smoothly and performing at its peak.

Occasionally this reader found himself wondering if the author believes that the Christian life is merely about obeying a long list of “we musts”, and not about justification by faith alone. But to be fair, this is the way the Bible reads, and it has been a point of controversy throughout the history of the Christian Church. There is no contradiction in the Bible about how one finds forgiveness (that is salvation). We are, as Luther put it, saved by faith alone but not a faith that is alone. Bob notes this in Chapter 10 of RTH where he writes: “But how do we know that Abraham had faith? The answer is, because he acted on the promise.” In this point, Bob shows himself to be in agreement with historical Protestant teaching and the strength of RTH is its fundamental biblical orthodoxy. You will be hard pressed to find points with which to argue in either book, if you are a student of Scripture. This fact rescues him from using the “editorial we” throughout the book, which I find distracting. One of the most basic principles of interpreting the Bible (and all literature) is to know exactly who is talking and who they are addressing. I don’t remember any places where Bob actually said “I” believe this is what we must do, or “I” believe this is wrong with the modern church. He claims to be speaking for a group of people who he fails to name.

Based on these two books, Bob would seem to be a Calvinist sympathizer but he carefully avoids the overtly Calvinistic teachings about salvation being “unconditional” and “irresistible” for some… and impossible for others. In chapter 7 of RTH, Bob does not suggest that Jesus only died for the particular sins of a predetermined elect, who must therefore eventually repent and believe the gospel. Like the Bible, he repeatedly stated that Jesus died for “us” and he did not qualify the term. At the end of the chapter, he even addresses any potential unbelieving readers and exhorts them to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. The Apostle Paul does the same thing in his epistles. I think the author may be like many of us. We are sure that God is sovereign and salvation comes by grace through faith but the down and dirty details of historical Calvinism are still subject to question. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists are quoted, in a favorable way, in both books.

Bob paints with a broad (and a little presumptive) brush. He is not happy with the “modern church.” Not at all. This is unmistakable in RTH and is the main point of ADE. Now, this might tempt you to assume that Bob is just another self-appointed / old school know it all / holier than thou / wannabe prophet who assumes that he is the only one left who has not bowed the knee to worldliness and consumerism. But don’t be too quick to judge him on this point. His indictment of the modern church is not without just cause. I will offer one quibble. Especially in RTH, he brings a lot of charges which, I think, he assumes, are self-evident to any, and all, who observe the modern American Church. Here is a sampling:

“We fear that one reason why so many church members fail to live the Christian life is that many of them have never really been saved in the first place.” P41

“The great scandal of modern Evangelicalism is the large number of professing believers who show no evidence of changed lives”. P45 (Note: It could be argued that the church has had this problem since its inception.)

“This is one reason why we see so few genuine conversions today: our modern preachers rarely discuss in the pulpit the law of God, and, as a result, few of their listeners are ever convicted of sin.” P53

In chapter 12 on the fear of the Lord, he writes: “This truth is at once basic to the biblical conception of true religion and at the same time widely misunderstood or even forgotten altogether by the modern church.”

On prayer: “…where the modern church is most apt to fail.” “Today, we scarcely pray at all.” P77

“The scandal of the modern church is its lack of holiness.” P143

I’ll stop there. Bob doesn’t think we do much right but it is not clear whether he considers himself, and/or his church, among the ranks of the diluted and lukewarm who “must” get their act together. Nevertheless, it really doesn’t matter whether, or not, he includes himself among the mass of the Christian double minded today, if his charges are valid (albeit thinly substantiated). His accusations would carry more weight if he would have brought in more statistics, or particular personal experiences, as proofs of his universal indictment. Notwithstanding, the books are a legitimate and urgent call to duty and should be viewed as such.

One of Bob’s main assertions, especially in ADE, is the toxic and contagious consumerism of our day that is fueled by the entertainment industry. I don’t think he is entirely blaming a free market economy, per se, for our malaise but he is convinced that it is a great enabler of our natural covetousness and lust. He bluntly says, “Hollywood is Wall Street’s whore.” P2 Here, on this point, Bob did offer some statistics that effectively illustrated and vindicated the charge. His remedy to this threat is plain, simple, and unpopular: “For many of us it is either Christ or TV. Which will it be? Which is really our God?”

Strong medicine for a serious ailment.

Again, it can be tempting with books like these to write them off as written by disillusioned wannabe prophets who enjoy bashing the church more than Tiger Woods enjoys knocking golf balls into orbit. But I don’t think that would be fair with these two. Let’s give Bob Wheeler the benefit of the doubt here and take heed to his words. If we neglect these biblical warnings then we run the risk of losing our joy, both in this life and the life to come.