Point of View
Living faithfully behind the plastic curtain
by Ken Badley
Imagine this 1962 scene – a Christian family takes a few minutes after each evening meal to pray together. The father of that family – my father – regularly asks God to protect Christians behind the “Iron Curtain” and the “Bamboo Curtain.”
Those Cold War terms grow in meaning for me as I hear stories about Christians in communist countries facing persecution and death because they dare to follow Christ.
Now jump to the winter of 2006, when my wife and I join with church friends to try living more simply. We read Mary Jo Leddy’s Radical Gratitude (Orbis, 2002) and discuss how more gratitude might lead us to view our material possessions differently. Leddy says many wise things in her book, but the image that will not let go of me is this: in our society we live behind a plastic curtain.
For Leddy, the phrase “plastic curtain” suggests the poor quality and lack of meaning of most material goods, and is a popular slang word for credit cards.
For many of us, “plastic curtain” may bring back echoes of past prayers for Christians in the communist world. Of course, it’s unfair to compare religious persecution to our struggles with materialism. That said, the initial shock of considering the phrases side by side remains a helpful reminder to prevent us from taking our wealth for granted. And to my point here, it reminds us of the risks to faith that a materialistic society throws at us.
Almost all readers of this magazine know the gist of the Bible’s teaching on wealth, poverty, and the love of possessions: our wealth may keep us out of heaven, loving money leads to all kinds of evil, we should be grateful for what God has given us and be generous with it.
A dearth of knowledge of God’s economic principles does not appear to be our problem. Rather, our problem comes from a society that pressures us to live by unbiblical economic values and to acquire more material goods as if such acquisition would satisfy our deepest needs.
Our task as Christians in a wealthy country is to find strategies to understand this desire for goods, to resist the materialistic pressure and advertising, and to develop structures in our thinking that remind us of the fundamental biblical stance of gratitude and the generosity that properly flows out of that gratitude. We can break free from the fruitless search for happiness in buying more stuff.
And breaking free from our stuff is exactly what some of us need to do. We can begin by understanding the pressure to want more goods, a pressure we usually don’t even notice. One effective way to prick the balloon is to cut out cable television and its many advertisements. At the least we can help children learn to watch TV critically so that advertising has less power over them.
Other effective steps can include starting a gratitude journal. Imagine the effect if every day we all noted a few ordinary or extraordinary things for which we are thankful.
Or consider how we handle Christmas. We can set the tone in our families for the entire year by setting dollar limits or requiring that gifts be handmade, used, or directed to charities.
We also need to be careful about comparisons. We tend to compare our material status to those with more goods. We must wean ourselves from that destructive mental habit, perhaps by refusing to read the advertisements in the newspaper’s auto feature and real estate section.
Finally, we need to return to where Leddy helped us start: We thank God for the special gifts of Savior, Spirit, Word, and Church. And we thank God for the daily gifts of food, water, work, clothing, a roof.
Out of our gratitude comes generosity and hospitality in our daily living.
Ken Badley is associate professor of Educational Leadership and Foundation Programs. This article first appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Faith Today.