Raymond Goodlett cursed me. Unsure as to the existence of a convenient curse, this one is surely inconvenient. And so my fist shaketh in his general direction. No matter how much I like you or the sound of what you say, I am cursed to run your words through the filter of Scripture, with autistic regularity and willingness to ignore social gutter bumpers, to see if they are in fact true, or at least allowable. “That’s not true” is far from a convenient sentence in the 21st century, if you haven’t noticed. It’s not quite received like a verbal hug, is it?
If upon reading the first paragraph you thought, “Oh my, what an arrogant parsnip!”, please know that I tell myself more than anyone else, “that’s not true.”
Sadly, much contemporary and popular evangelical thinking is crooked, out of line with the Ruler of God’s Word. Here’s an example. Jesus says that his people ought to love their enemies in Matthew 5. From this, it is not uncommon to hear someone then assert that Christians are not to hate even their worst of enemies. Insert story of love that causes me to develop a temporary eye allergy. What’s the problem? Well, nuance there is not. Let’s just pretend that Psalm 26:5 is not in the Bible. “I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked.” And then there is that verse in Ecclesiastes, the whole, “time to hate”, thing. Now, these verses all go together well (see the life of Stonewall Jackson), just not through ignoring any of them.
Recently I was taught by an individual of authority and experience that poverty ought to be understood as a lack of wholeness or harmony in any area of life. It’s an easy argument to understand. Look at the man with a $1 million annual salary, who has been divorced three times and has kids from six women, all who hate him. Let’s call that relational poverty. Look at the woman with a stable job and family, but who is hounded by debilitating anxiety. Let’s call that emotional poverty. Now let’s call both of them poor. You see how it goes. Assertion: “Everyone is poor.”
The individual making this case did so by contrasting Western with non-Western thoughts on poverty, and then correcting the Western by the non-Western. In the West, poverty is predominately thought of as a lack of stuff. But in non-Western settings, and I fully trust that this individual’s sources are accurate, poverty is spoken of in connection to a feeling of hopelessness or loss or lack of power, which could be felt in any number of contexts. This approach to understanding concepts like poverty is popular in the social “sciences”. The problem is that the approach has some built in assumptions that we don’t want to have. I’m not saying that everyone who takes this approach is intentionally making these assumptions. It is just that the assumptions are required for the approach to be valid, or make any sense.
The approach in question assumes a neutrality in cultures. The built-in thinking is basically that no one culture is going to have the whole truth on the matter; so what we want to do is to look at the particular question from the perspective of as many cultures as possible, and get a composite perspective, one that we assume is more accurate, or, at least, more useful. It is this kind of assumption that tends to lead people to deny that classical music is of a higher, a superior, order than African drums.
The other assumption rubs against the first, to understate it. This approach assumes a superior vantage point with the “other”, those from the outside (the rub here is with neutrality). It is only with this assumption that someone would fuss and fawn over Apache paintings and ceramics while being far from enamored with the paintings and sculptures of the great Italians. With these assumptions highlighted, Christians should see two problems with the above approach.
First, we shouldn’t approach a question of truth with a false assumption. Cultural neutrality is a false assumption, a product of postmodern thought. Cultures are simply the expressions of a group of people’s worldview; and a worldview is simply a held to list of assertions. This is true. That is false. This is good. That is bad. This is beautiful. That is ugly. Because of what it is, a worldview cannot be neutral. Because a worldview cannot be neutral, a culture cannot be neutral.
Second, any time we have a question of what to believe or how to live, we, as Christians, turn to the Bible. It is not the Christian’s epistemological practice to survey cultures on the idea of poverty, compile the answers, and then provide a genuinely pleasing, easy to understand definition. We are boring. We are to look at the Bible, examine what it says, and formulate our definitions from it. That is no earth-shattering assertion.
Lo and behold, when you read through the Bible’s verses that include the word “poor” or “poverty”, you find the biblical authors speaking of a lack of stuff (money, food, lands, animals, etc.). This does not deny that poverty has effects that are highlighted in Scripture, from shame to vulnerability to abuse from those with greater access to stuff. And I do not deny that Scripture uses the language of poverty to speak of our bankruptcy of righteousness before God, the appropriate attitude toward God of those who understand his holiness and their sinfulness, and as the contrast to the rich blessings provided to God’s people through the gospel of Jesus Christ. But when you see the word, “poor”, describing someone in the Bible, you really should think, “lack of stuff”. It’s a material matter. That’s just how the author’s use the words “poor” and “poverty”. Feel free to write and speak of poverty figuratively or religiously. That is not incorrect. But the Bible is clear and straightforward on the base concept.
Western Christians live at a time in the West in which it is not cool to be Western. The means of intellectual production are dominated by those who would love to dismantle Western civilization, one institution at a time. And the West has received their particular attention because they hate Christianity; though far from perfect, the institutions of Western civilization have been birthed and molded by Christian thought more than anywhere else in the world, and so are foul to such people (for an example, read through the explicit goals of Black Lives Matter). Turning to non-Western cultures to formulate our understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty will be looked on favorably by many. Due to public schooling, many of us will be trained to find such a move sensible. But, if you take one thing from this post of poor observation, know that Christians are people of convinced and practiced Sola Scriptura. To understand the truth of poverty, or any other matter, we are to establish our beliefs by the very Word of God, written for our good.