Saturday, November 24, 2007

Money and Faith

There have been some interesting stories in the press over the last few days about issues of faith and money, including this Wall Street Journal story about the backlash against tithing. Since my wife is the Stewardship Chair at Trinity, and we have been tithing since we were married (Allison insisted), I thought that it was about time to post something about money. After all, this blog has written quite a lot about sex and faith and even science and faith--its time to talk about money.

I think that the best starting starting point is this wonderful column by Terry Mattingly:

It was the kind of cryptic theological statement that is often found stuck on automobile bumpers.

This sticker said: "Don't let my car fool you. My treasure is in heaven." This echoed the Bible passage in which Jesus urged believers to, "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. ... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

This sticker's creator probably intended it to be displayed on the battered bumper of a maintenance-challenged car, noted sociologist Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Thus, the sticker suggests that the driver knows his car is a wreck, but that he has "other commitments and priorities" that matter more.

But Smith was puzzled when he saw this sticker on a $42,000 SUV parked at a bank.

"Let's be clear. I have no problem with abundance. I have no problem with capitalism," he said, speaking at Gordon College, his alma mater near Boston. "The person driving this car may give away 40 percent of their income. I have no idea. I'm not trying to nail people who drive SUVs or whatever.

"But it seems to me that the meaning of this bumper sticker has changed from what I thought was the original meaning to, 'Well, Jesus didn't quite get it right, because I have a lot here and I also have it in heaven, too. So I have all the bases covered.' "

After years of digging in the data, Smith has reached some sobering conclusions about believers and their checkbooks.

It's true that Americans give away lots of money, in comparison with people in other modern societies. It's also true that religious Americans are much more generous than non-religious Americans. But here's the bottom line: The top 10 percent of America's givers are very generous, while 80 percent or more rarely, if ever, make charitable donations of any kind.

"This is the glass half-full perspective," said Smith. "We're not doing too bad. We're doing pretty good. However, most American Christians turn out to be stingy financial givers -- most, but not all."

Stingy? Smith believes that the vast majority of affluent American Christians will see they are guilty as charged, if they candidly contrast the amount of money they give away with the doctrines that are proclaimed in the pulpits of all traditional churches.

The result is a laugh-to-keep-from-crying paradox. In fact, Smith considered using another title for his chapel address: "Why does $30 seem like so much to give in church and so little to spend in the restaurant after church?"



Read it all here.

With all due respect to the Wall Street Journal , the whole focus on the Biblical basis (or lack thereof) for tithing misses the point. Mattingly gets it--the real point is that even Americans living below the median income live in abundance, but we act in our charitable giving all too often as if we live in scarcity. To me, the real value in tithing is that it is a reminder of this fact.

This has certainly been my experience. To be clear, not all of our tithe goes to our church (sorry Nicholas)--it includes all of our charitable giving. Still, we focus our tithe bibically--we give largely to organizations that serve the poor.

My wife has been tithing since she was a very junior staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia--where she was making far less than the average American income. This was not an easy decision for Allison because she made the decision at a time when she was hardly living in abundance. Despite the fact that I was leaving the public sector to take a much higher paying law firm position, I must admit that I was somewhat resistant--but seven years later I have no regrets. Tithing is a reminder every pay check that I live in great abundance, and that others do not. And it is a reminder every paycheck that I need to really think hard about where my treasure is.

2 comments:

Nicholas+ said...

Not all of my tithe goes to the Cathedral either... Grin.

JimII said...

I was recently looking at the Sermon on Mount's passage about giving modestly, and it occured to me how often we've let that translate into not talking about money or giving at all. Pat & I have also made a commitment to tithe our income, and like you and Nicholas that includes charities other than our church. I used to be more shy about talking about it, but I heard Ira Fulton speak at an ASU alumni event and he makes a pretty good argument for challenging others to do their part.