Rethinking the Criticism of the American Dream

If you were to do a short cursory study of what people mean when they talk of the American Dream, you would get a few different answers. Some would speak in terms of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Others would look at the term as coined by Historian James Truslow Adams from the book, Epic of America, which he wrote in 1931. In it he wrote,

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

Changes in the culture have altered the connotation of the term in question and made it a term of derision as well as a term of continuing endearment.  But no matter what you read, you would continually see the American Dream as summed up with three ideals even if the words themselves were not used. These three ideals pursued are freedom, prosperity and success. Other ideals could be added but these are a sufficient enough portrait and are generally what is pictured when the American Dream is celebrated by those who want to pursue it; foreign or domestic. It is also what is so roundly criticized by American evangelical pastors.

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There was once a time when, as a youth pastor, I would often tell my students to not fall for the lie of the American Dream.  My desire was for them to want something far more rich than what the world had to offer. So that is what I would say to them. And then I would get in my car and drive home to my house of either 3 or 4 bedrooms, and at least 2 baths. Usually I would then sit on a couch and relax with my wife, watching a movie or just talking. I might even walk over the yard if the air was cool and crisp. Usually I would look up in the sky shining bright over the physical manifestation of a mortgage.

In other words, I was telling my students to not pursue the very thing I had already achieved.

Actually, it was worse. I probably scared them when I talked about the dangers of the American Dream. I made it sound like if they went after the American Dream, they were compromising their faith. You don’t have to say it to communicate it. I painted a picture of filthy lucre which looked suspiciously like the people who gave the most to keep the ministries of the church afloat and would usually be the most generous at Christmas to my family.

It sounds awful because it was. And I wish I could go back and temper my language a good bit. But that’s impossible, so this little essay. This is not a penance so much as a pointing and saying, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes.” Or as you will see, the Emperor has plenty of clothes.

When I say, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes”, it is not a reference to any particular person. I do not dislike those preaching this message so much as I hate the memory of my own voice preaching and teaching it. I am talking about the criticism leveled against the pursuit of the American Dream. It is leveled in books, sermons, conference messages, blog posts and throughout social media. And yet I have seen very little in the way of questioning the message. So here is my small attempt to speak into the present milieu. Here is my attempt to not only defend the pursuit of the American Dream but critique the lesson that says the American Dream is in opposition to the Christian life.

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The criticism of the American Dream fails on multiple levels. Not just one. The following is not comprehensive but I hope it is a beginning in bringing some sober reflection on how we motivate people and what our message really is. Here are two reasons why we, evangelicals need to temper our criticism of the American Dream and those who may be pursuing it.

First, it fails because it assumes if you are in pursuit of the American Dream you are compromising – you are choosing one thing over another. Not only does this assume the worst of people who want freedom, prosperity and success but it fails logically. Our faith is not static. And you do not have to baptize the American Dream to say the American Dream is not evil and compatible with Biblical Christianity. The problem would be if someone said ‘no’ to Christ because of their pursuit of the American Dream. This is, of course no peculiar position the American Dream holds. Anything sought over and against the Christ can be detrimental. Even ministry. Our problem is never the American Dream, it is the heart that would pursue anything over Christ; whether it be food, sex or money. But food, sex and money are great things that Christians can pursue and still be faithful, which is why this criticism fails.

We have now become so accustomed to the guilt we harbor regarding our relative wealth that we can only read the story of the Rich Young Ruler as a manifesto against the American Dream. When in actuality it is a statement against seeking justification in anything other than Christ. This is the great mistake of so many thousands of pulpits throughout our land. Mistaking the problem. The problem was not his wealth. It was his attachment to it. Wait. No, the problem was that he sought to justify himself. He did not walk away merely because he was wealthy. He walked away because he rejected Jesus. Even the poor can do such a thing. Cue the thief on the cross who mocked Jesus.

My guess is we, who are married, would not tell single people to quit dreaming the marriage dream. That would be cruel. Nope. But we might say, ‘In your pursuit of the marriage dream do not neglect the dream of a life of faith in Christ alone.” Good? I thought so. What stops us then from saying the same in regards to the American Dream. Maybe it will be hard and require some nuance and explanation but it just might be worth it. Just as we would not want to be hypocritical about the marriage dream and push an unnecessary discouragement, the same is true for freedom, prosperity and success. And this brings us to our second reason the evangelical criticism of the American Dream fails.

Second, it fails because the ones who decry those who would pursue this dream have homes and cars and jobs and cell-phones and furniture and money to eat out. The pastors who rail about your pursuit of the American Dream take their wives out for dinner and go on vacation. They have mp3 players, DVD players, computers and microwaves. They have central heat and air. They pay for their house to be repaired. They have degrees from educational institutions. They have more than one pair of shoes, plenty of clothes and machines to wash them. If any of the above is lost or stolen or worn out they can use their savings account or insurance to replace the above. They are respected in their profession and are invited to conferences based on their abilities and success. And they are free to do so under the laws of this land. Some send their kids to private school. Some have cable. None go hungry.

They are living the American Dream.
Please understand, this is no criticism of those things listed above. Almost all of those who are reading this enjoy a great deal of these which are the accoutrements of the American Dream and do so with thankfulness to God. No pastor or Christian is necessarily wrong in doing so. What is wrong is to enjoy these things – these results of the American Dream – and then rail against some abstract notion of it for others. What is wrong is to stand in front of a group of people having achieved the American Dream and then tell others how wrong they are for pursuing the same. Just as it is wrong to rail against the wealth of Americans from an iPhone, it is wrong to rail against someone’s pursuit of the American Dream from the comfort of being right in the middle of it.

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Maybe pursuit is the wrong word. Our language in all of this is may be faulty. Since we are certain we should not idolize the American Dream, maybe we should use that language so their is no confusion. “The Christian should not idolize the American Dream.” That works. And it works on two levels. First it makes the heart the issue and not some outside thing. Second, it frees us from an unnecessary guilt due to what you have. You could call it the pursuit of the ‘Edenic Dream’ that our first parents bequeathed us. It is nothing new.

You must see, the heart has always been the problem.  Not freedom. Not prosperity. Not success. The American Dream is not the problem. And it is strange. Strange, because everyone would admit there are men and women, who reject the American Dream and have black hearts. This should tell us something. Our hearts – you know, where the problem lies – is always looking for something else to be the problem. The American Dream. Alcohol. Education. Sex. Dancing. Tobacco. Choose something…anything, and we will turn it into the problem.

So this is not a call for you to pursue the American Dream. Almost every reader has seen the dream become reality and has known nothing else since birth. No, this is a call to make the heart the issue. To stop distracting from the real issue. This is a defense of what all of you already have but what you call everyone else to reject. To stop heaping unnecessary guilt on the faithful. This is simply a pointing and saying, “The Emperor has plenty of clothes.”

Random Thoughts (for Which We Should Blame the Tea Party or Something)

1. Stores which cater to women should provide spaces for men. And when I say ‘should’ I simply mean, it would be great marketing. “We have a den complete with a TV and couches for your husband to relax while you shop. That way you don’t have to hurry and he is no hurry!” The fact that no store – that I know of – has done this, is proof of the demise of our society.

2. A lot of people talk about how people like me are scared to live downtown and shop downtown, etc. Well, we have our own dangers here.  Every time I go into the second-hand bookstore down by the Galleria, they take my money while smiling at me. Danger is everywhere.

3. I am tired of this abnormal cold down here in Alabama. I thought about blaming God but decided it was more chic’ to blame Sarah Plain. But then I thought, “All the cool kids are doing that. I’ll blame Rush Limbaugh.” But then I thought, “That is soooo 1995. I’ll blame Mark Levin.” And then I went to Glen Beck’s website…site? Like a gun site? And all of a sudden I wanted to harm people. It was weird.”

4. First they blame Plain for the Tucson shooting, then the Gun (bullets are always ignored and get away scot free), then Tea Parties (my daughter was horrified) and now Heavy Metal.  But I have a theory. Has anyone asked if he used AT&T’s wireless internet service. That could put a guy over the edge.

5. Wait. There is a movie coming out about Jason Bieber. How long could this movie be?

6. So Sarah Palin caused the Tuscon shooting and global warming caused the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. I want you all to remember this. This is why I am not a liberal and never could be. Liberals say things they do not believe and then ridicule you for not believing it.

7. If they do bring back the Wooly Mammoth, expect it have a lawyer and sue Fox News for it’s previous extinction.

8. My first generation iPhone is not working all that well. In fact, it is dying on me. It freezes up and does not receive calls and sometimes I get voice mails days later if at all. All of this is good preparation for an iPhone 4.

9. If Cam Newton’s father was at the BCS National Champioship game then we know who to blame, don’t we? Conservative talk radio.

10. I am so tired of hearing about everyone’s troubles, I have not had bacon in days.

Losing It

Can you be a foodie and still like hot dogs with a fervent passion? Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches? Frozen Pizza?

I grew up in a home where meals were an event. Whether at home or at a restaurant, the meals we ate were important. So it is no wonder I plan whole vacations around meals and I am always wondering how to make the standard ham and cheese sandwich a momentous occasion. Part of this thinking about food is that food is just an amazing thing (Chicken Picatta and the Philly Cheesesteak exist?) and should be tried in all its forms and mediums. Within reason. Olives are for oil alone.
As Fall was moving into Central Alabama, we had our friends, Jason and Becky Edwards and Sean and Missy Dameron and their families, over for dinner one night. That day I smoked a pork shoulder, a chicken and some sausage. It was a feast complete with 4 different kinds of BBQ sauces. And while we talked, Becky was telling us all about this app on her iPhone which helped count calories. By now, I was on plate number three and I remember thinking, “An App may be just what I need to lose some weight…could someone please pass the baked beans. Again.” I started using the Lose It app the next day.
This morning I weighed myself and I have now hit my goal of losing 30 pounds. Actually I’ve lost 31. 188, baby.
So if you see me wearing the same things over and over it’s because my clothes don’t fit.  I used to wear pants that were 38 inches in the waist. Now I am down to a 34 which is smaller than when I got married. Clothes that were once a little too small now are too big. I have far more energy and I cannot explain it but my mind is clearer. And even though I quit running around Thanksgiving, I am still losing weight.
What has been great about this is how I have not had to see the food I love as the enemy. The zeitgeist of the day is to see food as the enemy. Actually, I was the problem. I just ate all the time and never thought about how much I ate. Now by moderating what I eat and telling myself to stop snacking (“Please, step away from the pork skins.”) I’ve been able to still enjoy all the foods I love.
While many decry the phenomenon, I think it makes absolute sense we would have so many shows and movies about eating and cooking food. Food is amazing. It is essential. And it is one of the most incredible of God’s gifts. Not only did he give it to us for practical reasons but he made it taste wondrous. We have taste buds. He not only gave us taste buds so we would smile and laugh so memories will be made over a meal but he also gave them so they can conspire with our mind so we can be taken back to another memorable time. It is all so magical. Hot wings exist.
Just writing this has made me incredibly hungry.

More Random Thoughts

1. After going on the offensive, you should probably expect people to be defensive. It makes sense.

2. All this blaming of Sarah Palin about the shooting makes me like her more. I mean if liberals hate her this much, she must be really awesome.
3. Four pastors I am familiar with, participated in a roundtable discussion about internet presence. I watched a little of it yesterday and then after the BCS championship game, 2 of them mocked Cam Newton on Twitter. Nice. And War Eagle.
4. Every station except Fox has blamed conservative rhetoric on the AZ shooting. Why do you make fun of Fox again?
5. Just because I win an argument does not mean I am right.

Random Thoughts – National Championship Edition

1. I would like to first thank all those who are making obnoxious comments about Auburn winning the BCS National Championship. It makes it way more fun.

2. My wife actually saw more going on than the ESPN commentators. She saw that Cam’s interception was  tipped and they never pointed that out. She also was incredulous that the commentators were wondering if the ball got out of the in-zone on the safety. She’s a looker too.

3. This might have been the only game we watched from beginning to end all year.

4. We had to watch the game on the internet (ESPN3) and they kept showing the Roll Tide commercial over and over. Classy ESPN classy.

5. Auburn fans love Auburn and being an AU fan even when they lose. A National Championship is just icing on the cake.

6. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why not put a TV in the box with the commentators so that the millions of people watching on TV are not minutes ahead of them on actually knowing what is going on? In the game. They are commenting on.

7. OK, OK…Chizik was a good hire. I take it all back.

8. This is my 3rd undefeated season as a fan.

9. I always thought it would be hard to match the ’93 season. It was.

10. I believe in Auburn and love it.

Go Ahead and Be Nobody Special

I’m in book five of The Chronicles of NarniaThe Horse and His Boy. Since it happens to everyone, like myself, who rereads books over and over, it goes without saying that I am seeing things this time never noticed before. For example, this short speech by the Hermit of the Southern March to Bree, the talking horse, on his way home to Narnia after being in slavery:

My good Horse,” said the Hermit… “My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. No, no, cousin. Don’t put back your ears and shake your mane at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another. (emphasis mine)
This is the message you will never hear in schools, TV commercials or churches. In fact you will hear the very opposite. “You are special!” is the mantra of well, everyone. The idea is everyone is really, really special. And to a point, I suppose it is true. But if everyone is special then no one is special. So, then, of course, the goal is to be more special by doing special, specialized things. Distinguish yourself.
Schools tell you, “you are innately special so do something special and change the world.” The commercials tell you, “you are special, buy our product, change the world.” And the evangelical churches? There are two kinds of pastors in the main. Those who speak at conferences with Green Rooms and those who want to do so. How could they have any other message besides one in which the listener walks away with the purpose of doing something special to change the world? All for the glory of God.
I mean, who would want to be a person no one has ever heard of? What kind of person just goes about their business in this rock-star culture? What pastor wants to remain nameless in year-in and year-out obscurity? When fame and reputation and notoriety are ripe for the picking? Why would you be Greta Garbo, when there’s YouTube?
But I say, “Be nobody special.” Do your job. Take care of your family. Clean your house. Mow your yard. Read your Bible. Attend worship. Pray. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Love your spouse. Love your kids. Be generous. Laugh with your friends. Drink your wine heartily. Eat your meat lustily. Be honest. Be kind to your waitress. And expect no special treatment. And do it all quietly.
The problem is that the zeitgeist of this age is you should let nothing stop you from being special. And the most especially vulnerable to this sermon are the young people who after a semester of college are now experts at being special. And the preachers of this message, regardless of the medium, are nothing if not earnest. And it is not hard to imagine why. Telling someone they are not special sounds cruel. But I disagree.
The “you’re nobody special” message may be the most freeing message of all. For now, you can just be yourself. Over against being the abstract, “special”, you can land on the hard concrete reality of being yourself. No need to be the “pie in the sky” version of someone else’s idea of what special is. You can now just love God, love others and be nobody. And as long as you know this. “…you’re nobody special – you’ll be a very decent sort of horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another.”

Random Thoughts – Winter Storm Edition

1. I am trying to think of something worse than being stuck in the house with 3 small children and no power – nothing is coming to mind.

2. If we get an ice storm and lose power, I’m blaming George W. Bush.

3. Soooo, do I look like a fool now and go get lots of batteries and other essentials or look like a fool later and play it cool now?

4. I can’t believe I paid all that money for a new TV and it does not take batteries.

5. The good news about losing power is that if the power goes out, we have to – so as to not be wasteful – eat what is in the fridge. Also, because of all those kids in China starving.

6. Here is a shot of me on Monday morning.

7.  I think this is the fifth snow Birmingham has gotten since we moved back just over a year ago. You can thank me in the comment section.

8. If Steve Jobs cared about those of us who could might possibly be caught in winter storm without power, he would provide tethering.

9. You know all those people who are frown-faced naysayers who say, “I’ll believe it’s going to snow when I see it!”? I say we call them, Eustace Scrubb.

10. In light of my first thought, I wonder how the grandparents would fare with the kids…

Random Thoughts – Early Morning Edition

I am up with a sick daughter but not up enough to finish a post tentatively titled, “Stop It: In Defense of the American Dream.” So here are some early morning thoughts which I may disavow later in the day…

1. Thanks to whoever left me the Target gift card in my box at school. It made it possible to buy our first TV since we got married back in 1999.

2. Because of this I am now starting to dream about Narnia nightly.

3. It looks like we could get snow this weekend and I’m as anxious as my kids about it.

4. For some reason we have let the word ‘consumer’ become a bad word. But if I am consuming a product, it is a product someone with God-given talent produced. I’m not sure it’s so simple as we think it is. Right Now I’m consuming a 32 inch flat screen. And Aristocats.

5. Why am I so tired?

A Surprising Thought About Thomas Kinkade’s Art

Since seminary I’ve been gathering books on art and trying to learn about a subject and discipline that escaped me for so long. I’m no expert, of course and have never claimed to know much. But there is art I like a lot and art I do not like.

For years I have bemoaned the artistry of Thomas Kinkade. When I picture the quaint, fairy-tale like house beside a perfect stream nestled among picturesque hills and vales full of glorious trees, I would decry such “precious moments-ness.”

But if I am honest -which is hard in matters of art – I must admit how much I would like to live in a place like that. Mainly because I want all the fairy tales to be true. There is not so deep inside of me a longing for all that he is trying to capture. I am sure it is not cool. And it is not technical. But if I were to stumble upon such a scene, I am sure it would bring me joy. And I cannot imagine for moment saying, “No, No, this is all wrong! Too perfect!”

Certainly, I cannot be alone. For even the most discriminating artists and critics would, if on a hike, be glad to come upon such a place and be glad to take tea in such environs.