Friday, January 25, 2013

Terry Felber's Allegory of Two Masters

Terry Felber, The Legend of the Monk and the Merchant: Twelve Keys to Successful Living

Dave Ramsey lavishes praise on this, evangelist Terry Felber’s allegory of Christian mercantilism. In his new foreword, Ramsey extols Felber’s ethic that “What the merchant does is a ministry.” I really wanted to agree. But Felber approaches this ethic from a high-handed position in praise of wealth, simply overlooking anything that challenges his narrative, and excluding any Christian who isn’t rich.

In the Italian Renaissance, prosperous merchant Antonio brings his grandson Julio on a pilgrimage to Rome. There he shares his story of lessons learned at the knees of his two mentors, the monk Felipo and the merchant Alessio. Over the course of years, Antonio slowly unpacks the ways in which Christ’s message applies to business and money. From this, he learns Twelve Principles, which he passes on to Julio.

Taken by themselves, Antonio’s Twelve Principles seem pretty solid. They describe such basic practices as providing for your family, persevering through hardship, and not letting money get between us and the people we love. If we ignore the potentially awful ramifications, as Felber does in this brief novella, these Twelve Principles make a pretty good basis for doing ethical business from a Christian perspective.

Okay, Principle Two looks pretty horrific out of context. The other eleven are solid.

Unless, sadly, we examine the reverse. Felber’s Antonio asserts that if we work hard, God will prosper our doings. Perhaps. Refusing honest work will certainly hasten failure. But consider diligent workers who do not prosper. Either God does not prosper everyone equally, or their apparent failure unmasks hidden corruption. Should we assume the bankers who crashed Bear Stearns were immoral, but the Goldman bankers who got bailouts were holy?

My problem stems from Felber’s binary world of The Godly and The Wealthy. (Felber’s Godly are professional religious, not ordinary Christians.) I was an educator; thanks to budget cuts, I’m now a laborer. So I fit neither of Felber’s categories. What about my fellow laborers, many working two jobs, achieving another’s dream. Few will ever emerge from the spiral of bills, obligations, and bodily weariness. Has God abandoned us?

Note that Felber sets his allegory in the Italian Renaissance, when cheap credit allowed those with connections to make massive capital investments in factories, ships, and other durable goods. Felber’s mentor character, Alessio, is a shipping magnate with a private fleet. But his typical merchant seaman can never hope to own his own fleet. He might captain Alessio’s boat, but he will always work for somebody else.

Along the way, Felber’s characters perform remarkable verbal gymnastics finding ways to prove that the scriptural injunctions against accumulating wealth or conducting cutthroat business don’t really apply to them. Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, has choice words for people who indulge this sort of self-deception. We could explain away all of scripture if we engage in legalistic wrangling. By finding wide loopholes, that’s just what Felber does.

Felber’s narrative is very I-oriented, very first-person singular. Antonio, Alessio, and Julio spend chapters discussing what God wants to give them, but about three pages on what obligations they have to God. Not one word on topics like how bosses pay workers, and only a glancing nod to “service to a customer... as long as it is ethical” (54). “Ethical,” incidentally, remains undefined; the only virtue named is tithing.

When we surpass Felber’s verbal fencing, we see that scripture does not promise us wealth, comfort, or stability in this life. We face insecurity (Luke 9:58), strife (Matthew 10:34), and persecutions (Mark 10:30). Those who look to scriptural Christianity to make them well-liked in the eyes of their neighbors have built their house upon sand. Christ does not call us to be popular with the world; He calls us to be faithful to our Father in Heaven.

I have known rich people. Not many, but I have known them. One couple I know tried to maintain their Christian beliefs as money accumulated. But as their business demanded more time, and they grew estranged from each other, their children, and their church, they learned my One Principle: You don’t own that kind of money. It owns you. And we know what scripture teaches about the servant of two masters.

Perhaps Felber’s allegory holds promise, if readers apply his Twelve Principles when making their initial business plan. But I fear that, like Ayn Rand’s atheist libertarianism, too many people will apply this reasoning retroactively to reassure themselves that they are good people. Money is only as moral as the person using it.

On a related topic:
Put Your Money Where Your Soul Is

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