Monday, January 6, 2014

Prophet and Loss

Joseph James Slawek, Ingredients for Success: 10 Best Practices for Business and Life

“[T]his collection of ten best practices is not a concoction of my own thinking, but rather these are concepts that come from the Bible, God’s Word; therefore, it is beyond a man’s opinion, and more than a personal passion. It is the God of the universe speaking personally and profoundly to each and every one of us. That should send a shiver up our spines!”
—Joseph James Slawek, 10
Early in this book, Slawek disavows any role as prophet, but when he says “prophet,” he means “soothsayer” or “forecaster.” The Hebrew prophets only sporadically foretold the future, but they consistently rebuked flaws in the present. Slawek’s focus on contemporary fiscal ineptitude, self-aggrandizing business, and amoral capitalism certainly sounds prophetic to me. But his desire for absolute answers forces his prophecy into precarious balance.

Slawek, a successful entrepreneur whose company has achieved regional and national recognition in its quarter-century existence, claims Christian faith steered his success. He extols churchgoing, Reaganite ethics, and public religiosity as business values. He glorifies decisions like entombing used Bibles in his corporate headquarters’ foundations, and basing business practices on Gospel parables, but this sounds uncomfortably like televangelism and Prosperity Theology.

Unfortunately, using Biblical language doesn’t guarantee ironclad Christian business foundations. Consider Chik-Fil-A, whose directors famously consider themselves Christian to close on Sundays, but give money to anti-rights activist groups, or Hobby Lobby, which until two months ago refused to carry menorahs. Anyone can talk Christian; the lingo isn’t hard. But we know the vine by its fruit. Slawek’s actions, not his words, should verify his spiritual bona fides.

For instance, in discussing wise investments, Slawek demands his company “double our revenue and results every four years”—Ponzi economics. Did Slawek not face the 2007 economic contraction everyone else endured? Worse, he demands “that everyone in the company has a responsibility to double their personal results every four years.” Am I the only one who recognizes finite humans on a finite earth cannot do this? Seriously?

Bad as this is, early in the book, Slawek calls it simple Biblical honesty that any workers who he believes cannot pull their weight get fired promptly. This surely supports his bottom line. But how Christian is it to sack someone who simply flunks Slawek’s cost-benefit analysis? I’d direct him to Luke 13:6-9 for my answer, which demonstrates how Biblical ethics can support differing, even contradictory, secular outcomes.

After writing that paragraph, a pastor of my acquaintance reminded me of the Parable of the Workers (Matthew 20:1-16). Not only does it repudiate a utilitarian Scripture, it blatantly places justice above monetary outcomes, partly countering Reaganite capitalism. I could continue: Matthew 5:48 urges Christians to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” which directly violates Slawek’s seventh precept, “Aim for excellence, not perfection.”

Slawek and I could continue this “point-counterpoint” approach indefinitely, because Scripture permits multiple variations. But that only proves my point: Scripture doesn’t permit the closed reading Slawek’s prophetic vision demands. Christians have wrestled with Slawek’s chosen passages, primarily Matthew 25, for millennia without finding any ten-step processes. Moreover, considering many early Christians died violently for refusing to worship Caesar, they certainly didn’t find checklists for earthly success and wealth.

Worse, by combining selective biblical prooftexting with moralistic autobiographical vignettes, Slawek dances dangerously close to idolatry. In ballyhooing his Christian business sense, he claims unique insights to God’s fiscal vision, reducing The Great I Am to his personal banker. “I’m successful because I’m good,” Slawek implicitly declares. We who recall Jim Bakker’s disastrous flame-out know how this transitions, tragically, to “I’m good because I’m successful.”

Evangelical capitalists might claim I’m conflating spiritual and economic consequences. Like Job, Slawek proposes earthly rewards separate from getting to heaven when we die. This divide has colored Culture War thinking at least since Jerry Falwell. But how can we die well, except that we first live well? To anyone who thinks I misrepresent either God or Joseph James Slawek, I commend to you Matthew 6:21—“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Slawek surely means well. But he makes the same mistake I’ve seen in other recent self-help books, where the author assumes his particular miracle is transferable, based on laws as immutable as gravity. Slawek has received generous opportunities in life, and assumes they’re both God-given and universal. This assumption blinds him to any reading, of facts or Scripture alike, which contradicts him. Hopefully, readers will recognize this as merely Slawek’s unique business and spiritual journey.

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