Friday, July 06, 2012

HT Mockingbird: Trickle Down Distress

... When using meritocracy calculators to assess achievement, we often overlook or dismiss how much luck can affect lives. If any good has come of the current economic crisis, it's how much harder doing that has become. "Merit hard liners downplay the effects of luck," says McNamee. "But the imperfections and ultimate uncertainty of both the stock market on Wall Street and the labor market on Main Street add an undeniable element of luck into the mix." And while the U.S. government does have a history of passing laws aimed at equalizing opportunity and eliminating discrimination, it has simultaneously encouraged great economic disparities. "Major structural changes in the U.S. economy such as de-industrialization, automation, and globalization have displaced workers quite independent of the merit of individuals," says McNamee. "The historical decline in self-employment and the concomitant rise and dominance of large oligarchic corporations (including chains and franchises) have created barriers of entry for starting and sustaining small businesses and sharply reduced the entrepreneurial path to mobility."

This kind of meritocracy can be considered the core of not just various forms of prosperity teaching that uniquely thrive in the United States, it may also be seen in an incipient form in a misunderstanding of the nature of the Wisdom literature itself.  If you read the book of Proverbs as a series of life-rules for prosperity at any level that is in part because that's where Proverbs goes.  A broader question of what role the Wisdom literature has within the canon is a topic I have not seen rank and file Christians discuss nearly as much as textual scholars. If Proverbs is offset by both Job and the book of Ecclesiastes that is a pretty significant caveat to how strictly and broadly to apply concepts spelled out in a few proverbs.

Years ago I heard a preacher propose that a new revival of Christian teaching and practice might emerge from immersion in Wisdom literature.  I would suggest that there has never been, nor will there ever be, a revival of any Christian piety of any kind anchored to any wisdom literature.  Without regard for the Lord and a recognition of inscrutable providence Wisdom literature leads to despair or to a prosperity gospel.  For instance, let's say you're a never-married man and you have that proverb about how he who finds a wife finds what is good and has favor from the Lord.  By itself that's just a proverb. Your being married or unmarried does not in fact prove anything about whether you have pleased the Lord.  God killed Nabal, after all, and Abigail was a prize of a wife, right?  King Saul had a wife and some solid kids but was rejected by the Lord.  A failure to read the Wisdom literature in the broader context of the canon can lead a person to mistakenly propose that the Wisdom literature will show you how to live a more successful life.

Back in 2010 I blogged about the liberation of being average.  Wendy, over at Practical Theology for Women, blogged about the prosperity gospel of conservative evangelicals.

Seeing as I finished a fascinating commentary on Ecclesiastes all of these articles discussing meritocracy and anxiety will provide some set-up for future blog entries about Shields' fascinating take on Ecclesiastes. Let me set the stage a bit on that one by proposing that the reason Job and Ecclesiastes  ended up in the canon was at least in part due to a realization that the temptation to misapply wisdom literature into a mechanistic prosperity system is so likely that there needed to be two books to correct against that.  Job shows us a case study in which a godly man was struck by disaster in a way that had nothing to do with his righteousness.  Ecclesiastes shows us the musings of the greatest sage of his time remarking that wisdom is useless and ineffectual in the long run, and that wisdom is unable to answer the important questions of life and unable to deliver what people think it promises.

But it's best to save some of that stuff for the sequels.

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