Economic development is a key aspect of culture—and at the same time, a challenge to cultural norms. How should Christians reconcile such tension? What is culture’s impact upon the biblical mandate to create wealth for holistic transformation?
Earlier this year two evangelical groups, the Lausanne Movement and BAM Global, released a paper exploring wealth creation within global cultural perspectives to address these and other questions about culture and wealth creation. In particular, the paper examines the ‘anthropological temptation’: the temptation to idolize culture, and to overreact by freezing it in time, thus preventing the organic change that is natural to culture.
In the past, it has not just been church leaders who have struggled with the subject of wealth and physical well-being: anthropologists have too. This is understandable, given their focus on sympathetically studying other cultures, many of which are far ‘simpler’ economically than those to which anthropologists belong. Many anthropologists adopt a methodological approach that ‘presupposes a neutral vantage point . . . call[ing] for suspending judgment when dealing with . . . societies different from one’s own’, thereby refusing any assessment of the ‘acting of one group as intrinsically superior or inferior to those of another’. This has meant, in the economic sphere, a reluctance amongst some anthropologists to acknowledge the economic ‘poverty’ of certain cultures. Indeed, a decades-old discussion loosed by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins concerning hunter-gatherer cultures exemplifies this tendency. Sahlins, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago, made three points in his influential book Stone-Age Economics (1972): first, the counterintuitive point that subsistence economies can be ‘affluent’ societies; second, that one’s work rate in subsistence economies is attuned to one’s lower expectations, such that the resultant reduced work rate is no vice of ‘laziness’, but rather a rational adjustment of means to an end; and third, that none of this sits well with our bourgeois capitalist economies which tout the ‘more and more’.