Book Notice: Sharing Possessions

Luke Timothy Johnson
Sharing Possessions: What Faith Demands
(2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).
Available at Amazon.com

This book is by well-known Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson (Emory Uni).  It is the second edition of a volume that was designed to be an accessible version of his Ph.D thesis. Interestingly enough, it was written at a time when Johnson made a transition from being a benedictine monk with “community possessions” to being a husband and father with seven children (six inherited!). Johnson starts with the claim that Luke consistently speaks about possessions, but does not speak consistently about possessions.  He attempts then, to discern the value of being and having, as well how one utilizes possessions in the context of faith. In a nutshell, Johnson thinks the most helpful model is alms-giving over a community of common possessions (but note that he nuances it a lot). For Johnson, a community of common possessions works best when practiced by a small and intentional community, but it does not work well at the level of a governmental economic theory. There are some cracking good quotes in the book too:

“However much televangelists and others trumpet the ‘scriptural’ character of their claim that faith brings with it material prosperity, their selectivity with regard to the Bible is far more severe than that practiced by Christians who have followed one of the classic options for sharing. They choose to follow a handful of Old Testament texts in the Deuteronomic tradition, and ignore completely the unanimous witness of the New Testament, which portrays discipleship not in terms of worldly success, but in terms of radical obedience and service – service that involves the sharing of possessions rather than the accumulation of them. There is simply no gospel character to the claims of the prosperity gospel, no element of genuine Christian discipleship” (p. 28).

“The mandate of faith in God is clear: we must, in some fashion, share that which has been given to us by God as a gift. To refuse to share what we have is to act idolatrously. Not only is that mandate clear, but also the symbolic function of possessions; because we are somatic creatures, the way we dispose of possessions signals and affects our response to God and other people in this world” (p. 99).

“[L]anguage about the use of possessions was intimately connected to language about covenantal loyalty and obedience. Faith in the one God is expressed on one side by refusal to cheat or steal or oppress, and on the other side, by a variety of modes of sharing with others. Even in those parts of the wisdom tradition that saw prosperity as a result of covenantal loyalty are unanimous on two other points: first that such prosperity be righteous, disconnected from theft and injustice, and second that wealth be shared generously with others” (p. 106).

Johnson regards the deficiency of the community of possessions are (125-26):
1. The scriptural basis for the ideal way of Christians sharing goods is slender, superficial, selective, and suspect;
2. As an attempt to grasp for a utopian vision of humanity, community of possessions is ideologically rather than theologically motivated;
3. As a means of fixing imbalances, community of possessions is both naive, and devalues the inalienable quality of “having” in somatic existence;
4. It values identity by means of possessions;
5. It fails to take account of the power of idolatry and sin since it invests too much confidence in a structural communism;
6. When the practice is structured by an ideology of friendship, it diminishes the significance of the individual and his call from God;
7. When the practice is structured by the ideology of obedience, it results in a form of “works-righteousness”;
8. In some formulations, the community of goods can foster an unhealthy form of social control;
9. A strict community of possessions tends towards spiritual solipsism, where the needs of the community and not those outside it are all that matters;
10.  The model can foster immaturity, irresponsibility, and alienation, when the response to every matter is dictated by the will of a superior, it abdicates the spirit of discernment needed to confront each situation.

Overall, quite an interesting read in the Luke-Acts wealth, riches, poor, and possessions discussion.

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  • David Cramer

    Thanks for this notice. Interestingly, other than his first point, his criticism of community possessions seems to be itself purely ideological. Does he speak much of his own experiences as a monk? Does he discuss other groups with community possessions, such as Hutterites or “new monastics”?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this notice. Interestingly, other than his first point, his criticism of community possessions seems to be itself purely ideological. Does he speak much of his own experiences as a monk? Does he discuss other groups with community possessions, such as Hutterites or “new monastics”?

  • Plongeur

    But I’m not sure if he’s for it or against it…

  • Plongeur

    But I’m not sure if he’s for it or against it…

  • Justin Borger

    This is a fantastic book.

  • Justin Borger

    This is a fantastic book.


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