[A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Catholic Register (Canada).]
Ben Witherington brings biblical teaching on money to bear on the current economic crisis in Jesus and Money. Witherington is a well-published Evangelical biblical scholar whose works cover a wide range of scholarly debates, presenting them in accessible ways for lay Christian audiences. In this book, however, Witherington presents an incomplete view of biblical texts on wealth and oversteps the bounds of his expertise as he applies these texts to today’s economy.
This incompleteness is ironic, as Witheringon explicitly stakes out his position as a “canonical” approach to the scriptures (142). That is, he insists that Christians may not pick and choose parts of scripture that appeal to them while ignoring others. This, he says, is precisely the problem with his primary target throughout the book: advocates of the “health and wealth” or “prosperity” gospel who focus on texts which seem to suggest that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Against this painfully obvious abuse of scripture, Witherington insists that Christians must not ignore other biblical texts about wealth, and in the first eight chapters he surveys a variety of texts from both testaments. Along the way he draws out insights in order to develop a “Christian theology of money,” presented in chapter nine, and suggestions for the life of discipleship in chapter ten.
The chapters contain useful background information for the biblical texts he chooses. Especially helpful are his descriptions of the economies of the ancient world and how they differ from our own. But his insistence on a canonical approach obscures the choices Witherington himself makes in presenting “the” biblical view on money. For example, Witherington’s survey features only one paragraph on the Hebrew prophets, an obvious source for a biblical view of wealth. The prophets are indeed essential for understanding the words and ministry of Jesus. Also, despite his consciousness of the limited role money actually played in the ancient world, Witherington tends to zero in only on passages that explicitly refer to money, overlooking, for example, the more general and pervasive biblical theme of God’s option for the poor and powerless. His neglect of the option for the poor is unfortunate, and he seems to downplay or even reject this idea in favor of stressing God’s “impartiality” (80-1).
Both in his analysis of scripture and in his attempt to apply it to the contemporary world, Witherington sees things from the perspective of middle and upper-class assumptions. These assumptions prevent him from subjecting biblical texts to any form of serious critique, particularly a class conscious critique. Texts that would not offend middle and upper-class sensibilities, such as passages from the book of Proverbs, are left unscrutinized, while more challenging passages, such as Jesus’ command to his disciples to sell all they have are explained away because, after all, how are we supposed to be good, generous Christians if we don’t have anything to give?
In this book, Witherington does not view today’s economic system from the perspective of people who are poor, and this, combined with his near exclusive focus on the prosperity gospel phenomenon, allows the deeper, hidden assumptions of global capitalism to escape scrutiny. For Witherington, “we are all responsible” for the economic crisis. Poverty and hardship are seen as occasional “emergencies” and “crises” rather than the ever-present underside of the global capitalist system. The emergencies that “occasionally” befall “our” economic system, and solutions for “fixing” them, look very different depending on where one stands.
Likewise, for Witherington, the problem with wealth is the “spiritual effect” it has on believers, not the material effects that capitalist values and structures have on the poor and marginalized. Wealth is “a potential spiritual stumbling block” (142) while generosity brings “spiritual rewards” (152) and so Christians should resist consumerism lest they experience “spiritual death.” Systemic injustice is noted in on few occasions (92), but “The bottom line of Jesus’s teaching about wealth and prosperity is that wealth is a danger to one’s spiritual life and well-being” (70).
From this perspective, all Witherington is able to do by the book’s end is make a few recommendations for how we might spiritually “deprogram” ourselves from consumer culture. Missing is the idea that Christians might work toward alternative economic structures, as Pope Benedict XVI argues in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate. Witherington suggests that Christians spend time with “holy rollers” rather than “high rollers” (158), but the thought that middle and upper-class Christians might spend time with and learn from those who are poor is glaringly absent.
Sadly, I find little reason to recommend this book. The few worthwhile portions contain information easily found in other, more complete, reflections on faith and economics. Fortunately there are many worthwhile recent biblical and theological reflections available, such as and Richard Horsley’s Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All and Joerg Rieger’s No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future.