What’s the matter with capitalism?

No, I’m not proposing a communist or even socialist utopia (I live in the real world), I’m talking about Danel Bell’s book The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. He talks instead about God’s ‘Divine Economy’ and how it triumphs over the capitalist economy of our world today.

But first, this interview with Michael Sandel sets the scene from a secular perspective: What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of the market.

Does capitalism work?

You’re asking wrong question, says Bell. When Christians argue over that question one side will hurl their stats at the other, the debate is ‘as endless as it is fruitless.’ According to Bell its obvious productive capacity has proved that it does work. But it’s the wrong question. What we should ask is ‘what does capitalism do?’

What does capitalism do?

Many accept that capitalism often exploits the poor and perpetuates injustice. But that’s not the whole story of what it does. In fact, Bell argues that capitalism would still be wrong if it made everybody rich. He turns to the Christian belief in human purpose. What did God make us for?

People are for desiring and delighting in God and reflecting God’s glory. We are created for friendship, for communion with God. The Trinity is a communion of love into which we are invited. Of course, this friendship is not merely a matter of me and God, of me and Jesus. After all, Scripture reminds us we cannot be friends of God if we hate our neighbours and that redemption involves breaking down the walls of hostility that divide peoples; hence, the commandments as succinctly summed up in the exhortation that we “love God and neighbour.

But what does capitalism say people are for?

The question, What are people for? has everything to do with capitalism because capitalism embodies a very different answer to the question than the Classic Christian tradition. Put a bit more pointedly, the capitalist economy of desire is a manifestation of sin because it both corrupts desire and obstructs communion. Capitalism is wrong because it discipline distorts human desire. it corrupts desire so that it no longer flows according to its proper, created end; it twists desire and in so doing obstructs our friendship with God, one another and creation. In other words, the problem with capitalism is not simply that it may not work but that even if it does increase aggregate wealth, even if made everyone on the planet a millionaire tomorrow, it still is wrong and is to be opposed because of what it does to human desire and human sociality. The problem with capitalism is… that it does not facilitate, and instead actively works against, the divine will for the renewal of communion with God and humanity.

Capitalism is premised on scarcity (the idea that there’s not enough for everyone), on competition (making our relationships means to getting ahead) and it promotes insatiable desire. It turns neigbours into competitors. It encourages us to desire the wrong things. The ‘invisible hand’ takes the place of God, but this god is a harsh and fickle master; there’s no guarantee that if you work hard and invest well the market will reward you.

Is there another option?

Well yes. Bell’s book doesn’t just leave us with that depressing state of affairs – he points us to what Jesus has done and his Kingdom as the answer (it always is). God is ‘healing our desire of its capitalist distortions’ so that we can desire what is good. Discipleship is ‘the redemption of desire, this faith and hope that desire can be healed’.

But what exactly is God doing to heal desire of ‘its capitalist distortions?’ Bell turns to Jesus work to ‘overcome the capitalist economy of desire’ in the atonement and its effect on human desire: the ‘Divine Economy’. And I’m going to quote this whole section directly because he articulates it much clearer than I could.

Our consideration of what God is doing now to heal desire of its economic distortions begins with the Christian doctrine of the atonement, of Christ’s work on the cross. In particular, it begins with what is commonly called the satisfaction or substitutionary account of Christ’s work on the cross… developed most notably by the medieval theologian St Anselm…

Typically the satisfaction or substitutionary understanding of the cross holds that Christ’s death on the cross satisfied the debt to God humanity incurred on account of sin, that Christ is the sinner’s substitute on the cross, paying the penalty of that sin. Anselm’s argument can be summarised as follows: in the face of human sin, which is an offence against God’s honour, God, as one who must uphold justice, cannot simply forgive sin but must enforce a strict accounting of what is due. However, because humanity already owes God everything, it has no surplus with which to repay its debt. In this situation, the God-man, Christ, steps forward and fulfills justice, renders what is due, and pays the debt through his substitutionary death on the cross. In this way, redemption is the result of the payment of a debt incurred through sin by means of a compensatory death that satisfies divine justice.

At first glance, this account of Christ’s work on the cross might not seem particularly relevant to either the matter of economics in general or to liberating desire from the distortions of capitalism. On the one hand, it appears to have little to do with economics, with the circulation and use of scarce resources; on the other hand, insofar as it might have some indirect relevance, it does not appear to present a serious challenge of any sort to the capitalist economy of desire. Indeed, to the extent that Christ’s work of redemption on the cross seems to work entirely within a logic of scarcity and debt, communitative exchange, equity and strict accounting of what is due, it would appear to reinforce the material logic that underwrites the capitalist economy of desire. Divine accounting, it seems, is not that different from capitalist accounting. Just as capitalism functions according to a contractual logic of debt, equality/equivalence (via the dollar and dominance of exchange value), retribution (as in an exact accounting and rendering what is due), and finally death (for it is death that gives scarcity its power), so too, apparently does the atonement. Redemption requires a full settling of accounts, communitative justice. Christ’s death is an exchange accounted equivalent to our debt that settles the divine-human balance sheet.

Yet notwithstanding its widespread popularity, this reading of Paul and Anselm is a profound misreading. It reflects not the divine economy of salvation revealed in Scripture, expounded in the tradition, and lived out by the church, but rather reflects the way that our imaginations have been so disciplined by the capitalist economy of desire that was beginning to emerge during Anselm’s time. As a result, we have blurred vision (like the blind man at Bethsaida) and so misinterpret the work the crucified (and resurrected) Christ was doing; we misconstrue the character of God’s economy that heals desire of its sin.

When understood rightly, the atonement is neither irrelevant to economy nor a tacit endorsement of the logic of the capitalist economic order. Rather, rightly understood, the cross reveals the gift of Christ as the incarnation of a divine economy that turns the capitalist order on its head

God needs nothing and no necessity compels God to act as God does in redeeming us from sin. Already the standard interpretation of the cross is in trouble, insofar as it asserts that necessity compels God to exact compensatory suffering as the penalty for sin. Anselm then goes on to say that God does not demand bloodshed, that divine justice is not in conflict with divine mercy, and that God’s power and dignity cannot be diminished by human insurrection. All of which is to say that whatever is happening on the cross, it is not about a strict settling of accounts and a rigid enforcing of commutative justice. Indeed, as Anselm argues, in the work of the atonement, God in Christ both dismisses any debt and gives a gift that far exceeds any settling of accounts, since in Christ we are renewed even more wonderfully than we were created.

What is going on, Anselm says, is not God collecting on accounts receivable but rather making good on God’s intention on creating humanity… Sin is indeed an offence against God’s honour in the particular sense that it is not fitting that God’s will or intention for humanity be thwarted… Sin is an offence against God because it is the thwarting of God’s desire that humanity enjoy, find its rest or communion in God… As such, honour is the origin of God’s free act to provide humanity with a path to renewed communion. God’s honour demands not that one pay for thwarting God’s intentions but that God’s intentions for humanity not be thwarted.

I’ll stop here or else I’ll end up just typing out the whole book for you.

All that was a long way of saying that what was happening at the cross wasn’t a settling of accounts according to a capitalist economy but a cancellation of debt and a display of immeasurable generosity. The ‘divine economy’ is not like the capitalist economy.

What does the ‘divine economy’ mean practically?

Bell explains that Christ’s work of atonement ‘renews desire in its true modality of gift, donation and unending generosity.’ It’s exciting stuff. Because God has been so generous to us, we’re freed from seeing the capitalist economy as an ultimate reality. We already have everything we need. Having received Christ, our life ‘becomes a surplus with which to serve our neighbours.’

You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor so that you, by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)

In this reality:

  • Everything we have is a gift from God. We are not ‘possessive’ like in capitalist possessive individualism.
  • The material stuff God gives us is not simply for meeting our own needs but the needs of others. Sure, there’s still private property, but private property no longer means having the right to do ‘whatever I want with my stuff’ but becomes a means of serving the common good. Ownership is not a licence but a responsibility.
  • We are freed to give in a way which honours the receiver of the gift. Christians don’t give out of their wealth to demonstrate their benevolence, expecting the ‘needy’ person could give them nothing in return. They acknowledge everything they have is a gift from God anyway. ‘Being vulnerable to receiving is a prerequisite of Christian giving.’
  • We are freed to work for the common good and serve others.
  • We can find rest from the rat race and the market. Rest is found in communion with God.

Now I completely skipped all the French philosophy Bell engages with, much of his analysis of postmodern capitalism and I hardly touched all the implications of God’s generosity to us in Christ. You must read this book. I’d love to hear your thoughts.



I couldn’t make it to a computer last week so there’s even more Friday reading today. There’ll be a bit of a gap in the blogging for a while – I’m going away for the next two weeks, visiting some remote communities in the NT. I love visiting these communities, they’ve got a lot of things going for them but unfortunately a reliable internet connection isn’t one of them.

On mothers

Diana Butler Bass The radical history of mothers day

Sarah Arthur Are women really saved through childbearing?

Anne Summers There is a better way to help mothers return to paid work

On Phoebe

Psephizo Phoebe, carrier of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians

Where does that leave Phoebe? It appears as though she was not in fact the lector of Romans, and so Wright’s statement that she was ‘it’s first expositor’ is perhaps an overstatement. However, it remains the case that Phoebe was known to Paul, had a role of church leadership, and was entrusted by Paul with a key letter on which the next phase of his ministry depended. The phrasing of Romans 16.1–3 makes it clear she fulfilled the usual role of letter carrier, and as such she would have had an important role in answering questions and ensuring that the letter was understood correctly—so a better phrase might be ‘authoritative interpreter.’

On leadership

Ben Myers Bonhoeffer and the magical powers of leadership

On Adam

John Schneider The fall of “Augustinian Adam”: problems of original frailty and supralapsarian purpose

On the budget

I love interactive infographics.

ABC Budget 2013: where will your taxes go?

On recovering from alcoholism

Rachel Held Evans Ask a recovering alcoholic

On thinkers

Alecia Simmonds Why Australia hates thinkers

As a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with vitriol reserved for those who think for a living: “chattering classes”, “latte-sipping libertarians”, “intellectual elites” and now Nick Cater’s most unlovely term “bunyip elite”. If we want to emphasise the importance of something we say that the issue “is not just academic”. Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down. Or perhaps, more precisely, any idea that threatens conservative orthodoxy is consigned to the divine irrelevancy of the academy…There’s no doubt that Australia is a vast, sunny, intellectual gulag.

And a response from Jeff Sparrow – Why Andrew Bolt is not an imbecile.

On wise women

Sarah Bessey has put together a list of 50 Church and Faith Lady-Bloggers. I’m working my way through her list.

She’s written an excellent piece on how older women often get left out of our churches. We put the young and enthusiastic up the front and forget older women, even though they’re often the wisest among us. Bessey’s piece is called ‘in which they are overlooked in a sea of hipsters’.

A few months ago, I requested stories or anecdotes about how it feels to be a woman in the church… One woman told me about how she had led worship at her church for years. But when a new young pastor was hired, he wanted a cooler band to get more young people, and the first thing to go were the older women. “No one wanted to see old women on stage,” she wrote candidly without bitterness, and so she was replaced with young women in their late teens and early twenties. She misses leading worship. Another woman told me about the sting of being passed over continually. She had very high levels of education, a seminary degree, a long history of teaching with many beloved students, but every teacher at her church’s education program was a young, charismatic man with half her education, let alone experience, despite their position of welcoming women in ministry. In practice, it wasn’t actually happening. She believed now that it was because she did not fit the expected look or personality or gender of their education program. Another woman shared about how she has welcomed and celebrated the shift in the churches of her context towards women in leadership and ministry. Yet, she has noticed that they are all young and beautiful women with identical outgoing and big-smiling personalities. The glass ceiling remains for her because she doesn’t fit the standard or “target audience” so she cheers on these young women, the age of her grand-children, with a selflessness that amazed me…

Then she Bessey went and got a list of Christian women bloggers over 50 so we can share some of their wisdom.

On Eurovision

I’m still trying to work out what to make of Romania.

Rebecca Vincent When the music dies: Azerbaijan one year after Eurovision.

On ‘typical’ Australians

Matt Cowgill What is the typical Australian’s income in 2013?

Low income earners tend to overestimate their own position in the income distribution, while high-income earners tend to underestimate theirs. In short, we all think we’re middle class.

On the ACL

Steph Judd What Christian constituency? Which burnt bridges? Rudd, the ACL and same-sex marriage?

On anglo-Catholic heaven

Anglo catholic heaven

evangelicalism as contextualised Gospel

I’ve been reading Andrew Walls’ The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Not a flashy title, but a fascinating book. It was published almost 20 years ago, so I’m a little slow on the uptake – perhaps everyone else has already been here, done that – but his writing about the incarnation as God’s translation of the Word for us, and the on-going re-translation of the gospel is just beautiful. If, like me, you’re also 20 years behind the times on missiology, it’s worth reading.

But something else about this book caught my eye – it articulated something I’d been thinking about but not quite able to put into words – evangelicalism as a ‘contextualised’ gospel. He argues that the success of the evangelical revivals in the 18th and 19th Centuries were that they made the Gospel meaningful for northern European Protestants, they answered the deep questions these people had at that time.

Western Christianity faced a cultural crisis – attrition of its basis in Western culture, with the weakening of the sanctions of the institutional church, the increasing efficiency of the centralised state, and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. The Evangelical Revival was perhaps the most successful of all the reformulations of Christianity in the context of changing Western culture… It retained the medieval concern (deep rooted in the European psyche) for propitiation. It also extended and clarified the Reformation idea (particularly as developed by the English Puritans  of a life of holy obedience in the secular world and in the family. Above all, it combined the traditional framework of the Christian nation and the established church… with serious recognition of individual selfhood and personal decision. That reconciliation bridged a cultural chasm in Christian self-identity. It helped to make evangelical religion a critical force in Western culture, a version of Christianity thoroughly authentic and indigenous there. To use the appalling current missiological jargon the Evangelical Revival contextualised the gospel for the northern Protestant world. 

The contextualisation was so successful that people found it hard to imagine there was any other way of following Jesus.

There is, of course, a lurking peril in all successful indigenisations. the more the gospel is made a place to feel at home, the greater the danger that no one else will be able to live there. And the missionary movement required people whose personal religion had become effectively (though critically) aligned with Western cultures to transmit the Christian message in non-Western settings where the assumptions that shaped their religion did not apply.

Walls is still very optimistic. He looks at the history of African missions and the dissonances between the missionaries’ culture and the Africans’ and concludes that both heard and responded to the gospel.

The fruit of the work of evangelical missionaries has not simply been a replication of Western evangelicalism. The Christian message that they set loose in Africa has its own dynamic, as it comes into creative and critical encounter with African life with its needs and its hurts. Exactly the same thing happened with the Evangelical Revival bridged the culture gap for northern Protestantism with such spectacular effect. Africans have responded to the gospel from where they were, not from where missionaries were; they have responded to the Christian message as they heard it, not to the missionaries’ experience of the message.

When we tend to talk about contextualising the gospel, what we normally mean is re-contextualising evangelicalism, never seeing that evangelicalism itself is a contextualised gospel.

But then, does this really matter? As Walls sees it, Africans in the past were able to seize what they understood from the missionaries’ message and creatively respond. The spread of the Gospel was not contingent on the missionaries’ ability to ‘contextualise’ it. Perhaps what’s more important is to remove barriers as much as possible, cultural stumbling blocks, and give indigenous people the freedom to do the contextualising themselves. What do you think?

I’ve also been thinking about Evangelicalism and print-culture. It’s a reading religion. It’s a very literate Christianity with hymn-books, quiet-times, bible-studies. It’s a Christianity contextualised for a (19th century middle class?) literary culture.

But what’s going to happen as we increasingly move towards an audio-visual culture? We already receive most of our information this way, how much longer do we expect books to hold on? Can evangelicalism adapt for an audio-visual culture? Perhaps – and maybe the answer is along the lines of those slick TGC monochrome clips with the Great Men in earnest discussion. Or perhaps evangelicalism will evolve, re-contextualise, translate itself into something else altogether. What do you think? Is evangelicalism prepared for the future?


Happy Friday everyone. Yes I’ve been neglecting the blog. I haven’t forgotten you. More posts are coming soon. I’ve exhausted my writing capacity on thesis chapters in the last few weeks and left no energy for blogging, but the drafts are nearly done.

On power dressing

Jane Goodall Dressing the part: women, power, fashion and that bloody jacket!

On poverty

Tamie Davis Living ‘below the line’, Tanzania

On paid parental leave

Eva Cox Are feminists opposing Abbott’s paid parental scheme on personality grounds only?

Joshua Gans Abbott’s leave scheme is a step backwards for women

On egalitarianism and complimentarianism

CBE Is egalitarianism on a slippery slope?

Amy Lepine Peterson A new wave of complimentarianism?

On work

The moonbat Review: in praise of idleness. I’m not sure it’s ‘idleness’ he’s actually praising though – I think he’s suggesting a fuller understanding of ‘work’.

On history

JR Daniel Kirk Does Paul’s Christ require a historical Adam?

Joel Willitts What does ‘historical criticism’ mean when it comes to the Gospels?

On philosophy

What do philosophers themselves believe about life, the universe and everything? What do philosophers believe? is a study of just that. 72.8% of them ticked ‘atheism’, 14.6% ‘theism’. There’s also their results on time, free will, moral judgement etc.

Valentina Palladino Explaining complicated philosophies with gorgeously simply postcards. Here’s ‘determinism’ for you:


On dialogue

Chris Stedman Want to talk to non-Christians? Six tips from an atheist

On dating

This one made me laugh. Derek Rishmawy 7 tips on “how to meet reformed men”. There’s actually a website ‘reformedsingles.com’:

Our members know that their futures are predestined by our heavenly Father and rest in His kind hands.

On evangelicalism (and conservatism)

Carl Trueman What if life was complex?

 I thought I would use this column to indulge in a little thought experiment. What, I wonder, if the conservative evangelical church world came to be dominated by a symbiotic network of high profile and charismatic leaders (think more Weber than Wimber), media organisations, and big conferences? What if leadership, doctrine, and policy were no longer rooted in the primacy of biblical polity and the local church? What if, in other words, all of this became a function of an Evangelical Industrial Complex?

Christopher Brittain Plague on both their houses: the real story of growth and decline in liberal and conservative churches

On tradies and princesses

Here’s a photo from Canberra in 1985. Love how the t-shirt doubles as a hard-hat.

Di and tradies

On loving Jesus

Finally, here’s a short sermon by Stanley Hauerwewas which encouraged me this week.


Argh, it’s already Friday today and I still haven’t caught up on Thursday yet. The blog almost went forgotten this week!

On the NDIS/DisablityCare

It’s so tantalisingly close now!

Stella Young Why fund the NDIS? Because one day you might need it

Ben Eltham Disability levy serves common good

On doubt

Derek Rishmawy Karl Barth’s 3 aphorisms on doubt

On marriage

Andrew Errington Same-sex marriage: what’s really at issue?

Of course, irrational commitment to tradition and ugly prejudice are distressingly common and too often all that opponents of same-sex marriage seem to have produced, so it is perhaps not surprising that many think that this is the only kind of opposition to it. However, at its better moments, opposition to same-sex marriage has been motivated by a way of thinking about marriage with a long history and inherent rationality. And while we may as a society wish to change our minds about marriage, we should not do so blindly. We should only do so understanding the view we are rejecting, with a clear sense of its rationale. Even if it is a rationale we now find difficult to accept, we do ourselves no favours if we simply lose our capacity to understand it.

Russel Blackford Keeping the state in its place: the case for same-sex marriage

Peter Kirk Marriage and divorce equality

You may have heard that a recent galaxy poll found that 53% of Australian Christians (or those who identify as Christian) support gay marriage. Interesting.

On groceries

Images of what families from around the world eat in a week- What the world eats – a week’s worth of groceries

Here’s Australia


Here’s Bhutan


On old testament historicity

Michael Bird Why we need to teach historical criticism

Now I know Michael Bird wants to ‘slap him with a soggy fish’, but here’s one from Peter Enns. He seems to be the only one talking about this stuff – On creation and killing Cananites. Or is there someone else? Any suggestions? 

On unemployment

The Economist Generation jobless

On time travel

I love dinosaur comics.