Charles Talbert often noted to his students that when a scholar looks for a picture of Jesus he often comes back with a portrait that looks much like himself. The same could be said for modern depictions of the spiritual life. We tend to read our own predispositions into the interpretation of the scriptures.
Such is the case for David Matzko McCarthy’s recent work The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class. He begins with the assumption that the material culture of modern America runs counter to his version of biblical economics and values. He lays out a program for changing one’s life to resist the concerns he raises about society. The book is a part of the Christian Practice of Everyday Life Series published by Brazos Press.
McCarthy argues that middle-class Americans have succumbed to the problems of life associated with people, places, things, God and creation. The first three relate to the “order and character of our loves.” The last two deal with his understanding of the Nicene Creed. The book is divided into four sections based on these themes. God and creation are combined in the fourth section. Each section begins with an introduction, follows with several chapters applying the topic to everyday life, and concludes with a few comments.
In the section on “People,” McCarthy relates the concerns over friendship, love, justice, family, marriage and sexuality. He states the church is to be the individual’s first family priority and that most problems in the middle class can be laid at the feet of the economic system. He suggests that we are to have a “middle-class asceticism—a simplicity and moderation of life.”
In “Places,” he discusses hospitality and patriotism. We are to live between the extremes of “idealizing our place in the world and taking flight from it.” We are to shun violence to the point of being unwilling to serve as police officers in our communities.
In “Things,” he discusses finances and vocation. Each section, especially the last, is a loose exposition of his interpretation of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6:25-34 along with other passages that he uses illustratively.
Part 4 is a different matter entirely. He explains the theological underpinnings of the work using the Nicene Creed as an outline.
Unfortunately the book is disorganized. The multiple introductions and conclusions fail to knit the work together. Part 4, the theological background, should have been placed earlier; the arguments could have flowed more easily from this point forward. Instead, the reader struggles to make sense of certain sections. At the end of his discussion of places, he mentions issues related to creation, something he describes again much later in part 4.
His argument also fails to connect Jesus’ first century economy to the difficulties of the middle class in America today. A casual observer could note how different the two cultures are and yet how individual Christians would struggle to live in either.
McCarthy provides insufficient evidence, however, to describe precisely what Jesus would have done if he were an economist and does not explain why the 21st century system is so much worse than the first century system. He implies that the 21st century American way of life hinders Christian growth more than any other economic system, but he does not suggest a viable alternative to the one we have.
Several sections allow the reader to glean personal insights from McCarthy’s own pilgrimage. The birth of a child, the frustrations of living and the joys of the spiritual life are easily seen. This volume, however, would not be an easy read for the average student of Scripture, and his interpretations of certain passages leave the reader with more of an impression of McCarthy’s economic views rather than a helpful approach to modern life based on biblical ethics.
William Shiell is pastor at First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
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