Paul Tripp: the American dream compromises Christian community

I’m excited that the New Calvinists are challenging the American-evangelical synthesis that blesses the assumptions of American life with religious approval.  At the Desiring God blog, Paul Tripp states it about as strongly and as well as it can be said:

I read a book on stress a few years back, and the author made a side comment that I thought was so insightful. He said that the highest value of materialistic western culture is not possessing. It’s actually acquiring.

If you’re a go-getter you never stop. And so the guy who is lavishly successful doesn’t quit, because there are greater levels of success. “My house could be bigger, I could drive better cars, I could have more power, I could have more money.”…

You can’t fit God’s dream (if I can use that language) for his church inside of the American dream and have it work. It’s a radically different lifestyle. It just won’t squeeze into the available spaces of the time and energy that’s left over.

And I’m as much seduced by that as anybody. We have sold our four-bedroom house because our kids are gone, and we’ve bought a loft in Chinatown, Philadelphia. And we’re amazed at how simple our life has become. We’re grieving over how we let our life get so complicated.

Last year, for example, I put almost $2,500 worth of gas in my car. This year, I’ve put $159 in the first quarter. It’s because we’re walking places, and that slows our life down, and we’re near the people in our church because we’re within walking distance of the church. And we’ve had so many natural encounters with people because of that.

We’re living in a much smaller place. We got rid of most of our stuff. As we went through it, we laughed about how we just collected stuff. All that stuff has to be maintained. It grabs your heart, it grabs your schedule, it grabs your time. It becomes a source of worry and concern and need to pay.

So we’ve just been confronted with how all of those things that aren’t evil in themselves become the complications of life that keep us away from the kind of community that we need in order to hold on to our identity.

Let me be clear about a couple of things.  First, I’m a beneficiary of the American dream and of the incredible opportunity that America offers to so many of its citizens.  I’m not suggesting a political overhaul that would deny that to others, but rather that we as Christians may want to reevaluate how living a fully American life might compromise the higher priority of living a fully Christian life.  Second, as in so many things, I’m much more in the thinking and talking phase of this than in the acting phase, so I don’t want to pretend that I’ve got it figured out.  I did think that this was worth sharing, though.

I think that the New Calvinism seems to share some of the same concerns that the Emerging church movement does.   The best example of this that I know is Mark Driscoll’s ties to the Emerging leaders early in his career, before they parted ways.  Adherents of both seek a more authentic commitment to God and the Christian life than they find in the American evangelical mainstream.  What’s so exciting about the New Calvinism, in my opinion, is that it addresses the concerns of the Emerging movement in a biblically faithful and confident way, in contrast to some in the Emerging movement’s uncomfortableness with traditional doctrines.  As I’ve said before, I’m watching the New Calvinist movement with great excitement.

If you want to see what I’ve written on the New Calvinist movement, check here for of my posts with this tag.

If you want to see my analysis of the Emerging movement from the perspective of challenging the American-evangelical synthesis, you can see it here.

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7 comments

  1. It’s important to distinguish the different denotations that you and Tripp are using for the “American Dream”. I think you sort of acknowledge this in your disclaimer following his quote, but I’d like to elaborate on it.

    Tripp actually exhibits the American Dream (AD) in your sense of the term as “opportunity” by ably pursuing and acquiring the life he desires. His new lifestyle was enabled by the freedom of AD, even as he now acquires less gas and more exercise. Tripp is living the American dream.

    But Tripp uses AD to denote excessive acquisition and materialism. Granted, this is a subculture of AD, but notably those vices are not limited to AD, nor is AD best defined by those vices. What is more accurate and part of what makes AD unique is that AD (ideally) places those vices within everyone’s grasp. We can debate the good and bad aspects of this freedom, but, to me, it is key to separate the freedom from the vice itself by using different terms for each.

    The confusion which results from conflating these two denotations into a single term is evident in Tripp’s consideration of whether God’s dream is compatible with the American dream, followed by your disclaimer. While God’s dream for us cannot fit within a lifestyle that more greatly values material acquisition than Him, God’s dream for us is most likely enabled by meritocracy, freedom, and opportunity which I believe are far more accurate characterizations of AD.

  2. Kevin, I guess that I define the AD along the same lines that Tripp does. I’ve thought of it as a desire to achieve higher social status, material wealth, and consumption. None of those things is wrong in and of itself, but American culture tends to make those things the measure of success.

    On the other hand, I’d call “meritocracy, freedom, and opportunity” American political and cultural principles that co-exist with the AD that I described above. You’re right that these principles allow people to pursue their own goals, just as Tripp did.

    Maybe the AD is too broad for me to define as I did, though. What do you think about this separation of the AD vs. American political and cultural principles?

  3. I’m unsure of the “American political and cultural principles” categorization (e.g. does that include economic principles?), but I think you are right to distinguish a person’s “desires” from America’s “principles” which enable anyone to achieve those desires. The question is, which is most defining of the AD?

    Certainly the American Dream is a dream of prosperity, however we define it. But if we stop there, anyone in any country can have that dream, and probably does. An untouchable can dream it, but they cannot attain it. Is this the AD? A communist government official can not only dream it, but actually attain it. Is that the AD? I would say no.

    It is not enough to dream, nor is it even enough that someone attains their dream. These happen everywhere in the world. The AD hinges upon anyone being able to attain their dream through their hard work. It is America’s enabling principles and not the variable dream which truly defines the AD. IOW, the key word is “American”, not “Dream”.

    When America’s principles permit someone to attain their dreams which would generally not be possible in other countries, that is the American Dream. And when those principles are embraced by other countries, only then has the AD been exported — not when their people merely dream of prosperity or some attain it.

    I think it is primarily because higher social status and material wealth are widespread dreams that are not realistic in many countries that these have been closely associated with the AD. They are also something tangible to point to. But if the AD is primarily just that dream, then it is everywhere and it might as well simply be called the “dream of prosperity”.

    Even then, it seems misdirected to blame the dream of prosperity when what one is really blaming is excessive acquisition and materialism. God is not opposed to our prosperity, quite the opposite.

    Sorry for rambling on! 🙂

    Wikipedia describes the American Dream well, I think.

  4. Kevin, no need to apologize for rambling. If I occasionally speak garbled, rambling is probably my native tongue.

    You did really well in describing the principles that the American Dream relies on, especially in what makes the AD “American.” Do you think that it would be fair to say that the way that the American Dream is put into practice is often materialistic and acquisitive, at least today where consumerism seems to be a widely recognized force? Could this lead to the combination of “American dream” and “materialism” in people’s minds (including mine)?

    BTW, yes, I would include economic principles with “American cultural and political principles.”

  5. When you say, “the way that the American Dream is put into practice” do you mean the way our liberties are exercised, or do you mean how people’s specific dreams have warped the more complex meaning of the American Dream? If you mean the latter, then yes, your statement is probably fair. It’s easy to confuse American’s dreams with The American Dream.

    Aside from those against TAD and those selling something, I think it has been warped because prosperity does have a frequent financial connotation and because material acquisition is a practical and constant struggle for everyone, both in terms of want and need. People’s dreams are of their struggles.

    Liberties, on the other hand, are not often a daily struggle and so they are scarcely acknowledged, unless we compare inter-country, such as between an untouchable in India versus in the US. We exercise our liberties when we speak, go to church, make a friend, relocate, etc., we just take them for granted.

    It is interesting to contemplate how the American Dream has been used by different people, different groups, different parties, and what it should mean. And what we want it to mean. Is equal opportunity more important than liberty? Is failure a valuable part of liberty, or is success more important? These, I think, are the battleground for those who think TAD is a good thing.

  6. I thought that you made an interesting distinction between liberties and struggles. And in the last part of your comment, you really get at the ways that people debate the meaning of the AD.

    I think you’re right that Tripp and I focused on one subculture of the AD, which does seem to come from, as you said, “people’s specific dreams have warped the more complex meaning of the American Dream.” Liberty would seem to naturally give rise to things that we don’t like. It’s probably then up to Christians to use the liberty that we have to provide a countercultural model (to use the expression from the Christian Vision Project) that points beyond pure individualism and materialism.

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