Takeaway: Taking Jesus seriously on economic issues is hard.
Christians often make very bad economists, or at least bad economics writers. They may have good theology, but good theology does not necessarily make good economic sense. And Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is OK with that. He wants to focus on ways that we can re-define our understanding of economics. This is a common theme of both Christian and non-Christian books I have been reading lately. Economics is increasingly moving toward mathematical/rational determinism and away from ethical theory.
Wilson-Hartgrove is writing directly to move Christians back toward an ethical understanding of economics. As a student he wanted to change the world through politics and the religious right. Then he was deeply affected by a homeless man and began a long journey toward redefining what it means to be a Christian.
The first third of the book is a long introduction to both the author’s biography and his way of understanding economics. The last two thirds of the book explores five ‘tactics’ that Wilson-Hartgrove believes will redefine our relationship to God’s Economy. Those tactics are 1) Subversive service, 2) Eternal investments, 3) Economic friendships, 4) Relational generosity and 5) Gracious politics.
This is book written not out of academic or theological insight, but practical living. The author has spent the last twenty years exploring these ideas through actually trying them. He is calling the church to change, not from an academic window or prophetic pulpit, but from the streets and homes of his community.
I just finished a financial bible study with my church small group. It was filled with practical advice that is hard to disagree with: get rid of debt, live in your means, focus on God, serve him with all your resources, make giving and saving your priorities. Overwhelmingly the study was focused on balance. But when I read Jesus talking about money, he rarely (ever?) talks about balance. Instead he talks about selling everything you have and giving it to the poor. Or expecting God to provide everything you need and be completely dependent on him. Or using our resources to extravagantly celebrate God in ways that is actually scandalous. I do not think that the small group study was bad. It was practical, focused on skills for young couples to work on as they set up new households. But when I think about which of these better characterized Jesus’ actual teachings, I have to say that Wilson-Hartgrove clearly captures the spirit of Jesus’ teaching better than the conservative ‘balanced’ approach.