A Biblical primer for handling wealth

March 8, 2012

Many churches and synagogues offer them: classes on how to manage your money from a religious perspective.

All too often, however, these classes only skim the surface, and end up with a focus on the instructor’s budgeting systems and an attempt to sell the books he or she has written. Download Full Image

So, where should a person searching for answers about the right and wrong ways to handle money and wealth look?

To the Bible, of course, says Michael S. Moore, a faculty associate in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at ASU. And, to other ancient texts such as “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and “The Atrahasis Epic.”

Of course, the Bible and these other texts don’t have specific commands, such as “keep an emergency fund of six months living expenses” or “pay your full Visa bill every month,” but, Moore says, they do address the broader issues of wealth and possessions, slavery and inheritance.

Moore examines these topics in a new book titled "WealthWatch: A Study of Socioeconomic Conflict in the Bible," which he wrote over a period of eight years.

“The purpose of this book is to help postmodern Westerners understand what the Bible has to say about wealth and possessions, basing itself on the presumption that (a) nobody can understand themselves apart from some recognition of their spiritual roots, and (b) that these roots sink deeper into the pages of the Bible than most Westerners realize,” Moore said.

Moore, who was a Christian pastor for 30 years in Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina, retired from the pastorate two years ago. He earned a doctoral degree in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible from Drew University in 1988 and has taught at ASU since 1991.

Moore said he was drawn to the topic of how the Bible addresses wealth and other socioeconomic topics because “I live in one of the richest countries on earth, yet one whose wealth is terribly, relentlessly, and systematically squandered through debt slavery, addiction, corruption and bribery (often by religious people who ought to know better).”

“Most people read the Bible through the lens of the three-step process: shallow overview of selected prooftexts (part of a text taken out of its context) about wealth and possessions divorced from their literary-historical contexts; selective economic prejudices laid over these prooftexts designed to champion the instructor’s preconceived bias; and ‘authoritative’ religious instruction on ‘what the Bible says’ about wealth and possessions,” Moore said.

But to truly understand what the Bible says about wealth and possessions, one should delve deeply into what Moore says is the “ideological core” of the Bible – the Pentateuch or the Torah – and compare that text with other “great texts” of the same literary-historical context.

“You have to understand the other literature from the time period. People do it with Homer, but they don’t do it with Isaiah,” Moore said.

And why study what the Bible says about wealth and possessions?

“The fact remains that the ancient Near Eastern library commonly called the Bible is the oldest and most influential contributor to Western economic values,” Moore wrote. “In spite of its Eastern origins (and the West’s ‘moral decay’), nothing else explains why so many people turn to the Bible for socioeconomic help instead of Xenophon’s ‘Oeconomicus,’ Kautilya’s ‘Arthahastra,’ Ibn Sina’s ‘Kitab al-Siyasa’ or Marx’s ‘Das Kapital.’

“Nothing else explains why this sacred text exercises so much influence on so many, regardless of geographic location, ethnic identity, religious belief, and/or socioeconomic status.”

For his study, Moore chose some epic poems from Mesopotamia, some Jewish texts from Syria-Palestine and some Nazarene parables. “Choosing which epic poems, which Jewish texts, and which Nazarene parables will doubtless seem arbitrary to some readers, yet interpretation against some context is preferable to interpretation against no context,” he wrote.

Moore begins by looking at possible definitions for the concept of “wealth.”

Some see wealth as “the spontaneous production of the earth or the result of labor employed in the cultivation of the earth,” he wrote, while others link wealth to money, which has an exchangeable value.

Moore questions whether “wealth means one thing to pre-moderns and something else to post-moderns.” He writes that many people think it does, “though one historian believes that the ancients have no word for our modern concept of economics … though they do have definite ideas about how society should be ordered.”

Today, Moore says, most people will agree that the pursuit of wealth – money, possessions, property and good looks – is paramount in Western cultures.

So if the Bible doesn’t specifically address checking accounts and Visa bills, why should one learn what the ancient Near Eastern texts have to say about wealth and possessions? Because, Moore says, their historical lessons are valuable ones.

Read in its proper context, the Bible champions a simple equation that represents the process and problem of acquiring wealth, Moore concludes: creation = acquisition + protection.

The creation of wealth should equal acquisition of assets and protection of those who need it, such as the poor and ill, but the equation is rarely completed, Moore said. “That’s what’s been lost in, for example, the health/wealth televangelists. That culture believes the more you acquire the more successful you are, and the more spiritually blessed.”

Moore said that the world’s major monotheistic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – each deal with the creation of wealth in a different manner, and he wrote “WealthWatch” because “I couldn’t find a textbook that would lay out the ideas embedded in ancient Near Eastern texts enough to deal effectively with the extremists now abusing them.”

ASU's Origins Project will explore why we fear others

March 8, 2012

Separating the world into “in” groups and “out” groups is a long held trait of humans and other species on Earth. It has evolved along with the life forms that harbor it.

Is the reason for xenophobia a competition for resources? Is it based on deep-seated survival instincts? Is it in our genes? Has the time come to change it? Download Full Image

All of these questions will be addressed by ASU’s Origins Project in two public events that will explore “Xenophobia, why do we fear others?” on March 30 and 31.

“Immigration is a good current example of xenophobia,” said Lawrence Krauss, director of Origins. “Why is it that we, of all societies, fear immigrants like we do today? It has become nearly a daily topic in the news and a political hot point for those who want to be president. Do we need to change this thinking given Earth’s dwindling natural resources and the need to think globally about the sustainability of the planet, and not just consider the health of a society or country?”

To explore this, Origins will host two public events. One will detail the world of ants, where the protection of in groups has graphic and lethal consequences. The second will address broader manifestations of xenophobia and explore whether the time has come to change this behavior. In addition, Science Friday, NPR’s weekly science program, will address xenophobia in a portion of its broadcast on March 30, Krauss said.

Here are details of the two public events:

War and Peace in the World of Ants

6 p.m., March 30, room 191, Life Sciences A wing. Free, non-ticketed.

Pulitzer-Prize winning author and ASU Foundation professor Bert Hoelldobler will explain the world of ants and the parallels between ant and human conflict. This is the dilemma of social evolution – wherever closely integrated societies exist there is discrimination and rejection of foreigners.

The Great Debate: Xenophobia, why do we fear others?

7 p.m., March 31, Gammage Auditorium. This is a ticketed event. Tickets are now on sale, contact Gammage Box Office, (480) 965-3434 or Ticketmaster.

Is our instinct to form "in" groups and "out" groups – such an important part of our evolutionary history – now maladaptive as we face a future increasingly dependent upon cooperation and shared responsibilities toward limited resources?

The panel will discuss the biological and sociological dimensions of xenophobia. The panel includes:

Rebecca Saxe, a revolutionary cognitive neuroscientist from MIT

Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist from Emory University

Freeman Dyson, distinguished theoretical physicist and mathematician from the Institute for Advanced Study

Jeffrey Sachs, a leading international economic advisor and director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University

Charles Blow, a provocative New York Times editorialist

Steven Neuberg, an experimental social psychologist from ASU

Krauss, who will moderate the Great Debate, said it will be the keystone event to a two- and a half-day workshop that will focus on xenophobia on March 30 to April 1. The latest thinking and research on xenophobia will be discussed and explored during the workshops.

Krauss added that the prices for the Great Debate ($4 plus fees for students; $10 plus fees for the public; and $16 plus fees for VIP seating) were drawn up to encourage wide audience participation in this event.

For more information on these events, visit origins.asu.edu, or call 480-965-0053.

Associate Director, Media Relations & Strategic Communications