The Myth of the American Dream

The Myth of the American Dream Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, And Power These Are The Central Values Of The American Dream But Are They Actually Compatible With Jesus Command To Love Our Neighbor As Ourselves In Essays Grouped Around These Four Values, D L Mayfield Asks Us To Pay Attention To The Ways They Shape Our Own Choices, And The Ways Those Choices Affect Our Neighbors Where Did These Values Come From How Have They Failed Those On The Edges Of Our Society And How Can We Disentangle Ourselves From Our Culture S Headlong Pursuit Of These Values And Live Faithful Lives Of Service To God And Our Neighbors I picked up this book expecting to hear about the dangers of allowing American cultural values to draw Christians focus away from the gospel and onto worldly controversies and concerns Instead, this book is about how Christians need to focus on worldly concerns.After another look at the title and blurb, I m not sure why I thought this was going to be a Christian book, except that I got it from the religion section on NetGalley I suppose it is, technically, a Christian book, in that it is engaged in a brutal wrestling match with the author s religious upbringing and self image, mentions the Holy Spirit quite a bit, and does use Biblical stories as metaphors However, I would say that it s of a spiritual book rather than a Christian one Though certainly very present among Christian communities, the cultural values with which Mayfield is fighting a battle to the death several of them mentioned in the book title will be familiar to any American of almost any background Her clarion call to lift up the weak, work alongside the marginalized, and weep with the oppressed is religiously indiscriminate, and a widely recognized moral value among people who don t believe in any higher power at all Her convictions are outwardly draped in the robes of Jesus, but activists of all stripes should be able to nod along with her zeal to dismantle power structures and radically engage with privilege If you can t tell, I m deeply divided on how to rate this book On the one hand, Jesus didn t come to offer salvation to mankind, actually Apparently, he came to change earthly economics to be fair I don t want to simplify or distort Mayfield s argument in order to create a straw man to criticize, because it is far complex than what I just said But After reading the book I think I can confidently state that she genuinely feels that the central message of Jesus and the Bible in general is that God wants all of us to fix as many earthly problems for as much of humanity as we possibly can Here is a quote What we want is the imagination to believe in heaven coming down to earth, in God s will being done to our neighbors, to shalom being experienced by those who have and are suffering the most And this will not happen until we change the systems that actually created and uphold the way the United States works, the way America actually is, and until we own it as our own Here is another I will never be happy until every single person in the world is safe, happy, and flourishing I was both pleased and miserable at my core longing I was pleased because it spoke to a spark of the divine in me because I do believe that this is God s dream for the world I think this is what shalom is, what the Kingdom of God makes possible But I was also miserable because until the kingdom comes in full, until we are in the new creation, this isn t a reality I am not sure what kind of pre or post Millennial theology Mayfield ascribes to, but it is clear that she believes in some kind of new creation where Jesus reigns on a physical earth renewed and restored to pre Fall perfected bliss However, she also seems convicted that true morality for a Christian or anyone is singlehandedly prying the fatally flawed and explicitly doomed earth back into pre Fall bliss through sheer elbow grease, force of will, and moral anguish.There seems to be a great tension in her heart, and two magnetic poles between which she wobbles in agony She sees and acknowledges her own savior complex, her own perfectionism, control issues, and struggle with a works based mentality in the book, yet she still seems trapped by them She sees her constant sadness and outrage at the unjust state of the world as a virtue, and happiness as a failure, a sign of apathy and moral weakness Yet she also talks about learning to take joy in every small moment from her multicultural refugee friends, and acknowledges that sorrow is only helpful when you come to the other side of the psalm and reaffirm hope in God s love and goodness.While Jesus is mentioned a lot in this book, Mayfield recounts a memory of a vision dream she had while drugged up in the hospital after almost dying she feasted in heaven around a table with Rohingya refugees and heard a voice implied to be that of God saying, In heaven, you will feast with those who have suffered the most on earth This message, in some ways, is directly from the Bible In the sermon on the mount In the first chapter of James In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus In 1 Corinthians 1, where Paul says, For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God Mayfield sees this with crystal clarity However, the entire chapter before the part I quoted shows that Paul is talking not about the virtue of being poor, but the virtue of being humble enough to accept the message of Christ crucified when all the highly esteemed parts of the world we live in see it as foolishness Where is Jesus in Mayfield s vision She mentions his name a lot, but where is He To her, salvation seems to come not through Jesus, but through the moral righteousness of being poor, being oppressed, and being sad All those looking for a messiah in the time of Jesus were also looking for him to dismantle oppressive hierarchies, and they were mistaken.Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life No one comes to the Father but through me. He said, My kingdom is not of this world. I can t affirm the soundness in any perspective that doesn t put Jesus at the center of salvation, of life, of everything we do However, I said I was conflicted On the OTHER hand, Mayfield makes a whole lot of very important and convicting points that I think a lot of the American Christian establishment could benefit from taking a long, hard look at Here is a sampling The American virtue of autonomy This is one that doesn t occur to me as often as some of the others, but was instantly convicting I know that generally Western and especially American culture puts a lot of space between people From how far away we stand when talking to people, to how far away our houses are from each other, to how close our family units tend to be, ours is a culture of individual over the group I grew up knowing the names of one or two of my neighbors at the most and seeing them maybe once every five years during odd situations this seems normal to me, but the majority of people in the world don t live this way Almost all non Western people, the vast majority of world population, live in communities where neighbors know each other, where different generations of families live in the same house, where your business is everyone s business and everyone s is yours As someone who loves to use the self checkout at the grocery store to avoid human interaction as much as possible, this sounds borderline terrifying, but this is the kind of culture to which Jesus came These are the kind of cultures to which the gospel was first preached Christians know we are ambassadors for Christ s message, but what does it say that one of the anecdotes about sharing Christ that I most commonly hear is about a 3 minute passing conversation with a grocery clerk We are not to be of the world, but how can we share Christ if we are not in the world Withdrawing further and further from close community relationships can only hurt our ability to show God s love to the world, and about that Mayfield is absolutely right America as Rome There is nothing in Scripture, nothing in Jesus, that says my proud and terrible and interesting country is particularly blessed, has some special favor, has some special reason for existence, Mayfield says Most of us have probably run into a sermon or a curriculum in which the United States is presented as the modern Israel, the Chosen Nation of the Christian era Mayfield argues that, instead, the US is like Rome or Babylon the powerful empire of the era, casting a shadow of spiritual error and physical suffering in which the people of God must live We were founded as a Christian nation so many people say There s probably some sense in which that is true, but it doesn t matter for any one of us individually Be sure that it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham Gal 3 7 The new Israel is those of all nations who follow God, not those who were born within a specific political boundary drawn on a map Generosity As a dyed in the wool skinflint from day one, this is a hard one for me, but I think this is one of the best and strongest points included in this book Mayfield talks about how we as a culture pursue affluence, and even positive practices widely encouraged like living within our means, investing wisely, and good financial management can be spiritually destructive if we start relying on ourselves and thinking we are in control She talks about a time when she didn t give to a panhandler, saying, If I was listening to the Spirit I would have given believing that I had a role in providing for others just as I trusted that my own needs would be provided for That kind of mindset, exemplified by Mayfield s stories of her refugee friends who think nothing of giving even when they have little, like the widow with her mite or the church in Macedonia, is utterly alien to me I have plenty, and still shudder at the thought of giving any away just in case the worst happens and I need it later As a Christian, that s not how I should think Consider the lilies of the field, after all But I don t I like to rely on myself, and only rely on God when I have no other recourse A completely backwards relationship I have rarely heard a sermon on the Rich Young Ruler that didn t spend half its time disclaiming that being rich is okay, God never says being rich is wrong, as long as your priorities are right That s not at all anywhere near the point of the encounter, and I think it speaks to a tendency to hoard that is shared by than myself Christians are told to labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need I think this is something we don t talk about enough, and that I needed to hear Worldly success as the reward of virtue, and worldly struggles as a punishment for some moral failure Even those who speak with contempt of the prosperity gospel can get tricked into holding this assumption, because it is one of the base elements of American culture and almost impossible to escape We are told that if you work hard, you will succeed Therefore, what are we to think about people who don t succeed Well, they must not have worked hard It s a simple, intuitive arithmetic that s reinforced by much of our culture Especially upper middle class white culture And it leaves out half the story, while completely ignoring what the Bible says For some, the good news of the American Dream feels like bad news, says Mayfield I live in neighborhoods where I see the evidence of it everywhere payday loan companies and fast food joints abound, but there are no green parks or community centers or apartments that are affordable I think she makes a powerful point using good news and American Dream in the same sentence like that, because they are not at all the same, and we make a grave mistake with possibly far reaching consequences when we conflate them God does not promise that wealth follows righteousness, so judging those who don t achieve it as if they somehow proved unworthy should sound ridiculous to any Christian American evangelical paranoia with losing the culture war Mayfield says that white Evangelicals who panic at the thought of becoming a minority in their own country are thinking empire thoughts The Church is meant to be a remnant, a people set apart, wanderers in a land not our own Not an empire I think the point she makes about those in power fearing to lose it is a poignant one, and for Christians a dangerous one, since the last shall be first and the first shall be last If our peace of mind comes from our position of cultural dominance and can be shaken so easily, we can hardly be trusting in God. this is what we should fear what our own desperate desire for safety might end up doing to those who are beloved in the eyes of God If you are a white North American, you ll find much of this book relatable and probably discomfiting at times Mayfield writes a critique of commonly accepted American values, and observes the ways that these values exclude and oppress, the way that the American dream is actually a burden built upon the bodies of people who are invisible to us, people who we have overlooked or ignored This critique is timely, full of challenging questions, and hinges on hope that God loves the world and is propelling us all into a community that is spacious and tender than any American dream thanks to Netgalley and IVP for this ARC of this book D L Mayfield is a writer and teaches English to immigrants, mostly refugees, in Portland, Oregon She grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian family and was homeschooled Although still a Christian, she has rejected her former background and would now consider herself a left wing progressivist Christian In my opinion this book trashes American history and culture Capitalism is bad, all whites are privileged and should make up for the sins of our ancestors One quote stands out to me If you had asked me what Jesus came to do, growing up the daughter of a pastor I would have said he came to die and pay the price for the sins of those who believe in him A few years ago I realized something that is not actually how Jesus defined his own life and work Umm, excuse me, that is the purpose for Jesus life and death He and his early followers were not protestors intent on overthrowing the Roman government I agree with Mayfield that our American ancestors were not perfect Wiping out native Americans, slavery and denying women their rights was wrong Many of our American ancestors, even the Christian ones, were blind to their own sins I do not think we should discount the good aspects of American history, though As Christians of course we should do everything we can to help the disadvantaged around us The progressivist solutions of open borders and socialism are not the ways to make up for the sins of our forefathers Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, from my state of South Carolina, are examples of conservative minorities working to improve our government, not throw it out Mayfield does a good job of pointing out the faults of America past and present Her best chapter is the appendix where she discusses a munger of people helping to improve the lives of those around them A writer who does a better job of sharing how to live as a Christian in America is Shannan Martin in her books The Ministry of Ordinary Places and Falling Free If you want to feel bad about America and yourself as a Christian, read this book I received a complementary copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This is such an important book It graciously and kindly tackles incredibly hard things, while not glossing over anything I cannot possibly recommend this I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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  • Hardcover
  • 192 pages
  • The Myth of the American Dream
  • D.L. Mayfield
  • 10 November 2017
  • 9780830845989