In my most recent Her.meneutics post—on the biblical dimensions of frugal living—I took issue with Atlantic "econoblogger" Megan McArdle's New York Times review of Lauren Weber's In CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue. I didn't care for the fact that McArdle detached evangelical finance guru Dave Ramsey's advice from its biblical source when advocating his frugal living principles over Weber's more ascetic values. Now McArdle has written a profile of Ramsey in the December issue of The Atlantic. She once again makes it clear that she appreciates Ramsey's principles, but not so much his Jesus.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey noted at GetReligion that McArdle oddly compares Ramsey with a televangelist. A more substantive problem is that Ramsey's "give 10 percent, save 15, get out of debt" advice sounds like it was lifted from the late Larry Burkett, whose Crown Financial Ministries rates a passing mention.
For those of us who came of age on the late 20th-century evangelical block, Burkett was John the Baptist compared to McArdle's televangelist. His now-classic Your Finances in Changing Times was first published in 1975. And who can forget his 1991 tour de force, The Coming Economic Earthquake—a book whose veracity was diminished, in my mind, by Burkett's Y2K hysteria. Of this misstep, World magazine editor Joel Belz wrote last year: "It is appropriate—and maybe even necessary—to acknowledge that a prophet may have missed a relatively minor point or two just to enhance the essential nature of that person's central message."
In addition to Mennonite influences that I mentioned in my previous post, Burkett's earlier work shaped my family's budgetary habits. We are not alone. According to the ministry's website, "Crown has taught or equipped more than 50 million people in over 80 nations with the life-transforming message of faithfully living by God's financial principles in every area of their lives."
McArdle wrote that she paid $220 to hear Ramsey dole out financial advice for five hours when she could have bought one of his or Burkett's books for less than $20. I'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone I'd pay $220 to get their advice, unless that person was poring over my problems and providing individual counsel in his or her office.
Ramsey's personal testimony of financial ruin and redemption took him 90 minutes to tell the day McArdle heard him. It's a testimony of building and losing a multimillion-dollar real-estate empire, bankruptcy, and dramatic financial conversion after reading in Proverbs 22:7 that "the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender."
He has apparently rebuilt both his wealth and his empire selling simple biblical principles to a new generation of debt-ridden consumers. Perhaps this is where the slick televangelist comparison comes in. It's also what I resist about the Christian self-help industry in general: the funky mix of spiritualized edu-tainment and guru-making entrepreneurship. Just look at the product stores on both Ramsey's and Crown's websites, and ask yourself if there isn't something immoral about marketing such a plethora of products to financially strapped consumers.
McArdle makes light of her televangelist's gospel message, I think, because the context is all wrong. There may come a time, however, when her new-found, Ramsey-inspired frugality proves insufficient for the unforeseen downturns of life. Then she may find herself considering Ramsey's Jesus. After all, it was he who famously turned the tables on the entrepreneurial gurus of his time.