I was prompted to write this after a whole week of hearing the phrase – “The American Dream”. As we lead up to the presidential election of 2012, I expect to continue to hear it alot more. What is it? Well, according to a background essay from the Library of Congress it has taken on multiple meanings over time, but the phrase was coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book – “The Epic of America“.
“the American dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” (p.214-215) 
On Wikipedia it’s defined as…
“The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States; a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.” 
However, within the context of politics and modern day American life it basically means the “human right”- to pursue material wealth, to pursue upward mobility, and to advance socially. I believe that it’s true within the political realm because the typical testimony given before mentioning the magical phrase always goes something like this…. “My dad migrated to this great country when he was 17 from the slums of a 3rd world country with only $5 dollars to his name. He worked in sweatshops and factories in extremely dangerous conditions just to provide for our family. He never received a higher education, but because of his hard work and sacrifice I’m now successful and have achieved what I only could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Only in America could this great dream have been realized.”
I don’t know the history behind how or why the American Dream became an extension of American Christianity, but I do recognize how it has become a barometer for the health of the country and at times the church. When things are going well economically, then it’s implied that we are blessed by God, because people are able to pursue our “dreams”. When things aren’t going well it’s assumed that America is dead in it’s sinful behavior. That we’re not doing enough or what it takes to pursue the dream with the greatest zeal possible.
The problem with this idea is not prosperity itself, but that the means become the end. Instead of pursuing the savior first and foremost people end up inevitably pursuing all of the “things” that the savior can get them:
Matthew 6 –
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
The Rich and the Kingdom of God
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[e] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Because the American Dream has now seeped into the very foundation of our lifestyle, and church teachings it’s become status quo to accept an Easy-button version of the gospel. We’ve made it easy on ourselves by mentally skipping over scripture that’s inconvenient or by ignoring it in the name of – “Well, this doesn’t apply to us or me.” I think that I can honestly say that in my mind I’ve never struggled with rejecting the tougher scriptures or making up reasons for why they don’t apply to me. If anything, it’s the practical implications of what real sacrifice may look like, the discomfort it could cause to myself or others, and maybe the hesitation to try and make something happen by my own might instead of waiting on the right opportunity that the Lord has for me, or the fear of what people will think or say about me – including family. I doubt I’m alone in feeling this way. I had a conversation more recently with a non-Christian person at work about the often unspoken of, but real pressure that comes from conforming to social groups. I believe that people often hold strong opinions that deviate from their closest or most immediate social network, but are often scared to deviate from the norm due to the fear of being ostracized by their peers. In much the same way, I’m sure the rich young ruler had similar thoughts as he walked away from Jesus. “If I gave away everything that I owned to just follow Jesus, how could I explain this to my father and my brothers?” They will tell me that I have lost my mind, and that I should have thought about my retirement years before making an irrational decision.” LOL. That’s tough!
A sermon series that I recently discovered by Pastor David Platt is really challenging me in this area right now. It’s a series that he taught on years back based on his book titled “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream”. It’s an eight part series and I’m not even through with it yet, but thought I would share. I will give you fair warning before you start the series though. It’s very convicting, so listen at your own risk 😉 One other note, if you have a penchant for the easy-button gospel or “prefer living the life of a King’s Kid”, then your first reaction to the message will be that Platt is being “religious”. As a matter of fact, if you listen to many of Platt’s sermons you might feel that way. However, I would say that although it could turn into a religious and works based effort that it’s not. Platt just tends to go places in the bible that people often avoid, because it’s far too inconvenient to the flesh. And the natural, and first reaction to rejecting tough biblical truths is often to dismiss them as religious or legal.
One thing I can say thus far (while listening to the sermon series) is that I’ve felt compelled to consider more closely how I honor God in my finances and my budget overall. We really could be doing much more with what we’ve been given. Let me know your thoughts. This could be a great subject for group discussions.
Here’s a promo video for the sermon series:
Here’s the link to the full sermon series:
Here’s a link to an interview that he did for the book on the Christian Post:http://www.christianpost.com/news/interviewdavid-platt-on-the-american-dream-radical-christianity-45161/
- ^ a b Library of Congress. American Memory. “What is the American Dream?”, lesson plan.