How Much is Enough?

Arthur Simon. How Much Is Enough?: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture

(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003)

"All these stewardship books are the same," I grumbled through the first several chapters of How Much Is Enough?: Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture. First, the diagnosis is announced and amply illustrated: we (first-worlders, contemporary Americans, wealthy Christians) are rich, bored, exhausted, self-involved, and willfully ignorant of the plight of our poor neighbors. Then, the prescription: personal stewardship of our wealth, the opening of our clenched fists to let go our material possessions so that we may have room to receive the spiritual blessings of God’s grace. It’s all true, and it needs to be said, but it’s been done, and this book was no different—at least, at first.

To make matters worse, the author conceded at the beginning that he would not try to build a sustained argument. Several short reflections on a theme comprise each chapter, and while they can be read together, he suggests letting each stand alone as fodder for daily prayer and meditation. My own strong preference for a rigorous analysis kept me from enjoying the reflective style—at least, at first.

About halfway through, I began to understand why the likes of Walter Brueggemann, Marva Dawn, Richard John Neuhaus, and William Sloan Coffin had contributed blurbs of praise for Simon’s book. For one thing, Simon is only partly interested in the stewardship of personal finance. He has given a great deal of thought to the stewardship of other things: of power, for example. In a meditation called "The Pretense of Weakness," he names the sin of "pretend[ing] to be powerless – to have power at our disposal and fail to use it when the well-being of others is at stake" (95). He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr to reinforce his point, and recalls the condemnation of the timid steward who buried his master’s talent in Matthew 25. This is a pattern in Simon’s writing: the choice of an unexpected topic, a surprising perspective on it, with ample support from scripture and extra-biblical sources.

And while most "stewardship books" are interested in the microeconomics of my personal lifestyle and bank account, Simon spends a great deal of energy challenging our collective assumptions about macroeconomics. Capitalism is a good system that has produced countless innovations for the improvement of human lives, he says in the chapter called "Faces of Affluence." But he is not afraid to name the "grave defects" of the free enterprise system. It "stimulates and thrives on human desire to possess more…It is good at generating wealth, not so good at spreading it around" (104). Some readers might turn him off when his diagnostic work goes beyond the personal into the political realm, but his humility in admitting the complexities of making good economic choices for one’s life of discipleship keep him from sounding like a partisan know-it-all.

Finally, that’s what I enjoyed most about this book: a sense that Arthur Simon has lived a long life in humble service to the kingdom, himself a conscientious steward of God’s gifts and graces. He is the founder and president emeritus of Bread for the World, an organization that channels Christian compassion into policy-making power. He remains somewhat "behind the scenes" in his own book, coming to the forefront only occasionally to share something he learned from someone else, or from his own mistakes. It is a pleasure, through reading this book, to overhear his ruminations on wealth, poverty, stewardship, and the abundance of God’s gifts. Simon knows that we already know the intellectual argument for good stewardship, so there’s no need to rewrite that book. What is called for is a conversion of the heart, a whole new way of seeing God’s world and my place in it. That’s what he has to offer, and that’s what this book delivers.

Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Katie Hays
Minister of Northwest Christian Church, Arlington, Texas