Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
When I was first exploring Christianity, one weekend I found myself smack in the middle of the wealthiest part of town. Some family members had arranged for my husband and I to spend a weekend at a resort as a special gift for our anniversary, and it provided us with a rare opportunity to relax for a couple of days.
I spent a lot of time reading my new Bible (the first I’d ever owned) next to the picture window, which revealed a breathtaking view of the lush hills of west Austin. The landscape was dotted with million-dollar houses, each of which looked like something from the cover of Architectural Digest. And every time I saw one of those houses, the Gospel message fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but think, What a waste of money! Sheesh, they could have built 10 Third World orphanages if they’d even settled for a house that was 5,000 square feet instead of 10,000! (The Gospel message that was fresh in my mind being more of the Matthew 19:24 variety than the Luke 6:37 type.)
Now, I’m no socialist. From a purely economic perspective, I think the rich should be able to do what they want with their money. But from a religious perspective, I’ve always had a certain sympathy for the argument that Christians should not live super-luxurious lifestyles. Obviously there are no hard-and-fast rules here, and it’s a complicated subject since what one man considers a luxury, another considers a necessity (e.g. even Americans living barely above the poverty line are “rich” by the standards of some parts of the world). On an intellectual level, I even thought that the folks who said that there’s nothing wrong with a Christian owning a mansion were probably right. But there was always that voice in the back of my mind that said, But think of what else they could have done with the money!
I remained conflicted about the subject until a few months ago, when I attended a Catholic event at a very fancy house; in fact, its location was just a few miles from the hilltop palaces I’d once seen from that hotel window.
The event came at a time when our family budget was particularly tight: There had been a lot of PBJ’s and rice and beans on the dinner menu lately; the mysterious patterns and textures on the carpet would have to remain until we could afford professional cleaning; and both the inside and outside walls desperately needed a fresh coat of paint. So when I walked through the oak doors of this grand home, the sensual feast before me was a lovely contrast to my normal life. The tile floors gleamed, the designer couch looked as comfortable as it was clean. There were no strange smells, and through the back doors was an awe-inspiring view that stretched from the hill country all the way to the buildings downtown, which stood like glimmering dots at the edge of the horizon. And the food! The hosts hired a caterer to fill the tables with succulent meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, imported cheeses, and a wide variety of bite-sized desserts.
I think it was somewhere between the shrimp tray and the stuffed mushrooms that I came to a new understanding of Christianity and luxury. When someone is willing to use his means to let others experience the best of the created world, he can bless people in a way that those of us with less money can’t. And, though it might not be as noble as Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta, that’s a way of glorifying God too.
Deal Hudson once made a similar point when he addressed the question of why the Vatican doesn’t sell its extensive art collection and give all the money to the poor. He pointed out:
It goes back to a belief in the Church’s mission (one of many) as a civilizing force in the world. Just like the medieval monks who carefully transcribed ancient texts so they would be available to future generations—texts that otherwise would have been lost forever—the Church continues to care for the arts so they will not be forgotten over time. In today’s culture of death where the term “civilization” can only be used loosely, the Church’s civilizing mission is as important today as it ever was.
That’s the perspective I was missing with my sympathy to the “Christians should never live luxurious lifestyles” arguments. Yes, a big part of the Christian life is to assist those who are in dire need, and hopefully people with lots of money do that too. But to say that every single extra penny a person has should go to charitable causes is to forget the place in the Christian life for beauty and enjoyment of the material world; after all, we’re Catholics, not Puritans. I know that I can speak for a lot of people at that event when I say that I walked away refreshed and inspired after the afternoon of luxury at our generous hosts’ home. I had new energy to tackle the duties of my vocation and serve God after having had such a pleasurable day. And so while I still respect and admire people who live modestly so that they can give all their excess wealth away to others, I’ve come to think that God can use a few Christians with mansions too.