Of God and modern mammon

Janet Somerville's official title is general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. But her real calling, she says, is to be a "praise singer" - like one of those people in African societies whose role it is to celebrate the achievements of others.

For instance, she sings the praises of a friend of hers, who, as the principal of a Catholic high school with students of many faith traditions in Georgetown, Guyana, managed to draw on them all to teach them "how to make a better country" - and to find a way to cultivate an ethic of concern for the common good.

Janet Somerville is passionate on the need to resist "the reign of mammon," as she calls it. At a recent conference at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, entitled "Faith and Public Life," she spoke eloquently of the need to "imagine alternatives" to the television culture. She followed up her comments in a Monitor interview at her office in Toronto.

"Is mammon new - or just worse than it used to be?" she was asked.

"Mammon is very, very old. Mammon was old when Jesus said, 'You cannot serve both God and mammon,' " she said.

But she said she sees mammon - material wealth worshiped as an end in itself - gaining new ground during the period of post-World War II prosperity.

"I think that for most of the history of Christianity in the Western world, the false god that kept people from living the relevation - you know, the Gospel - was actually Mars.... We made all these mental arrangements to allow for empire and for the kind of dominance that you achieve by empire. From the beginning, the Bible has been saying that you can't have empire and be entering the reign of God. It's been saying that ever since the Exodus.... It's all part of that very difficult message that empire is not the right framework for the human family. Empire is not the way for us to offer solutions that are godly solutions."

Two world wars in this century have pretty widely discredited the idea of "the nobility of sending off your sons to die in wars for the empire," as she put it.

"But the new false solution is a global economy where the market rules. You're now allowed to disagree quite vehemently with Mars, but you're not allowed to disagree with mammon.... That's really the bottom line."

It has been in this postwar period that television arose - and in North America, that meant television supported by advertising. It might have been different, she suggested, if television had developed under a different economic model - pay-per-view, like the movies, or even as a public utility, like roads, funded through taxes.

"By the time TV came on the scene, the real power of the land was private capital." The decision to have television programming supported by commercial advertising meant ubiquitous advertising - "advertising in our home, our living room, our bedroom," Ms. Somerville said - and has meant that the public agenda over the years has been debated within "the rhetorical framework set and limited by television."

Somerville, formerly associate editor at Catholic New Times and a producer of the CBC Radio program "Ideas," acknowledged at this point the influence of media analyst Marshall McLuhan, with whom she studied at the University of Toronto. "He got me thinking of the ubiquity of television."

Television itself is not, she also acknowledged, the whole problem with materialism in society. Television is "the symbol of the problem - the handmaiden of the problem, the one that's closest to us - right next to our imagination."

The word "imagination" in all its forms is often on Somerville's lips. It's a quality she clearly sees as key in helping people resist materialism.

Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, she was used to any number of authority figures being under a vow of poverty - the head of the Toronto hospital in which she was born, for instance. "Nowadays, hospital CEOs make huge amounts of money," she observed. But having that other model "really makes a huge difference in imagining alternatives."

In Somerville's book, imagination is clearly linked to transcendence, which she defines as "a unique human capacity for a persona to understand that what is in front of you is not all there is." She went on, "That's not just a Christian thing or a Jewish thing - it's a spiritual thing, but it's not vague. It's accessible to us because we're human, not because we've been given the gift of a particular faith.

"I learned about the freedom and greatness of the human soul not by studying Aristotle and Descartes," she said. "I learned it by learning to sing Gregorian chants." Not just in church, either, but at home, too, she explained, adding, "Did I ever grow up in a churchy family!"

Faith is learned by "watching your parents believe and the other people in your world - you can watch it in any great faith tradition."

If this process of watching faith in action is under fire, she said, it's because TV is just much more intrusive than your grandmother.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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