Volume 11.3 – Book Review: Through the eye of a needle


Reviewed by Eve Poole

Stop reading this and go and buy the book! If you’re still here, perhaps you need some persuading. First, there are few better collections of essays on this topic available. Second, John Atherton and Hannah Skinner have convened a powerful group of commentators to produce this book.

Its starting-point was the publication in 2005 of Prosperity with a Purpose (see my review in FiBQ 9:3). The twelve contributors met residentially at St Michael’s College Llandaff to address the following question: “what for your religious tradition or perspective are the defining principles and ideas for the contours of a twentyfirst century ethical political economy?” The contributors, multi-denominational and including a Muslim, together articulated their responses to produce this volume, which contains a masterly concluding synthesis by Atherton.

The book opens with a powerful essay by Skinner in which she recalls the biblical imperatives about the processes of injustice and marginalisation, and concludes that Christians have no alternative but to engage with them. These imperatives arise from our status as fallen beings who are however created in the image of God and valued equally by him. We have a special responsibility towards the vulnerable as part of the prefiguring of the coming Kingdom. Such convictions allow Christians to make a distinctive contribution to political economy through the vision of shalom, as distinct from ‘prosperity without a purpose.’

Patrick Riordan examines the difference between a ‘taking’ or a ‘trading’ mindset. Noting that a ‘taking’ mindset favours a selfish and defensive attitude, he examines the way we have accepted this model of economic behaviour, such that the selfbenefiting consumer is seen as a truism. Instead, Riordan marvels at the public good inherent in the market mechanism, which enables strangers to deal in the main peaceably, reliably and efficiently with each other on a massive scale. He draws on Aquinas to elucidate its particular virtue.

Malcolm Brown describes the predicament of Christian social ethics in a post-modern context:
confessionalism is seen to be inappropriately coercive; liberalism is in his view too dependent on Enlightenment thinking to be able adequately to critique a system with which it shares so many assumptions. His solution is to focus on dialogue, or the process, rather than the content of the Church’s engagement with economics. For Brown, suitable dialogue partners would be committed to objective truth as well as to the possibility of new knowledge, and to seeking improvement in the world’s affairs.

Ian Steedman seeks to clear up several common misunderstandings about micro-economic theory in order to improve the quality of the critical debate. His hit-list includes the assumption of consumer selfishness, the zero-sum fallacy, free trade as a myth, and the opposite of monopoly being competition, not co-operation. He argues that to recognise the place of material incentives does not necessarily imply that people are only and completely motivated by materialism. He also discusses the role of the economy in addressing environmental issues. Central to Atherton’s chapter is the paradox of prosperity. Drawing on the work of Richard Layard, he notes that, above certain levels of…

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