Thoreau once remarked that the ancients—with their gorgons, unicorns, and sphinxes—imagined more than existed, whereas moderns cannot even imagine so much as exists. I confess that as a child of a reductionist age, I used to explain away biblical talk about supernatural "powers." I would read accounts of demon possession in the Gospels and instead see signs of mental illness or epilepsy. I could not stomach the notion of a world ruled by invisible spirits. I have changed, however, for the simple reason that my reductionist instincts failed to explain the world around me.
I saw one powerful force at work in downtown Chicago, where I attended a church full of diversity. Homeless people would sit on the pews next to M.B.A.s from Northwestern and the University of Chicago. Some of the M.B.A.s attended a class I taught, and I knew them as reserved, sophisticated seekers after truth. Yet during the week, from a visitors' balcony above the Chicago Board of Trade, I could watch these mild-mannered friends run around the floor, waving their arms in the air and screaming at the top of their lungs. They would later explain to me that the price of futures in pork bellies had been fluctuating wildly, and they were acting like madmen in order to lock in speculative shares of the price of hog innards for their clients. Money exerts a most potent force on human behavior.
When Jesus encountered this same force, which drove people to build beautiful palaces on the shores of the Sea of Galilee while some in Palestine lived as slaves, he recognized it as a spiritual power and gave it the name of the god Mammon.1
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Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Today and cochair of the editorial board for Books and Culture. Yancey's most recent book is What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters. His other books include Prayer (2006), Rumors of Another World (2003), Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), The Bible Jesus Read (1999), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1998), The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Where is God When It Hurts (1990), and many others. His Christianity Today column ran from 1985 to 2009.
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