Today A Life Overseas welcomes Jody Fernando as a guest poster. Today Jody writes an insightful post on the ‘good life’ and the Christian message and it’s guaranteed to generate some good conversation. You can read more about Jody at the end.
A deep bass beat rippled through the darkness of the dance club. Strobe lights flashed outlines of bodies, some clinging, some flailing, some just sitting and staring. A newly arrived English teacher to Burkina Faso,West Africa, this wasn’t exactly the way I had anticipated learning about a new culture. However, my new West African friends had mistakenly assumed that because I was American, this would be the scene in which I felt most comfortable. I am neither a clubber by personality nor a dancer by ability.
I ordered a Coke and did my best to play wallflower – not an easy task for one of two nasaras (white people) in the room. Pondering the scene, I realized ironically that I was the only person in the room not donning the “American” uniform of jeans and T-shirts. As the beat shook the walls, we abandoned our attempt at conversation and coolly turned our attention to the crowd, all the while Solomon’s warning about chasing the wind thundering through my head (Ecclesiastes 1 & 2).
With tight Levi’s, smooth moves, and Coke bottles, the clubbers of the night chased their imagined version of what they dreamt the abundance of the West must be like. I recognized it as the unspoken ‘American Dream’ – the relentless pursuit of riches for oneself, comfort, materialism, image obsession and endless entertainment.
In class, my Burkinabé students echoed similar assumptions, believing that American streets were literally paved with gold. Consequently, it wasn’t difficult to understand why a ticket to America was their dream come true (especially since most of the roads in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city, were not paved at all). This mentality recurred throughout Ouagadougou – American flags on T-Shirts, pictures of American movie stars on billboards, or American rock classic playing in restaurants.
As I grew to love the warmth of African hospitality and graciousness, I also grew increasingly fearful that such cultural strengths would be blown away by the very winds they were chasing.
“This isn’t what you want,” I challenged my students one day as we discussed the opulence of American culture, “I know it appears enticing, especially in comparison to the poverty, hunger, and injustice people here face on a daily basis. But what I see being chased – the pride of “image”, the greed of materialism, the selfishness of “independence” – is a façade. It won’t get you any further than where you are now. Financial poverty in America is limited, but spiritual poverty is widespread. Not many go hungry for food, but droves starve for love, recognition, and success. The injustice to our own is not as blatant as what many countries see in their leaders, but there are still many left unfairly forgotten, neglected.”
Living in America, I know full well the great gifts offered by my homeland. Yet both Americans and the world alike need be cautious to mistake the American Dream for an authentically good life. The good life in America is not, as many movies broadcast, a big house, flashy car, and fat paycheck. It’s not even a trip to Disney World or luxurious day at the spa. In contrast, it lies in the richness of relationships, the depth of meaningful callings, careers, and passions, and the sweetness of community known throughout the whole world wide. While it may take on a different flavor, sing in another key, or follow different rules, the good life knows no national boundaries.
Complicating matters even further, because the world so often views America as a Christian nation, it can be easy for those from other countries to assume that this materialistic, indulgent version of a ‘good life’ is also tied to Christianity as well. This association hurts the gospel we carry forward, and leaves many with a broken interpretation of what it truly offers.
Like some of my West African friends, many Americans waste valuable time chasing the wind. Sadly, we are not alone in our misguided pursuits. The realities of globalization necessitate the world-at-large to exercise greater caution, discernment, and wisdom in embracing which aspects of our worlds we export to each other. For Americans, surrounded by such abundance, the line between needs and wants becomes indistinguishable at times. Yet an authentic life, one that chases more than just the wind, works hard to flesh this distinction out. Both in America and across the globe, may the faithful not confuse the flashiness of the American dream with the rich blessings of a life well lived.
What does a ‘good life’ look like where you live? What are effective ways to help people around the world separate the notions of the abundance of America/the West from the message of the Christian faith?
About the author: Jody Fernando does a lot of living between worlds. A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean. Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents. She explores the ins and outs of intercultural living on her blog Between Worlds, helps amazingly resilient immigrants learn to speak English, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry