Saturday, February 21, 2009

Forever In Your Debt

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
by Margaret Atwood

Payback is a timely read right now, as our entire nation (and, by extension, the world) faces the consequences of out of control debt. Margaret Atwood presents a series of reflections on the concept of debt, including the theological entwining of debt and sin (not to mention in some cases their synonymous nature), debt as an arbiter of human relationships, debt's first cousin revenge (and its extreme form of vengeance and bloodshed) and debt as a literary plot device. Atwood makes a good case (made even stronger by what we are living through now) that the ones who pay the highest price for our collective debt are the most vulnerable in society. She believes that debt is a cultural construct, developed and nuanced from the beginning of civilization, without which society could not function. In other words, we are in debt to debt. It is the engine that powers all the other engines of communal, national, and planetary life.

Atwood makes some good arguments, and Payback is an interesting read because she examines debt from so many different angles. I do not believe, however, that this is the place to experience Atwood's talents as a writer. She has written tons of novels, one of the most famous being The Handmaid's Tale. I have read several of her works of fiction, although not recently, and remember the writing as far better than this. One of the problems is that the separate chapters of Payback were originally written as lectures for a series she did. The book has the feel of someone looking over her lecture notes after the series and thinking "This could be a book." Seems like she bound up her lecture notes without a whole lot of effort at editing them to make them seem more appropriate in the book format. Lectures are different. She certainly did not hide the fact that they had been lectures originally, and I appreciate the fact that publishing the book made her ideas available to a wider circle. However, the summations and recaps that we do in lectures (or sometimes sermons) made the book feel repetitive and hackneyed in some spots.

One of the book's strengths is that Atwood examines debt without the judgemental, punitive tone that so many others associate with debt. ("Why aren't those people more disciplined?"). She points out that many industries make their money from other people's debt and would not exist without it. Instead of pointing fingers at people who cannot pay their rent or utility bills, she calls us to examine the system as a whole - the voluminous debt that we are accumulating as a country and how the wealth of a few is multiplied by the debt of the many. She also examines the huge bill from the planet and the atmosphere that is going to come due in our lifetimes, although her take on the character of Ebenezer Scrooge from an environmental perspective feels a bit forced.

Debt is here to stay. Most of us could not own our own homes without the concepts of borrowing and lending. It is not always a bad thing. A cornerstone of Christian theology is our claim that Christ came to pay a debt that was beyond our capacity to repay, for which we who have placed our faith in him are thankful. Whether she intended it or not, Atwood's book serves as a reminder to Christians (and perhaps all people of faith) that one way we can pay a portion of the debt we owe to God for creating us and Jesus for redeeming us is to do what we can to at least make the debt relationships in our world just and fair. For this well-timed and gentle push, we are in Margaret Atwood's debt.

Reverent Reader


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