In a strange way, reading about the Tower of Babel reminds me of the American Dream. Those builders in the land of Shinar had a twofold goal as they began their tower: they wanted to make a name for themselves and to prevent themselves from being scattered across the world. That sounds a lot like the two motives behind the American Dream: success (or recognition) and comfort. The American Dream means prosperity, respect, recognition, wealth, and self-sufficiency. It means climbing the socio-economic ladder. Our culture tells us this message over and over again. “You can be anything you want to be if you just put your mind to it.” You can make a name for yourself, just like the builders sought to do.
The second goal of those builders (which might seem a little strange at first) was to avoid being scattered across the world. For someone who loves to see new places, travelling across the world doesn’t sound half bad to me. But then I remember that these people couldn’t just hop on an airplane or pack all their belongings in a U-Haul when moving to a new place. Travelling around was a far more strenuous endeavor for them. I think the builders’ goal makes a little more sense to us when put this way: they were seeking after their own comfort. They did not want to leave the comfortable little plain they had found in Shinar. They wanted to “settle down.” This is part two of the American Dream. The whole concept of settling down in a nice, big house with a picket fence has become idealized in our culture. The American Dream is about having disposable income, having enough money to be comfortable and “in control” of your circumstances. Trusting in God can seem a triviality when you are living a life of comfort and self-sufficiency.
In His goodness and mercy, God absolutely abolishes the builders’ self-glorifying plans. In a comical and ironic turn of events (at least in the eyes of the Hebrew author) God does the very thing they were trying to avoid and scatters them across the whole world. Amusingly the characters of this story remain unnamed when one of their goals was to make a name for themselves. And the name that they did get (corporately) is mocked.
I do not think the lesson here is that the American Dream is inherently evil, or that comfort and success are bad in and of themselves. It would be ridiculous to suggest that to be Christian means to be unsuccessful, unrecognized, and poor. The lesson is that pursuing these things to glorify the self instead of to glorify God is sin. Successful Christian doctors can give God glory by bringing healing to their patients, artists can bring God glory by offering beautiful pieces of art to the world, and entrepreneurs can partner with God in His creative work and make goods for the betterment of society. I am reminded of the verse in 1 Corinthians, which says: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Success and fame are not the evils in the story of the Tower of Babel. The evil is a human heart that does not live for the glory of God.
So where are my “towers of Babel”? Do I want a high paying job so that I can be debt free (a very Biblical notion) and generously give to those in need, or so that I might live a comfortable and self-sufficient lifestyle? Do I seek recognition on the field for my own glory, or so that I might gain an influence on the team to help me better share Christ with my teammates? Even inherently spiritual pursuits can become opportunities to build more towers. Do I seek after knowledge of God so that I might know and worship my Creator more properly, and be better equipped to “give an answer to everyone who asks [me] to give the reason for the hope that [I] have,” or so that others might be impressed by my wisdom? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions often is: both.
Emily Balint is a participant in the Chattanooga Fellows Program. She works with a Christian not-for-profit organization doing event planning, development assistance, and whatever else needs doing to contribute to the cause.
Photos: FreeImages.com/Raymond Bremen, Jari Ruusunen