The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
GEN-X RISING: On stewardship and Dracula’s cape Andrew C. Thompson, Nov 14, 2011
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula cape is going up for auction. Expected price: $2 million.
I heard this remarkable bit of information driving to work a few days ago. A Reuters news release later confirmed the blurb on the morning radio. The cape worn by the vampire from Transylvania in the 1931 film, Dracula, will be auctioned off next month as part of an “Icons of Hollywood” sale organized by the auctioneer, Profiles in History.
Lugosi was actually buried in his Dracula costume when he died in 1956. Buried in it except for the cape, that is, which remained in the possession of his family.
Now it’s for sale. And the auctioneer believes that somebody, somewhere is prepared to pay 2 million dollars for it.
For Christians, the story about Lugosi’s cape raises all kinds of questions about stewardship. But more on that in a minute.
Walking up the stairs to my office the same morning that I heard about the Dracula cape on the radio, I found myself preoccupied. I kept turning over in my mind the astonishing prospect of someone actually forking over $2 million for an 80-year-old Hollywood costume prop.
“Can you imagine what you might do with $2 million OTHER than buy a Dracula cape?” I kept asking myself.
The whole thing made me trot out a little mental game I sometimes play with myself. Goes like this: Hundreds of years from now, our civilization is likely to be gone. If another civilization takes our place, then those people will eventually ask themselves the question of what caused our downfall.
In my little game, I like to imagine what our future selves will think was the culprit. Was it the creation of cable television and the Internet, which are slowly turning us into techno-zombies? Or could it have been that point sometime in the last few decades when news media and politicians stopped referring to us as “citizens” and started calling us “consumers”?
Now I’ve got a new candidate for Official Marker of Cultural Decline. It might just end up being the day that someone pays 2 MILLION DOLLARS for a Dracula cape. Such a precedent can only lead to cultural catastrophe.
As I said, for Christians this kind of thing gives us a great opportunity to talk about our stewardship. The figure of John Wesley himself looms large in any conversation about stewardship for Methodist folk.
If Wesley has a contribution to make to that conversation, it is clearly in grappling with the point that the way we use our wealth is a moral exercise.
Wesley insists that there is a right and a wrong way to use the material things. This is so because they don’t ultimately belong to us. He explains this as the meaning of stewardship in a sermon entitled “The Use of Money”:
“[W]hen the possessor of heaven and earth brought you into being and placed you in this world, he placed you here not as a proprietor, but a steward. As such he entrusted you for a season with goods of various kinds. But the sole property of these still rests with him, nor can ever be alienated from him. As you yourself are not your own, but his, such likewise is all you enjoy. . . . And he has told you in the most clear and express terms how you are to employ it for him, in such a manner that it may be all an holy sacrifice, acceptable through Christ Jesus.”
Wesley’s point is that the use of all goods should have as its guiding motivation the response to God’s gift of salvation. The formula that Wesley uses for this process is gain all you can, save all you can and give all you can.
His explanation of the three terms is instructive. Wesley goes on:
“Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbour, in soul or body, by applying hereto with unintermitted diligence, and with all the understanding which God has given you. Save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire, to gratify either the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life. Waste nothing, living or dying, on sin or folly, whether for yourself or your children. And then, give all you can, or in other words, give all you have to God.”
For those living in a consumer culture, these words might strike us as extreme. And to his credit I think Wesley realized that his pastoral counsel would be difficult for many to receive in his own day.
“It is no small thing,” Wesley cautions in another sermon, “to lay out for God all which you have received from God.” It requires “more than ever you had by nature, but not more than you may have by grace.”
We live in a fairly frivolous time. Our economy encourages our appetites for all sorts of things. The notion that we should spend our money on something other than our own comfort and luxury—and even more, that we have a moral obligation to do so—will strike many as offensive.
I think Christians should rather think that the truly offensive act is that we often spend our treasure on absurdities when there are so many churches, schools, hospitals and mission projects in need of vital resources.
It’s not just that an item like Bela Lugosi’s cape seems silly. It’s the sheer lack of creativity involved in the purchase that boggles the mind, the pedestrian nature of spending $2 million on a piece of kitsch.
It isn’t true that all wealth is a zero sum game, where a dollar spent here robs the poor over there of their daily bread. But it is true that the stewardship of one’s wealth takes a certain kind of virtue. (Wesley identified that virtue as Christian prudence.)
Not that the person who plans on doing such a thing would care.
So God bless him. And if he needs something to go with that cape, he’s in luck.
Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz are going up for auction next month, too.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at athompson@MemphisSeminary.edu.