Many people consider the "American Dream" to be the goal of someone trying to get out of poverty. Both in the US and around the world, we have found that simply having more material goods doesn't necessarily lead to increased happiness. Join Scott and Sean for part II of Scott's earlier discussion with economist Dr. Brian Fikkert, as he critiques some of the most prominent poverty alleviation efforts and insists that flourishing involves more than accumulating material goods.

His latest book is Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn't the American Dream.

Dr. Brian Fikkert is Professor of Economics and Community Development and the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. He is coauthor of the best-selling book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself. He has a Ph.D. in Economics from Yale.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here for part two of our conversation with Dr. Brian Fikkert. Previously, we talked to him about the integration of Christian faith and his discipline of economics in our previous conversation. Part two of this is about his terrific book entitled, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn't the American Dream. A very provocative subtitle that I want to get into. But Brian Fikkert is professor of economics and community development, and founder and president of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College in Tennessee. You may be familiar with Brian from his best selling well known book called, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. And I know, I've got my own faculty here who do youth ministry and do short term missions. And they said that, that book totally turned their whole view of short term missions upside down. So, Brian, thanks so much for being with us for part two of this conversation on a very provocative book and just great stuff.

Brian Fikkert: It's great to with you again today. Thank you so much.

Scott Rae: So, let's get right into this. The subtitle for your book is what really got my attention, Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn't the American Dream. First of all, what do you mean by the American dream, and why isn't that the opposite of poverty?

Brian Fikkert: Well, certainly America is a land of opportunity. It's been a beacon of hope for people all over the world and I don't want to downplay any of that. I love America. I love being an American, so we're not trying to trash America by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a particular story in America that focuses on the idea that the good life is this rugged individualism and the pursuit of personal peace and prosperity as Frances Schaffer called it. And so this rugged individualistic pursuit of materialism that we think is actually really damaging. And it's part of the American story. Unfortunately, it's emerging in many ways as premier feature of the American story. And we think that's very unfortunate.

Sean McDowell: You're well known for an earlier book that Scott cited called When Helping Hurts. Can you explain just what's the heart of that book, the premise of it, and how does this book fit in? Maybe compare, contrast with that earlier one.

Brian Fikkert: Yeah. Great question. So When Helping Hurts basically argues that good intentions are not enough, that it's possible to hurt the poor and ourselves in the very process of trying to do good. And the reason for that potential harm is because the way that most of us think of poverty is as a lack of some material thing. We think, if you ask most Americans anyway, what is poverty? They'll say it's a lack of food, a lack of housing, a lack of clothing, because we tend to define things as a lack of some material thing, our solutions tend towards the material. If you ask poor people around the world, what is poverty like? They'll certainly talk about a material aspect to it, but they'll often say things like this. I feel shame. I feel inferior. I feel less than human. I feel like I'm not really part of society. I feel like I can't affect change in my life. The poor tend to describe their poverty in far more psychological, social and spiritual terms than many of us who are trying to help the poor do.

Brian Fikkert: And so that disconnect between how we're thinking of poverty and the way that the poor are experiencing poverty is at the heart of a conflict in the space of poverty alleviation. And so often our efforts, which focus on providing material things, actually undermine human dignity, actually exacerbate the sense of inferiority on the part of the materially poor. And it often exacerbates our sense of superiority, our God complexes. We think that we're the saviors, because we've got the stuff that they need and we've arrived and we're okay and they're not. And so we're really trying to address that, and some of the practical implications that come out of that. What happened, the Lord used When Helping Hurts in ways that we never could have imagined. And we're so thankful to the Lord for that and give him all the glory for that.

Brian Fikkert: But a number of things happened. One of the things that we experienced is that people would come up to us at a conference, or some where we're speaking and they would ask very specific questions. I read When Helping Hurts, but I'm working with this very particular tribe in this country in Africa. And I'm facing this very particular situation. What should I do? And the truth of the matter is we didn't have a clue. There's no recipe, there's no formula, it's not like that. And so we realized that what people really needed was just wisdom. They needed an overall story, some would call it a theory of change, or a story of change, about what the goal is for human beings? And how does God typical go about achieving that goal?

Brian Fikkert: And so there's a need for a meta narrative, if you will. And some practical tools and resources and principles that come out of that meta narrative, they needed that wisdom to guide them because we didn't know what to do in those situations, but they needed to have that wisdom that then they could through trial and error, through experimentation, they could figure out ways to help the poor people that they were working with live into that story. And so that's one thrust here, or one motivation for this book. But as we were thinking about that, we realized that we had lost a compelling story for ourselves. Many of us in the West have a sense of loss, a sense that life isn't all that it should be. There's increasing evidence of unhappiness, of discontent, of increasing anxiety and mental illness. And so there's a sense in which, there's a paradox here. Many of us are saying to materially, poor people, hey, we're going to help you to become just like us, of course, we're miserable, but come join us in our misery.

Brian Fikkert: And so we realize that there's a need for a better story for all of us, for both those of us who have material possessions and those of us who don't, and that's what Becoming Whole is trying to get at. So it builds on When Helping Hurts. It goes deeper. It's the operating system behind When Helping Hurts. And hopefully goes deeper and extends that work into some new areas.

Scott Rae: So Brian, you raised my next question, which is, the phrase you use, which I think is so helpful in the book, called the paradox of unhappy growth. What do you mean by that? And what's the evidence for that today?

Brian Fikkert: Yeah. A lot of that comes from an economist named Richard Easterlin, who is best known for something called the Easterlin Paradox. Very briefly mainstream economists believe that human beings can be modeled or described as homo economicus, a purely physical creature, a rational creature, a fully autonomous creature. This is not a creature who is built for a relationship. It's like a consuming robot and so happiness for homo economicus comes from consuming more and more material things. And so the more stuff we have, the happier we are. Well, what constrains us from reaching nirvana, so to speak? Well, the economist would say, what constrains us is we have limited income. We don't have infinite income. And so economics is about figuring out ways to increase people's incomes so they can buy more stuff, so they can be happier, because all of us are this creature, home economicus says the economist.

Brian Fikkert: Well, Richard Easterlin discovered that when he looked at the data, we see incomes in the United States, average income of Americans going up and up and up over long periods of time. And yet the self-reported happiness of the average American is constant or actually declining in the past 10 to 15 years. And so to an economist, this is like saying the resurrection didn't happen. The idea that income's going up and up and up and up and up and people aren't happier. In fact, they look like they're less happy. That's completely an impossible outcome if you're an economist. We can't conceive of that kind of world. And so there's been a lot of research about this, a lot of controversy about it. I'm also partial to some research by a social psychologist named Jean Twenge, and some others that are working with her, that have looked at issues of mental health, mental illness, anxiety, depression, over long periods of time.

Brian Fikkert: And she and her colleagues have show that from the 1930s to the present, anxiety and depression amongst college age, young people in America has steadily increased. So, we think the iPhone is ruining the world, I certainly believe that's true, but this is long before the iPhone, going back to the 1930s to the present, there's a steady, upward trend in anxiety and depression. And so it's like we're living into a story, this story of the American dream. And it's a story of get more stuff, but we're not happier. And, in fact, it seems like our personhoods are screaming out and saying, I'm not built for this. I'm wired for something different. I'm created for a different habitat. So, that's where we're trying to get at with this idea of the paradox of unhappy growth. We've got growth, but we're not better off.

Brian Fikkert: And I should just mention that there's evidence of this. As the process of globalization is spreading to institutions, the practices of Western capitalism around the world. And, by the way, I tend to be a big, I love markets, I love capitalism, but what we're starting to see is similar experiences around the world that as people are growing, as economies are growing, as incomes are growing up, we don't see happiness going up. We see more and more anxiety and depression. Even China, China, the incredible story, the past 25 years, the percentage of people in China living below the poverty line has absolutely plummeted. An economic miracle. And yet there's research to suggest that people are less happy in China today than they were in 1990. So something's wrong with the story?

Sean McDowell: Jean Twenge's book iGen in 2016, which is three to four years before the COVID pandemic began. She said, we are on the precipice of a mental health crisis. And a lot of it is that we think there's a material solution to this. We can fix it with a certain drug, fix it with a certain amount of money or economics, but you make a different point. You say in poverty alleviation, there's a quote you have, you said, "The matter of the heart is the heart of the matter." What do you mean by that?

Brian Fikkert: All of this really comes down to what is the right anthropology. So what is the nature of the human being? Western naturalism has tended to view the human being as this autonomous physical creature. Certainly my discipline of economics has embodied that perspective in a very deep way. I think a biblical framework suggests a very different anthropology, and I've been slowly coming to grips with this in my own life. This has been a long journey for me. I think the Bible teaches that the human being certainly has a physical dimension. We don't want to downplay that, the physical dimension of the human being is part of the goodness of the created order, but we also have this thing called a soul, or what the Bible often refers to as the heart. And it's our are inner being. It's the thing that really drives us. It's the foundation of the human being. And Proverbs 4:23 says, guard your heart, because out of the heart flow the issues of life. Some translations actually suggest that the language in Hebrew is more like the walls of the city grow out of the heart.

Brian Fikkert: And so there's this idea in scripture that we are highly integrated body, soul kinds of creatures, body, heart kind of creatures. And then there's this further dimension that we're relational beings, that we're wired for deep relationship with God, with ourselves, with others and with creation. And so the human being isn't just a body, and we're not just a body that contains a soul the way that some of us tend to think, we're a highly integrated body, soul relational thingies. And this matters, because when that woman walks into your church asking for help with her electric bill, what we do at that moment, the way that we work with her ought to be informed by who she is. And unless she's purely a victim of somebody else, and certainly the likelihood that she has been somewhat victimized by others, her primary driver is her heart.

Brian Fikkert: And so the fact that she can't pay her electric bill is partly, it's not solely, but it's partly a function of her own drives, her own motivations, her own desires. And that's her heart. And so when we're walking with this woman, people are always asking me, do I write the check or not? Do I give them money or not? And that's certainly an important question, but the question doesn't understand the fullness of what's going on here. There's a heart at play. There's a set of drive, a set of desires that's driving this person. Until we get to the heart issues, we're not going to have lasting impact.

Scott Rae: Brian, let's go into these stories of change as you describe them, or meta narratives, what we often call worldviews. One of the things that's so helpful about your book, Becoming Whole, is you describe three of these that are the dominant ones that you consider to be false stories. And one of them is actually a version of Christianity. So you describe Western naturalism, traditional religion, and then what you call evangelical narcissism. I'm curious, if you briefly explain what you mean by each of these. And just a reason or two, why you consider those false narratives. And then I want to explore a little bit the evangelical narcissism a little bit further.

Brian Fikkert: Yeah. So let's do them in this order. Traditional religion is a catchall term. Some people use the term animism, but animism is considered a pejorative term these days. And so traditional religion is a religion that is embraced by many materially, poor people in the majority world of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And it's not an organ. It's not so much an organized religion, but it's a set of beliefs that takes on various forms and shapes and different settings, but there are some common features to it. And in the traditional religious view, and this is hard for us as Westerners to understand, but in the traditional religion view, the spiritual and material touch. So, there's a spiritual realm that's full of good spirits and bad spirits and forces and ancestral spirits. And those spiritual forces basically control the material realm.

Brian Fikkert: And so human beings don't really see themselves as being in charge, or having dominion over the physical realm. They see themselves more as people who should hunker down and try to maintain harmony with the spiritual realm. And so, in the West we think about conquering the world and making something of ourselves and pulling ourselves up our own bootstraps and being an entrepreneur. In traditional religion it's more like hunker down, because I don't want to get great grandmother's ancestral spirit mad at me. And so it's a worldview that's full of fear, that loses the sense of human agency. That's basically a maintain equilibrium and don't get anybody upset. And, of course, this has profound implications for work, for entrepreneurship, for the business enterprise, for technological advancement. It's not a worldview that's conducive to that. It's a worldview of hunker down and try to appease these various spiritual forces.

Brian Fikkert: The polar opposite end of the spectrum is Western naturalism, which most of us have, this is the air that we breathe every day when we walk outside of our house in the morning. And it's the story I was mentioned earlier that there's a high doubts that there is a God. And if there is a God he's irrelevant. And so instead of the spiritual realm controlling the physical realm, the world is viewed more as a physical, mechanical machine. And the spiritual dimension, if it exists, is separated from the physical world. And so life is material. And so this is why, in the West, we turn towards trying to conquer the material realm through science and through technology. And this is why we think that human flourishing tends to come from material things, because we have a very, very materialistic view of the world.

Brian Fikkert: By the way, both of those profoundly impact our work with the poor and how we go about that. Evangelical narcissism is a term that, at least I first heard it from my good friend, Darryl Miller. And it's really a secretism between the gospel and Western naturalism. And so it basically says there is a God, but he's Lord of our spiritual lives. It tends to maintain the separation between the spiritual and the material. And so, this is why we tend to view our souls as disembodied, as things that just get beamed up to heaven when we die. And this is why we tend to pray to God on Sunday morning, worship him on Sunday morning. And then Monday through Saturday, he's divorced from the functioning of our material existence.

Brian Fikkert: And so we worship God on Sunday morning, Monday through Saturday, we tend to revert to the story of Western naturalism, the story of the American dream. And so you end up living this life that says, I trust in Jesus to get my soul to heaven when I die. But Monday through Saturday, I'm just pursuing the good life here and now, so it doesn't hurt too much. It's not a kingdom story. It's not a story of human flourishing. It's a bifurcated life and it doesn't work.

Sean McDowell: So you hinted that each of these affects the way we approach the poor and poverty. So let's take them one by one, traditional religion, which again, used to be called animism. How would that worldview shape the way somebody would approach poverty?

Brian Fikkert: Well, most poverty alleviation strategies flow out of the west. And so it's a little hard to... But if I were, let's say an organization that was originating in a rural village in parts of Africa, and I wanted to help poor people in my village, and I was coming from this traditional religion perspective, I might spread the use of fetishes, to spread the use of rabbits feet, spread the use of various kinds of rituals to appease the spiritual forces so that my life in a material sense could flourish more. So for example, I was in a village in rural Togo a couple of years ago, and I met a man there whose body was full of scars because he was cutting himself. He would go into a, basically a hut with a shaman or a witch doctor. And he would cut himself with shards of glass to bleed. And the blood was a sacrifice to appease the spiritual realm so that he could prosper more in the physical realm.

Brian Fikkert: So, I never really thought of poverty, alleviation strategies being designed by people from a traditional religion perspective, but there's a sense in which that is what's going on there. You go to the witch doctor and you do various kinds of incantations and so on, to try to give yourself a fuller material existence. I can give story after story like that, but that's basically how you were designed. It's the shaman, it's the witch doctor. In Western naturalism, there's two things you do. You're, again, here in this story, you're trying to help people have more stuff. So you either give handouts. Certainly the federal government has done that in many instances. And I believe there is a role for social safety net, by the way. But oftentimes our welfare programs have been very focused on material handouts. Our churches do this in spades.

Brian Fikkert: Many short-term missions trips involved just hurling resources around. It's what we do when we stop at a traffic light and there's a homeless person standing there. We roll down the window and put a dollar in the person's hand, thinking that somehow this is going to alleviate the problem. Often we get tired of this. We start to feel like it creates dependencies and we get tired of giving. So then we shift towards the economic and power approach, which is basically let's help our economies to grow. And that's a good thing by the way, but let's help our economies to grow. And then let's help poor people to have the skills that they need to get good jobs.

Brian Fikkert: And again, there's positive things in this story. Let's help poor people to get jobs so that they can work. And as a result of their work, they'll have an income, again, very positive. I think work is central to poverty alleviation, but it is a story that basically says, keep on going, work harder, earn more, work harder, earn more, consume more. And it puts us on this consume, earn, consumer, earn treadmill, I think is really ruining Western civilization. And what does that look like? In poverty it can look like microfinance, micro enterprise development, the Chalmers Center that I'm part of is very involved in that. It can look like jobs preparedness training, financial literacy training. All those things to get you into the market system and helping you to thrive there. And something there that's part of the solution to poverty. There's no question.

Brian Fikkert: The evangelical narcissist approach basically, it mimics the approach of Western naturalism in the sense that it either does handouts or it does economic empowerment. And then it tacks a track on the front end that says trust in Jesus, that your soul can get to heaven. And so it addresses the physical the way the world does, handouts or economic empowerment. And it addresses the spiritual through this trust in Jesus and get your insurance to get your soul to heaven someday. But it's not an integrated program design. It's the way the program functions, the funding for the program, the things the program does, the staffing, the metrics, they're not metrics for Shalom they're metrics for the American dream, plus get your soul to heaven. And it's not a way of discipling people, whole people, body, soul, relational creatures, into what it means to be fully human. And that's the direction we have to go.

Scott Rae: Ryan, let me just tackle on a little bit to that. You maintained that in Western Christianity, I think in this evangelical narcissism, that there's an incomplete view of the fall and an incomplete view of why Christ came to earth. Those are pretty important theological notions that shape our worldview. What's missing.

Brian Fikkert: Yeah. I actually want to back up and say, the first thing that's missing is creation in your question.

Scott Rae: Good point.

Brian Fikkert: So, some dear friends of mine, including my co-author Kelly Kapic on Becoming Whole. Kelly Kapic has said to me, Brian, one of the biggest problems in Western Christianity is that we have a very, very weak doctrine of creation. And I've come to see that he's really right about that. And so the creation story, of course, is that God creates the whole thing and calls it good. The spiritual is good. The physical is good. And creation includes social structures, social institutions. And so the family, for example, is part of the created order. I believe economic life is part of the created order. I actually believe government is part of the created order. I would argue that without a fall we would have government. And so we need to see all of creation, the physical, the spiritual, the emotional, the relational, the institutional, the whole thing as part of the goodness of the created order as part of what God calls good.

Brian Fikkert: Then the fall happens. And Christians have had a tendency to reduce the effects of the fall to subsets of the comprehensive nature of the fall, so that the fall is cosmic in scope. It cuts through every aspect of the created order. It cuts through our individual hearts. It cuts through our bodies. It cuts through the physical realm, the spiritual realm, the social structures. It's comprehensive in scope. There's a tendency in the world, and certainly a tendency in the church to reduce the fall to subsets of the created order. So those who are more on the political left tend to say that social structures are fallen. And so that poor people are poor because of oppressive social structures. Well, the fall did ruin social structures. The economy, the political process, the family, all of these things are broken because the fall happened.

Brian Fikkert: On the other end of the spectrum we have those who are a bit more conservative who tend to focus on individual sin, that the fall has affected my individual heart. And that's true, of course. And because of individual sin, people are poor because of their misbehaviors, because they're lazy or they're addicted to things. Well, certainly that can be part of the causes of poverty. I think a comprehensive view of the fall says the whole thing is broken. Individuals are broken, systems are broken, and it's more than that. Neither parties even recognizing the presence of demonic forces that are unleashed in the world post fallen. So the church historically has said, what's the enemy of us? It's the world, the systems, the flesh, my own heart, and the devil. It's comprehensive. It's the whole thing.

Brian Fikkert: And so much of the church right now is divided over, where did the fall happen? Well, just chill out. Of course, all this debate right now, of course, social structures are fallen. Of course, social systems don't work properly. That should be like a softball, but we should also recognize that individual hearts are broken. And so we see material poverty, when that woman walks into our church asking for help with her electric bill, our orientation, our worldview, our perspective ought to be, well, she is a sinner, and it's conceivable that her own sins have contributed to her situation. She's also living in a fallen world. And so it's entirely possible that she's been discriminated against, that she's been abused, that the systems haven't worked for her. And oh, by the way, Satan has a vested interest in seeing image bears lying in the gutter. So Satan's attacking her. Now, which, in any particular situation might be more of this and less of that and higher percentages here and that, and so on. But our orientation ought to be, to look at the whole thing and be open to the whole thing.

Brian Fikkert: And then we have a comprehensive gospel. So the good news, what bothers me so much. I have done this thousands of times. I ask Bible believing Christians, and I'm a theological conservative. I ask Bible believing Christians in theologically conservative churches, why did Jesus come to earth? And everybody, everybody reduces the answer to this. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins so that my soul can go to heaven when I die. That's true. That's a thousand percent true. I have a legal problem for a holy and righteous God. I don't deny any of that. It's all true. But the start of Jesus earthly ministry, Luke chapter four, verse 43, Jesus says, he's come to preach the good news of the kingdom of God, that's why he was sent.

Brian Fikkert: And the coming of the kingdom of God is the overarching narrative of the New Testament. And part of that kingdom is bringing healing as far as the curses found, king Jesus conquers demonic forces. He conquers and reframes broken social structures. And he changes me as an individual. And so the whole thing is big, creation, fall, redemption, consummation, it's all big. And it's the reductionism that we engage in that hurts us so much.

Scott Rae: Brian, what you've done just in the last few minutes of this is what is so helpful about both Becoming Whole and your previous works, When Helping Hurts and others, is how, yeah, I think how skilled you are at integrating good biblical theology into your discipline as an economist and the place where your heart is in terms of poverty alleviation. And I think, as you've pointed out, this is so helpful for our listeners to see that the over arching story, the meta narrative, the story of change that the scripture provides is the missing piece in our poverty alleviation today. And God forbid that we would simply export to the developing world a model of alleviating poverty that in your view is, I think so, is failing in the US, which you point out with our paradox of unhappy growth. We could go on for the rest of the day on some of these things. And we look forward, Brian, to having you on again, but this has been so helpful.

Scott Rae: And I want to commend to our listeners, your book Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn't the American Dream. And if you haven't read his previous book, When Helping Hurts, that's a must read also. So, Brian, thanks so much for coming on with us. We look forward to having another conversation with you at some point when another one of your published works comes out, which I'm sure will not be too long, too far down the road.

Brian Fikkert: Brothers, thank you so much. It's a joy to be with you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The, Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Dr. Brian Fikkert, give us a rating on your podcast app and be sure to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.