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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“The Battle for the Marketplace” (book review: Christianity Today)

God in the Pits: Confessions of a Commodities Trader, by Mark A. Ritchie; Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations, ed. Richard C. Chewning
Christianity Today
May 14, 1990

“The whole country has a deep stake in the character of its merchants. It is they who regulate in a great measure the current morality of our cities, and our cities in turn make their mark upon the nation at large.” So wrote the great Presbyterian churchman, H. A. Boardman in 1853.
What was true a century and a half ago is true today. And yet the church, particularly its seminary and pulpit arms, has been astonishingly ineffective in catechizing its merchant-princes in the Way. At a time when the national economies of the world are increasingly embracing capitalism with all its attendant benefits and hopes, the world’s leading capitalistic nation is increasingly bereft of moral leadership.

Two recent books attempt to address this moral bereavement.

Journey of ascent

An established genre of Christian busi¬ness books is the anecdotal account of Christians in the marketplace. Into this genre falls God in the Pits: Confessions of a Commodities Trader, by Mark A. Ritchie. Given the recent investigation of Siegel Trading Company and International Trading Group by the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, this book comes at a very opportune time.

The fact that Ritchie is a very successful and thoughtful Christian is both encouraging and a bit daunting to those of less-substantial gifts and accomplishments. Being a mover and shaker in America’s commodities market, Ritchie has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and his book has received some attention by the secular media.

In God in the Pits, Ritchie chronicles his journey from being a preacher’s kid in Oregon and Afghanistan through his college and seminary days to life on the Chicago Board of Trade, first as a commodities trader, and then as an owner of Chicago Research and Trading Group. Some of Ritchie’s personal reminiscences are moving, such as the description of his grief caused by the deaths of his brother Danny and a couple of his high-school pals. He also writes touchingly of his feelings about social discrimination in America and poverty in Afghanistan. Furthermore, several of his reflections on the brokerage business strike home and are conscience stirring for all those in the marketplace with a competitive nature.

Having said all that, it is as he wades into theological waters that Ritchie begins to flounder, and his stream-of-consciousness style becomes less effective. Being so personal, he can be too easily dismissed by the reader who is not able to relate to his experiences or who does not agree with his perceptions. His prescription for godly modeling in the marketplace is hard to follow since his personal odyssey takes him from “Fundamentalist dogma” (Dallas Theological Seminary) through existentialism (Jean-Paul Sartre) to a view of Christianity that is a synthesis of his particular journey (though not necessarily a convincing synthesis). If, however, the book is taken on its own terms—that is, the personal confessions of one Christian operating in the marketplace—then there is value here for the discerning reader.

A rare commodity

There is a general weakness in all testimonial approaches: Anecdotes provide good illustrations but no antidote to sinful practice and Christian ignorance. With anecdotes there is no “Thus saith the Lord!” A rigorous exegetical treatment of life in the marketplace is, however, a scarce commodity. Now that gap is being filled by the work of Richard Chewning. Chewning occupies the Chavanne Chair of Christian Ethics in Business at Baylor University and is perhaps the foremost evangelical business ethicist in the U.S. today. His writing has enriched and challenged thoughtful business people for years. In 1984 Chewning wrote a tour de force entitled Business Ethics in a Changing Culture, which should be standard fare in any Christian college business curriculum. The fact that this book is already out of print speaks loudly about the church’s lack of commitment to marketplace ethics and procedures.

In his new effort—a four-volume series, Christians in the Marketplace-Chewning has gathered together various eminent evangelical thinkers and marketplace practitioners to write first and then discuss a wide range of subjects, all of critical interest to the Christian person in business. The first volume is Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations. While the theologians selected to contribute to this initial volume come from various theological perspectives, they all have one unifying conviction—”a high view of Scripture as the authoritative Word of God.”

 Contributors include Kenneth Kantzer, Myron Augsburger, Walter Kaiser, Vernon Grounds, Norman Geisler, John Jefferson Davis, and many others. Chewning himself comments on all the essays.

Chewning groups the theologians into pairs and allows them to square off on such subjects as “The Creation Mandate and the Great Commission,” “Absolutes in a Situational Environment,” “The Basis of an Ethical Appeal in the Marketplace,” and so on.

This is not bedtime reading for the casual Christian. This first volume is specifically designed for the “contemplative Christian business person” (as is the entire series).

What Richard Chewning’s project portends is nothing short of a revival of serious biblical thinking among Christian leaders in America’s marketplace. If that happens, and if Boardman was correct, then this series could rank itself alongside Thomas Chalmers’s nineteenth-century theological writings that so forcefully influenced the great evangelical Victorian prime minister, William Gladstone.

The bottom line: Chewning keeps our business feet to the fire of the Lord, while Ritchie is helpful as a footnote on what should or should not be done.

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