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WORLDVIEW: Invasion of the ‘residential SUVs’

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–How much land does a man need?

That question serves as both the title and theme of Leo Tolstoy’s classic story about the Russian peasant farmer Pahomy, who craves property above all else.

“Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough,” Pahomy thought to himself one night while lying atop his oven. “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the devil himself!”

The devil himself happened to be sitting behind the oven, listening to Pahomy’s thoughts. He lured the greedy peasant to a vast expanse of land owned by Bashkir tribesmen, who generously offered to sell Pahomy as much as he wanted. The price?

“Our price is always the same: one thousand rubles a day,” said the smiling Bashkir chief. “As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours. … But there is one condition: If you don’t return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost.”

Pahomy barely slept that night as he dreamt of “virgin soil, as flat as the palm of your hand, as black as the seed of a poppy.” The next morning dawned bright and clear, and he set off at a rapid pace. He walked six miles before marking his first turn. The summer sun burned high and hot. The going got harder. Yet each time Pahomy started to make a second turn he saw a piece of land he coveted. He struggled through the back stretch. After the third turn he could barely walk. But he saw the Bashkir chief in the distance — standing at the starting spot, holding his sides and laughing. Pahomy staggered to the spot as the last light of day faded, falling forward to touch it.

“Ah, that’s a fine fellow!” exclaimed the chief. “He has gained much land!” But Pahomy was dead. His servant buried him on the spot.

How much land did Pahomy need? Six feet, head to heels.

I think about Pahomy when I want more than I need (which is often). We Americans live in the land of plenty, and whole industries dedicate themselves to convincing us we need more. More, better, bigger. Supersize that order, please.

Consider houses. Over the last 35 years, reports Newsweek’s Robert Samuelson, the average size of an American home has expanded 55 percent (to 2,330 square feet) while average family size has actually decreased. Many homes now feature playrooms, as well as rooms for entertainment, computers and exercise. According to Samuelson, about one in eight new homes in 2001 topped 3,500 square feet — more than three times the average size of the houses our parents and grandparents bought in 1950.

“By and large, the new American home is a residential SUV,” Samuelson writes. “It’s big, gadget-loaded and slightly gaudy.”

Once you buy or build it, of course, you’ve got to fill it with stuff, lest you occupy an empty castle — and you’ll need to park a nicer ride in the garage. Many evangelical Christians who can afford it (and some who can’t) seem to be following this trend like sheep.

Years of low mortgage interest rates have fueled the big-house boom, along with real estate speculation and a secondary boom in vacation homes. With rates so low, we’re told, it’s practically un-American not to buy the biggest home with the biggest mortgage for which we can possibly qualify. Meanwhile, housing in general has become so absurdly overpriced that many low- and middle-income Americans can no longer afford to buy even a small home.

Don’t get me wrong: Home ownership is a wonderful thing, a fundamental building block of free societies and healthy economies. But do you really need what amounts to a mansion? Even if you can afford it, what does it say to the world about who you are, about your priorities in life, about the God you serve?

The total estimated value of U.S. private homes has reached $18 trillion, more than a 50 percent rise in five years. In one sense that’s great news for the average family, which likely will never have a bigger investment than a home. In spiritual terms, however, how many excess dollars sunk by Christians into mega-mortgages could be supporting missions, evangelism and other church ministries? How many believers are unable to follow God into the world when He calls because of onerous bills and financial commitments? How many of our children will follow the same path, either because of our example or our active encouragement?

Samuelson has some good advice: “One way or another, Americans might want to reassess their passion for ever-bigger homes. Do we need to go from SUVs to Hummers? Maybe we should revert to sedans.”
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges