c. 2000 Religion News Service

Sometimes the messenger is as interesting as the message.

Take, for example, two pieces that ran recently in the Weekend section of the Wall Street Journal. First there was a special feature devoted to "The Big House Backlash." The next week the main feature was devoted to paring down and getting rid of "stuff."

But wait. Isn't it big houses and stuff that keep America's economy humming? Isn't it the economy that gives The Wall Street Journal a niche? And isn't it the same paper that routinely runs ads for houses worth several million and occupying a few acres?

Something must be up if that same newspaper is singing the "less is more" ditty.

The big house story documents a "moving down" trend in which many home owners are trading gargantuan edifices for little jewels, smaller houses with more detail. One man is quoted in the story as saying people are finding "status in understatement."

But there's more. The story also quotes people who are doing some soul-searching. "More space doesn't get at what they're looking for," summarizes a Minnesota architect who watched her clients demand bigger and bigger houses. "It's like trying to fill a hole in yourself."

The next week The Wall Street Journal began its main story by quoting a man who said, "I feel trapped by my stuff." It then goes on to summarize, "The burgeoning economy of the past decade has given many Americans the extra cash to buy all sorts of nice things they really don't need." And the story quotes David Shi, author of "The Simple Life," who says, "The obsession with materialism has backfired."

Ask any economist what accounts for the booming American economy besides Internet fantasies and he or she will tell you that it is the high degree of materialism in this country. And now we are hearing that materialism isn't the answer from a publication that documents the daily ebbs and flows of greed. Go figure.

Of course, just giving things away isn't easy. The story helps document all of the ways to donate used goods in order to assure the proper tax deduction. And it admits that many of the old faithfuls won't just take any old junk anymore. They've become so buried by all the stuff being discarded that everyone from Goodwill to the Salvation Army has raised their standards.

Concluding the story is a quote that should send shivers down the backs of financial analysts. Says one consumer, "Now I find myself spending less and being more satisfied with what I have."

The fact that these trends are documented and reported by The Wall Street Journal gives them more credibility than if they appeared in Mother Jones. But it also says something about how much our economy can promise its citizens.

It seems to me this financial newspaper is saying, "It's not just the economy, stupid." Wisely, the mouthpiece for the economy is reminding people not to ask too much. Money can't buy everything.

It's a smart move on the part of the financial newspaper and a sentiment that needs to be considered in houses of worship as well. If things are so good, why do so many of us feel so bad? If more people are rich today, why does our society reflect a poverty of spirit?

For those who are concerned with the spiritual, materialism has always represented a seductive influence. But for those who thought they would find true happiness in a big house filled with stuff, the discovery that they are still unhappy must be devastating.

The Wall Street Journal has opened the door to a deeper discussion of the emptiness of materialism. Now it is up to those with spiritual answers to provide help in finding lasting investments.

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