4 reasons why every Christian should be a tree-hugging environmentalist

I didn’t have much time for Earth Day growing up. That kind of thing was for tree-hugging, left-wing hippie types who couldn’t tell the difference between creation and its creator. I was a Christian. I believed the world was going to burn someday, and I would be evacuated along with the faithful few to a disembodied realm. In the meantime, I needn’t worry about what my consumption was doing to the planet.

It turns out that was a pretty terrible way to read the biblical story. Here are four reasons why I’ve come to believe that being a tree-hugging, climate-change-fighting environmentalist is a vital part of every Christian’s calling…

1. Because our story starts in a garden. (And it ends in a city with the ultimate urban garden.)

The phrase “as God originally intended” gets thrown around a lot, often to contrast the creation story with some hot-button social issue like gender equality or same-sex marriage.

But if the first story in the Bible shows creation “as God originally intended,” then the real shame is that more of us aren’t gardeners.

In the Bible, location matters. The biblical narrative is covered in the soil from which it sprung. And the very first story — the creation story — is set in a garden.

It’s not a wild, uninhabited space, untouched by humans. It’s cultivated, shaped, and tended carefully. It turns out that groundskeeper is humanity’s first occupation. But to be a gardener is to work with the land, not to ride roughshod over it.

To be sure, the biblical drama doesn’t end in a garden. It ends in a city, the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22, Yet this city looks nothing like the industrial cities of the American Rust Belt. In fact, two of the city’s most prominent features harken back to the original garden: a crystal-clear river flowing along the main thoroughfare and a great tree bearing life-giving fruit.

The calling of every Christian is to bring a little bit of heaven to earth where we can now. Caring for planet’s natural resources is a great way to do just that.

2. Because the disciples weren’t Jesus’ only companions.

A couple years ago, my priest pointed out a commonly overlooked feature of Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus’ temptation in the desert, but only Mark mentions that Jesus “was with the wild animals.”

Given the other narrative features — a harsh environment, the devil for company — it’s understandable to interpret the presence of wild animals as yet another a foreboding element, another threat to Jesus’ well-being. But it’s not. The wild animals are mentioned in the same breath as the angels who attended Jesus. Mark depicts Jesus dwelling in harmony with the animals. He is, after all, the one who made them.

The wilderness narrative points to the whole-earth implications of the gospel Jesus came to announce. Jesus did not come simply to “save souls.” He came to rescue all of creation. As my priest once said, “There is no getting right with the world without getting right with God. But there is also no getting right with God without getting right with the world.

3. Because this world IS our home; we are NOT “just passing through.”

Left Behind’s fanciful depiction of people being raptured right out of this world (and out of their clothes) made for more than just bad filmmaking; it made for some pretty bad eschatology, too. And bad eschatology has consequences.

The idea that God will dispose of this world and evacuate the faithful to a disembodied spiritual realm is a relatively recent innovation, thought up by Christians who had largely detached themselves from the world already. But this is not the story the Bible tells. In fact, this view is a modern incarnation of one of the earliest heresies to confront the church.

Gnosticism taught that the material world is bad, that everything physical will perish and only spirit will endure. Whole books of the Bible (such as 1 John) were written against Gnosticism, yet its influence is still felt. Just read this post on 8 Gnostic myths that pervade the modern evangelical church.

One of these 8 myths: the material world isn’t important. This was the explanation I heard as a kid whenever the environment came up. The world was just going to get worse and worse, we reasoned, until God finally destroyed it. Our heavenly, disembodied home awaited.

Again: that’s not the story Scripture tells. The Bible ends with God coming to earth, not with a few lucky souls escaping this world. If this world matters enough to God that he would come back to save it, then it should matter to us too.

4. Because when you damage the earth, you damage God’s dwelling place.

Our failure to care for the planet is part of a larger failure to understand our true place in creation.

There are not one but two creation stories in Genesis. The first follows a deliberate pattern; elements of the story are introduced in increasing order of importance. What happens on day five is more important than what happens on day four (and so on). At the end of Genesis 1, God summons humanity into existence — the apex of creation.

Except, that’s not where the first creation story ends. The first story actually continues into the first few verses of chapter 2, which depict the final “day” of creation. (If you ever needed a reason to ditch chapter and verse divisions in your Bible, this is it. The very first chapter break in Scripture obscures the natural literary flow.)

If the first creation story progresses in order of importance, then the events of day 7 are the culmination, not those of day 6. In other words, God’s act of resting on the seventh day is the high point, not the creation of humanity on day 6. We are not the apex of the story. It’s not about us. We are not all that.

Why does it matter that the story ends with God resting? Because in ancient Near Eastern literature (like Genesis), deities didn’t just rest anywhere. Deities rested in temples. In most cases, deities rested in temples built for them; but in Genesis, God does the building himself. The whole world is his temple, and at the end of the first creation story, he takes up residence in his creation.

This world — with is rolling meadows and nuclear power plants, its billowing seas and floating garbage patches the size of Texas — is God’s dwelling place. “The earth is the Lord’s,” as it says in Psalm 24. Heaven is God’s throne and the earth is his footstool, as it says near the end of Isaiah.

Human sin broke the connection between God and his earthly dwelling, but the rest of the story is about God coming home. In the gospels, God incarnates himself in human flesh and makes “his dwelling among us,” just as he did in Genesis. And at renewal of all things, heaven comes down to earth, and a voice cries out, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people!”

The earth is not ours to use as we see fit. It’s not ours to exploit. The earth is not first and foremost our dwelling place. It’s God’s. When he invites the first humans to “subdue” the earth, it’s really an invitation to tend it on his behalf. We are caretakers, tenets, stewards. Not owners.

So this Earth Day, a good question for Christians to ask is: when God comes home, will he be happy with how we’ve cared for it?

Let there be: love as the act of letting go

Photo by mkooiman on Flickr

During his talk in Grand Rapids last night, N.T. Wright shared something I wish he’d had more time to unpack. (When you’ve got 45 minutes to cover the whole big story of the Bible, there’s only so much you can do. Even if you’re N.T. Wright.)

Going back to Genesis 1, Wright drew our attention to the language God used to speak the world into existence: “Let there be.” We often hear it as the language of divine power and control, language that sets God apart from us. God says something should exist, and boom! It does.

But maybe we think this way because we haven’t asked why God made the world in the first place. Ancient philosophers wrestled long and hard with this question. If God was perfect goodness, they reasoned, anything he created — anything that was “other” than himself — would by nature be something less than perfect goodness.

Why create that?

For N.T. Wright, the answer is fairly simple: love.

God creates because God loves. We exist because God’s love can’t be contained; it needs an object outside itself. We exist because God wanted someone to love.

Which, when you understand the nature of love, casts a rather different light on the language used in Genesis 1.

“Let there be” is releasing language.

“Let there be” is not so much the language of power and control. It’s the language God used to release, unleash and send his creative power into the world, where it would then take on a life of its own.

Which, after all, is what you do when you love someone. You don’t coerce. You don’t control. You don’t impose yourself. (For those who think I’m in danger of judging God by human standards, where do you think we got this ethic of love in the first place?)

When you love someone, you unleash them. You give them a good start, point them in the right direction, prepare them for the road ahead. But then you let them walk it. You let them discover and try and fail and become for themselves.

That’s what God does with his creation.

Let there be light.

Let dry ground appear.

Let the land produce.

Let the waters teem.

Let the humans rule.

It’s the language of love, and it carries enormous risk. To let creation do this and that was to allow it to move in directions God might not have wanted. In love, God gave his creation freedom to flourish, but that also meant giving it freedom to fail.

“Let there be,” even if it means creation goes very badly wrong.

Which of course, it did.

—//—

Not many years ago, this would have been completely foreign to me. I wanted a God who superintended the minute details of the universe. I wanted a God who knew everything that was going to happen because he had already determined everything that was going to happen. I preferred “God is in control” to “God is love.” I even wrote a master’s thesis defending the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty against the “open theism” of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd.

If I’m honest, I wanted God to be in control because I wanted to be in control. Sounds paradoxical, I know. Yet in my limited experience, those who insist the loudest on God’s absolute power have a habit of clinging tightest to power themselves — of controlling others, or trying to anyway.

Which, in many ways, is the exact opposite of what God did when he created us.

When we seek to control others, when we seek to dominate or impose our will, we commit an act of uncreation. We move against the flow of God’s creative power, saying “let me have” instead of “let there be.”

In order to participate in God’s creative work, to be co-creators with him (which is, after all, part of what it means to bear God’s image), we have to let go of power and control.

—//—

As a parent, this does not come easily for me. I want my daughter to turn out “right.” Heck, she’s only three, and already I worry: Will she be OK when she’s older? Will she even like us? Will she care about those in need? Will she fall in with the “wrong” crowd? Will she want anything to do with God?

The thing is, I can’t control how she turns out. I can try my best to guide her, give her a good foundation, point her in what I hope is the right direction. But then I have to release her to discover and try and fail and become for herself.

My wife and I brought her into this world. In our own very small way, we said, “Let her be.” And we have to keep saying it every day.

I’ve seen parents hang on to the illusion of control, falling into a tailspin of grief when their kids don’t turn out the way they’d hoped. I’ve seen parents use their unfulfilled hopes as a weapon of guilt — still trying to control their kids, still trying to force them into a predetermined mold.

And I worry every day that I’ll do the same with my daughter someday. Because I really, really want her to turn out well. But I can’t control her. To try to is folly. It is uncreation. To insist on control is to refuse our invitation to participate with God in the act of saying “let there be,” in the act of releasing our own small piece of creation to become what it will.

Because that’s what love does.

How there’s a better way to read Genesis 1

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This post was inspired by a conversation with some friends about a book called The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton.

What if you could read Genesis 1 and utterly miss the point?

What if someone told you Genesis 1 has a lot in common with other (older) creation tales from the ancient world?

What if Genesis 1 reflected ancient cosmology rather than modern science — hence light which appears before stars do and a heavenly vault that separates waters above from waters below?

What if ancient cosmology was more about the purpose of things and less about how they came into being? What if Genesis 1 was more about God bringing order and function to the cosmos than how it came into being?

To put it another way, what if Genesis 1 is about the why of creation rather than the how?

What if Genesis 1 is a really story about things which had no function, purpose, or meaning until God gave them one?

And what if the pinnacle of creation wasn’t reached on day six, when God made people?

What if Rick Warren is right? What if it’s not about us?

What if the people who added chapter breaks to the Bible got the very first chapter division wrong? What if the first few verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the first creation story?

(Did you know there were two creation stories in Genesis?)

What if day seven, which comes at the start of chapter 2 but is actually part of the first creation story, wasn’t just an afterthought? What if it’s more than a footnote to the other six days? What if day seven is the whole point of the story?

What if God resting is what it’s all about?

And what if “resting” was ancient-world-speak for when a deity took up residence in his temple?

What if God “doesn’t live in temples built by human hands” because he already has a temple — one built with his own hands? What if the reason the scriptures say that God “is not far from any one of us” is because the earth is his temple?

What if Isaiah was right? What if the earth is God’s footstool, his resting place, his dwelling?

What if that’s the point of Genesis 1, that God made a home and invited us to share it with him? What if that’s the real point of the story, not how old the earth is or how it came into being?

What if getting sidetracked by debates over the age of the earth or evolution is more than just a way of embarrassing ourselves in front of scientists? What if we’re missing the whole point of our own story?

What if the whole rest of the Bible is about God reclaiming his cosmic temple so he can take up residence — so he can dwell with us — once again?

What if that’s what he was doing when he carved out a patch of earth to share with the Israelites? What if that’s what the apostle John meant when he said Jesus “became flesh and made his dwelling among us”?

What if that’s what God started doing on a global scale when he sent his Spirit to fill his church?

What if that’s what he’s going to do at the end of the story? What if that’s why the last book of the Bible depicts a holy city — God’s city — coming down to earth?

Do you get the feeling that if we miss the real point of Genesis 1, we could miss so much else?

If we get the beginning of our story wrong, could we get the ending wrong too?

What if this is really what’s at stake in the endless debate over creation and Genesis 1 — not just our scientific credibility (though that’s on the line too) but our ability to embrace the story the Bible actually wants to tell us?

All of which, by the way, is why we need books like this . . .

Lost World of Genesis One

Ordo creatio (or, why every Christian should be a radical environmentalist)

Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary was Mark 1:9-15, the story of Jesus’ baptism and testing. Mark includes one detail about Jesus’ wilderness sojourn not found in the other Gospels: Jesus “was with the wild animals.”

Our priest made this the focus of his homily on Sunday. He argued it’s not (as widely assumed) a foreboding statement, as if to portray the animals as a threat to Jesus. Instead, it points to the whole-earth implications of Jesus’ redemptive mission. He didn’t come simply to “save souls.”

Jesus “dwells harmoniously with the wild animals,” signaling the restoration of our relationship not just with God, but with God’s creation. “There is no getting right with the world without getting right with God,” our priest said. “But there is also no getting right with God without getting right with the world he made.”

Tree hugger and proud

Environmentalists often meet their fiercest opposition within certain corners of the church, even when environmentalism is rebranded as “creation care.”

This is partly a reflection of an impoverished eschatology — the belief, fueled in part by the wildly popular Left Behind books, that God will dispose of this world in the end and evacuate the faithful to a spiritual realm. The world is going to burn someday, so why bother saving it? It’s funny how we’ve reimagined God to imitate our compulsive habit of throwing stuff away.

But it’s also reflective of an impoverished creation theology. It’s said we were made to “have dominion” over the earth — to “subdue” it. It’s said that in the order of creation, we are the apex — God’s final creative act in a story where the created elements are introduced in order of importance. We humans top the list.

Except that we don’t.

The problem is, we stop reading at the end of Genesis 1. But the first three verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the story from the previous chapter. The very first chapter division in the Bible is a perfect example of why chapter and verse divisions are such a bad idea. The interrupt the story at random intervals.

When we read the first creation story in its entirety (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3), we see the making of humanity is not the apex of creation. God’s act of resting is the high point.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the first creation story envisions the cosmos as one giant temple. In ancient Near Eastern mythology, temples are where deities went to rest. The earth is God’s intended dwelling place.

We are not the apex of creation. We are not the point of it all. The earth is not ours to exploit and do with as we see fit. The earth is not first and foremost our dwelling place. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

Because he’s a generous God, he invites us to share it with him, to dwell here with him. He invites us to rule on his behalf. That’s what it means to “have dominion” over the earth. We are tending it on behalf of God. We are caretakers. Tenants. Stewards.

Once we see our proper place in the creation story, there is no good reason why Christians shouldn’t be the most impassioned environmentalists of all.