A Covenant with the Earth
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the most recent clear and present witness that environmental issues are not the intellectual hobby of the dilettante, but instead have everything to do with life and death.
Life: The holistic health and daily provision of countless men, women, and children of the Gulf region have been threatened. Death: human deaths are enough, let alone the death of the Gulf's ecosystem, once teeming with biodiversity. While recent reports suggest that the spill is dissipating much faster than we had feared, we won't know the full effects for years. And the present scope of the disaster has been bad enough, almost unfathomable.
The oil spill has raised the environmental consciousness of the American public. But if publishing trends are any indication, evangelicals' concern for the environment was surging even before April 20. In the past year, practically every evangelical publishing house has published or re-released a book on creation care. Some, frankly, are naïve: While the Bible contains many references to rivers, seas, mountains, and animals, and portrays a God who cares for the sparrow and a Son who commonly used agrarian images in his teachings, this does not qualify God as "green." Other books, thankfully, mine rich biblical themes.
Let me highlight four of these books, and then suggest one biblical theme worth exploring more deeply and broadly as we seek to learn what it means to care for creation as Christians.
An Environmental Sampling
Of the four books I highlight, three represent a common theology of creation care.
One of the most popular said books is Matthew Sleeth's The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book Is a Green Book, released by HarperOne this March. A former er doctor, Sleeth has been one of the more effective evangelists for creation care in the evangelical movement, a popular speaker on many Christian college campuses.
His book recounts the roots of his environmental conversion: "So, I asked myself, What, if anything, does the Bible have to say about caring for the earth?" He read the Bible from cover to cover, underlining everything that had to do with nature. "What I ended up with was an underlined Bible," he writes. Sleeth's intent is "[to explore] some of the deepest themes of Scripture—repeating patterns … that counsel us to lead lives closer to the example set by Jesus."
Unfortunately, with some exceptions, Sleeth offers a piecemeal collection of anecdotes and biblical passages that are often de-contextualized or merely contain nature imagery. For example, in examining the theme of work in Genesis 1-3, Sleeth challenges us to rethink our captivity to American consumerism and recommit to simple living. These are good admonitions, but his interaction with the Bible is frustratingly cutesy. He imagines the apple in Genesis 3 as a "labor-saving device" and Adam's temptation as avoiding the "honest work" that God prepared for him. From this, Sleeth challenges our over-dependence on labor-saving devices (think electric dryers) and provides practical ways we can care for creation by adopting "retro-technology" (think clotheslines).
Strangely, what motivated Sleeth's family to live in retro was "to honor the commandment to tend and care for the garden." However, he continues, "It is not the primary reason we continue to do it. We do this labor-increasing activity because it gives us more life." But doesn't honoring God and his commands always give us more life?
He calls for water conservation due to its ubiquity in Scripture: the Flood, human development in the waters of the womb, Jesus' "rebirth" (not "resurrection"?), and the fact that salvation is a rebirth through "water and spirit." Curiously, Sleeth notes how water is also a symbol of chaos, darkness, and danger in the ancient world, but emphasizes its positive associations in John 3, in Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus. But amassing texts that include nature symbols does not suffice for supporting creation care.