Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is our faith green? pt. 2

In part 1 we surveyed the biblical picture of the creation. We saw that:
  1. God is interested in the whole world--plants, animals, and all--not just the people, and God plans to redeem that world along with humanity.
  2. The natural world, along with humanity and the angels, offers up praises to God in its own ways. It's the work of a praiseworthy Creator every bit as much as we are.
  3. God gives care to his creation: "When you open your hand, they are filled with good things" (Ps 104:28).

I think that the great agrarian writer Wendell Berry was entirely correct when he remarked that the "conservationist indictment of Christianity is a problem... because, however just it may be, it does not come from an adequate understanding of the Bible." Christians may be culpable in some of humanity's destructive, historical attitudes towards the Earth, but they were not following scripture closely at these points. If the Church allows the scriptures to inform our understanding of the created world around us, then we will inevitably be called to a new, particular kind of holiness: an ecological holiness.

an old commission heard anew
As the first point from part 1 indicated, the bondage of creation in Romans 8, the groans, the decay, all speak to the devastation of sin's reign over this world. This contrasts starkly with the energy of Genesis 1, the explosions of new life, and a young planet lush with potential. It is only after the Fall that the soil of the Earth is placed under a curse (Gen 3:17-19). God's new creation work in Jesus Christ, witnessed to by the New Testament, looks to heal this wound. And humanity plays a crucial role in this new creation.

In Romans 8 we find creation, as N. T. Wright has put it so well, "waiting - on tiptoe with expectation, in fact - for the particular freedom it will enjoy when God gives to his children that glory, that wise rule and stewardship, which was always intended for those who bear God's glorious image." The healing of creation is tied to the redemption of human beings. The Christian is called to "put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires... and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (Eph 4:22-24). As God makes us new, restores the image of God in humanity, we need to revisit that command of God in Genesis 1: "fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen 1:28). Humanity was made the stewards of God's world--stewards in the old sense, someone left to care for another's property in his or her absence. As Wright says, it's our true fulfillment of this call that creation waits for--on tiptoe with expectation. It awaits the good dominion of the image of its good God.

This isn't a healing that we can complete of our own efforts and ingenuity, but a work of God that will finally come to pass with the revealing of his sons at the resurrection, at the words: "I am making all things new... It is finished!" (Rev 21:5-6). But the Christian life is nothing other than the living now of the life of the Kingdom coming. We have to strive after this renewed stewardship of the earth in the here and now. This is part of the reality of being new human creations in Christ, and it's especially important today, given the rapid decay the world suffers at human hands.

What would be the marks this renewed stewardship of God's planet? Let's consider the other two biblical points from part 1.
First, right stewardship of the world must keep in mind creation's song of praise to God.
I recently came across this prayer from Walter Rauschenbusch which comes straight to the point:
O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals [and all creatures] to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of humans with ruthless cruelty; so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that all creatures live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee, and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee in their place better than we in ours.

The question Rauschebusch forces us to ask is striking: is our use of this planet conducive to the praise of creation we see in the Psalms, or to the groans of travail of Romans 8? Are we treating the world around us as raw material and food, or as fellow creatures praising God together with us? Yes, God has given us provision out of the other creatures of the world, but our use of those creatures far exceeds our need. In the United States alone, 9 billion pounds of food ends up in the garbage every year. Is that a use of the created bounty around us that shows concern for the world's praise of God? What about our treatment of animals raised for food? Are commercial chicken farms places where creatures can flourish and offer jubilant praise to their God? Or do they offer up groans of travail?

Second, right stewardship of the Earth should reflect the image of God's own care for the world. Is the planet satisfied by the fruit of our work (Ps 104:13)? Or is the land poisoned by the chemicals we pump into it, and the water by toxic runoff from the land? Our growing landfills are certainly not filling the world with 'good things'. How can our methods of commercial fishing--not to mention the startling reality of overfishing the oceans--possibly align with God's particular and extravagant care for the world?

So: is our faith green? If by that we mean 'does the Christian faith have within it a mandate to care for God's creation?' the answer is yes. For Christians in the 21st century this mandate is particularly pressing, as we face unprecedented threats to the world, plant, animal, and mineral. Faithfulness in this day must mean, among other things, rethinking how we go about working and keeping the land, or how we indirectly participate in all manner of dominion over the earth that falls shockingly short of God's intentions.

What now?
What should we do? If creation care is inherent in Christianity, how should we live?
The first, absolutely crucial step for all of us (and this is really where I still am) is to be informed. 'Earth' sections can be found on numerous news websites--that might be an easy way to start. (See, for instance, The New York Times and The Telegraph.) Popular books on these issues abound, from Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals to Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded--you don't have to agree with every conclusion these folks draw to learn from their work. There are also documentary films covering the gamut of issues at play in all of this, like the recent film on dumpster diving and food waste, Dive! Because the factors contributing to contemporary ecological devastation are so numerous, this step can be daunting; nevertheless it is crucial.

Of course, we also need to take action. This can take any number of forms. Recycling your plastic bottles or purchasing some reusable grocery bags are among the simplest steps you can take towards a lifestyle that is less exploitative of our planet's resources. Earth911 is an informative and practical site for green concerns. Local Harvest is also a great website for finding out about opportunities in your community for supporting agricultural practices that are less environmentally harmful.
More than all that, some of us, in some congregations and communities, need to be vocal about this. Let fly in your Sunday school class that you're recycling plastic bottles--offer to take some off of other people's hands. This is not the time to labor silently, looking for God's rewards in secret; this is the time for prophetic declarations and demonstrations. The consumer practices of American society, practices in which we have all been entangled in some way or another, defy the Church's call to stewardship of God's world. This collusion must be named and rejected, and the Church must pursue a new way of living in the world. Because of the depth and reach of our failure here, our repentance, our turning, has to be loud and clear.

We must also pray. Perhaps we need to pray the psalms, and allow their understanding of the world sink down deep into us. We might pray for particular concerns we have, local, global, immediate or long term. A simple place to begin might be to allow these familiar words take on new meaning the next time you offer them to God: "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven."

There is so much more to be said, and so many other courses of action before us, but my discussion will have to rest here. As I've said, I'm just beginning to understand and appreciate this issue myself, and my own steps towards a new life alongside God's creation have been small. Still, I'm convinced that the responsibility of 'dominion' laid on humanity is today calling affluent, Western Christians to account. We simply cannot go forward with the understandings, explicit or implicit, of the world that have guided us for so long. Scripture and the harsh realities of the day call us to something new. Our place is to answer, to join God in this aspect of his all-encompassing, new-creation work. It's a much bigger work than we thought.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is our faith green? pt. 1

I don't have to tell you how a rising 'green' conscience is changing--at least at a surface level--how our society thinks about the environment. Water bottles proudly advertise: "Smaller Cap = Less Plastic." Reusable grocery bags hang before your eyes at every turn, daring you to walk out of that store with disposable plastic bags in tow; recycle bins near the exits offer you an out, in case you snubbed the earlier green option. The owners of hybrid gas-electric and alternative fuel vehicles are routinely offered rebates as well as state and federal tax incentives. An Earth-consciousness is slowly seeping into the popular psyche.

This is also an impulse being embraced by many churches. Recycle bins are filled with worship programs at the end of many a Sunday service. Churches provide community gardens to foster closer ties between people and the land they walk on. (Read, for instance, the story of Anathoth Garden at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church in North Carolina.) We even have The Green Bible, including essays by Christians from across the spectrum--N. T. Wright to Brian McLaren to John Paul II--and printed on recycled paper with "soy-based ink, and water-based coating."
Yet for all the ardor of a green Bible, many Christians are skeptical of this trend, to say the least. This movement as it has been embraced by some Christians has been reviled by others as 'nature worship', cultural captivity, and, worse yet, a thinly veiled liberal political agenda.

Where should we stand on these matters? Is this a legitimately Christian concern, or has the church adopted some popular, secular interests?

Creation in the Bible
As usual, I want to start with the Bible, because I'm convinced that the Bible tells us who we truly are and gives us a story for understanding the world around us in truth.
Many readers are convinced that scripture's teaching on "the heavens and the earth," the plants, and the animals is pretty straightforward: these things will pass away. The Bible is really concerned with the story of humanity, and the redemption of humanity. The other works of God's hands are fleeting, and they ought to be on the periphery (at best) of our vision and aims.

This is simply not true. Humanity is at the heart of God's saving work as it's witnessed to in scripture--the Word became flesh--but God's plan is for all of his creation, not human beings alone. If we think our Lord is not interested in the non-human creation, that these things are simply going to pass away, we need to look at the Bible again.

Romans 8 is often cited in this discussion, and rightly so. Here Paul offers us a vision of God's redemptive work that is much wider in scope than we might expect. At the heart of the letter to the Romans, he writes:
The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (8:19-23)

Just as we await the resurrection, the whole creation likewise awaits a redemption from its bondage to decay. As John Wesley commented here, creation is not going to be destroyed but delivered. The created order is awaiting the revealing of the sons of God, the people of God who will worship the Lord and exercise right stewardship over the world--the restoration of God's intentions for humanity in Genesis 1-2. This is the end that God's saving work is moving towards. Salvation is so much bigger than we have been giving it credit for.

We also see the picture of a restored creation in Isaiah, where we are given a striking image of the animal world at last at peace. "The wold shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat..." (11:1-9; see also 65:17-25). My favorite is the image of the bear and the cow grazing together. The prophet does not envision a great, climactic work of saving individual men and women, but a restoration for all of God's creatures, down to the animals. This is the reality of the new heavens and the new earth. This is the substance of God's words in Revelation: "See, I am making all things new... it is done!" (21:5-6)
The Bible's story of salvation is a story about all of creation, not just humankind. Maybe this truth will help us hear the Jesus' Great Commission in Mark with new ears: "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation" (16:15). This is good news for the whole creation.

This shouldn't surprise us. After all, the biblical authors see plants and animals as gloriously more than simply the raw materials necessary for our well-being. The Psalms remind us again and again of the full, scriptural vision of creation.
Psalm 148 in a bright shining example of this: this poem pans across the whole of creation, showing the praise of God on all lips. The angels and heavenly hosts praise God, the sun and moon, fish, hills, the fruit trees, beasts and livestock, and, finally, humanity. Taken together, all of Gods works--not just human beings, not even just men and angels--all of God's works offer praise to their maker in a a great symphony of creation.
The world is not simply a resource at our disposal: it is the Lord's (Ps 24:1); it offers up praise to him; he rejoices in it (104:31), and he intends to redeem it. Anything less than this falls short of the scriptural portrait of our planet.

Psalm 104 provides a final, crucial element in our whirlwind survey of creation in the scriptures: God provides for his creation.
We see especially in vv. 10-30 God's unbridled attentiveness to the creatures he has made: giving water to wild donkeys and cedars alike, a home to the stork, food for man and beast, refuge to rock badgers, creatures to play in the seas. The psalmist is reveling in the vast menagerie the greets her eyes, and she insists that God gives care to every obscure corner of it. "The earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work" (104:13). Our Maker in hands-on in his continuing care for his world.

In part 2, we'll think about where to go from here--how should Christians live, in light of a biblical picture of the Earth?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

what is a biblical prophet?

I was reminded today of some interesting observations in Walter Brueggemann's classic book, The Prophetic Imagination. Brueggemann opens the first chapter with a description of the "tired misconceptions" that plague study of the Old Testament prophets.
The dominant conservative misconception, evident in manifold bumper stickers, is that the prophet is a fortune-teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous), usually with specific reference to Jesus. While one would not want to deny totally those facets of the practice of prophecy, there tends to be a kind of reductionism that is mechanical and therefore untenable. While the prophets are in a way future-tellers, they are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present.

'Conservative' readers of the Bible, Brueggemann suggests, think of a prophet exclusively in terms of prophesying about the future. This is the reductionism he's talking about, and he insists that this is a mischaracterization of the Old Testament prophets. After all, the prophetic words quoted by the New Testament authors make up just the tiniest bit of the enormous books of prophecy in the Old Testament. The prophets have other intentions.

Brueggemann continues:
Conversely, liberals who abdicated and turned all futuring over to conservatives have settled for a focus on the present. Thus prophecy is alternatively reduced to righteous indignation and, in circles where I move, prophecy is understood as social action...

'Liberals', on the other hand, reduce prophecy to a call to social justice. Yes, social action does loom large in the prophetic books (a fact some conservative readers may not be aware of--I know, because I remember the shock of learning it myself), but it is not the whole of biblical prophecy.
It's not surprising that this Old Testament scholar thinks both approaches fail to really grasp the ancient Israelite understanding of prophecy.

Do either of these camps sound familiar to you? While I know what he's talking about, I have never moved in the liberal circles Brueggemann did. My upbringing tended in the other direction.
In the church I grew up in, 'the prophets' were limited--unintentionally, of course--to Jonah and Daniel. They might also pop up around Christmas, heralding the coming of Christ through the words of Isaiah. This left me, and probably many others, with an odd picture of the prophet: he is one called to deliver the word of God, which is usually a cryptic word that can only be deciphered by a look to the future: the time of Jesus, or even to the present. And occasionally prophets are swallowed by big fish. Prophecy was "futuring," describing coming events in God's work, whether that's the incarnation or the crucifixion, or the international, political maneuvers that will trigger Jesus' return.

Unfortunately, this idea of a prophet sends you back to scripture with some odd reading glasses on. Daniel, Revelation, and some spots here and there in the other prophets fit your mold; the rest don't, and they usually get ignored because of it. In the end you're left with wrong-headed way of reading a few books, and the others you don't read at all. That was my experience, at least, and maybe it will sound familiar to you.

Brueggemann wrote these words over thirty years ago, but his descriptions still hold true in a lot of ways. Perhaps then we should pay some attention to the alternative he suggests:
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.

The people of God are called to live as an "alternative community" in the midst of the world. At times that people loses sight of this vocation, though, and their faith, their distinctiveness, is domesticated. They cease to offer an alternative to the ways of the world. This is where the voice of the prophet is needed, reminding the people that the order of the present world is illegitimate and must be rejected. God has promised a newness that they are to live in anticipation of. Thus the word of the prophet is, as he said, about the future "as it impinges on the present." The prophet's words are meant to reorient us towards God's coming kingdom, so that we can live as God's people in the world now.

How does that image of the prophet sound to you? Does it seem to capture well what the ministries and Ezekiel and Isaiah are aiming at--not just Daniel? Does it give the prophets more of a word for the church today? After all, if they're only speaking about the end of the world, their word to us might not seem too important unless that end is very near.

How are you reading the prophets? What kind of preconceptions are you bringing to scripture here? How has it hindered (or helped) your hearing of God's word?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Christians and the environment

Christianity Today recently interviewed Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris on a Christian approach to the environment. Peterson is probably best known for The Message, his popular paraphrase of the Bible, but I've found much of his other work to be really thoughtful and provocative.

Lately I've been considered writing a bit on Christians and the environment, as I feel that--while in some quarters this topic is probably over-emphasized--in many churches this question has yet to be raised, this challenge yet to be faced. With any luck, I'll get to this in the near future. Until then, enjoy this interesting interview.