Monday, September 24, 2012

comic books and caring for creation

In the Natchez community lately there's been a lot of talk about the need to educate folks about recycling--you hear this call in the newspaper every few days, it seems. Well I'm all for education on environmental issues, and so I've come up with the strangest, most roundabout way I could of talking about it.

In the early 1970s, writers at DC Comics, home of icons like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, created a character called the Swamp Thing.
Swamp Thing, as the story goes, was a brilliant young scientist, Alec Holland, who, through complicated circumstances, an explosion, and a lot of chemicals, was transformed into a giant vegetable-creature. The Swamp Thing led a typical comic book monster life, facing off against vampires, zombies, and the like, rescuing damsels in distress, being misunderstood, and occasionally rubbing shoulders with some proper superheroes.

terrible rubber suit

Over the years this comic monster grew in popularity which blossomed into the absolute low-point of Swamp Thing’s career, a lame 1980s B-film, complete with an awkward beauty-and-the-beast romance and a man in a terrible rubber suit.

Stay with me here.

A couple of years after this cinematic monstrosity, DC decided to give the plant-man a facelift. They offered the writing position on The Saga of The Swamp Thing to a young, talented Brit named Alan Moore, who went on to imagine some of the finest and most interesting stories and characters printed by DC in almost a century of publication. By the mid-80s, Swamp Thing was one of the most respected and popular titles in the comic book world.

One of the more subtle but fundamental changes that Moore made to the comic had to do with the character’s origin story. For years, the Swamp Thing had longed to recover his human form, to return to his life as Alec Holland—this was a running theme in the stories. Under Alan Moore’s pen, however, the character made a startling discovery: he wasn’t actually Alec Holland at all, and he never was. The Swamp Thing was a purely vegetable entity that had absorbed the memories of the long diseased scientist in the sci-fi chemical-explosion scenario mentioned above.
The Swamp Thing was no longer a man trying to cope with life in the body of a vegetable-monster; now the Swamp Thing was a plant trying to understand and endure the habits of the human beings surrounding him. The whole orientation of the character’s experiences was flipped on its head. It was no longer a story about a man—it became the story of a vegetable (still with the occasional vampire, zombie, or superhero, of course).

I really appreciate this move on Moore’s part because, oddly enough, you can find a similar move in the Bible.
What do I mean? Well, take Psalm 104, for example. The psalm-writer goes on for verses about the natural world without much mention of us at all:
You put gushing springs into dry riverbeds. They flow between the mountains, providing water for every wild animal--the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Overhead, the birds in the sky make their home, chirping loudly in the trees. The Lord's trees are well watered--the cedars of Lebanon, which God planted, where the birds make their nests, where the stork has a home in the cypresses. Lord, you have done so many things! You made them all so wisely! The earth is full of your creations! Let the Lord's glory last forever! Let the Lord rejoice in all he has made!
Psalm 104:10-12, 16-17, 24, 31

It's a long psalm, and I had to leave out so much, so check it out for yourself. But the point is, the Lord rejoices in all he has made, all the creatures that fill his earth. He tends to each, supplying the needs of all (104:27-28). Creation has its own relation to God, apart from humanity. The story of this world isn't just a story about men: its a story about vegetables too, and animals--they have their own plot line, their own roles, and their own peculiar importance in the eyes of God. 

It seems to me that Christians, if they talk about it at all, usually talk about the diversity of life on this planet in one of two ways. Either these creatures have been provided by God to meet our needs, as resources for humanity, or they are here under our care, and human beings are stewards of the creatures around us. The problem is, both of these views define creation in terms of humanity. It’s a story about human beings and how we relate to the creatures around us. This is all true, but we can't stop here. As we see in the psalm, this is not the only story the scriptures tell. The trees of the forest shout out for joy before God (Ps 96:12)! The Lord made the great creatures of the ocean, not for us to hunt or domesticate, but just so they could play in the water (Ps. 104:26)!
You don't have to talk about humanity to talk about creation--it’s not all about us. God enjoys the good world that he created, and the creatures of that world worship God in their own ways (see Ps 148:7-12). And it has gone on this way for quite a while. Both the book of Genesis and the natural sciences witness to the truth that the world was full of plants long before humanity came along—we are latecomers to creation, and creation can get along just fine without us. The Creator enjoys his world, and the world enjoys its Creator, with or without us. 

This fact should change the way we treat God’s world. Christians need to live on this planet in ways that don't interrupt the praise the rivers and mountains offer to the Lord (Ps 98:8), ways that won't make the lion's roar a cry of lament (Ps 104:21). Steps we take to preserve the world's ecosystems, recycling, fighting pollution, all of these things you've heard a thousand times, these steps really do matter. The story of God's world isn't just a story of men and women. It's a story about moles and pumpkins, orchids and cypress trees, and their own relationships with their God. As servants of this God we have opportunities--and a responsibility--to acknowledge that story every day, in all of our consumption and habits and the smallest decisions. Yes, including recycling.

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