Salvation of individual souls? Or the renewal of all things?

Our destiny is bound up with the whole created order.
— Trystan Owain Hughes

My friend Trystan was kind enough to share my piece about Christianity and the environment last week. If the comments on his Facebook page are any indication, Gnosticism — the idea that everything physical is cursed and only souls matter — is alive and well.

In a response on his blog, Trystan identifies three philosophical and cultural movements behind our tendency to ignore the plight of the natural world. What’s at stake here is a choice between two competing visions of salvation: a narrow (and ultimately unsatisfying), souls-only view on the one hand, and a more holistic, whole-creation vision of redemption on the other.

If we choose the former, then…

We are left with a bleakly individualistic and person-centred theology that is alien to much of the Bible and to the spirituality that Jesus himself practices in the gospels. Salvation, after all, is not merely about us as individuals, as even our destiny is bound up with the entire created order.

Besides, if salvation is just about individual souls, then what did Jesus mean by “the renewal of all things”? And did Paul mean when he said God would “reconcile to himself all things,” including “things on earth”?

In recent years, the phrase “human flourishing” has gained popularity in evangelical circles. (If you’ve ever attended a Q conference, one of the TED-style events put on by Gabe Lyons, then you know what I mean.) “Human flourishing” is much better than the souls-only view of salvation. It affirms that the whole person matters to God. But I want to take it a step further: I believe the biblical vision is not just for human flourishing but for whole-creation flourishing. That’s where our story is heading.

Read Trystan’s post here.

By the way, Trystan has a great book called The Compassion Quest, which lays out in greater detail his vision for an outward-focused, whole-creation faith. It’s one of those books that should be required reading for every Christian.

week #2 and wasted food

This is week #2 of the produce box scheme… and it’s going to be an interesting one.

Aside from the apples and pears, just about everything in this week’s box will be a new (or nearly new) experience in terms of cooking, eating, or both. I’m particularly intimidated by the Brussels sprouts. And the sunchokes are just plain otherworldly.

Tonight I took a mental inventory of how much we actually used from the first box. I wanted to know because by some estimates, nearly half the food produced in this country ends up going into a landfill or down the garbage disposal. So I’d like to think that eating more sustainably also means wasting less food. And I’d like to be able to say that we ate everything in the first week’s produce box. But not quite.

The truth is, we came pretty close. Not counting the extra onions and garlic we ordered (which will keep a bit longer), we managed to use everything but one giant pear-turned-to-mush and a couple of now very sprouty potatoes.  And I noticed that less food wound up in our trash can this week. Which is encouraging not only for the obvious ecological reasons, but for economic reasons as well.

One of the biggest gripes against organic/local/sustainable food is that is costs too much. It’s fine for the upwardly-mobile hipster crowd, but out of reach for ordinary eaters on a budget.

There’s no getting around the fact that organic food costs more per pound, per calorie, etc. Although Michael Pollan notes that the real cost of industrialized food is hidden from consumers – namely, the cost to our healthcare system and our environment. (Not to mention all the Middle East oil needed to cart industrialized food an average of 1,500 miles from farm or factory to dinner plate.)

I can’t help but think that reducing or eliminating our food waste would more than make up for the extra cost of local, organic food. To say nothing of the reduced healthcare costs (not like that’s a timely issue) and improved environment.

So the goal for week #2 is to use everything in the box.

the arrival

It’s here. Our first box of local produce landed on the doorstep this morning, somewhere between the unfathomable hour my wife leaves for work and the far more reasonable time of day that I head out the door.

The first week’s haul consisted of potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, purple carrots, delicata squash, beets, turnips, mushrooms, apples, a few normal size pears, and one behemoth of a pear. I’m starting to worry the behemoth pear might eat me.

Everything in the box was grown within a 203-mile radius of our house. The shiitake mushrooms traveled the farthest, coming from a farm south of Portland, Oregon. The carrots and potatoes, on the other hand, were grown just 20 miles away, on a farm right outside Tacoma.

I’m quickly realizing this experiment may involve trying some veggies I don’t like – or always assumed I don’t like. (Hello turnips, beets, and delicata squash.) So tonight, we start with the beets. Boiled for 30 minutes, sliced, drizzled with homemade pesto (basil, pine nuts, olive oil), and roasted in the oven till crispy. Pretty good, too. My wife’s reaction was more enthusiastic: something about possibly being her new favorite vegetable. (Be proud, Dwight. Be very proud.)

And yes, the beets were incredibly fresh. You could almost taste the farm – which is a lot better than it sounds. Locavores who insist that food tastes more like itself when it’s in season and local — beets taste more beety, carrots taste more carroty — might be onto something. Our beets weren’t dug out of the ground that long ago, they didn’t have far to travel, and the ground that nurtured them wasn’t laced with synthetic chemicals that are, after all, byproducts of WWII-era explosive compounds and chemical weapons. (See Omnivore’s Dilemma, pages 41-47 and 143.)

Not bad for a little beet from Yakima.

Next up: yellow turnips. And come Friday, we pick up our first order of pastured pork and lamb from Lopez Island Farm.

Fast food continent

Recently, I saw this ad—one of several from the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates, among other things, the use of free market economics to help fight poverty.

I respect the Acton Institute. I think they have several good ideas about fighting poverty. Some of their other ads advocate things like microloans for the poor and access to global markets for developing countries so they can trade their goods freely.

But in the case of this particular ad, there’s another perspective worth considering. What if 30 grams of fat is not, in fact, good for the world’s poor? What if the Big Mac represents the kind of consumerism that can hurt the poor by damaging their environment?

Consider this example from Matthew Sleeth’s book Serve God, Save the Planet (which I blogged about last month):

To obtain billions of hamburger patties for a few cents each, America’s fast-food restaurants buy much of their meat from Central and South American farmers. These farmers clear-cut forests, often starting a cattle-raising process that can be sustained for only a few short years. The loss of rain forests in South America means that the clouds they once made no longer blow across the Atlantic to drop their water on Africa. As a result, the Sahara grows by thousands of acres a year. What is the bottom line for Africans? More starvation. And the bottom line for Americans? Cheap burgers and growing waistlines.

South American rain forests generate the clouds that deposit rain on African farmlands. As these life-giving forests disappear, children starve.

Incidentally, those working in places like East Africa confirm that the frequency and severity of droughts has increased significantly. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media is too obsessed with the latest drunken celebrity incarceration story to cover the plight of the rural African farmer.

Meanwhile, these farmers report more and more difficulty as their climate changes for the worse. The Sahara is pushing southward, and the rains that once fell with some measure of predictability are becoming scarce.

In a world where children starve so I can scarf down a $4.00 value meal (one that will probably shorten my life span as well), can we really argue that unbridled consumerism is good in all its forms? Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, envisioned an invisible hand—the idea that a person who is free to pursue their own economic well-being will unwittingly contribute to the common good.

But what happens when consumerism reaches epic proportions? What happens when our appetite for more stuff—including things which, like the Big Mac, have no redeeming value—grows out of control? What happens when we embrace capitalism without restraint, without accountability, and without responsibility for those who are impacted by the choices we make?

Is it possible that we’ve bound the invisible hand? That the connection between self-interest and the common good has been broken by our unrestrained (and unrecognized) greed?

Is it possible that our choice of what and where to eat is really a choice of whether or not we will love our neighbors (including those who live on the other side of the planet)?

It may be that fast food is not only hazardous to our health. It may be that our addiction to fast food is hazardous to Africa’s health.

Serve God, Save the Planet

I just finished reading a book called Serve God, Save the Planet by J. Matthew Sleeth.

Sleeth is a medical doctor. He had a nice home on the New England coast at one point. According to his publisher’s synopsis, Sleeth was living the American dream…

Until he became convinced that the growing number of chronic illnesses he was treating had something to do with the air people were breathing…

The water they were drinking….

The chemicals their bodies were absorbing from a host of sources…

He came to believe the sharp increase he was seeing in cancer among children and young people might have something to do with the environment we live in and the toxins we’re exposed to.

So, following his grandmother’s axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Sleeth made it his life mission to call others to more responsible stewardship of the environment. Before he began preaching to others, though, he and his family took stock of their own lives and reduced their environmental impact wherever and however possible.

This is not your stereotypical environmentalist book. Sleeth is an evangelical in every sense of the word. His main audience is the church. His passion is to demonstrate for those already dedicated to God how environmental stewardship is an essential element of the Christian life.

Serve God, Save the Planet is one of the most important books I’ve read in the past year. I finished it in about a day. Then I immediately started bugging my wife to read it. (Incidentally, she read it about as quickly as I did and liked it just as much.) This is one of those books that inspired us start contemplating the changes we would make to our own lives as a result of reading it.

What I found most intriguing about Sleeth’s book is that it’s not really about the environment. It’s about life in its entirety. Like any good doctor, Sleeth takes a holistic approach to the issue. He does not stop at the symptoms but presses deeper, until he uncovers the root cause of the problem. In this case, the main culprit is consumerism—our insatiable desire for more and more stuff, even (and often) at the expense of those who have little to begin with. That, Sleeth contends, is the root cause of the environmental quandary we now find ourselves in.

Plenty of parents will find themselves nodding in agreement as Sleeth describes the impact of our society’s TV addition, for example—even if their main concern is not the environmental impact of all that television watching. Televisions are, according to Sleeth, the third largest users of electricity in our homes today. So in addition to converting our minds to mush and exploiting our appetite for the latest high-tech gadget/equity loan/sports car/hair replacement therapy, the amount of TV we watch has a direct impact on our environment.

Sleeth does an excellent job deconstructing common evangelical arguments against the prioritization of environmental issues. He does an even better job building a thoroughly biblical case for environmental stewardship and connecting the environment to other issues, like global poverty (more on that in another post soon).

In short, I can’t recommend Serve God, Save the Planet highly enough, and I can’t praise my former employer, Zondervan, highly enough for publishing the paperback edition (which, not incidentally, was published on 100% recycled paper).

I don’t feel like I can do justice to a book this good using my own words, so I thought I would share some of my favorite excerpts , in the hopes that you’ll pick up a copy and read the whole book for yourself…

On the theological significance of our “dominion” over creation (see Genesis 1:28)…

Dominion [or subduing, depending on your translation] comes from a Hebrew term meaning “higher on the root of a plant.” Dominion does not mean ownership or even unrestricted use. Implied in our dominion is our dependency on everything under us. Cut the root out from under a plant and the fruit above it will perish, despite its superior position.

On the relationship between consumerism and environmentalism…

Being pro-stewardship is not a case of valuing forests more than people; rather, it means valuing human possessions less, and God’s world more.

On the mechanistic way we sometimes view God’s creation…

We say that trees exist to make oxygen, or to give shade, or to be made into paper, and we assign them no further mystery. In other words, nature has purpose and value only insofar as it fulfills our material needs. Our worldview is so mechanistic that we ask questions like, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?”The Bible answers this question: If a tree stands in the middle of the forest and is never seen by a human, it has meaning to God. The tree is there to glorify God and to give God pleasure. And yes, if the tree topples over one day, it does make a sound and God hears it. This biblical view is at odds with the industrial worldview, but I find it comforting.

A compelling (and disturbing) example of the relationship between environmental degradation and catastrophic “natural” disasters…

In October 2004, the Indian subcontinent was flooded by a deadly tidal wave. Such events happen and will continue to happen, but one of the reasons for the record number of fatalities in this case was not the wave but the fact that all the mangrove trees along the shoreline, which normally holds back the waves, had been cut down to make way for the white sandy beaches so loved by tourists.

On the relationship between the environment, consumerism, and global poverty (which Sleeth has seen firsthand during medical missionary trips to Central America)…

How does refraining from buying a teak chair for your deck constitute mission work? … Tides of rural farmers in Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia are forced to abandon lands they have worked for generations and flood the cities. They flee the mountains because their homes are being destroyed. As the demand for deck chairs, plywood underlayment, disposable chopsticks, and teak furniture grows, the trees in the third world are cut down. Poor families often do not own the land they have worked. They have no say and make no profit from the cutting of trees. Yet cutting down the forests around them changes their world. The topsoil washes away. The streams dry up. The trees God planted to hold the land in place are gone, so when a hurricane comes, the hillsides simply collapse and wash away.

On the amount we spend on health care each year (largely treating symptoms while ignoring the larger problem, Sleeth argues) and what we get for our investment…

Rounded to the nearest hundred dollar, every man, woman, and child spends $5,000 on health care annually. A woman’s life expectancy in the United States today is seventy-nine years. In comparison, Mexico spends about $500 a person on health care, and a woman’s life expectancy there is seventy-six years. That’s $400,000 in total lifetime expenditures for the American versus $38,000 for the average Mexican woman—a bundle of money for only three more years of life. Compared to a vast portion of the world’s people, Mexico has a posh health-care budget. Virtually no country in all of Africa has a budget of $100 per capita for annual health care. Americans spend more on dog and cat health care than Africans spend on human health care.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t miss this book.

Wal-Mart goes green

Maybe you’ve seen the latest advertising blitz from Wal-Mart. No yellow smiley faces, bouncing around, slashing prices wherever they go. No soccer moms telling us how Wal-Mart helps them live the good life on a budget—by selling Levi Strauss jeans for under $20 a pair.

Instead, their latest ad campaign features ordinary-looking people against an ordinary backdrop, telling us things like:

If every Wal-Mart shopper, all 180 million of us, bought just one compact fluorescent bulb, it would reduce emissions the same as taking one million cars off the road.

If every Wal-Mart shopper bought just one pair of organic pajama pants, we could stop over a million pounds of pesticide from going into the earth.

If every Wal-Mart shopper bought just one compact laundry detergent, we’d reduce packaging waste by over 50 million pounds.

On the whole, I’m not a fan of Wal-Mart. In the last two-plus years, I’ve set foot in a Wal-Mart store just twice. Once because a friend talked me into going and once because my wife and I were given a Wal-Mart gift card. Each time I walked out, vowing never to return.

So at first I was skeptical. I thought this was just another slick marketing campaign (the ads are some of the best Wal-Mart has ever made), but hardly anything new. These days, corporations are tripping over themselves in the race to go green. A GE commercial promoting sustainable development is playing in the background as I type. Even garbage giant Waste Management has TV spots telling us how eco-friendly they are.

And another thing… this would not be the first time Wal-Mart has tried to reinvent itself, only to abandon the effort and hope no one notices. When I was a kid, Wal-Mart was the place to buy products “made in the U.S.A.” They wanted us to believe they were a true American company, selling goods made by hardworking Americans.

So much for that idea.

This morning I read “The Green Machine,” an article published by Fortune Magazine on Wal-Mart’s campaign to go green. I could hardly believe the following quote came from Wal-Mart’s CEO, Lee Scott:

To me, there can’t be anything good about putting all these chemicals in the air. There can’t be anything good about the smog you see in cities. There can’t be anything good about putting chemicals in these rivers in Third World countries so that somebody can buy an item for less money in a developed country. Those things are just inherently wrong, whether you are an environmentalist or not.

The article went on to describe how Wal-Mart is changing the way they do business, in order to lessen their ecological footprint. Eliminating excessive packaging, reducing the amount of fuel consumed by their massive truck fleet, installing energy-efficient lighting in their stores, etc.

Lee Scott explained to Wal-Mart employees that cutting the amount of packaging that winds up in Wal-Mart’s trash bins each day is just common sense:

Think about it. If we throw it away, we had to buy it first. So we pay twice—once to get it, once to have it taken away. What if we reverse that? What if our suppliers send us less, and everything they send us has value as a recycled product? No waste, and we get paid instead.

OK, so Wal-Mart’s campaign to go green is about saving money—at least as much as (if not more than) it’s about saving the earth. Which isn’t a bad thing, really. The market economy could be harnessed to help, not hurt, the environment.

For example, the environmental movement, like Wal-Mart, has reinvented itself over the years. The usual stereotype—that environmentalists are nature-worshiping, placard-waving, tree-hugging hippies—is increasingly irrelevant. More and more environmentalists are getting in touch with their entrepreneurial side. As a result, more and more executives are recognizing that caring for the earth makes good business sense.

Sometimes governments need to regulate our impact on the earth. The Clean Air Act of 1990 decreased air pollution in the United States—without hurting the U.S. economy over the long run.

But increasingly, as consumers, we have a new option. We have the opportunity to vote with our dollars, demanding products that are created and delivered in sustainable, ecologically responsible ways. (On a side note, we also have the opportunity to demand that people in the developing world who make these products are compensated fairly.) When we voice our demand, even Wal-Mart listens.

Only time will tell whether Wal-Mart’s green reinvention is for real. Will they truly go green for the long haul? We’ll see.

But it’s a start. And for all that’s wrong with our consumerist, “more-is-more” society, the flip side is that we have more eco-friendly purchasing options than ever before. Let’s take advantage of them. The more we do so, the more corporate giants like Wal-Mart will realize the value of going green.

In the end, Lee Scott is right. Whatever you think about global warming, environmental regulation, and the like, there can’t be anything good about putting all these chemicals in the air. There can’t be anything good about polluting the water supply in developing countries just so those of us in the rich world can save a few bucks on blue jeans.

James Dobson and global warming (updated)

Recently, James Dobson accused Richard Cizik (vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals) of trying to shift emphasis “away from the great moral issues of our time” and engaging in a “dangerous and divisive” conversation.

The reason? Cizik recently called on evangelicals to articulate a public theology of creation care.

In an open letter to the NAE, Dr. Dobson and several others called on Cizik to resign, saying that his “disturbing views seem to be contributing to the growing confusion about the very term ‘evangelical.'”

But caring for the earth is not the exclusive domain of tree-huggers and pantheists. Environmental issues are not just for one political party or ideology. Cizik, a self-described “pro-Bush conservative,” is proof.

Whatever one believes about global warming—and I believe it’s real—one thing is clear: creation care is important to God.

It’s so important to God, in fact, that it was one of the very first commands he gave us: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28, TNIV)

To subdue the earth is to harness its natural resources for our benefit—but it is to do so in ways that are responsible and sustainable.

One of the distinctives of ancient Jewish thought was the idea that humans ought to work with the land, not against it. You can see it in Jewish architecture. Its humble simplicity is a stark contrast to the mountain-leveling construction projects of the Greeks and the Romans.

In fact, creation care is part of the reason we are here: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, TNIV).

Creation care (or environmentalism or whatever you choose to call it) is about stewardship. It’s about realizing that we are made from the same stuff that the earth is—that we are connected to the earth because we’re all made by the same creator.

It’s about realizing that how you treat something reflects how you truly feel about its creator.

Let me illustrate. Several years ago, I was at my grandmother’s house when I found a drawer, tucked away on the third floor, crammed with papers. My grandmother had kept every letter, every card, every picture I had sent her when I was little.

Some of the letters and drawings were pretty comical. (Apparently, when I was five, I though grandmothers appreciated pictures of things like dinosaurs pooping.)

Why did she keep all those drawings (even the pooping t-rex)? She cherished them because she cherished the person who made them.

The same is true for us and God’s creation. Our success or failure to care for what God has entrusted to us will reveal how we really feel about the one who made this world.

Sincere Christians will debate the best ways to care for our environment, to go about obeying the spirit of Genesis 1:28—but the point is that we need to be having the conversation. Christians ought to be wrestling with sustainability and climate change. We need to acknowledge that if creation care is important to God, then it is, in fact, “one of the great moral issues of our day.”

[Update: Click here to read Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action. You can also view the list of signatories to this statement.]