Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet
208 pp., 16.99
Karen Swallow Prior
Green Like God
Just as it was once asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth, so one might ask if anything green could come out of the Southern Baptist Convention. (Having been a Baptist since my second baptism—that being by immersion—I hope I've earned the privilege of constructive criticism.) In a culture in which political positions are often based on the company they keep, it hardly seems likely that an organization known more for championing conservative causes than for tree-hugging would embrace the environmentalist cause.
On the other hand, the words "conservative" and "conservation" do share a root. And apparently I'm not the only Southern Baptist who's wondered for a long time why conservative Christians haven't been leading the campaign for responsible stewardship of God's creation. Green Like God is the work of a bona fide Southern Baptist. Jonathan Merritt is the son of a former SBC president no less, the founder of the Southern Baptist Climate and Environment Initiative, and a graduate of SBC-affiliated Liberty University. (For the record, although I teach at Liberty University, I've never met Merritt.)
Green Like God is not an environmentalist's environmental book. But it is a Southern Baptist's environmental book. In language and approach, it aims to disarm and persuade an audience representative of the typical Southern Baptist's posture toward any environmental agenda, one that most likely ranges from leery to skeptical to downright hostile. Merritt cites many figures revered by conservative Christians: Charles Colson, Francis Schaeffer, Alister McGrath, N. T. Wright, and John Stott, to name a few. Included among the resources listed at the end of the book are the likes of Newt Gingrich and Richard Land. (Of course, some folks that more conservative types might look askance at are listed, too, such as Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and E. O. Wilson).
Furthermore, Merritt avoids the alarmist language that characterizes many works on the subject, even those by some Christians. He doesn't refer to a "current environmental crisis" or issue a call "to save the planet." Such a polemical approach might be appropriate for other audiences, but not for the people to whom Merritt is appealing.
Although he majored in biology as an undergraduate, Merritt's real authority in addressing a readership of unlikely environmentalists is his own history. He describes himself as "a convert to a way thinking with which [he] previously disagreed." He confesses to having been the sort of punk (my words, not his) who thought that throwing garbage out of his car window "was being bold and cute" (his words, not mine). He's a quintessential Millennial, the kind whose self-described BlackBerry addiction provoked a temper tantrum of sorts as the signal bars on his cell phone disappeared with each mile he traveled into the African savanna on a recent missions trip. But something funny happened on the way to his seminary degree: Merritt realized that one cannot fully love the Creator without loving his creation. When one of his seminary professors compared the destruction of God's creation (a form of general revelation) to the tearing out of a page of the Bible (special revelation), Merritt was convicted. And the strength of his book lies in the passion of the converted. Ultimately, and rightly, Merritt rejects the label "environmentalist," describing himself instead as "someone who is searching for God's heart" about God's creation. The book, he says, "is about the One behind the environment. It is as much about the Creator as the creation."
In one of his strongest chapters, Merritt dispels a number of myths apt to keep some evangelicals from including environmental concerns within otherwise far-reaching and ambitious political and social agendas. In response to the notion that "environmentalism is for tree-hugging secularist liberals," Merritt points out that the "'radical left' has commandeered environmentalism largely because the 'far right' gave up the moral high ground long ago in its exclusive pursuit of other issues." In response to the "eschatological argument" ("the world is going to end anyway") Merritt explains that "the knowledge of a returning Master does not free us from our earthly obligations; it calls us to them." Perhaps most compellingly, he dismantles the argument that concern for the environment "distracts us from more important tasks" such as spreading the gospel. Rather, Merritt asserts, "Creation care is a gospel issue." He explains that for the people of the world who know little or nothing about Jesus Christ, the creation is their starting point. The way the rest of the world sees God's people treating the creation tells them something of their view of the Creator. When Christians display an attitude of disregard toward the earth that is so directly connected to the everyday lives of so many people around the world, Merritt states, "it damages our witness." Thus, "When done properly and proportionately, creation care serves only to strengthen the gospel."
In his worthy attempt "to depolarize and depoliticize environmentalism," Merritt strikes a healthy biblical balance between the prevailing extremes. For example, "We have the right to use animals for food," Merritt argues, but not to "act in cruel, cavalier ways toward God's creation or inflict unnecessary suffering on any living creature." He explores the difference between "dominion" and "domination." He points out what should not need to be pointed out, that the Bible says in Psalm 24:1, "The earth is the Lord's," not "The earth is man's."
Throughout the book, Merritt's allegiance is clearly to the Bible first and to a faithful understanding of what the Bible teaches about man's rightful role in and over the earth. Though ample references to what some might argue are dubious studies, debatable statistics, shaky science, and questionable causal relationships might prove a stumbling block for certain readers, he stakes his position not on these but rather on his understanding of the Bible. Thus, in giving greatest credence not to pop environmentalism but rather to knowing and understanding biblical principles, Merritt makes the strongest possible case for a Christian view of stewardship of the earth. As "a follower of Christ," Merritt states, "what matters to me most is God's truth."
The weaknesses in the book tend to surface when there is a lack of care in wording or nuance of thought. Merritt's assertion, for example, that ill treatment has rendered much of the earth's land "unfit for farming" doesn't take into consideration how much of the earth's land is made up of rock or sand. (Should we blame the Creator for bad environmental planning?) In affirming Barbara Brown Taylor's observation that she doesn't need church to "encounter God" but can find him in nature, Merritt overlooks the purpose of corporate worship (be it in the pews or in the woods). He also states that the "Bible doesn't teach the sanctity of human life, but the sanctity of all life. Although plants and animals—from flowers to frogs—are not equivalents to humans, they remain creations of a God who loves them and has place value on them."
But such an assertion ignores the understood meaning of the phrase "sanctity of human life" (a notion which, like many of the concepts employed to clarify Christian doctrine, is not explicitly expressed in the text of the Bible but nevertheless is central within historical Christianity). And the book's bizarre subtitle ("Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet") and the "Plan Points" at the end of each chapter smack suspiciously of a mid-level marketing manager's scheme to sell the book to fans of The Da Vinci Code and dieters as well as to Sunday School classes.
So be it. The more people who read Merritt's book, the better. Its release was timed to coincide with this year's Earth Day celebration. No one could have predicted that just one day before the release, the worst oil spill in U.S. history would take place. The spill's economic and environmental devastation, which escalates with each passing day, ought to convince every believer, even if this book won't, that we neglect stewardship of the earth at our own peril.
Karen Swallow Prior is associate professor of English and chair, Department of English and Modern Languages, at Liberty University.
Copyright © 2010 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.