A couple of years back, I gifted some select friends with an offensive-sounding book. “At the very least,” I smilingly assured them, “it will make a quite convenient coffee table conversation starter.” It wasn’t The Christian Gentleman’s Smoking Companion, though that book might be great for PC friends if you’re feeling tricksy. No, this one was titled Against Democracy and Equality. Pretty good, right? I mean, if that doesn’t draw the viewing visitor’s attention, little else will, because it reaches down to the root of something most Westerners hold dear—democracy and equality is the story of the west (unless you are a disaffected college student who has been reading bunches of Foucault and the like, but that’s another story!). This piece is not on that book, by the way.
Anyway, the point that caught my attention in aforesaid offensive-sounding book was the bit about the power of story. And of course we all know that stories—both good and bad, true or false—can exert an immense amount of power over the individuals who hold them as meaningful. Furthermore, because stories can be utilized as powerful mobilizers, it would be almost silly for a particular group to not employ them—especially if they were truely factual! This got me to thinking about a problem we Christians might have: the world thinks we don’t give a hoot about earth-care (you could insert words like “environment” or “ecological conservationist”). Yet that’s actually not biblical. Our scriptural narrative—the story of the Bible—does include earth-care. Lots, in fact.
It’s just that we don’t often hear about it from the pulpit.
Enter Ian Provan’s timely work, Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was. In this book, our author does two things: while at once questioning the validity of the claims made by certain writers who assert that it’s only the religions of the far past that practiced good earth-keeping, Provan also handily demonstrates that a true scriptural worldview absolutely requires—demands might be a better word—that the conscientious Christian have a caring attitude for our earth.
If you are like me, you might have heard from popular culture and the academy alike that Christianity is a particularly annoying religion. One supposed reason is that Christian theology perceives the world as an evil place that needs to be overcome. A number of our critics, folks like Karen Armstrong, Derrick Jensen, Lynn White, Evelyn Stokes, and others, suggest that Christianity disdains our physical world. And, if that were true, the arguments our detractors make would be correct: a person who believes the earth is basically bad isn’t going to be especially motivated to respect or cherish it. (They might not even be able to enjoy it! But that’s for later.) Such assertions, says Provan, are “not often repeated even as arguments, but simply as self-evident truths.” For any readers who have taken theology, you will know the concept that matter (i.e., the world) is evil is called the Manichean heresy: it basically states that matter is bad and spirit is good. For Christians, that’s what this idea is, a heresy. In this book, Provan shows that Scriptures are
world-affirming, matter affirming literature … [that] constantly rejoice in God’s creation. They take material existence deeply seriously… The world is not divine, certainly, and it is not to be worshiped. But this does not imply a devaluing of creation. It is to be well looked after … simply because it is a creation—the temple-cosmos of the creator God, filled with creatures that he has made. God also lives here, transcendent over creation but also immanent within it. And as a sacred place in which God himself dwells, the world is … a fundamentally good place.
Provan gently asserts that the fact that the naysayers (and even some from our own tribe) propose a joyless world, or one that somehow doesn’t have inherent value, demonstrates that they haven’t actually been reading biblical texts. Moreover, he explains that “since God created all things good, humans have the obligation to enjoy and enhance life.” Isn’t that just a fine turn of events for those of us who have been told exactly the opposite?
Provan additionally demonstrates—contra the critics who sometimes state, “Well, Adam and Eve were, after all, told to subdue the earth”—that the earth was not made for mankind to use and abuse at will. He decries critics of Christianity like Lynn White who suggest that Christians think “nature has no existence save to serve man.” Provan says quite the opposite is true; in fact, for Provan—and Scripture—the earth is rather a garden in which we humans dwell.
Human beings are “to till it [the garden] and keep it.” More literally, they are “to serve it [Heb. ‘abad] and keep it [Heb. shamar].” This is the very language that is used in Numbers 3:7–8 of the tasks of the priests in the moveable temple known as the tabernacle. The priests there are supposed to “perform [shamar] duties . . . doing service [‘abad] at the tabernacle; they shall be in charge of [shamar] all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and attend to the duties for the Israelites as they do service [‘abad] at the tabernacle.” In the biblical perspective, then, the work of the human being in God’s world is religious work. We are to look after sacred space—the dwelling place of God—on behalf of the one who created it. Creation is absolutely not designed “explicitly for man’s benefit” in our biblical tradition. Human rule is, in fact, designed for the benefit of all creation.
As a conscientious Christian, it sometimes can be frustrating when facing the assumed truth that Christians don’t have any sense of earth-care—especially when it’s simply not true. Thus, when clever, scholarly authors like Provan write such books outlining what our Scripture actually says about earth-care, I am grateful (and if you are the nerdy type, his ratio of footnoting to content is at a lovely ratio of 1/10).
If you are looking for some well-researched material about Christian ecological matters, Convenient Myths will enrich you. I might note, too, that Provan provides a good critique of the other “green” and indigenous religions. Either way, this book would be beneficial for those interested in what the biblical texts say concerning ecological matters, or desiring a nuanced critique of some of the arguments environmentally concerned people like Karen Armstrong, Derrick Jensen, David Suzuki, and others make. After all, it’s important to know the truth from the mistruth. Provan quotes the journalist/novelist Leonard Pitts at the conclusion of his book:
Falsehoods are harder to kill than a Hollywood zombie. Run them through with the fact, and they still shamble forward, fuelled by echo chamber media, ideological tribalism, cognitive dissonance, certain imperviousness to shame, and an understanding that a lie repeated long enough, loudly enough, long enough, becomes, in the minds of those who need to believe it, truth.