Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Christians & Conservation” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone.
Christians & Conservation
Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community
Creation at Risk? Religion, Science, and Environmentalism
Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship
Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental
reviewed by Preston Jones
Imagine two Americans, reasonable facsimiles of whom live somewhere near you. One strives to keep damaging insects from his tomato patch by non-lethal means—snail-repelling copper strips and such; the other smashes, swats, and sprays every living thing unfortunate enough to get within sight of his rosebushes. The former goes out of his way to buy food, dairy, and meat goods from producers who care for creation in addition to profits; the other says that if God made it, man can eat it. The one recycles all the household refuse he can; the other throws aluminum cans, bottles, and newspapers away, despite the fact that his municipality has provided him with free recycling bins and service. Both of these Americans are relatively active church members and, if given the chance, both would claim that they are exercising dominion over the portions of the earth they touch.
Another thing these Americans have in common is an unavoidable ignorance of the extent to which even the seemingly trivial decisions they make each day affect this planet.
Enter Wendell Berry, who in the essays that make up Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community wants to make readers aware that the way they conduct their everyday lives matters. While the essays gathered here are concerned with subjects as different as tobacco farming, the Gulf War, GATT, and television addiction, linking them all is the passion that has been at the heart of Berry’s work since at least the 1960s: the preservation of small, and especially farm-based, communities.
Just about everything Berry has published has been filtered through this prism. Thus, in the 1980s he wondered how it was that a nation could spend so much time, money, and energy on nuclear bombs and other massive weaponry when—since less than one percent of the population feeds all the rest—a handful of well-placed bullets from third-rate rifles could bring the United States to the brink of starvation. Thus, in the essay from whence this book takes its title, Berry inveighs against corporate advertisers and others who relentlessly “pimp” for the sexual revolution, thereby denigrating sexual love within marriage, which Berry believes is at the heart of functional community. And thus in a talk he gave in 1992 at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, titled “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry went after his own Christian kin—he was raised Southern Baptist—for mistaking economic fashion and the pursuit of leisure for biblical principle. “Despite its protests to the contrary,” Berry said, “modern Christianity . . . has been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households.” And alluding in one place to the chemicals and poisons Americans pour on their gardens and down sundry drains on a daily basis, Berry notes that “It is understandably difficult for [American Christians] to think of their dwellings and workplaces as holy, because most of these are . . . places of desecration, deeply involved in the ruin of Creation.”
In sum, the view expressed in this essay and elsewhere in Berry’s work is that Christians would do well to look less at creation as something from which simply to extract wealth and comfort and more as God’s handiwork bequeathed to men to be honored and carefully employed. The earth was not made strictly for man’s enjoyment. Indeed, “By denying spirit and truth to the nonhuman Creation, modern proponents of religion have legitimized a form of blasphemy without which the nature- and culture-destroying machinery of the industrial economy could not have been built—that is, they have legitimized bad work.” “Good human work honors God’s work,” Berry says. “Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin.”
While Berry cites numerous Scripture passages in this essay, he does not support his environmental allegations with footnotes to scientific research but with the force of his own experience as one who gave up a comfortable life in the upper echelons of the American academy for a family farm in Kentucky, and as one—simultaneously conservative and radical—who in many ways has his finger on this nation’s uncertain pulse. He is angry, he is cool, he is a man of obvious integrity, and his prose is nothing less than graceful. I cannot recommend this book, and everything else Berry has published, highly enough.
What of Creation at Risk?, Redeeming Creation, and Where Garden Meets Wilderness? The first, edited by Michael Cromartie, is primarily a collection of selected papers that were read to a gathering of evangelical academics brought together by the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1994. In addition to the five papers collected here are written responses to them, as well as transcripts of some of the discussions the papers and responses elicited. In his preface Cromartie writes that he hopes this book will “clear up some confusion” over environmental matters, “encourage constructive thinking on both sides of the political divide” (for some reason, in our public culture “conservatives” and “liberals” are expected to maintain certain positions on the environment), and “help raise the level of debate” between conservationists, free marketeers, and others interested in environmental questions. On its own, Charles Rubin’s paper, “Managing the Planet: The Politics of ‘The Environment,’” would do little toward meeting Cromartie’s third objective. In the same way that all pro-lifers are sometimes lumped together with the bomb throwers among them, Rubin smacks “environmentalists” in general for the excesses of fanatics, writing in one instance that “environmentalists love to liken humanity to terrestrial cancer”—a rather stark generalization. Rubin is answered by, among others, Andrew Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment (Washington, D.C.).
According to Kimbrell, what irks some “conservatives” is the fact that many who are actively concerned about the environment are, in the conservatives’ view, modern heretics: they do not believe it prudent to assume that science and technology will inevitably come to the environmental rescue, and they don’t think that an unfettered, or nearly unfettered, free market will necessarily contribute to a cleaner world. Sane environmentalists recognize that the command economies of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were disastrous for the environment. What they also want to suggest is that in the long run an unfettered free market would be likewise disastrous. Kimbrell doesn’t note this example, but it’s worth pointing out that the greed-driven environmental abuse of some American megafarmers is presently contributing to the desertification of the American Midwest. It’s also worth pointing out that this is happening in part because the American public’s demand for meat requires factory farmers to process as many food animals as they can, as quickly as they can, with only the slightest regard for the long-term health of this nation’s land and people.
Van Dyke and others’ Redeeming Creation will be useful primarily as an entry into the study of “environmental stewardship.” Made up of chapters with titles like “God the Creator,” “God’s World Today,” and “Ecology and the Christian Mind,” and replete with references to scholarly works and passages in Scripture, Redeeming Creation will be especially useful to high-school students and university undergraduates. This book’s four authors, all Ph.D.s in the biological sciences, believe that the earth faces real environmental crises—rain forest depletion and global warming, for example. But they also believe that a proper understanding of Scripture and of biblical human stewardship of creation would, if put to work, lead the way out of danger. Also included in this book are practical suggestions that might be taken up by concerned readers who wish to be better custodians of the world that surrounds them.
In Where Garden Meets Wilderness E. Calvin Beisner, professor of interdisciplinary studies at Covenant College (Georgia), meets evangelical environmentalists with a formidable, if not always convincing, array of biblical, economic, and scientific refutations. Going out of his way to be civil, the formula Beisner often employs might be called “conciliate, then engage”—as in, “the evangelical environmentalists have a good point here, but. . . .” The result is over 200 pages of well-intentioned and sometimes impressive tedium that only those most committed to refuting environmentalists, or to refuting the refuters, will be able to appreciate. And there is at least one notable lapse. This book’s third chapter is devoted to Beisner’s point-by-point response to Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation, edited by Loren Wilkinson, an evangelical environmentalist. The only assertion Beisner cites from Earthkeeping that he does not dispute calls for “concern” for the animals man has bred and states that when humans make use of animals, they should do so “with as little pain as possible.” To this Beisner responds “Bravo.” Yet, though he does rail against what he calls the “animal rights crowd” (portions of which deserve to be railed against), he never mentions factory farms—sites of utter ruthlessness.
How it is that “conservatives” can, through their silence, defend the elimination of small farms and the growth of an essentially vicious factory farm industry is frankly beyond me.
Of course, it isn’t that conservative Christians who, unwittingly or not, support factory farming actually approve of conditions so stressful that, for example, chickens, pigs, and turkeys are given to cannibalism. It isn’t that Christians actually approve of damaging local streams and lakes with pesticides and other poisons. And it isn’t that Christians approve of the destruction of small communities for the sake of “progress.” But at some time theoretical disapproval must find expression even in the seemingly trivial choices one makes. As in, buying eggs from farmers who treat God’s animals like God’s animals and not as mere machines. This is something with which the authors of each of these books would agree.
Preston Jones, a lecturer in history at Sonoma State University in California, has published articles in numerous publications, including, most recently, the National Post (Canada) and the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Christians & Conservation” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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