Monthly Archives: October 2013

American Christianity and the Rape of Creation

It’s the cruelest mystery that evangelical earth-keepers labor to explain.

How can it be that people who have been redeemed by the grace of the Creator have so little quarrel with the forces actively plundering and destroying his Creation? Indeed, how can it be that so much of the American church is firmly allied with those forces, who routinely dismiss the warnings of learned people regarding unprecedented ocean acidification, rapid sea-level rise, runaway species extinction and unjust impacts of manmade climate change?

We ourselves keep asking the question, but we struggle for credible answers as we contemplate the implications for our faith community – both now, and at some future reckoning.

Last week, we walked with the poet Wendell Berry through some surprising teachings of the Bible regarding the nature of the Creation and our place in it as image-bearers of God. We heard, among other things, a narrative about John 3:16, the verse loved by Christians everywhere – that the incarnation and saving work of Christ was made possible only by God’s love for the world, not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is; that the words “God so loved the world” force us to confront the lovability of everything He made, despite its corruption by us; and that our destruction of nature is thus worse than stupidity or poor stewardship – it is “the most horrid blasphemy.”

Now, we also hear Berry echoing our dismay that so few American Christians exhibit meaningful interest in conserving our God’s beloved Creation:

“The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows this all the time. But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible? How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?” (The Art of the Commonplace, pp. 310-311)

Personally, I’ll admit to posing this sort of question myself, mainly as a rant, usually not really looking for an answer. What’s the matter with you people!? How can you embrace and defend the consumerist idolatry that undermines mankind’s first God-given task – to tend and keep the Creation? Or even, how can you look the other way, and offer mere platitudes about “stewardship” while distant populations suffer from failed crops and storm-ravaged communities?

But Berry does not rant, and for now, neither will I. Because there is a heresy at work here that infects most – perhaps all – of us Christians, to varying degrees. And it’s almost certainly at the root of much of the problem. Yes, Christians, more than anyone, have reason to affirm our role as “keepers” in God’s garden, as tenants in His vineyard. Even more, if we looked, we would be amazed at the core gospel narrative – that God loved his world so much that he became physically part of it to reconcile the whole thing to himself. All things. Nothing excluded.

More or less, we Christians do believe this. But it’s clear that we also believe – whatever we profess in our better moments – something deeply corrosive to biblical faith. It’s sometimes called dualism. And dualism shows up all over our hymns, our sermons, and our casual speech.

We sing of Christ coming to “take me home” to a disembodied spirit-world, or of the things of earth growing “strangely dim;” we tell our bereaved friends that their loved ones are “in a better place” as we continue in this material world; we come together from our offices, factories and farms into “the house of the Lord;” our pastors engage in “ministry” while we labor in worldly jobs; and we rise early for our “time with God” before heading off to our secular day’s work. These, and a thousand other hallmarks of our daily living, signal to us how neatly divided our religious minds have become: heaven there v. earth here; God’s house v. our secular workplaces; “kingdom work” v. our daily tasks; and holy souls v. tainted bodies.

Picture1We were supposed to have gotten over this dualism ages ago. The earliest Christians had to deal with the Platonic dualistic notion that the realm of ideas was exalted, but the physical creation was base. It gave rise to the Gnostic heresy that denied the actual incarnation: it was unthinkable that a holy God could become tainted by becoming actual earthy, smelly stuff. Christ may have looked human, but it was actually some clever divine trick.  Continue reading

Cooking Without Fire

This morning I read about the ongoing disaster from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Then I turned to the UN’s new assessment that we have no choice but to stop burning coal and other fossil fuels, and very soon. Then I read my congressman’s vow to choke off taxpayer investment in renewable technology – to “stop subsidizing risky and unproven technologies at the expense of American taxpayers.”

Okay, let’s review this: Nuclear is imponderably risky for millennia to come; fossil fuels are leading us into planetary imbalances not seen in many millions of years; and politicians are committed to keeping things just the way they are.

Oh, and one more thing: We are stewards – not owners – accountable for a groaning creation that doesn’t belong to us: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” Psalm 24:1.

So we’re caught in a hopeless trap? Unable to effect change until the gods of technology finally get around to rescuing us? Waiting on ephemeral political change to break the gridlock?

Actually, not at all. Because the biggest changes are easily within our reach, in the form of efficiency and measured consumption. Your congressman can’t stop you from lightening your footprint. And yesterday, we had the pleasure of trying something really nifty: Cooking without fire.

It happens that our kids Nathan and Sarah Elwood just came back from Uganda, and brought with them an early Christmas present: something called a Kookinbag. Originally developed in Uganda, Kookinbag is a UK version of what is called a “fireless cooker” in parts of East Africa. (Friends in Kenya actually first introduced us to the idea.) It’s basically a well-insulated basket that holds a pot of long-cooking foods like beans, rice, soups or stews, permitting them to cook for hours after being boiled for only minutes.

Around here, black beans and rice – or feijao com arroz – are a staple, especially on Meatless Mondays. But the beans take a long time on the stove, and that’s doubly problematic in the summer heat, what with burning the stove gas and raising the mercury in the farmhouse. But with the Kookinbag, all that changes.

potSo here’s how it went yesterday. As always, we soaked the dried beans, and then heated them to boiling on the stove. Trust me, there are beans in there.



bagThen, we loosened the Kookinbag drawstring, and pulled out the pillow-like top.




pot in cookerIn goes the hot saucepan with the beans and water.




closed upThe pillow fits onto the top, and the drawstring is pulled tight again. Then off to bed.




beansNext morning, voila! Fully cooked, tender black beans. Now, sautéed onions, bell peppers, garlic and seasonings are a cinch, and the feast is ready in minutes. Rice cooks the same way, but only takes about 20 minutes.

Here’s an idea of the amount of fuel-burn time you’ll need to cook other things with this fireless cooker:


Oh, and in case you don’t get around to finding one of these gizmos for yourself, we’ve used the same idea for months now using a second, larger pot lined with pot-holders and kitchen towels. Try it yourself!

Creation care may seem like the stuff of policymakers, inventors and diplomats. But sometimes, it’s as simple as cooking beans.

Note: Special thanks to Craig Sorley of Care of Creation Kenya for introducing us to this great idea. A great mission, and worthy of generous support.

Wendell Berry: God So Loved the World

If we read the Bible … we are apt to discover several things about which modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet or to which they have paid little attention.

We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein” …. In biblical terms, the “landowner” is the guest and steward of God: “The land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” ….

frog (2)We will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good, that he made it for his pleasure, and that he continues to love it and find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to Heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God’s love for the world – not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus dependent on the prior belief in the inherent goodness – the lovability – of the world.

We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God “gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh shall perish together.” And Psalm 104 says, “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created.” Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Phillip Sherrard has written that “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.”

Picture1This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God. As the poet George Herbert put it: “Thou art in small things great, not small in any … For thou art infinite in one and all.”

We will discover that for these reasons our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them ….

William Blake was biblically correct, then, when he said that “everything that lives is holy.”

Selections from The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry, Part V: Christianity and the Survival of Creation, pp. 307-308.

Typhoon Phailin Sets its Sights on Indian Coast

Grant Walsh, a friend of ours in Kolkata, India, first alerted us by FB this morning to the threat of a monster storm – Typhoon Phailin – bearing down on India’s east coast on the Bay of Bengal. I was reading the Times, so I scoured the paper, and the website for more info. Nothing.

Fortunately, there are other ways. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Phailin headed for Indian coast SE of Kolkata

    Phailin headed for Indian coast SE of Kolkata

    Typhoon Phailin (pronounced “pie-leen,” and meaning “sapphire”) is about half as large as the entire Indian subcontinent, and headed toward Brahmapur, Odisha State (almost midway down the coast between Kolkata in the north and the southern tip of the country).

  • The term “typhoon” is the Pacific equivalent of Atlantic “hurricane;” both can be called “tropical cyclones.” Phailin is currently Category 4, and unlikely to lose any strength prior to landfall projected for Saturday morning. There’s talk of Category 5 by then. (Note: Hurricane Katrina was Category 3.)
  • India and Bangladesh and Southeast Asia are extremely vulnerable to tropical cyclones. The world’s ten deadliest cyclones all hit the Bay of Bengal or the West Pacific, and they killed at least 2.2 million people. Hurricane Katrina – which killed 1,800 – doesn’t even make the top 35. A single cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 1970 killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people.
  • Odisha State, where this storm is likely to hit, is badly exposed to storm surges, which are expected in the range of 5-8 feet above tidal peaks. The topography is very low, with many river systems. 40 million people live here.
Low-lying Odisha is vulnerable to storm surges

Low-lying Odisha is vulnerable to storm surges

This is a storm, and a threat to many precious lives.  It is not a case study in global climatic disruptions, or a matter for debating societies. From our relative comfort here at home, we will have to pray, to dig deep, and to give generously after this thing has passed.

But if you can stand it, watch closely as the news unfolds, because this is a glimpse of what sea-level rise will look like in a world of melting glaciers and ice caps. In fact, nearby Kolkata is ranked number one among cities of the world in population at risk from rising seas. (Miami is number one in value of assets at risk.) If this storm should veer north and hit Kolkata, none could fathom the extent of sorrow and suffering.

And as we in America continue to delay and resist action on climatic threats, I beg you, let us refrain from referring to this as an “act of God.”

Grace and peace to you.

J. Elwood

Climate Departure: Imagine Living on a Different Planet

New Yorkers, do you remember the heat wave of July 2012 in the city? As we sweltered in the oppressive heat, we came within a whisker of the month-long heat record set eleven years earlier. Ten days broke the 90-degree mark. Our asphalt streets jacked up that heat to oven-like conditions. The subway was nearly unbearable. Remember?

But what about Washingtonians? Do you remember July a year earlier? That month in 2011, you set your all-time record for summer misery. For 23 days that month, you broiled in the ninety-plus oven, and broke 100 seven times. Do you remember?


Larry Deklinski/The News-Item

And Dallas, and Houston: You haven’t forgotten that summer either, have you?  If Dante Alighieri had been alive to visit you in 2011, his Inferno would have had a whole section devoted to you. Remember the newscasters who fried eggs on car dashboards, and baked cookies on the passenger’s seats? You spent 34 consecutive days above 100 degrees. Do you remember?

Okay, it’s beginning to come back now, isn’t it?

Now, I want you to picture a very different world. This’ll take some imagination, but just try, okay? In this imaginary world, your very coldest July – your record cold July – is hotter than those sizzling months. That’s right: In this hypothetical world, July 2011 would break every record for summer cold snaps in Texas. Only 34 days straight above 100 in Dallas? Thank God for the cool weather! And in this land-of-make-believe, that’s true for every single month of the year. Not one single monthly record low that’s not hotter than the corresponding record high in our world.

Could you imagine living in such a world?

Well, depending on where you live, it may not take much imagination very soon. That’s the conclusion of peer-reviewed research published yesterday in the journal Nature. How soon? For New York and Washington, 34 years from now — 2037. For Istanbul and Kampala, same year. But for the six million residents of Papua New Guinea, this strange new world arrives in 2020 – only seven years from now.

“To put it simply,” National Geographic reports, “the coldest year in New Guinea after 2020 will be warmer than the hottest year anyone there has ever experienced.”   Continue reading

Wendell Berry: Take No Thought for the Morrow

I’m thankful for Wendell Berry.

It seems all my favorite books quote his poetry liberally. I’ve even wrestled with a number of his poems myself. I’ve been challenged. My faith in the gospel has been stretched. My anger at injustice and folly has been kindled. And – whether he intended to or not – he’s exposed me for the fraud that I am.

On a superficial level, there are a few similarities, Berry and me. We both left the epicenter of American consumption for insignificant little organic farms. It seems we share the same nightmare of the consumerist destruction of all things good and beautiful. We have each been led away in handcuffs for overstaying our welcome with powerful men. I think we both cling to the gospel of Christ, but recoil in shame at the culture that loudly claims his name.

But for me, I look for solutions in big things. I desperately want national, even global, action to address the climate crisis. I see the crying need for Christians to get off the fence, and demand action now for responsible climate policies. I don’t have time for anything that won’t work, and work fast. The more furiously I run, the less time I have for the small piece of ground that has been entrusted to me. And given how few things will actually work in our broken democracy, I am prone to despair.

I suspect Berry wrestles with despair too. But he’s found a way to be faithful in small things: the Kentucky River’s polluted waters, Eastern Kentucky’s coal-devastated mountains and streams, poisoned willows and birds. Why not focus on the big things that work? How can caring for a small farm really succeed in the fight to preserve the creation for its Maker and his creatures?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” says Berry. “The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”

That quote comes from Berry’s recent interview with Bill Moyers. Berry doesn’t do a lot of interviews, but Moyer sat him down for forty minutes, and the video is thrilling to me.  Here’s a one-minute trailer for the show: 

If that looks interesting, consider watching the whole thing. But look out. I don’t believe you’ll come away unchanged, and not everyone will go for that. Here’s the entire show. It’s more than worth the time, in my book:

And in case you’re reading on, here are a few snippets I thought worth highlighting:

  • You know, you’re waiting for the day when some politician of stature and visibility will finally say, we can’t have this any longer, we’re here in Washington or Frankfort to represent the people, not to be employed or bought by the corporations and to serve them.
  • It’s an article of my faith and belief that all creatures live by breathing God’s breath and participating in his spirit. And this means that the whole thing is holy. The whole shooting match. There are no sacred and unsacred places. There are only sacred and desecrated places. So finally I see those gouges in the surface mine country as desecrations, not just as land abuse. Not just as human oppression, but as desecration. As blasphemy.
  • This is the dreadful situation that young people are in. I think of them and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience. And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial.
  • Agriculture as we are now practicing it involves a highly destructive ratio between people and land. More and more land is being used, and used fairly destructively by fewer and fewer people; used destructively because the fewness of the people implies and requires a dependence on more and more mechanical power and more and more toxic chemicals.
  • It’s wrong for people to mistreat fellow creatures. To use them inconsiderately and cruelly. Let me say that there is an inescapable cruelty involved in our life. We have to live at the expense of other creatures. Doesn’t make any difference how vegetarian we are, we’re still displacing other creatures. But the rule in using other creatures – and I mean plants and animals – is to use them with the minimum of violence.
  • The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? Tell them at least what you say to yourself. Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined; the fields, eroded; the streams, polluted; the mountains, overturned. Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it, as you care for no other place… (from A Poem of Hope)

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Please, on Behalf of a Granddaughter…

Dear President Obama:

With the craziness gripping our country these days, it’s easy to forget that there are other more devastating perils to be addressed. I know you haven’t forgotten about the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. I haven’t either.

Yesterday, I took my granddaughter, three-year-old Clara Mae, for a walk in the woods to collect black walnuts. Yes, I like walnuts. But more important by far is for this little child to look at the bugs that camouflage with the hornbeam bark, pull off the little sticker seeds that hitch a ride on passing humans, listen and respond to bird calls, and learn that trees provide food for many, including us. When she grows up, she’ll understand – I hope – that the entire creation is connected, and how we care for the trees, bugs and birds is related to how we care for ourselves and worship our Creator.

On the other hand, by the time she’s of voting age, if we don’t act now on climate pollution, we will have burned another trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere (as the IPCC has just warned us), exceeding the 3.6 degree warming threshold, and threatening her wellbeing, or worse.

A walk in the woods with a grandchild is vital, if she’s to understand her connections to the rest of creation.  I hope that every parent or grandparent will teach their children these connections. But it’s up to you, and to “grown-ups” like me, to protect her from disrupted global ecosystems while she can’t act for herself.

Please do not let TransCanada and the oil companies ram this enormous pipeline through our country, vastly increasing tar sands production, poisoning native communities in Canada, fouling the air breathed by poorer communities near Gulf Coast refineries, and hastening us along the perilous path to irreversibly disrupted global atmospheric and oceanic systems.

Please. On behalf of my dear granddaughter, and the billions of other children who are loved by their parents and grandparents, I ask you to stop the pipeline.