Saturday, January 30, 2010

Environmental Stewardship as a Pro-Life Issue

This is a draft of an article that will appear in the Covenant Companion magazine that I publish here at the request of friends.

Environmental Stewardship as a Pro-Life Issue

The Covenant Church’s Annual Meeting has consistently spoken out against abortion. The indifference to human life implied in the gratuitous use of abortion deeply concerns and distresses many. Some of us are attracted to the “consistent pro-life” position that includes capital punishment and war in the list of concerns. Oddly I have seldom if ever heard anyone suggest that concern for the environment is a pro-life issue. And yet, human life itself depends on the proper stewardship of our beautiful, God given creation. Without clean water, fertile soil, and clean air life on earth is not possible.

Human beings continue to squander natural resources at an alarming rate. For a society entirely dependent on diminishing stocks of oil, we seem at times strangely indifferent to their eventual disappearance. Some estimate that we will run out of oil in forty years or so. What sort of devastation and suffering will this produce in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and China? So far we have put so many of our eggs in the basket of petroleum we are unable to imagine another way of living. We not only fuel our industries with oil, we produce our food with oil. Declining soil fertility has forced us to use more and more oil based fertilizer. In addition to all this, tons of fertile top soil wash away every year because of poor, inattentive farming. And irrigation in arid parts of the country has reduced our ancient aquifers to perilous levels.

Global warming is an immensely controversial topic in the United States. Elsewhere people have accepted the scientific evidence that human beings are contributing to the rising of sea levels, the scorching of once fertile country side, and the changing of weather patterns. Recent reports that some researchers may have fiddled with the evidence does not change the big picture. Some believe this warming is part of the normal rise and fall of temperatures throughout the earth’s existence and not a matter of human activity. But if there is a chance that our wasteful activity is producing the effect, why wouldn’t we take steps to reduce our contribution to the destruction of life on earth? But perhaps it is already too late.

Many evangelicals are hostile to environmental stewardship in general and the question of Global Warming in particular. I am frankly perplexed by this. We are justly concerned about our culture’s indifference to human life. So how is it that we can be hostile or indifferent to the enormous suffering and death of millions or even billions? Why would we refuse to address or even consider our contributions to the destruction of the earth’s health and fertility? If this is not a pro-life issue, what is? Among the virtues required to properly care for creation are frugality, self-discipline, generosity, compassion, and hope. Environmental stewardship requires harnessing our desires, addressing our greed, and “valuing others above ourselves” (Phil. 2:3). These are virtues and commitments embedded in our faith in Jesus Christ.

In my recent class on Wendell Berry I told the students that I read Berry’s critique of consumerism because I am such an ardent consumer. I raise these issues not because I do so well at addressing my own greed and wasteful way of living, but because I do so poorly. I am no paragon of environmental virtue. But I am concerned for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I am concerned that my profligate way of life produces suffering now in the most desperate places of the world, and will produce even more suffering in the future. I am trying to change my way of living because I am pro-life. I am concerned about global warming because I am pro-life. I address my concerns to the church because I don’t want the community of God’s people to be complicit in the death of innocents born, unborn, or not yet conceived.

We can certainly argue about strategies for addressing our wastefulness, our indifference to the very sources of life, and the ways in which we are destroying God’s creation. But I am skeptical about top down solutions. We need, I need, a change of heart. We need a profound cultural revolution. We need to think first about preserving, conserving, and sharing, not destroying, ignoring, and hording. Otherwise we face the judgment of God. And it will be a judgment we have brought on ourselves. In the Revelation of St. John many of the judgments are wrought upon the earth itself. In Revelation 8 a third of the earth is burned up, along with a third of the trees and a third of the green grass. The sea turns to blood and the living creatures and ships are destroyed. All this is because the people of the earth refuse to repent. This judgment, I believe is not something God will need to do directly. It is something that by our failure to live frugally and well, we are bringing upon ourselves.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Conservatives and Conservation

You don't have to be a scientist or environmental activist to recognize that without healthy soil, potable water, and clean air, life is not possible on our planet.   In his book Collapse Jared Diamond wonders what the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island was thinking?  Could he not see that without the trees the island was subject to soil erosion and water loss?  Did he lack the imagination for foresee the collapse of agriculture and the hunger, desperation and starvation what would follow?  Removal of the trees amounted to removal of one of the main sources of the island's life.  It amounted to eating the seed corn or poisoning the stream at its source.  It was short-sighted, foolish and suicidal.  A more conservative approach would be to ask how many trees could be taken for the purposes of day to day life while still preserving the forest intact.  This would make life possible both now and in the future.  A conservative approach would recommend frugality, forethought and care.

I am perplexed that "conservatives" in this country are the leading opponents of such careful stewardship of our resources.  Why is this considered a "liberal" cause?  Why are our conservatives not interested in conserving anything?  Why do both our liberals and conservatives seem oblivious to the profligacy of our lives?  And why are so many so scornful of those who raise such questions even gently?

Last week I taught a class on the American writer Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet and essayist from Kentucky.  He is a critic of the wasteful, destructive economy he has seen destroy the health of his beloved state.  Theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said he was a pacifist because he was so violent.  I told the students I read Wendell Berry's critique of consumerism because I am such an ardent consumer.  I am as much a part of this destructive economy as anyone.  But I cannot understand the resistance of so-called conservatives to the evidence concerning climate change and the likelihood that we are making life on earth increasingly difficult and perhaps eventually impossible.  I cannot understand why so many Christians seem indifferent to the whole issue.

Perhaps we think it is all a lie.  We actually have plenty of oil (although it looks like we may run out in 40 years or so).   Perhaps we think global warming is some liberal plot.  But to what end?  Don't we think "liberals" are as attached to their consumptive lifestyle as "conservatives"?  Perhaps we think, like James Watt of old, that Jesus is coming back and the earth is going to be destroyed anyway.  Or perhaps we just don't care.

The most likely explanation is that we like our consumptive and wasteful way of life and will not countenance any threat to it, even if it means our great-grandchildren will despise us.  In the end new laws out of Washington or Copenhagen will not solve our problems.  This is a spiritual issue.  This is a moral issue.  This is a cultural issues.  It will require a change of heart and mind in millions of individuals to make a difference.  Evangelical Christians are rightly concerned about abortion.  We are appalled at the loss of life it entails.  But if we do not change our way of living we may have the blood of billions on our hands.  Is this not a life issue as well?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why Read Fiction?

Flannery O'Connor once famously declared "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."  She shouted through her grotesque characters; she scrawled on the walls with red paint. Her writing had profound moral purpose and she was willing, as we say in the south, "to knock you upside the head" to get her point across.  When the narcissistic grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" recognizes the common humanity of the "Misfit" he shoots her.  "She would have been a good women," he comments memorably, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The Misfit here provides an entirely new meaning for the Christian expectation to "die daily." By such bizarre characters and circumstances O'Connor intended to give her readers a new angle of vision of the world.  Nihilism, narcissism, and hedonism had nearly deafened and blinded her contemporaries and only the most stark words and gruesome gestures could get through to them.  She intended her stories to call into question the moral vision, or lack thereof, of her readers.

This is the key value of reading fiction--to gain a new angle of vision.  I am particularly drawn to authors like O'Connor whose moral vision permeates their work.  And yet, the best of these writers are neither preachy nor didactic.  They let the story engage you, confuse you, and even frustrate you.  They make you work.  Over the last couple of days I have been reading the short stories of Wendell Berry.  His approach is gentler and more conventional than O'Connors.  But like hers, his stories contain a searing moral vision.   They speak to loss and sorrow and ruin, but are full of hope and love.  Stories like "Watch with Me" and "Pray Without Ceasing" linger in memory every bit as much as "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (perhaps the finest short story ever written by an American).  Both Berry and O'Connor force the reader to step back and question the conventional wisdom of western society.

Wallace Stegner is another American author with a powerful moral vision.  Stegner taught Berry and several other highly regarded 20th century novelists.  His Angle of Repose is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.  I would include contemporary authors like Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), Marilynne Robinson (Gilead), and David James Duncan (The Brothers K) in this class of writers.  With some hesitation I would also include Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang) whose moral vision is, shall we say, somewhat different than the others.  Nevertheless Abbey was a strong critic of the corruptions of American  and western society.  In spite of their wide differences, his work was admired by Wendell Berry.  Nearly all of these writers are gifted essayists as well as novelists.  Berry (with some hesitations), Hanson, and Robinson are clearly Christians.  The others (with the possible exception of Duncan) are not.  But all draw from the deep well of Christian critique of modern failures.

I encourage students to read fiction not only to learn how to hear and tell stories, but to stand outside of their own conventional angles of vision in hopes they will see what they have missed.  Living in the seductions of the western world we are all hard of hearing and almost blind.  Contemporary fiction, like the parables of Jesus, forces is to look at the world anew.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twelve Best of Last Year

For the last few years I have been keeping a list of the books I have read in a given year.  Nearly every year I discern a pattern.  I find a new author and track down everything she or he has ever written.  I get fascinated with a particular topic or issue and scour used books stores and for additional titles and authors addressing my pet obsession of the year.  Going over the list at the end of the year I discover that certain books made almost no impression on me.  Others have been pivotal in my thinking.  In this post I am going to share twevle books or authors that I particularly enjoyed.  These were not necessarily the best books of 2009.  They were not necessarily the most important books I read.  Rather they were books that gave me pleasure, pricked my conscience, or gave me a new angle of vision on the world.  So here they are, in no particular order.

1.  Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges

Hedges is a favorite of mine.  A Harvard Divinity School graduate who went on to be a journalist, he is known for his powerful reflection on modern warfare in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.  In Empire of Illusion he critiques the American addition to illusion, fantasy, and misinformation.  It is a gripping and disturbing book.

2. The Case for God, Karen Armstrong

I have not been a big Armstrong fan, but this book surprised me.  It was one of a series of books taking on the foolishness of the so-called "new athiests."  She argues that the god the new atheists attack bears little relationship to the God of the Bible, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It is readable, engaging, and intellectually challenging.

3.  Patience with God, Frank Schaeffer

If you haven't read Frank Schaeffer lately, you haven't really read him at all.  This is not the foaming at the mouth Franky Schaeffler of the 1980s.  His earlier autobiographical work Crazy for God described his move from being the darling of the Christian right to becoming a member of the Orthodox Church.  In the process he became a severe critic of the very people who hailed him and his father.  His latest volume is an entertaining critique of both the new atheists and the political Christian right. 

4.  Atheist Delusions, David Bently Hart

Hart's latest is also a spirited attack on the new atheists.  It is the most scathing and the most provocative of the volumes cited.  It is not only a critique of the new atheists, but a critique of popular misconceptions of Christian and European history. He eviserates the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and David Dawkins.  It is entertaining, intellecutally rigorous, and savagely funny.

5.  Leavings, Wendell Berry

Berry's latest collection of poetry is gentle, lyrical, somber, and joyful.  This poetry, unlike most modern poetry, is clear, direct, and understandable.  I find a good deal of modern poetry pompous, pretentious, and needlessly obscure.  Not so with Wendell Berry.  If you are new to his poetry I recommend A Timbered Choir, an earlier collection of his Sabbath Poems.

6.  Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, David Gooch

I am a fan of biography.  David Gooch has produced the first full biography of one of our most important American writers and American Christians.  It is a wonderful volume, full of insight, pathos, and humor.  O'Connor was one of a kind.  If you haven't read her novels or short stories, you need to get started!

7.  The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight

My colleague Scot McKnight continues to produce works of biblical and theological scholarship that are clear, engaging, and of sufficient rigor and thoughfulness to engage both scholar and lay reader.  Scot shows that scholarship does not need to be ponderous or dull.  I thoroughly enjoyed his "rethinking how to read the Bible"--perhaps because I found myself in significant agreement!  His book A Community Called Atonement deserves a shout-out as well.

8.  Erasmus,  Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig was a novelist, biographer, and chronicler of European intellectual life.  He flourished during the early decades of the 20th century. 
A Jew, he fled his native Austria at the beginning of World War II.  In 1942 he committed suicide as Hitler tightened his grip on his beloved Europe.  I found this volume in a used bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I had heard of Zweig, but never read anything of his.  This is a bittersweet and fascinating study of one of the great European intellects--a man with whom Zweig identified in powerful ways.

9.  The Next Evangleicalism,  Soong-Chan Rah

Soong-Chan's critique of the "white captivity" of American evangelicalism makes painful but necessary reading.  The volume has been highly praised and is being read widely.  This is only the first of many important pieces of cultural and religious critique that I expect from my colleague and friend.

10.  God Battalions,  Rodney Stark

In recent years Stark has produced a number of works challenging the popular assumptions about the Christian past held by both Christians and their critics.  In this volume he takes on the challenging task of defending the Crusades!  He scoffs at the popular notion that Europe was a Christian intellectual backwater in comparison to the enlightened Islamic east.  Great fun!

11. and 12  Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson

Perhaps I am cheating a bit, but rather than books I want to cite authors.  These Swedish novelists gave me a good deal of pleasure in the last year.   Their detective fiction is a notch above most of the genre.  Mankell's Wallander is the classic depressed Swede in a glorious and somber countryside.  The late Steig Larsson's Lizbeth Salander is one of the most intriguing character is detetive fiction.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Work and Vocation

I teach Bible and Theology at North Park Theological Seminary.  But I also venture on occasion into the literary world.  Next week I will be teaching a course on the American farmer/essayist/poet/novelist Wendell Berry.  Theologian Brent Laytham and I teach this course every two years.  This requires me rereading most of Berry's work over the Christmas holidays.  This is not the most auspicious time to read this critic of the consumerist economy.  He suggests, among other things, that the industrial economy is "firmly founded on the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments."  The consumerist orgy of Christmas does little to challenge this assertion.  Berry has frequently been called a Luddite.  He has been accused of being a hopelessly naive conservative and a Communist.  Berry in turn has attacked both industrial Capitalsim and industrial Communism.  With Edward Abbey he argues that our current economy shares the philosophy of the cancer cell--continuous growth until it kills the host.  In many of his works he addresses the question of good work.  In our passion to rid ourselves of the "drudgery" of manual labor many of us have demeaned work and scorned farmers, factory workers, waitresses and  just about anyone who works with their hands (with the possible exception of celebrity chefs and athletes).  I would suggest that this means, among other things, that we have lost the sense of work as "vocation."  If the Facebook postings of my friends are evidence, many if not most people dread Monday.  They seem to drag themselves to their tasks with great reluctance.  The weekends are precious.  Days off are highly valued.   For many of us, I suspect, our work is not a vocation, a calling, but simply a way to make money--a necessary evil.  Berry would suggest that there are good reasons for our disenchantments.  Our work is often boring, sterile, and unproductive.  It is not a source of pride or joy, but a grim necessity that blights our days.  There is frequently little skill involved and no pleasure in making a contribution to the larger community.  In his provocative essay "Discipline and Hope" (in Recollected Essays, North Point Press, 1981) Berry argues that "an urban discipline that in good health is closely analogous to healthy agriculture is teaching.  Like a good farmer, a good teacher is the trustee of a vital and delicate organism: the life of the mind in his community.  This is high calling, deserving of a life's work.  We have allowed it to degenerate intoo careerism and specialization. . . .Education is coming to be, not a long term investment in young minds, but a short-term investment in the economy.  We want to be able to tell how many dollars an education is worth and how soon it will begin to pay." Many in the field of educaiton would support this contention.  But,this is what happens when a vocation becomes a job.  This is what happens when the focus of work is on money and not on good work or the health of the community.  As a result we frequently do poor, violent, and destructive work--wrecking the sources of life and production.  We will never have a health and just society until we address the issue of work and vocation. This is a cultural problem, a spiritual problem, a religious problem.  There is no top down solution.  As a Christian I suggest the beginnings of a solution are found in a recognition of the world as a creation of God and of each one of us as stewards and lovers of this good creation.