Jonathan Merritt's book, Green Like God, is next up on my list of 28 books on Christian approaches to the environment, food, and simple living. (Looks like I'm going to need more than 28 days but I'll get there.) Merritt is a Southern Baptist, the son of a former SBC president, and a graduate of Liberty University. I'm learning from all of these books that the author's Christian context is crucial to understanding the their approach to the environment, and it turns out this is more true for Merritt's book than others. It offers a very helpful window into Southern Baptist culture and theology as it relates to the environmental movement.
Merritt shares the story of how, out of a mainstream Southern Baptist background where environmentalism was anathema, he came to less mainstream conclusions about the Biblical mandate to care for creation. His green conversion moment came in a seminary course where a professor said,
There are two forms of divine revelation: the special revelation in Scripture that is able to lead us to salvation and the general revelation we receive through nature. Both are from God. So when we destroy creation, which is God's revelation, it's similar to tearing a page out of the Bible."
In SBC theology, the authority of Scripture is above all else so Merritt's approach in the book is to start with this foundation by exploring what the Bible says about the environment and then apply the insight "directly to the environmental situations in which we find ourselves."
My favorite parts of the book are where Merritt challenges some of the assumptions that lay behind resistance to environmentalism among leaders in the SBC. In a telling passage he quotes from B. H. Carroll, cofounder of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who wrote in one of his commentaries:
In God's love neither man nor nation can hold title to neither land nor sea and let them remain undeveloped.... The ignorant savage cannot hold large territories of fertile land merely for hunting ground. When the developer comes he must retire.... mere priority of occupancy on a given territory cannot be a barrier to the progress of civilization. Wealth has no right to buy a county, or state, or continent and turn it into a deer park. The earth is man's.
Merritt points out that, despite what Carroll asserts, according to the BIble, "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, and all who live in it." (Psalm 24:1) Merritt says, "It was difficult for me to believe that Carroll, a wonderful Bible scholar, would espouse this erroneous theology, common among Christians of his day, that nature is our enemy who must be conquered and enslaved." I'm intrigued by the disconnect that he points to here. How is it that Christians can have their noses firmly planted in the Bible and miss out on the important area of caring for the Creation?
Merritt's book is most helpful to the conversation around Christians and the environment in the way it makes the case that Christians who claim the Bible as the ultimate authority, must therefore take a stance of caring for creation. Merritt's approach to is to seek after a proper interpretation of Scripture as a corrective and I think this is very helpful and needed.
But this corrective only goes so far in addressing the questions of why there has been resistance. Where Merritt focuses on proper interpretation of the Bible as the key issue, I find myself drawn to the complexities of the situation. The problem is not isolated to an improper interpretation of the Bible, but rather a complicated interaction of cultural, philosophical, and historical issues that have led to a disconnect between the modern expressions of the Christian faith and the environment. If the Church is going to make the transition from ambivalence to passionate advocacy, we're going to need a broad awareness of all of these issues, biblical intepretation included.
I enjoyed Green Like God and admire the work that Merritt is doing as an advocate for a biblical approach to creation care. His book is a pioneering contribution.