I’m on vacation from work this coming week, so I’m going to start cranking out more posts over the next several days.

The sun is shining in Nashville after a couple of days of hard rain.  My thoughts over the past few days have been with the Gulf Coast and the now-month-long oil spill.  Predictably, BP has acknowledged that the extent of the spill is much worse than they first reported.  (Here’s a brief summary of the latest news from the New York Times.)  Jason Peters at Front Porch Republic captures the issue well, I think:

…[T]hings could be worse. Not different, mind you, but worse, for it turns out that on our political landscape the difference between an elephant and a donkey—so far as energy is concerned—is a difference (if difference there be) of degree, not kind. The pachydermic Proboscidae and jackassic Perissodactyla are standing on our southern shores and looking at the most recent oil disaster as a technological rather than as a moral problem.

There is neither trumpeting from the former nor braying from the latter about how we shouldn’t be drilling offshore in the first place. There are only mixed noises about being more careful and better prepared should such an unfortunate technological malfunction (somewhat akin to a wardrobe malfunction) ever happen again. Hypermobility, long-distance exchange of goods, orange juice in the cold Fargo winters—these, as our former Vice President said, are non-negotiable.

But what we are staring at off our southern shore is most assuredly a moral rather than a technological problem. It is a moral problem because we have presumed upon the earth to provide for us a standard of living no one deserves or is entitled to, a standard that has quite obviously been acquired on the credit cards of the unborn. It is a standard that is nothing less than a sickness unto death.

Also relevant to how we got into this mess is Wendell Berry’s piece from the May 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine, titled “Faustian Economics.” Well worth reading and pondering.  What should Christians do if they agree with Peters and Berry that this is a moral issue?  How should the church be involved?  If we don’t accept the notion that the church as such should be involved, how then should the individual be involved?  How do we begin to preach “limits” from the pulpit?


In other news, a friend of mine recently pointed me to the National Marriage Project.  You won’t be disappointed by the time you spend there.  This is an incredible resource for elders and evangelists about the state of marriage (and other living arrangements) in America.  I’ve long said that we should be spending more time in Churches of Christ focusing on how to sustain marriages than trying to figure out who to blame when they fail; this is a good resource for helping us do just that.


Finally, I link to this last piece because I’ve seen so little engagement by members of Churches of Christ with the New Atheism.  This preacher reviews a couple of Alister McGrath’s books on the subject and concludes with a surprisingly frank admission: the uber-rationalism of Enlightenment-era Protestantism (including Churches of Christ) has squelched the possibility of experiencing the Divine either in corporate worship or individually.

A snippet:

The church grew strong in the immediate aftereffects of the Enlightenment and the emphasis on reason and the rational. When confronted with Evangelicalism and especially Pentecostalism, there was a strong reaction, to the point where many to this day deny that God works miracles today (or, for that matter, that the demonic has any power at all). Anything that was experienced-based, regardless of its relationship to the revealed standard, was just too subjective and too questionable.

None of this is to say that all the various experiences that people claim to have with the Divine or supernatural forces are acceptable. We are strongly warned to avoid the black arts (Galatians 5:19-21). Everything must be tested by the standard of the truth as it has been revealed through the New Testament (Galatians 1:6-9, 1 John 4:1, Jude 1:3). Most of what has been promoted as the experience of the Divine has not been according to that standard, either because it was idolatrous (cf. Romans 1:18-32), or because it purported to be something that has been fulfilled (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).

Yet there is nothing in Scripture that teaches us that we should not expect to experience the Divine in any meaningful way. In fact, there is much in Scripture that teaches us that we should experience the Divine! We have seen in Acts 17:24-28 that we should “seek after God,” and that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Our lives, therefore, should be saturated with the Divine in whom we exist and subsist.

There is a helpful acknowledgment at the end that we encounter God in the Lord’s Supper and in prayer.  One might like more detail and more discussion of the unique historical situation of Churches of Christ (I, for one, would like to see what he would do with Leonard Allen’s account of the dispute between Tolbert Fanning and Robert Richardson on this question in Participating in God’s Life), but this is certainly a start and it deserves to be discussed widely.


11 responses to “vacation

  1. I’m not sure what the first part even means. A moral issue? What? A disaster, yes, and politically I’m concerned with both BP and the government’s anemic response, but that’s the nature of this world. Bad things happen sometimes. You just have to be prepared for them as best as you can, physically and spiritually.

    It does concern me that I’m seeing some Christians (particularly those of Gen Y and younger) seem to believe the modern “environmental movement” is or should be a part of Christianity. Has some influential writer(s) hatched this idea in recent years, or is it just the latest manifestation of assuming one’s favorite political trend of the moment is endorsed by heaven itself (e.g., God-given rights, anti-slavery movement, Prohibition, anticommunism, free market capitalism, etc.)?

  2. Good questions all, Jeff.

    A couple of responses to them.

    This is a moral issue to the degree that waste and greed are moral issues. Granted, in the Church we only tend to think of those in individual terms, not societal terms. But to the degree that we have bought into the assumptions of our hyper-consumerist society (and its need for oil and other natural resources to support its habit) we are implicated. To my mind, churches (preachers, elders) can address this issue in significant ways. In the same way that homeschooling groups have flourished in congregations as an alternative to the bankruptcy of the public school system, local congregations can be places where we help each other live in ways that reject the profligacy and rank materialism of Western society. I don’t think that involves (and I wouldn’t advocate that it involve) direct political action of any sort. Churches make their point, rather, by the way they live as a clear alternative to the ways of the world, not by attempting to seize the reins of power in Nashville, Raleigh, Columbia or Washington, D.C.

    To your second point, many of the assumptions of the modern environmental movement come from a kind of neo-paganism. What is utterly Biblical, though, is the notion that we are stewards, not masters, of what God has given us. He created it all and declared it good. That blessing entails responsibility on humanity’s part. Insofar as any “environmentalist” says that, I can agree. But my sense is that not many are. (The greater pity here is that this has come to be seen as “left-wing” issue by many Christians. It just goes to show how captive we can be to the cultural and political assumptions of the society at large sometimes.)

    BP (and any number of other companies) is raping the earth, sullying the creation, for profit. It’s not likely that any of us could march into the CEO’s office tomorrow and be heard. Their behavior is not likely to stop, either; they are very well-connected in Washington, as are the banks and financial institutions. Christians, though, are commanded to live in a way that is manifestly different. Our economic choices (everything from what we buy to who we buy it from and beyond) have moral implications. We would do well to begin to consider ways in which we could stop underwriting the rampant abuses that we see going on all around us.


    Oh, and as to the writers involved in my own views: there are a lot of lazy, but popular, thinkers out there whose writings are being gobbled up by people around me. I’m 32 — or will be in a few months — what “Gen” does that make me? 🙂

    In all seriousness, though, I’ve been influenced by number of pre-Reagan British and American conservatives. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, I can trace the ideas with which I identify most closely with the English Distributists G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, the Southern Agrarians (for whom see I’ll Take My Stand from 1930), Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk.

  3. A few thoughts:

    1. It’s a truism that, past a certain point, the more prosperous a society is, the more ecologically sound it is. Primitive and/or poor societies tend to be environmentally dirty and dangerous ones to live in. The more market-driven a society is, the more concerned it is with “eco-friendliness” and the more it is able to address those concerns. To desire a poorer and more primitive society is necessarily to desire a more polluted one. “Agrarian ideal” is an oxymoron.

    2. I don’t agree at all with your “stewards, not masters” statement. Read Genesis and see the words that are used to discuss man’s relation to nature: “rule over,” “subdue it,” “I have given you,” “for you,” etc. The world was made for man, not man for the world. We are servants of God and each other, but not servants of nature. We have an obligation to be thankful, to share, and to not waste, but no obligation to avoid using what God has provided. Our responsibilities are thus to God and man, not to the creation itself.

    3. With statements like “raping the earth” and “sullying the creation,” I can’t imagine why anyone would think environmentalism would be seen as left-wing. 🙂 In reality, an oil company no more “rapes the earth” by drilling for petroleum than I do when I pluck strawberries off a plant in my back yard. The problem, as with most of those that we face today, is that they’re allowed to engage in risky behavior while their paid lackeys limit their liability for those actions. If you make a mess, you have to clean it up. The problem with Big Oil isn’t the “oil”; it’s the “big,” because the “big” allows them to escape responsibility.

  4. Hi Jeff and Chris. A few comments in response to Jeff’s three points:

    1. This truism doesn’t ring true to me. Prosperous societies certainly tend to be more sanitary for their inhabitants, but that by no means makes them more ecologically friendly. I would suggest that prosperous societies are simply better at shuffling their waste off into isolated or less visible places. The problem is not market-driveness per se, but the greed that often accompanies such. This greed is just as much to blame for irresponsible handling of resources in poor as well as affluent societies. The ecological contamination is both a problem in its own right and a symptom of the underlying disease.

    2. I agree that the language of Genesis may not be quite so stewardly as some have made it out to be, but we must ask to what end we have been given authority over the earth. Is it OK to be greedy as long as you’re thankful for what you’ve been given? I would say not. There should be limits to our use of God’s blessings, as we must remember to share them not only with those around us, but also with those who will come after us. Nothing and no-one is above God, but if God has stooped down to serve his creation in love, we would do well to imitate him in our relationship to that portion of creation which is below us. Thus, we should serve nature, not as slaves, but as masters.

    3. Raping and sullying are absolutely appropriate terms. When you pick a strawberry, the plant will grow a new one. No ecosystems die, no livelihoods are lost, no beauty is defaced. You enjoy the blessings of God’s creation as he intended. When BP (with the full support of the US Government) pulls the cork out of an oil reservoir deep under water in a mad attempt to feed the voracious energy appetite of a nation that has had too much already, it does those things and more. The fault is no more theirs than ours, who with perfectly healthy legs demand to drive a half ton of metal one mile to the store to pick up a loaf of bread. I’ve given a specific example of our disease, but it is universal. Everything about our way of life contributes to our collective greed, to the extent that we don’t see it any more.

    I think Chris is correct: the church must address these issues.

  5. Jim,

    1) Which third world country do you think has a good sanitation system? Which one disposes of its hazardous waste well? Which one has smokestack scrubbers in its factories? Which one builds safer, more clean power plants? In which one would you like to drink water from? And so on.

    Wealth means the ability to live in a higher standard of living. It means you can afford to pay more and you’ll be willing to pay more for stuff that doesn’t foul your own backyard. It’s simply axiomatic.

    Now, you can argue authoritarian governments are at least as responsible as a lack of wealth for many of those conditions (after all, the old USSR was infinitely more polluting than the US ever has been), but authoritarianism and poverty certainly seem to go hand-in-hand. Not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg.

    2) You’re confusing greed with mastery. They’re two unrelated things. As I said, I find we do have obligations to be thankful, to share, and to not waste. However, the world is provided for man, not man for the world.

    3) Correction: when I pick a strawberry, it may grow another off another runner. It won’t grow one off the one I just picked. And the future plants that berry would have produced through the seeds are gone forever. The only difference between this and oil is one of scale; in both cases we’re exploiting a natural resource to the good of someone.

    Well, that and the fact that I don’t dump the berry cap (leaves above the fruit itself) into my neighbor’s yard for him to clean up, as many large companies are empowered to do by the government. As I said, the problem is not the oil part of Big Oil; the problem is the big part.

    The church has an obligation to teach its members to share, to take care of one another and those outside, to live righteously, justly, and soberly in the present world. It has no obligation – or right, for that matter – to take part in politics. God forbid it ever becomes that far gone.

  6. Picking strawberries could very well be on the same level as drilling for oil – that is if this nation ( a tiny fraction of the world’s population) destructively harvested and consumed a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s strawberries, and if in harvesting those strawberries, destroyed the ability of countless others to make a modest living from the rich natural resources/blessings God provided. Think of all the acres of bio-diversity that would be plowed up to feed our insatiable strawberry consumption. The oil gash in the Gulf isn’t about the individual sins of greedy corporate execs or incompetent Federal regulators (though that’s a part). It’s about our collective sin – gluttony, materialism, whatever. What will the families who make their living in the rich Gulf waters give thanks for? How can we share those God-given resources now that they’re dead and smothered in oil? Yes, Chris is right – this is a moral issue. And very different from strawberries. Let’s not be naive. Bishop Katherine puts it well: “The still-unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is good evidence of the interconnectedness of the whole. It has its origins in this nation’s addiction to oil, uninhibited growth, and consumerism, as well as old-fashioned greed and what my tradition calls hubris and idolatry. Our collective sins are being visited on those who have had little or no part in them: birds, marine mammals, the tiny plants and animals that constitute the base of the vast food chain in the Gulf, and on which a major part of the seafood production of the United States depends. Our sins are being visited on the fishers of southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, who seek to feed their families with the proceeds of what they catch each day. Our sins will expose New Orleans and other coastal cities to the increased likelihood of devastating floods, as the marshes that constitute the shrinking margin of storm protection continue to disappear, fouled and killed by oil.

    The oil that continues to vent from the sea floor has spread through hundreds of cubic miles of ocean, poisoning creatures of all sizes and forms, from birds, turtles, and whales to the shrimp, fish, oysters, and crabs that human beings so value, and the plankton, whose life supports the whole biological system — the very kind of creatures whose dead and decomposed tissues began the process of producing that oil so many millions of years ago.

    We know, at least intellectually, that that oil is a limited resource, yet we continue to extract and use it at increasing rates and with apparently decreasing care.”

  7. “The world is provided for man, not man for the world.”

    I agree, but that does not mean that God blesses any and every way we might want to use what he has given. My contention is that the way in which we are using certain resources (like oil) is at odds with traditional Christian morality.

    “The church has an obligation to teach its members to share, to take care of one another and those outside, to live righteously, justly, and soberly in the present world. It has no obligation – or right, for that matter – to take part in politics. God forbid it ever becomes that far gone.”

    I heartily agree. When I say that the church should address these issues, I do not mean that we should grasp at the reins of power, but should rather present and live out the kingdom of God as an alternative politic to the kingdoms of this world. We cannot do that however, until we identify that we have a problem.

  8. I’m already one post past my usual limit, so I’ll wrap this up quickly.

    Matthew, you seem to believe it’s a sin to “consume.” Of course, it’s not. The sin is idle consumption without production. If someone burns a $10 bill and someone else “consumes” $10 million and creates hundreds of jobs, who has erred and who is justified?

    Third world governments, generally poor because of corruption, war, and/or authoritarianism (i.e., bad government), are far worse in this area than the more free and more market-driven countries.

    (As far as “Bishop” Katherine… whoever she is, she needs to read more Scripture and less of the gospel of Malthus, Marx, and Gore.)

    Let me be succinct for both you and Jim:

    There is no sin inherent in drilling for oil.
    There is no sin inherent in refining oil into gasoline.
    There is no sin inherent in buying gasoline for one’s car.
    There is no sin inherent in driving a car.

    I challenge anyone to open their Bibles and prove otherwise. Not Malthus, not Marx, not Gore.

    OTOH, I am grateful to you both for giving me grist for a couple of blog posts. Provided I ever get the time to write them…

  9. Jeff,
    I agree completely that drilling, refining and using oil is not inherently a sin. I think you’re reading too quickly because I specifically state that the sin so vividly present in the Gulf disaster is not consumption but gluttony – over-consumption.

    What I don’t get Jeff from your line of reasoning is that you say mankind has an obligation to share the bounty God has provided with others, yet I wonder what will be left in the Gulf to share, to say nothing of oil reserves that are not unlimited. You said we have an obligation to be thankful for the bounty provided by God. For what can the folks who depend on the Gulf for their very livelihood give thanks for now?

    Do you really not see the connection between the pervasive culture of materialism in this country and the forces driving corporations to drill deeper and deeper in conditions more and more challenging to the point that when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, it cannot be controlled?

    Also, I don’t think anyone in this discussion has brought up labor controlling the means of production so I’m not sure what Karl Marx has to do with this. Ditto Malthus. Just because Al Gore and I (and Chris and Jeff) agree that the situation in the Gulf is, among other things, a horrific environmental disaster, doesn’t mean that Chris and Jeff and I agree with everything or anything else Al Gore says.

    I apologize for not linking to the full statement of Katherine Jefferts-Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church so that who she is and the context in which she said what she said were not clear.

    God said six times before ever creating man that Creation was good. Jeff, do you think that God looks at this and says “It is good.”?

  10. Sorry the links didn’t show up.

    So, President Bishop –

    Does God say this is good? –

  11. Matthew,

    I’ll violate my 2 posts rule for the final time to follow up.

    Marx (“uninhibited growth, and consumerism” – the alternative being inhibited growth and centralized planning), Malthus (same), and Gore (“the increased likelihood of devastating floods,” peak oil, etc.) were all present in “Bishop” Katherine’s statement you quoted.

    What you see as excess in American society appears like success to a more balanced perspective. To paraphrase Churchill, capitalism is the worst of all economic systems – except for all the others. Even our only sorta-kinda free market version has managed to all but eradicate poverty – to the point where the average “poor” household in America has a roof over its head, a car, a color TV, and enough food to the point where the biggest health problem among those we designate poor is obesity.

    Would the world be a great place if everyone dedicated themselves to Christ and lived absolutely selflessly? Certainly. However, that’s never going to happen. In fact, no more than a bare handful in any society will ever come to that level. Given that anti-Utopian dose of reality, a free market economy, where people are incentivized to provide for their neighbor’s desires, combined with a political system based on inherent rights, individual liberty, and individual responsibility is the least bad economic system conceivable.

    Not to worry, though, because between the “something for nothing” attitude of our governments for the past three decades (most especially the past one), we’re likely to be a much poorer nation in coming years. Or at least those of us not politically connected will be after the seemingly unavoidable crash of the dollar. A free society that isn’t a responsible society won’t long be a free society, after all.

    As far as what God thinks… far be it from me to speak where He has not. However, based on Matthew 6:26, I would suppose he cares infinitely more for those who perished in the explosion than for all the shrimp and pelicans subjected to oil baths. (I’d also suppose He wouldn’t have created a world where oil naturally leaches into the oceans, either, but perhaps I’m mistaken, or perhaps that’s part of the curse put on the world in Genesis.)

    As far as the fisherman and others whose livelihoods are threatened: without petroleum, they have no livelihood. No boats with engines, no trucks to transport their catch, etc. In the “perfect” world you suppose, unless you live immediately on the coast, get used to no seafood. Or much food or anything else, for that matter.

    It’s easy to wish for a world where petroleum isn’t the cornerstone of society. Unfortunately, God has not provided us with such a world. Until such a time as we discover a way to create near-limitless energy at insignificant cost, we’re stuck with it and must make the best of the reality we’re given.

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