Matthew Sleeth’s The Gospel According to the Earth teems with practical advice tethering spiritual profit with green ethics, offering religious insights skillfully woven with intimate stories.
Filled with voluminous, therefore occasionally overwhelming, planet-saving tips, the tone encourages positive behavior changes, rather than bouts of guilt. Perhaps because of his perfect bedside manner and hundreds of yearly lectures at churches, Dr. Sleeth‘s message is significantly impacting evangelicals.
We are grateful for Sleeth’s recognition that: alone among the creatures humans are created in God’s image; Christians should excel at hospitality; we should not make idols of material things; the prosperity gospel is a counterfeit; technology is not “inherently evil”; we should observe the Sabbath. Hugely to his credit, Sleeth makes extensive scriptural references.
Yet defense of vital truths compels one to address faults. We must pay careful attention to the gospel of God’s Word, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, rose again (1 Corinthians 15:1-3), and calls us to repent of our sin (including the self-righteous sin of thinking we can save ourselves by works) and trust in Christ, on His terms. Sleeth’s ‘gospel’ uses, but distorts, precious Biblical language, asking and answering the question, “How would Jesus save the earth,” teaching that it will be through our sacrificial actions. “I believe,” Sleeth writes, “that humanity stands at a great crossroads. We hold the fate of God’s creation in our hands” (xiv).
Sleeth’s ‘gospel’ uses, but distorts, precious Biblical language
We must live less affluent lives, Sleeth argues, for “simplicity as a way of life brings us closer to God. It is a means of receiving God’s grace as he transforms us. Simplicity helps us disconnect from the worldly concerns that destroy God’s creation and, instead, engage in redemptive actions that heal. … If simplicity brings us closer to God; consumerism draws us to, the devil” (170).
God’s main concern, Sleeth contends, is to save the planet … from us. He claims that human actions, like consuming “meat, food out of season, and food from exotic places has a detrimental impact on the health of ourselves and the planet” (140). He does not say, so much as imply, that these behaviors are sinful, thus encouraging a sub-scriptural view of sin, and mankind. It does not occur to him that the definitions of ‘sins’ he invents may come from poor science, economics, and Scripture twisting.
Downsizing does not answer gluttony or avarice, yet Sleeth says “the less we fill our homes with material things, the more contented and spirit-filled our lives will become” (ix). True, Lazarus was a beggar and was blessed of God. Yet the Bible also exalts godly Abraham and Job, lifting up these wealthy men, like glittering jewels, for our consideration. Neither wealth nor poverty, but righteousness is considered the important thing.
Portraying downsizing as virtue is as mistaken as portraying wealth as virtue, neither being virtuous or vicious. Laziness leading to poverty is sinful (violating the Fourth Commandment’s requirement to work six days a week), and theft leading to wealth is sinful (violating the Eighth Commandment), but neither poverty nor wealth is sinful, Paul advising contentment in either (Philippians 4:11-12). There is something abortive with a ‘gospel’ that misunderstands sin and misinterprets God’s law, leading to conclusions defining as sin what Scripture defines as God‘s blessing—like wealth from diligent labor (Proverbs 10:4; Deuteronomy 28:8), or large families (Psalm 127:3-5; 128:3-4).
Sleeth’s green ‘gospel’ masquerades in Christian language, distracting attention from the real crisis of sin and separation from God, towards imagining “[t]he world is dying” (x). Materialism, he teaches, births spiritual problems, contrary to Scriptural teaching that materialism is symptom, not cause. Hope is found in ecocentric lifestyles, self-servingly presented as sacrificial: “How could I become more like Jesus-more meek, humble, compassionate, thankful, forgiving, and loving? Clearly, I needed to scale back my lifestyle” (xii). The end result is that carbon-sensitive behaviors, geography and nature become critical for a proper relationship to God. Though sounding noble and humble to serve and sacrifice for the planet, is this not precisely the bondage Paul warned against in Colossians 2:18-23, where narcissistic austerity replaces a sincere love for God displayed in obedience to His commandments, which, unlike Sleeth’s, “are not burdensome” (I John 5:3)?
Sleeth’s ‘gospel’ invites a tumble into errors characterizing the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day: having a zeal for righteousness, they sought it not by faith but by law keeping, and so did not get it, because no works of the law can justify us—but the believing Gentiles, not seeking righteousness by the law but by faith, found it (Romans 3:20; 9:30–10:4).
There is a genuine spiritual danger that in replacing the emphasis on Christ we find to our dismay that the “gospel according to the Earth” leads humans to worship or serve the creation, instead of the Creator.
A more extensive review comparing detailed themes with Scriptural data is found here.
James Wanliss, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC, a Senior Fellow of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a lay theologian, and the author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death (Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, 2011).