Book Review: “The Gospel According to the Earth”, by J. Matthew Sleeth, HarperOne, 2010.

by james on September 28, 2011

in Books, Environmental


A shorter review of this work, “Keeping the Gospel Clear in the Face of Green Twists“, is found here. References at the end of this review are listed in the text by square [] brackets; page numbers in the book by round () brackets.


Part 1

The Gospel According to the Earth

image_thumb[2]Matthew Sleeth has a gift for making his readers feel comfortable. What he writes is attractive and engaging, inviting the reader to curl up in front of a warm fire and prepare to learn from the good doctor. His first book, “Serve God, Save the Planet”, was an enjoyable, almost folksy, read. Fast on its heels comes the similarly breezy “The Gospel According to the Earth”. Weighing in under 200 pages, it is light and airy, the work of a few hours for avid readers.

Sleeth’s Earth Gospel teems with practical advice tethering spiritual profit to Green ethics, without falling prey to the temptation to become a full-blown political tract. Sleeth offers religious insights woven with intimate vignettes of family life and lessons learned as a physician in rural Maine. These personal touches make the book a pleasure to read. Every chapter ends with lists of action items to help save the planet. For instance, Chapter 1 (on Work) ends with 37 actions “you can do to be intentionally green”(18). These include recycling religiously and volunteering to wash dishes at church events. My intentionally Green score was 21, which is just shy of 60 percent. Presumably this shows that I have some way to go, but not without hope.

Although the volume of planet-saving tips could seem overwhelming, the tone encourages one to make positive behavior changes rather than become buried by bouts of guilt. Sleeth is gentle, if no less insistent. He does not scold. Perhaps because of his perfect bedside manner, Dr. Sleeth‘s message has made a significant impact on evangelicals, having presented over 900 times in the past two years, including at “mega-churches like Mars Hill in Grand Rapids and Grace Fellowship in Baltimore, to Southern Baptist churches in the Bible Belt, mosques in California, and synagogues in Boston.[1] Well-known environmentalist Bill McKibben, a Methodist like Sleeth, writes, “Other evangelicals are less political, but at least as subversive. …Matthew Sleeth, for instance, quit his job to preach the green gospel. . . .[2]

Sleeth not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. He sincerely believes that “The work of our lives is bringing what we say into the line of what we do.[3] He urges austerity and sacrifice, and lives it himself. Why would a wealthy physician deny himself, quit his job, and live a simpler life? Matthew Sleeth is not tuning out, but turning on. But to what? “[T]he commandment to tend and care for the garden” (14) inspires his passion.

Other evangelicals are less political, but at least as subversive. …Matthew Sleeth, for instance, quit his job to preach the green gospel. . . .

— Bill McKibben

Sleeth’s transparent appetite and excitement for his new calling is contagious. His faith becomes the engine for environmental activism and justice. Also in 2010, Sleeth’s Hope for Creation, published by Zondervan, explains how, “It’s time for us to reclaim our role in God’s creation story and accept with excitement our calling to ‘save the planet’ for the sake of Jesus Christ.[4]

In other words, when Matthew Sleeth offers the gospel according to the Earth, he is not speaking metaphorically. He is presenting his case that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel according to the Earth. He intends no pantheistic comparisons, nor would it be a competent or sound objection to construe Sleeth’s provocative title as equating Christ with the Earth. It is not reasonable to dwell on such objections.

With wife Nancy and two children, he consistently seeks to bring his lifestyle in line with his values. The Sleeths have cut back on their fossil fuel consumption by two thirds and electricity use by nine tenths in the past few years. This is an example of radical change the Green gospel can bring. Sleeth makes the equivalence between the Green gospel and the gospel of the grace of God clearer when he explains how “[r]eading the Bible through a green lens radically changed my life” (8).

Richard Cizik

This experience is like that of Richard Cizik, one of Sleeth’s collaborators on The Green Bible, the ideal companion book to Sleeth’s Gospel. When Cizik, former Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, came to see how environmental crises spring from sinful human behaviors and that the Green gospel was the answer, scales fell off his eyes; he had an experience, he said, “not unlike my conversion to Christ.[5]

Sleeth has been an environmentalist since his youth near Washington, DC, where he found many influences to nurture this growing Green sensibility. Indeed, the first automobile he drove belonged to Gaylord Nelson, the Democratic Senator and principal founder of Earth Day. But Sleeth’s environmentalism was tame until, searching sacred texts of various religions, he found its justification in the Bible. With his discovery of the gospel according to the Earth, like Cizik, he found the spiritual energy previously lacking. Thus energized by the gospel of Green, he can make what many would consider radical sacrifices for his environmental passions.

The gospel according to the Earth is that it is not enough to have a personal relationship with Jesus – necessary as that is – but that sacrificial personal action, devoted to the Earth, must flow from that relationship. “I believe,” Sleeth writes, “that humanity stands at a great crossroads. We hold the fate of God’s creation in our hands.” And the gospel, according to the Earth, frames and answers the question, “How would Jesus save the earth?” (xiv).

Sinful?

Sleeth answers this question by his actions, which he describes copiously. The Sleeths have not owned a clothes dryer since at least 2002, and they dry their “laundry the way Jesus, Bach, and Einstein did” (12). Simple actions like this, we learn, save five pounds of coal with each washing, thus saving energy, avoiding destructive effects of mining, and unwanted carbon dioxide emissions. A note Sleeth posted on the Internet in 2010 says, “Actions, deeds, and works of charity get heaven’s attention.[6] All of this proves helpful in understanding “The Gospel According to the Earth”.

Though he does not quote it, Sleeth is clearly trying to take seriously the Biblical command to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The urgent need to “save the planet” and his personal responsibility before the Lord makes even mundane activities like washing clothing become significant. Sleeth asks, essentially, if Christ was physically among us today, “What would Jesus do?” And the answer is: Jesus would not use a clothes dryer.

Since he walks the walk, Sleeth is not shy to talk the talk, asking all readers what they are doing to get right with the Earth, and so with God. Have you changed your light bulbs? Do you recycle, and pump tires on your hybrid car? Do you have few children or, if not yet a parent, do you intend to limit your offspring to two at the most? Some reviewers might consider Sleeth‘s decided focus on a to-do list as leaning to legalism, but elsewhere he makes clear sacrificial actions are “not about following a list of rules” but “about following the lifestyle of Jesus.[7]

Of course, Sleeth is not so naïve as to imagine that changing light bulbs will actually save the planet. Saving the earth needs much more than eating local food and having a compost pile. He believes it requires collective action on a planetary scale, and that this is something for politicians to focus upon. The value of seemingly ineffective token actions is that they transform the vision of what the gospel–the Green gospel–asks of us; changing hearts is the mission. Environmentalism morphs from a mere cause, to a great commission.

Meanwhile, whatever politicians may decide, Sleeth contends that humans have the moral responsibility to take actions that serve the Earth, and save the planet from our bad habits. Because of moral dimensions our role in planetary salvation yields spiritual blessings when we serve the Earth, for in doing so “we honor the commandment to tend and care for the garden” (14). But the commandment is not, writes Sleeth, “the primary reason” for living a life with a smaller carbon footprint.

Indeed, and more importantly, spiritual vitality one receives through playing an active and conscious role in saving the planet should motivate us to sacrifice. “We do this labor-increasing activity,” he writes regarding his abandonment of twentieth-century washing technology, “because it gives us more life” (14). He believes it is the transformed vision that strengthens us to enjoy life, and God, more fully.

Sleeth understands, and seeks to teach Christians, that every action, like every thought, has spiritual edges. When we seek, by our thoughts or actions, to subvert the created order that God intends, we resist God himself. Changing light bulbs, or conserving water by washing dishes and clothes by hand, becomes a spiritually invigorating act. By contrast, using labor-saving but resource-intensive technologies is counterproductive both spiritually and materially.

In the Garden of Eden,” writes Sleeth, “God gave us a job. That job has dignity attached to it. When we try to cheat God, we end up cheating ourselves—and the generations ahead that will need clean air, water, and land in order to grow and prosper” (17). He redefines the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3 as a labor-saving device and Adam’s sin as avoiding the honest hard work God prepared for him. Nowhere else does Sleeth come out and define sin; this is as close as he gets. For Sleeth’s audience, as he well knows, need only think of Adam, or Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 4), to remember how God deals with those who cheat him. Ironically, and discussed later, Sleeth’s metaphorical use of the forbidden fruit story is still more developed, in that he does not subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.

Materialism

Sleeth challenges rampant Christian materialism

Hugely to his credit Sleeth challenges rampant Christian materialism, with all the zeal and lack of nostalgia of one whose experience earns him credibility. But surprisingly, he does not reference the command of Jesus to prove his point, which would drive the cross–like a wooden stake–through the heart of falsely advertised prosperity gospels. For instance, Matthew 9:28 records our Lord saying, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Indeed, Scripture speaks directly to the issue of sacrifice and materialism.

Anyone who thinks Christianity compatible with materialism will find Sleeth’s critiques thought provoking, and a tad uncomfortable. Few can remain lukewarm about a message that calls for sacrificial living. He spares no sacred cow in the Church, slaughtering the idea that the Christian life is all about treating God as the Great-vending-machine-in-the-sky whose purpose is to satisfy our every material whim. He has no time for spiritually cheap prosperity gospels that ensnare too many professing Christians. No, he writes, “[i]t is not about having your best life now, or buying anything that you can afford, or purchasing things that you can’t afford on credit” (186). The Christian life, he insists, is not about material indulgence, but sacrifice. And we say “Amen” to this.

Yet rather than finding the definition of sacrificial living in Scripture, Sleeth defines it in words that could (and do) come from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): protection of water, land, and skies. He equates Christ-like sacrifice with personal actions that have in mind renunciation of material possessions. Three quotes below represent Sleeth’s view of pernicious materialism and its effects on Christian spirituality:

  •  “… the less we fill our homes with material things, the more contented and spirit-filled our lives will become” (ix). · “How could I become more like Jesus—more meek, humble, compassionate, thankful, forgiving, and loving? Clearly, I needed to scale back my lifestyle” (xii).
  •  “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).

Prius Hybrid

Proposed solutions to materialism, like light bulbs and hybrid cars, are mentioned already. But the root of the solution, contained in germ form in the above quotes, blossoms more clearly elsewhere.

Take, for example, his brief comments on the voluntary community of goods practiced by the first-century church just before the sack of Jerusalem. Sleeth writes:

  • “The first-century church gives us a model to strive toward. “… no one claimed private ownership of any possessions …” (Acts 4:32)” (158).

Sleeth’s ideal world is one in which there is no private ownership of the material means of production. He justifies the foregoing views by, in essence, asserting that Jesus Christ himself, were he walking on Earth today, would have adopted these same (Marxist) positions and would expect his followers to do likewise.

Imago Dei

Another major theme in “The Gospel According to the Earth, is our position in relation to God. Many in the Green movement call arrogant the thought that mankind is the crest of creation. Christian views of the image of God place man and the rest of creation in an I-It relationship. Many in the Green movement desire a more egalitarian impulse in which humans relate to other creatures in a respectful I–Thou relationship.

Sleeth falls firmly in the camp of those who believe that mankind is a special creation–the I-It group. In an interview he says, “I believe that we are slightly less than the angels, but not much less, and that we are the sentient beings on the planet, and that we do have a special place. We are made in God’s image, which means that we’re supposed to do the work of God here on Earth, which is to take care of all things lesser than us.”[8]

Although Christians are properly theocentric, many secular and New Age environmentalists charge that Christianity causes humans to be unreasonably anthropocentric, to the injury of the creatures outside the inner circle. Since Sleeth speaks regularly to groups that would oppose the Christian view of mankind as a special creation, he is to be commended for writing and speaking in defense of that view.

Sleeth makes a clear distinction between humans and other living creatures. The difference, he says, is that humans are created in the image of God and so must love the Earth as God does. Because we are created in God’s image, “at some deep level of our souls we have an impulse to protect the earth” (4). If we wish to be in the right relationship with God, Sleeth says we should treat the Creation in a God-like manner: “God wants us to treat all of his creation lovingly, as he does” (143).

The previous sentences, however, illustrate how prone Sleeth is to make sweeping statements without any serious Scriptural grounds, offering colorful anecdotes and threadbare oversimplifications for justification. Nowhere does he care to define love or probe his assertions, bunting in every case.

After enjoining the reader to do as God wants, it would be nice not to have to take Sleeth’s word for what that is; saying something is so differs from its being so. As a Christian, I want to know God’s mind and, as His Word reveals that mind, rest on the teaching of the Word rather than on unexamined assertions.

Does God treat all of his creation lovingly? The stock answer is, of course, yes. But what do we mean by love? Those who suffer illness and tragedy find these are not theoretical questions. And, in what sense is it possible for me to treat the creation as God does?

Sabbath

It is hard to imagine, these days, that there ever was time when business or travel on the Christian Sabbath was awkward. This is why it is intriguing that Sleeth fervently calls Christians to rethink their attitude towards work and rest. Regarding the Sabbath, he writes, “Although we are not slaves chained together under the tropical sun, we have retained the mind-set of slaves. The slaves in Egypt didn’t have the option of a day of rest, and yet we’ve rejected it. We are caught in a 24/7 world” (82).

For justification, Sleeth quotes Exodus 20 and the verses in which God gives the fourth commandment: to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. This emphasis is commendable. After all, Christ came to set slaves free, so why would Christians, of all people, willingly make themselves slaves of time? Sleeth treats this subject more extensively than others. He grounds Sabbath keeping in God’s act of creation, in which God rested at completion of six days of work. As God’s image bearers, we are to do likewise.

There are, then, many laudable elements in Matthew Sleeth’s The Gospel According to the Earth. Alas, there are some not so laudable as well. The second part of this review will examine some of those in detail.

 


 

The Gospel According to the Earth, by J. Matthew Sleeth, HarperOne, 2010

Reviewed by James Wanliss

Part 2

Tree-hugger theology

For most of his life Matthew Sleeth was a confirmed and conscious environmentalist, an orientation he admits colored every aspect of his life in principle, but not in practice until he became a Christian just a few years ago. He recounts a conversation shortly after his conversion in which a pastor told him he “had a tree-hugger theology” (vii). This led Sleeth to search the Scripture to see if it was so, if he had to shed his Green ideology as a sacrifice to Christ.

To his relief, he found that the Bible is a Green book. This discovery affected his practice and gave passion to the principles to which he had so long been devoted: “Reading the Bible through a green lens radically changed my life” (viii). If Sleeth is right that the gospel according to the Earth is what the Bible teaches, that the Bible is a Green book, then we should all become tree-huggers, which is the principal thrust of his books and ministry, including over three hundred presentations each year at churches and colleges.

After summarizing Sleeth’s views in Part 1, it is time to examine through a Biblical lens various claims of “The Gospel According to the Earth”. Sleeth believes “Christianity is based on a book, the living Scriptures” (7), meaning he shares the same standard of all true Christians, by which we may, like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), test the truth.

What follows is in no way a personal critique of Matthew Sleeth, whose word and lifestyle together give evidence that he is a man with a caring, sensitive, and sincere nature. In addition, his extensive use of Scripture, often in insightful ways, and his expressed desire to submit to the teachings of Scripture are commendable. Yet personal sincerity and good intentions don’t guarantee infallibility, and the warm and humble way Sleeth writes encourage me that he would welcome sincere, humble critique, not of his character but of some of his ideas.

Matthew Sleeth may hold orthodox views, but in his work he fails to articulate them, instead contextually framing God’s gospel of salvation with environmentalism. Does the hybrid “tree-hugger” theology, which Sleeth concludes is essentially the gospel of Jesus Christ, accurately represent the teaching of Scripture?

God

In “The Gospel According to the Earth, Sleeth consistently and unapologetically tears verses from their contexts and applies them haphazardly, relying on a long list of translations, paraphrases, and eclectic collections of attractive personal stories as garnish. The net result, made all the more appealing by the attractive prose, is a pervasive vagueness that can easily lead to error and misunderstanding. For instance, from John chapter 1 he sets forth a strange view of God, writing of Jesus, without traces of irony or humor to give one the hope that he is joking, that, “[h]e is the nuclear weak force, the nuclear strong force, gravity, electromagnetism, and DNA all rolled into one” (30).

Surely you are joking Dr. Sleeth? John’s gospel in no way supports this odd conclusion. At best this is sloppy thinking, a metaphoric miscarriage, which would play well with pantheists, for it is precisely the language they employ. They say if humans can only channel the spiritual satyagraha, the pagan “truth force” that Al Gore often invokes in Green contexts, then they would finally have incarnated the ubiquitous power of the universe. The force would then be with us—but would Christ?

Sleeth’s metaphor…plays needlessly into stereotypes developed by professing Christian ecofeminists

Even worse, Sleeth’s metaphor, unjustified by the actual text he cites, plays needlessly into stereotypes developed by professing Christian ecofeminists, such as Professor Sallie McFague, who reconceptualize God so that the model of the Universe as the body of God becomes a new way of Biblical reinterpretation. It should be clear that this is somewhat different from the God of Biblical revelation. For the ecofeminists the Bible is no more than a useful reference point from which to run lines towards a “metaphorical theology.” Sleeth’s mumbo jumbo makes for strange bedfellows.

Needless to say, because He made all, it is absurd to think that one could condense or diffuse God’s essence into the few atoms of an image made of wood, stone, or any part of nature, let alone the space between the atoms. It is equally absurd to write of Jesus as being a nuclear force field. He is transcendent over His creation in every way. Neither does He come down from heaven, where He sits at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19), to take short daily showers with Matthew Sleeth under a “low-flow showerhead” (31). This is “foolish talking” (Ephesians 5:4), using the Savior as a punch line, substituting pretty words for persuasion.

Origins

Sleeth’s cosmogony—his view of origins—is curious, also succumbing to a metaphorical theology. It seems unimportant to him whether one believes that God made man as described in Genesis 1 and 2, or as described by Darwin. He explained to the San Francisco Chronicle, “I don’t think it matters whether somebody believes the Earth is 5,000 years old or that the universe is 13 billion years old. If they recycle, if they reduce their carbon output by 50 percent, I don’t care what they believe.[9] If this is consistent with the gospel according to the Earth, does it reconcile with Biblical teaching?

Notwithstanding Sleeth’s easy dismissal, one’s cosmogony is immensely important, not least because the Bible does not support Darwin’s theory, which requires an ancient Earth. Christians submit to the lordship of Christ, and Christ placed Adam and Eve at the beginning of creation, and Noah soon after, not on the whiskers’ end of billions of years of naturalistic, purposeless evolution. An evolutionary view of the descent of man does violence to the Biblical doctrine of man as God’s image, of male-female relations, and of many other important doctrines. How can this be unimportant?

And more importantly, how can it be unimportant to Sleeth, who bases so much of his Green theology on our caring for the creation as image bearers of a God who cares? He saws off the limb he sits on by, in effect, stating that he doesn’t really believe the doctrine of the image after all—certainly not as described in the Bible—appearing to use it merely as a literary device. He uses Biblical terminology, Biblical words, but lyrically redefines words and their contexts like a rubber band. Genuine spiritual danger follows when professing Christians say they agree to Scripture but stretch its words to justify a secular substitute.

Sleeth‘s position on Creation leads him to underestimate and misunderstand the nature and the effects of the fall of Adam and Eve and of God’s ensuing curse. Without contextual warrant, he treats the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden as a metaphor for labor-saving devices. In other words, use a paper cup or a dishwasher, and you are eating the forbidden fruit. By such thinking, the point of God’s putting the tree of the knowledge of good and evil off limits, we must surely recognize (for isn’t it obvious in the text?), is to reduce our carbon footprint. Isn’t that how every interpreter for thousands of years has understood it? Or is it?

Though hand washing dishes may impart some perceived environmental benefit, even if the entire world does so, a single volcanic eruption easily wipes out the carbon savings—not to mention that the scientific case for cutting out carbon emissions is flimsy as a straw man with a camel on his back. Sleeth’s handling of Genesis 3 effectively obscures the real import of the restriction God placed on Adam and Eve: they were not, and they never could become, the standards of right and wrong, and to try to be was to seek to exalt themselves above their Creator. It was no mere carelessness about the hypothetical ecological consequences of labor-saving devices; it was cosmic treason. Nothing less could justify God’s response: cursing them and the whole Earth with futility and death to which God’s own death on the cross would be the only solution.

Man

While he admits that technology is not “inherently evil” (9) (and he does himself indulge greatly in air travel), Sleeth struggles throughout the book with an animus towards products of the creative genius of humans. But God commanded Adam, before and after the fall, to take dominion over the Earth, to be fruitful and multiply. And when God did so it was by an appeal to Adam’s mind.

Sleeth resents the use humans have made of their minds to subdue and rule the Earth, something God commands in Genesis 1:28. His response, to negate the power of the mind, fails to exercise balance and relies on simplistic, feel-good actions as sources of spiritual satisfaction. He seems to raise nature‘s value far beyond Biblical bounds, so it becomes an idealized object best left untouched, as much as possible, by human hands. Such a view is wholly incompatible with the Bible’s proclamation that God Himself gives men technological skills for recombining and reshaping the elements of this Earth (Exodus 31:6). The very equipping of the Tabernacle—all according to God’s direct instruction—required mining and smelting and combining of metals, animal husbandry, agriculture, and myriad other technologies that are no different in principle from technologies that Sleeth equates with eating the forbidden fruit.

Every new technology, from the skins clothing Adam and Eve, to cultivating plants, to nuclear power, brings costs and benefits. Because Scripture nowhere condemns any of these as sinful, we are free to adopt them responsibly, weighing them to see whether their net result improves human welfare while simultaneously employing stewardship of the other creatures, and glorifying God.

This great thing, the human mind, sets us apart from beasts. Without our mind we are unarmed in a hostile world, naked before tooth and claw sharper and stronger, and feet and wings fleeter, and vision keener, than ours. But with the mind we see the potentialities of our world. We take the tools God has given for our use; we break them, mold them, wear them out like clothing, and turn them to uses that bring glory to God and blessings to mankind. Sleeth’s attitude toward the products of the human mind, thus his hostility against creativity, discourages, even opposes, the industry and fruitfulness of humans. It places an abstract ideal (we must save the planet) above the command of God (take dominion, be fruitful). Ironically, this is one command Sleeth believes is outdated, as he says in an interview: “Of all the commandments given by God, the first one that humanity can check off as done is, ’Be fruitful and multiply.’ … We’re done. We need to move on to the next one.[10] This is absurd. Human settlements now occupy under 3 percent of Earth’s land mass, but professing Christians constitute about a third of all people. So shall we toss out the Great Commission, since we’re closer to fulfilling that than to fulfilling the command to fill the Earth? Is Sleeth’s “gospel” the real judge of which of God’s commands remain binding on us? Who is sovereign–God or man? We have no right to shunt aside God’s eternal commands, commands bound to the essence of creation and what it means to be human, all for the sake of environmentalist passions.

Most Greens believe the crux of all environmental problems is the problem of human fertility, and Sleeth is no exception, having variously expressed himself to this effect. He believes “Mothers who have had two previous, uneventful deliveries should quit while they are ahead.[11] God teaches nothing of the sort in His gospel; humans are His image, and children—even a quiverful of them—are not the fruit of chance, but the heritage of Jehovah (Psalm 127:3-5).

Clearly, Sleeth has adopted as his own, and now seeks to impress on Scripture and his fellow Christians, the Green arguments popularized by Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb, a part of the environmentalist canon. Ehrlich and John Holdren (President Obama’s science czar) write elsewhere that planetary salvation mandates “population limitation and redistribution of wealth,” and “If some individuals contribute to general social deterioration by overproducing children, and if the need is compelling, they can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility.[12] Sleeth appears to heed this not–so-veiled warning, cautioning Christians to get hold of their fertility before government may have to step in. In “The Gospel According to the Earth,God’s command is transmogrified into ”Be fruitful but don’t multiply—indeed, depopulate the Earth.”

Sin

Sin is evil; it is, as the Apostle John puts it, “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4), that is, any transgression of the law of God. But Sleeth redefines it over and over, albeit retaining Biblical language. He writes, “Evil–like love, hope, and even God–is something that cannot be measured using a double-blind study” (xi). Sure, one cannot operate on a man’s heart and remove an organ called evil, but evil actions, Scripture declares, stem from an evil heart. And sin, the product of an evil heart, is disobedience to God. So far, so good.

But when it comes to defining this evil, Sleeth ignores most of what God explicitly says and substitutes his own (and the Green movement’s) judgments. He argues that God’s concern is to save the planet, chiefly at this time from anthropogenic carbon emissions and global warming. He proceeds to claim that human actions, such as consuming “meat, food out of season, and food from exotic places has a detrimental impact on the health of ourselves and the planet” (p. 140). He does not say that to do these things is sinful, but that is what he implies. In doing so, he encourages a sub-Scriptural view of sin. It does not occur to him that the ”sins” he has invented may be defined by poor science and economics—and even poor theology.

When listing various laws of God, Sleeth adds that the point of the law is that we go beyond the mere letter, to become passionate about its spirit. In principle this is true. It’s why Jesus said that to be angry with someone without cause is already to have murdered him in your heart (Matthew 5:22). But Sleeth’s conclusion, that God intends humans to learn to sacrifice and do that which is inconvenient “for the sake of preserving his creation,” (196) goes unsupported from the Bible, which does not leave us vaguely grasping at straws like this to discover God’s intent. We know whether we are acceptable to God (and indeed that without Christ as our Savior we never are) based on His law; the Ten Commandments are the unchanging standards by which He judges. The sharp point of the law drives us to Christ, as the one whose sacrifice alone can save us, for none of our sacrifices can save us from the wages of sin and the wrath of God.

Defining sin by environmentalist priorities and crystal ball gazing into alleged future apocalypse mimics the Pharisees

But, and far worse, “The Gospel According to the Earth” further redefines sin as eating ripe tomatoes in winter, using a clothes dryer, or other guilty pleasures and comforts that use more energy than approved. The book leaves unstated who must approve, presumably (at least so one hopes—the alternatives are less attractive) because this is a spiritual issue best left between God and the individual energy hog. In the end, Sleeth’s redefining sin implicitly makes us subject not to God speaking through His law but to men voicing their own prejudices and preferences. Rather than disobeying God’s law, disobeying an often arbitrary standard (perhaps defined by the EPA) becomes the measure of sinfulness.

Defining sin by environmentalist priorities and crystal ball gazing into alleged future apocalypse mimics the Pharisees, who put burdens on men that none, even the Pharisees themselves, could carry. God’s Word receives lip-service as we turn to a kind of star- and navel-gazing that brings us right back to good old number one as arbiter of right and wrong—ironically, the very sin of Adam and Eve that Sleeth’s reinterpretation obscures. Though it sounds noble and humble to serve the planet and sacrifice for it, is this not precisely the bondage Paul warned against in Colossians 2:18-23, where a narcissistic austerity replaces a sincere love for God displayed in obedience to His commandments, which, unlike Sleeth’s, “are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3)?

If one’s basic understanding of sin and one’s method of interpreting God’s law lead to a conclusion that defines as sin what Scripture itself explicitly defines as a blessing from God—like having a large family (Psalm 127:3-5; 128:3-4)—there is something terribly wrong. Using Sleeth’s rationale, having a large family is sin, because it would be doing harm unto my neighbor. In so doing, by treating God’s law as metaphor, and twisting the meaning of sin and righteousness, God‘s eternal revelation in the Bible is subjugated to arbitrary environmentalist sensibilities.

To many environmentalists sin is not intrinsic to human nature but an artificial construct learned from religious and other social conditioning. Sleeth’s work signals that he is at least susceptible to unbiblical thought forms flowing from such a worldview.

Curse

Sin is devastating, not only to mankind, but to the Earth since the entire creation shares an ethical connection to Adam, its federal head and the first sinner. Environmentalists often idealize nature as an untouched intrinsic good—they refuse to admit that God has cursed the cosmos, that its natural state, not just today but from the instant God pronounced His curse upon it in the midst of His judgment on Adam, is not good, not normal, and—perhaps most telling—not normative. And when professing Christian environmentalists mention the Fall, they fail to take seriously the noetic effects of the curse. Instead they ascribe curses only via direct actions of mankind in working the Earth.

Sleeth misunderstands curse in precisely this way, believing it to be mediated by the work of our hands. Thus he quotes Ambrose, fourth-century bishop of Milan, to the effect that wilderness is untouched by the curse, until humans come to work it and transfer curse (16). Over a millennium later Jean-Jacques Rousseau recast such ancient thinking as revolutionary. But, unlike Ambrose, Rousseau treated the Christian view of curse as a fairy story, preaching that man is innately good, embracing evil by avoiding “nature” and becoming “civilized.” “God makes all things good,” wrote Rousseau, “man meddles with them and they become evil.[13] But Scripture teaches that man’s rebellion against God led first and foremost not to man’s but to God’s curse of nature—to His subjecting it to futility and suffering (Romans 8:18-22)—for nature is subordinate to man.

To previous misrepresentations of Biblical teaching regarding sin and curse, Sleeth now adds the misinterpretation of Levitical land laws, viewing them through lenses of modern environmentalist sensibilities as meaning the Earth has intrinsic value and inalienable rights, writing “in the Bible land and nature itself are assigned rights” (142). He means we have no authority to violate these rights, which is why, “If you live in an area where grass will not recover after a prolonged spell, then God designed something else to grow there” (32). Green politicians and bureaucrats are exploring the implications of such belief in their pursuit of the Wildlands Project, which would ban human traffic and use from hundreds of millions of acres of the United States. Never mind the possibility that God has also equipped people with minds that reflect His own and are capable of transforming a desert into springs of water (Psalm 103:35).

Credit: epa.gov

Cass Sunstein, President Obama‘s “Regulatory Czar,” believes that “animals, species as such, and perhaps even natural objects warrant respect for their own sake, and quite apart from their interactions with human beings.[14] Following International Mother Earth Day on April 22, 2011, the United Nations began debates along these lines, arguing that Mother Earth be granted the same rights as humans. It is now clear that “we don’t own the planet, we belong to it,[15] said Bolivian President Evo Morales. Similarly, the UN Secretary-General urged “Governments, businesses and citizens of the world to give our Mother Earth the respect and care she deserves.[16]

Sleeth‘s view of nature’s rights does not come from the Bible. He has imposed Green imperatives on the Bible, for God defines eternal rights in the Ten Commandments, none of which entails any rights for the Earth or any of its nonhuman inhabitants. Contrary to Sleeth’s Green gospel, Scripture teaches there is nothing wrong with adjusting ecosystems, creating what environmentalists might mistakenly characterize as natural imbalance due to man’s presence or influence. In fact, modifying ecosystems, in a God-honoring manner, goes a long way towards fulfilling the dominion mandate. We should never make our sinful nature—the fact that we can do needless harm—an excuse to shirk the Edenic mandate, the mandate repeated after the Fall, to exercise godly dominion.

Aside from God’s repeated command, we have examples of the godly taking dominion and receiving divine blessing. Job was “blameless and upright, … feared God and turned away from evil,” yet still he raised thousands of sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys (Job 1:1,3), no doubt putting pressure on the land. Abraham planted a grove of trees alien to a local ecosystem (Genesis 21:33), but often when the Bible speaks of trees it is to mark God’s command to destroy ancient groves that pagans proclaimed sacred (Exodus 34:13; Judges 6:25; 2 Chronicles 15:16), and King David and son Solomon caused massive logging from the forests of Lebanon, taking trees without number (2 Chronicles 2:9).

Setting up a straw man, as environmentalists are wont to do, turning issues into a choice between black and white, or green and anti-green, claiming that Biblical Christian dominion invariably means conflict with a healthful and flourishing environment, is not what Scripture teaches. One could argue that Scripture teaches the possibility of looking at environmental issues in a far more balanced and rational way, that human economic prosperity and healthful natural environments are interlinked products of godly living.

Ironically, the ecocentric attitude that we must serve the Earth, rather than subdue and work it—an attitude masquerading as humble—is egocentric, even arrogant, in its disregard of the dominion mandate received from God. It is not humble but rather brazen to expect praise for disobeying God. It is reminiscent of the Pharisees’ wanting praise for their public sacrifices, when in reality they set aside the Fifth Commandment, to help and honor their parents, because they found one of their own invention more pleasing (Matthew 15:3-9).

Unnaturally restricting human dominion over the environment is unappetizing fruit, ripened under the philosophy of exalting nature beyond its station. Since, viewed in isolation from God’s curse, nature supposedly personifies untainted value and goodness, human actions changing the environment are immoral, because they impart a curse. This is not the teaching of Scripture, or walking humbly before God.

Consumerism

When Matthew Sleeth skewers mindless consumerism one can, and should, applaud. Scriptures call mad pursuit of wealth utter vanity. But there is equally no intrinsic spiritual virtue in downsizing, an idea enthralling to professing Christian Greens. Sleeth believes that a downwardly mobile life pleases God, because God wants to save the planet, specifically from our energy-rich lifestyle. He argues that too much comfort makes us miserable, and that fewer comforts would be better.

By such teaching Sleeth reveals that he does not understand Biblical dominion. Biblical dominion, relying as it does on human creativity, recognizes also that humans have a genuinely bad heart in rebellion to God. The result of a bad heart is godless power-seeking over other humans and other creatures. Recognizing our sinful natures is a principal reason Christians are skeptical of those who centralize too much power in any domain.

We have great power to do needless harm

Everything humans do ripples across creation, so there must be a careful accounting of the cost of our actions. We have great power to do needless harm. We ought to recognize that economic development is not an end in itself, but have God’s glory in mind. Economic development is not necessarily always good, but can be negative; the Bible strongly condemns rampant consumerism, with Jesus warning against greed and covetousness, reminding that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15).

Modern high-pressure advertising seeks to define human beings by possessions, what they consume, what pleasures they do and can enjoy, and much of the culture buys it. These are the empty things the pagans “seek” (Matthew 6:32). Christians should seek diligent work, increase, and prosperity (Proverbs 10:4), but when they indulge lusts to covetousness or gluttony they will not receive God’s blessing (Hosea 4:10).

Is it not obvious that high consumption and great wealth are not the same as lust, covetousness, or gluttony? Abraham and Job, to mention just two of God’s righteous ones, were fabulously wealthy, yet the Bible lifts both, like glittering jewels, up for our consideration as examples of godliness worthy of emulation.

God, in His providence, gives us private property, and He expects us to be fruitful and multiply, to be diligent like Abraham and bring increase in our labor, and to enjoy the fruits of labor. If, through diligence and God’s blessing, we become materially wealthy, God warns us “not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).

A consequence of God’s blessing is mankind’s increasing productivity, as humans have used the enormous creative energy of their minds to conform, at least outwardly, to the command to take dominion. Our increasing productivity is not a curse or sin, as Sleeth maintains, but a blessing.

Sleeth is dead wrong to imagine that voluntary pursuit of poverty is Biblical, or draws one closer to God. He is terribly mistaken that “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).

The Bible teaches that nothing we consume draws us to the devil. Jesus said, “Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him;” and “That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders…. All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:18-22). In principle, sin has ultimately nothing to do with consumption.

Poverty not good

It is contrary to Scripture to teach and believe, as Sleeth does, that “the less we fill our homes with material things, the more contented and spirit-filled our lives will become” (iv). Poverty or downsizing is no answer to gluttony or avarice, any more than is death, though there are various worldly theologies, bearing striking resemblance to the dialectic Sleeth employs, setting forth salvific qualities of personal poverty. Marxist liberation theology, for instance, tenderly holds that material poverty will lead mankind to utopia. I don’t think Sleeth utopian, yet his positions on poverty and productivity seem more in keeping with aspects of Marx, or the social gospel of Progressives like Jim Wallis and Ronald Sider, than of Christ.

Indeed, Scripture insists that poverty is not good, calling it the ruin of the poor (Proverbs 10:15). True, righteousness is better than either wealth or poverty, as it is written (Proverbs 28:6): “Better is the poor who walks in his integrity than one perverse in his ways, though he be rich.” But that doesn’t make poverty good or wealth evil. One may be righteous and poor, or righteous and wealthy. Sleeth offers a simpler life as a pathway to discover richer spiritual benefits, but Scripture guarantees no such result. Deliberately seeking a downwardly mobile life is like the crazy thinking of some Christians who pray for persecution because it marvelously focuses the mind on what matters most in life; it is simplistic and only partway true, therefore false.

As it is morally irrelevant to be a fast or slow runner, Peter not being spiritually deficient because he could not outrun John to the empty tomb (John 20:4) , just so it is as mistaken to portray poverty as a virtue as it is to portray wealth as a virtue. Neither is either 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 testifying that he had learned to be content in either (Philippians 4:11-12).

So long as there have been humans, economic history shows how poverty actually guarantees a ruined environment. Yet ironically, Sleeth believes and teaches that the Bible requires downward mobility in order to save the planet. According to such thinking carried to its logical conclusion, embracing poverty is not enough; planetary salvation requires humans to embrace death as a civilizational principle because, in the absence of the wealth that makes good ecological stewardship achievable, only death releases the Earth from the curse of man. Sleeth nowhere calls for death—he has not followed his logic that far—but his pleas for voluntary population reductions, and his sad jokes about women stopping at two children, spring from the same Green philosophy, and have the same sad end.

Despite being the country environmentalists love to hate, overall pollution in the USA is dramatically lower today than just a few decades ago, and continues a downward trajectory. In fact, by now many studies show that as people become more affluent they begin to show greater concern about, and to budget more of their spending to achieve, a clean environment. Even the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes that as economic development and liberty reach levels where humans have the time to care about clean air and other markers of a healthy environment, pollution begins to decline.[17] In the words of Indur Goklany, “wealth and health reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle of progress.[18]

Environmental concerns are indeed tied to issues of poverty, health, and compassion, but often in a way opposite to environmentalist assumptions. In other words, when Churches willfully encourage or pursue poverty we will not be loving our neighbors, or helping the environment. What the environmentalist fails to appreciate is that human development, particularly through application of Christian principles, is indispensable to the future of the planet.

Sabbath

Were Christians leading by example in keeping the Sabbath, the witness to a crooked generation and the effects on the moral climate of society would be revolutionary. Without doubt Christians have a deep need to be instructed in Sabbath keeping, not least because of our obligations to obey a gracious God, apart from the obvious benefits derived from a day of restful spiritual concentration. Yet many church leaders are leery of mentioning any laws, and others rant against the Ten Commandments as an outdated burden weighing men down. Given this atmosphere within the church, it seems bold of Sleeth to address a potentially touchy subject, and he is to be commended for doing so.

Energy hogs?

But it is mistaken to think for a moment that Sleeth is calling for a return to the days when Sabbath keeping was widespread and generally celebrated, since he is not himself a principled Sabbath keeper. In 2009 he was on the road 230 days, crisscrossing the country many times to spread the Green gospel. Since then his travel schedule has greatly accelerated. Mercurial feats like this would not be possible for someone devoted to religiously keeping the Christian Sabbath. And presumably it would be bad for others–many others given his busy schedule–to work unnecessarily on Sleeth’s behalf on the Sabbath, so robbing them of the rest they owe in obligation to God. His jet-setting causes many others to put a great deal of what Sleeth would call needless carbon into the air.

So while at first glance Sleeth’s call gives the impression of one concerned to honor God by obeying His Law, which Law is but a reflection of God’s mind and will for humanity, it is soon plain that Sleeth is not that concerned to keep God’s Law. Sleeth’s point is not that we keep the Biblical Sabbath per se, but that we follow the general principle to slow down, and smell the roses. Like many other areas we have covered, Sleeth is content to use Biblical language, but in a metaphorical way. Applying Biblical law in a penetrating manner is simply passed over.

Speaking presumably of his lifestyle before his traveling ministry exploded, Sleeth writes, “One of the immediate effects of coming to rest one day a week was a 10 to 14 percent reduction in our transportation and consumer consumption; moreover, this weekly rest allowed us to resist the incessant call for consumerism on the other six days” (73).

Sleeth’s embrace of the carbon-neutral Sabbath leaves no true Sabbath breaker convicted of his sin; no one takes offence; no one is left by Sleeth’s treatment of the subject, with any uncomfortable feeling that he may have angered a holy God. It is like this because Sleeth refers to the Sabbath mainly as a didactic device, a metaphor, not as a day to actually remember to keep holy.

In Scripture Sabbath is directly associated with worship. It is not merely a day to chill and reduce carbon footprints, but one whole day devoted to the worship of God. Observing one day, the Lords Day, above the rest, as part of the ordinary worship of the Church is an act of adoration to Christ, as much as a hymn of praise to Him is an expression of adoration. It is a duty; it is a pleasure; it is a pure delight to receive and obey the message from God, our Father.

In Isaiah 58 we are enjoined to “call the Sabbath a delight,” a special day and opportunity to savor the joy of the Lord. But Sleeth has misunderstood and profaned this spiritual essence of the Sabbath, replacing it with commandments and rules of the “Gospel According to the Earth”. He sets aside the Sabbath command established by divine authority, which he professes to follow, and replaces it (all the while using Biblical terminology) with a decidedly inadequate and downgraded Sabbath, filled with rules of his own making.

A false gospel

The biggest problem with “The Gospel According to the Earth” is that its pages teach that the biggest problem is that the “world is dying” (10). Sleeth spends almost two hundred pages answering the question: What shall I do to be a good person, a person accepted by God? In answer Sleeth offers a gospel which is not the gospel in which the Son of God declares good news to sinners. Scripture recounts when a rich young ruler, silver, gold, and copper coins tinkling in his pockets, came to Jesus (Luke 18:18-27), with much the same concern for his soul:

And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.

As he read this passage, prior to his conversion, Sleeth would have experienced personal conviction that his lifestyle was much like this rich ruler’s. He felt guilty over his large house and extravagant lifestyle, and realized that while he tried to be “Green,” he had not really sacrificed all that much for the sake of the planet; he felt like a hypocrite. “The future will hold in esteem those who are willing to sacrifice,” he writes, and so, “[i]t is time for us to start giving back sacrificially to God’s creation, rather than destroying it” (196).

…hacking into his carbon footprint with all the passion of a new convert

Like the rich young ruler, impressed by Jesus, asking in genuine sincerity what he should do, Sleeth asked, “How could I become more like Jesus—more meek, humble, compassionate, thankful, forgiving, and loving? Clearly, I needed to scale back my lifestyle” (xii). And this he did, hacking into his carbon footprint with all the passion of a new convert.

Prior to his conversion Sleeth remembers feelings of pride that his family had smaller bags of trash than their neighbors, recycled, and when it was time even used cloth diapers for their two children. But now, challenged by the “green” gospel, he felt that all his efforts were mere window dressing, that could only be improved by serious sacrifice. Selling everything is what Christ wanted of the rich young sinner.

Interestingly, the master evangelist began teaching his gospel by mentioning the holiness of God, then spent most of the interview talking about God’s holy law, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Only after the sinner had asserted his own righteousness did Jesus touch his secret idol. This is what he did for the Samaritan woman at the well; he applied to her conscience the seventh commandment, and she repented of adultery; this is what he does for the moralizing ruler.

No doubt the ruler would be content to speak in generalities and metaphors of the Law. But Jesus homes in on the most precious thing to the man’s heart, and preaches the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet,” with a particularly sharp application. His covetousness unveiled, his conscience wounded, the ruler leaves with regrets, knowing what he did not know before—he would rather have the world than Christ, if to have Christ meant to lose the world. In other words, he was a rebel against not just the Tenth Commandment but also the First (for Jesus had implicitly claimed divinity by his response to the young man’s addressing him as “good”)—and if against the First and Tenth, then also against all between. That is, his claim to righteousness was bogus, and he was desperately in need of a savior. To have Christ, to inherit eternal life, he must repent and believe. But unlike Abraham on Mount Moriah, he would not sacrifice his most precious treasure to have Christ, to have eternal life; he would rather have his rusting idol, mammon. What of environmentalists? What is their idol?

If we apply principles from “The Gospel according to the Earth” to interpret and apply this passage we run into significant troubles dealing with other passages. In the very next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the rich tax collector Zacchaeus tells Jesus he will give half his goods to the poor and restore fourfold anything he has gained by fraud. We know nothing of whether this would have transformed Zacchaeus from rich to poor, but we do know that Jesus didn’t respond, “That’s not enough, Zacchaeus. As I told the rich young ruler yesterday, you’ve got to sell everything and give to the poor.” No, instead He said, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:2-9). And if we are to let Scripture interpret Scripture, what Jesus meant by “son of Abraham” (who by the way was a very rich and powerful man) was not that Zacchaeus had done some virtuous deed, even one that fulfilled God’s law, but that he believed God’s promise of a Messiah to come of Abraham’s seed (Romans 9:7-8).

Sleeth’s views leave us puzzled also over what to think of Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the tomb for Jesus (John 19:38), and Nicodemus, who paid for His embalming (John 19:39)—both of them rich men—and of Lydia, the trader in purple, a luxury good that no doubt brought her considerable wealth (Acts 16:14). In the end, Sleeth’s understanding of the gospel falls into the very error that characterized 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 obtain it, because by the works of the law will no one be justified—but the believing Gentiles, not seeking righteousness by the law but by faith, found it (Romans 3:20; 9:30–10:4).

Christ challenges us to search our hearts for what is most dear in this world, and asks whether we are prepared to forsake all to have and follow Him. The sacrifice set before the young ruler, taking up his cross and following Christ, had nothing to do with counting carbon credits or the size of his carbon footprint. He was to submit to Christ, and follow Him as Lord. This is impossible with sinful men, but with God all things are possible.

Conclusions

In an interview with Grist, the magazine devoted to popularizing climate apocalypse, Matthew Sleeth explains how the most important battleground for any social change is the human heart. “When you talk to a church,” he says, “and you want to get a church to do something, you have to talk to the heart, and you have to use the Bible. You have to speak the language of the church. Too often folks in the environmental movement have made people of faith feel uncomfortable.[19]

Given his fairly recent conversion, Sleeth has been enormously successful preaching to hundreds of churches and colleges yearly a quasi-Biblical environmentalism. Clothed in “biblical” rhetoric, the environmental platform is getting churches to do something—to turn to a new gospel. The success of Sleeth’s books and ministry derives from his fruitful weaving of environmentalism, a dark Green religion, with Christian language. This hybrid creation—The Gospel According to the Earth – is in every way an inadequate gospel; it is no gospel at all. It describes views of God, man, law, sin, curse, salvation, and dominion that are different from what God’s Word describes.

It teaches that materialism causes our spiritual problems. Scripture teaches that materialism is a symptom, not a cause, of spiritual problems. Efforts to Green the gospel of Jesus Christ will always fail because man is not merely flawed but completely broken; dead in trespasses and sin is how the Bible characterizes it (Ephesians 2:1). Why? Because man’s basic problem is ethical not environmental. Man is a sinner. Transcendence and escape from sin and destruction are found nowhere else except in the person of Jesus Christ.

Professing Christian Greens, and their secular counterparts, try to inculcate a sense of overwhelming crisis brought on by the human condition. They offer salvation if only we prepare collectively to impose radical sacrifices. They forget that the greatest crisis is not environmental, but fought each day in the hearts, heads, and hands of human beings. Our greatest enemy is death. And sin, properly defined by God, not the Environmental Protection Agency, is the cause of death.

Sleeth frequently treats God’s moral law as a metaphor. Yet there is an area of revelation he takes more seriously. In “The Gospel According to the Earth” he elevates the revelation of God in nature high above the revelation of God in the Bible. Sleeth teaches that truly specific information about God comes from creation more than from Scripture. The end result is that carbon-sensitive behaviors, geography, and nature are critical for right prayer and a proper relationship to God. We can do better than this.

Rather than preaching a kind of environmental liberation theology, in which the Earth is channeled in its victimhood via mediums like Sleeth, we need to embrace a Biblical telling of this story. Earth is cursed and, we admit to our shame, it is cursed because of Adam—and ourselves in him. We need to beware adding to this bondage by careless actions that focus less on God’s glory than on man’s; our relationship to the planet need not be hostile. This is plain as the diamond-studded intensity of deep black velvet nights, and made plainer by Psalm 8 and other anthems to God’s glory, expressed by the existence of His creation.

Glory to God

Indeed, Christians have reason to respect nature as the Green religionist never can, because we believe God made these things each with meaning and a specific role. The environmentalist does not have the same reason for treating other creatures with high respect. A tree is a living creature actively engaged, though perhaps not consciously, in glorifying the Creator. Even inanimate rocks and stars do the same. I may thus draw near a forest, or a rock, or the mud between my toes and glory in the mystery that we together, by our very existence and form, are glorifying God. We are participants in a celestial choir, some with and others without life, but all glorifying the Creator, all instruments of joy and pleasure in our own way; rock as rock, man as man. None of us autonomous, each upheld by God, created for God, and so linked to God in mysterious ways.

What is the problem according to the Green gospel? It is not the problem of rebellion against God’s law. The Green gospel replaces God’s law with metaphors and man-made substitutes. It teaches that the problem is humans, who overspread the Earth, whose activity is mostly negative; we are the problem, because we are distinct from nature, bringing curse to the good Earth which, the Green gospel insists, is otherwise not cursed in itself. This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Are we human beings, each one of us, a problem merely for existing and exhaling carbon dioxide? Unlike the Earth, which has a distinct beginning and end, according to Scripture humans have such great and eternal value, that Christ died for us and rose and sits in heaven interceding for us.

Psalm 8:2 expresses the real problem as follows: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.” Amid praise God has foes; there is a cosmic conflict. I have been an enemy of God! The conflict, and the gospel, has nothing to do with carbon footprints, or even the Earth, which is merely the glorious stage which makes this conflict visible to us. Our existence and impact on the Earth are not the problem, the problem is our rebellion against the Creator.

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 causes humans to worship the creation, instead of worshiping the Creator. The Gospel according to the Earth then becomes rebellion against the transcendent God.

Salvation of the Earth will not come from eliminating people or reducing our impact on the great stage of our redemption. False gospels do not save, they destroy; they do not produce joy, they take it. And they center on man, and the works of man, not on Christ and his work. Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Samuel Bolton writes, “The law sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified; and the Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified.[20] But the law of the Green gospel sends us away from the penetrating law of the Lord, inviting us to find satisfaction in misty metaphors and sacrificial carbon-neutral actions rather than the solid truth of the Word of God.

Sincere people, like Matthew Sleeth, wishing to do good, look at these supposedly Earth-saving actions as if they were a conversion or worship experience. They feel good that they have performed various carbon-neutral rituals. It is a law, but not one based on the Bible. Who saves the Earth according to this so-called gospel? We do, by meeting the standard of the Green gospel. And so, like the rich young ruler, and like the Pharisees, we become fixated on how well we obey the new standards of virtue we have framed around Green central organizing principles. We set aside God’s law to follow our own.

The resulting product is a dangerous conglomerate, the glories of the Savior hidden from his sheep because teachers will not give careful attention to God’s Word alone. We can only plead that the many pastors whom Sleeth thanks for entrusting him with their sheep would ask themselves if this is what Jesus died for, for a gospel of the Earth? Is this what Christ’s sheep will live for? Could you be misleading souls and misdirecting the labors of other Christians?

At best, the gospel according to the Earth is an inadequate gospel. But there are several positive issues. We may be 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 material things, or work, an idol;
  • the prosperity gospel is a counterfeit;
  • technology is not “inherently evil”;
  • we should observe the Sabbath.

In His infinite kindness, God provides His law as tutor to lead sinners to Christ; it was written on stone by the finger of God, and will endure from age to age. We need to pay careful attention to the gospel of God’s Word alone, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:1-3), which challenges us to repent of our sin, including the self-righteous sin of thinking we can save ourselves by our own works, of whatever kind, and trust in Christ, on His terms, instead.

…a masterpiece for the green revolution of God

With terms written not on stone by the finger of God but in sand and by the pen of a man, “The Gospel According to the Earth” is a synthetic, carbon-free, “creation care” substitute, softening the radical impact of both the law and the gospel of Christ. It masquerades as truth, sleepy with comfortable good works and metaphorical models of God’s Word that are less than true. It is a means to integrate the pagan politics of modern-day environmentalism into Christian worship; on the book cover we read, “Sleeth has created a masterpiece for the green revolution of God.” But is it really a masterpiece?

It is not that we must love God’s creation less—we Christians should love God’s creation—but that we must love Him more. “The Gospel According to the Earth” presents a so-called gospel of no good news which threaten’ to entangle God’s people, pushing them to take pleasure in sacrifices conforming to the world. A quote from C.H. Spurgeon seems apropos, encouraging God’s people to live transformationally by renewing their minds away from false gospels, including “green” ones:

About us are a thousand things entangling. This world is very much like the pools we have heard of in India, in which grows a long grass of so clinging a character that, if a man once falls into the water, it is almost certain to be his death, for only with the utmost difficulty could he be rescued from the meshes of the deadly, weedy net, which immediately wraps itself around him. This world is even thus entangling. All the efforts of grace are needed to preserve men from being ensnared with the deceitfulness of riches and the cares of this life. The ledger demands you, the day-book wants you, the shop requires you, the warehouse bell rings for you; the theater invites, the ball-room calls: you must live, you say, and you must have a little enjoyment, and, consequently, you give your heart to the world. These things, I say, are very entangling; but we must be disentangled from them, for we cannot afford to lose our souls. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”[21]


[1] Harper Collins Speakers Bureau, online at http://www.harpercollinsspeakersbureau.com/speaker/matthew-sleeth-md-.aspx

[2] Bill McKibben, The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces from an Active Life, Holt Paperbacks, (March 4, 2008), p. 231.

[3] David Ian Miller, ”Finding My Religion,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 2007, online at http://articles.sfgate.com/2007-01-22/news/17225114_1_evangelicals-public-health-earth-day/5

[4] http://blessedearthfilms.org/welcome/

[5] Amanda Little, “Cizik Matters: An Interview with Green Evangelical Leader Richard Cizik,” Grist.com, online at http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/10/05/cizik/, viewed 12/5/2008.

[6] Dr. Matthew Sleeth, Life Beyond the Trends, Thursday, March 4, 2010, online at http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=344112813323

[7] J. Matthew Sleeth, Hope for Creation Guidebook: Part One (Blessed Earth), Zondervan (April 12, 2010), p.5

[8] David Roberts, The Gospel of J. Matthew: An interview with J. Matthew Sleeth, evangelical environmentalist and author, Grist, 5 Oct 2006; online at http://www.grist.org/article/sleeth

[9] Miller, “Finding My Religion.”

[10] Roberts, “Gospel of J. Matthew.”

[11] J. Matthew Sleeth, J. Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p. 31.

[12] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren. Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1977), pp. 954, 837–838.

[13] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), p. 3.

[14] Cass R. Sunstein, After the Rights Revolution: Reconceiving the Regulatory State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 69.

[15] http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2009/ga10823.doc.htm

[16] http://www.un.org/en/events/motherearthday/sg_message.shtml

[17] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007 – Mitigation of Climate Change: Working Group III Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 707, 708.

[18] Indur M. Goklany, The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal (Cato Institute, 2001), p. 24.

[19] Roberts, ”Gospel of J. Matthew.”

[20] Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), p.71.

[21] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The One Thing Needful,” online at http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1015.htm.

Share

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: