With a nudge from our accented British brethren—Wright, Stott, Lewis, and Wesley—America may be waking up to a new creation song. That’s a good thing, because the modern church has too often embraced consumption over stewardship, says John A. Murdock.
James Taylor could play to thousands nightly while David Wilcox performs for a few hundred—on a very good day. Why do some people achieved stardom and others, as talented or better, remain in relative obscurity admired by a dedicated few? The dynamics of popularity and importance are difficult to easily explain—a theme powerfully explored in the Oscar winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man where a seemingly failed musician finds he had a role in bringing down South African apartheid—but we see those complexities in more than just music.
The scriptures face their own version of the Top 40. Pulpits in the Evangelical world tend to feature less Peter, much more Paul and very little Mary. Perhaps it is at least time to reexamine the set list for our biggest chart topping writer, and consider whether some of his overlooked work doesn’t deserve a more prominent place. After all, Elvis Presley’s first B side was “Don’t be Cruel.” It took a while, but it eventually got as much air play as the “Hound Dog” that first introduced us to the voice of the King.
Early in his Colossian epistle, the Apostle Paul declares of Jesus that “all things have been created through him and for him,” and that “in him all things hold together.” Christ is creator, the reason for creation, and its sustainer. One starts to get the idea that Jesus might be fond, not just of us, but of everything he has made. Paul brings that point home in Colossians 1:20 saying, “Through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Yes, this has profound impacts on believers, who are presented “holy and blameless and irreproachable” before God, but the reconciled “all things” includes a lot more than just you, me, and the rest of humanity. This is big, very big— but not the basis for too many sermons.
Steven Bouma-Prediger says of this passage in his noteworthy For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision of Creation Care, “Christ is Lord, and his reign is cosmic in scope. The ubiquitous ‘all things’ thumps like a constant drumbeat throughout this text, forcibly reminding us that nothing lies outside the creative and redemptive scope of God’s grace.” Of course, the idea of a Christology for all the world has not always been ignored, as the again growing fan club for Abraham Kuyper & The Not One Square Inchers shows, but even many of these groupies have not taken the leap from redeeming the cultural landscape to restoring the physical.
Perhaps we skip over the full message of Colossians 1 precisely because it is so colossal. It is difficult to comprehend Jesus reconciling “all things” when we are struggling to comprehend the full reality of our own reconciliation to God. Or, maybe it is just because Colossians is a bit off the well beaten biblical path of recent decades. Yet, even when Paul belts out some cosmic high notes from a prime location by the well traveled “Romans Road,” we still tend to miss it.
I recently visited a campus of Second Baptist, a Texas sized mega-church in Houston. The preacher, Dr. Ed Young, had been slow walking through Paul’s letter to the Romans for nine months, and, thus, it wasn’t too surprising to hear him say that this book of the Bible was the one he would likely take to a desert island if he had to choose. Such adoration has been common in Protestant circles since Luther.
N. T. Wright
The Sunday I stopped by Dr. Young was just finishing up the crowd and clergy pleasing eighth chapter and powerfully punctuating the theme that “God is for us!” I later went online and dug back a few weeks to hear his take on the “groaning of creation” in verses 19-23 of Romans 8. That theme comprised one third of a sermon that also addressed the groaning of Christians and the Spirit. There wasn’t anything wrong (and a lot right) with what was said, but you would not have left the massive suburban parking lot that day thinking you had just reached “the rhetorical climax of this, the central section of Paul’s longest and most intricately argued letter.” At least, that is how New Testament scholar N.T. Wright describes these verses.
“When humans are put right, creation will be put right. That is the ultimate point,” according to Wright, “the glorious full sweep of Paul’s doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ.” Wright makes this claim in his essay “Jesus is Coming—Plant a Tree!” that helps to introduce The Green Bible, a piece that expands on the creation stewardship themes featured in Surprised by Hope. According to the former Anglican bishop, the Second Baptist treatment is not that uncommon: “As a lifelong student of Romans and of commentaries on it, I am impressed by—and depressed by—the strength of the tradition that has effectively marginalized these verses.”
This can sound a bit like whining, “I’m the only one who gets it,” but this British invader who has taken America by storm (at least in the relatively slow moving world of theology) has the chops to make the argument because no orthodox scholar in modern times has written more pages on Paul. And Wright isn’t out there on stage alone, he’s got plenty of back-up singers. The late Dallas Willard said of Surprised by Hope that “[r]esponsible Christians must carefully study” it, and United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon called it “quite simply the best book we have on the substance of Christian hope.” Christianity Today, the closest thing to Tiger Beat in my musical analogy, recently beamed about “Finding Mr. Wright” and made him its April cover-boy for a glowing profile. He even is shown strumming a guitar in the centerfold. Dreamy!
Whether Tom Wright’s intellectual trip across the pond changes everything like the Beatles remains to be seen. American preaching pop stars like Ed Young are gifted crowd pleasers already (by the way, Young spawned a real singer in Caedmon’s Call co-founder Cliff Young), and they often have good things to say. But even though Dr. Young acknowledged that creation is groaning “because of the sins of Adam and the sins of you and the sins of me” he didn’t give his congregation much of a charge to do anything about it. Wright on the other hand sees the work of ecological restoration as the logical extension of a Resurrection that inaugurates a new age:
In the new creation the ancient human mandate to look after the garden is dramatically reaffirmed. The resurrection of Jesus is the reaffirmation of the goodness of creation, and the gift of the Spirit is there to make us the fully human beings we were supposed to be, precisely so that we can fulfill that mandate at last. What are we waiting for? Jesus is coming. Let’s go and plant those trees.
In Wright one hears echoes of another man of the Isles who has had a great influence on our shores. The trans-Atlantic duo of John Stott and Billy Graham were able to gather Evangelicals from around the globe “We are the World” style to craft the Lausanne Covenant in the 1970s, and Stott’s writings and ministry have inspired millions far beyond foggy London. Southern California beach boy Rick Warren is one of his biggest fans, but Stott himself was a fan of the birds. No, not The Byrds who turned the words of Ecclesiastes into one of the 60s biggest hits and whose former front-man Roger McGuinn is now a believer, but the actual fine feathered variety. This avid bird watcher’s farewell book, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling, includes a chapter on creation care where Stott expounds on Romans 8:
God’s plan of restoration includes not only our reconciliation to God and to each other, but in some way the liberation of the groaning creation as well. . . . How much of the earth’s ultimate destiny can be experienced now is a matter for debate. But we can surely say that just as our understanding of the final destiny of our resurrection bodies should affect how we think of and treat the bodies we have at present, so our knowledge of the new heaven and earth should affect and increase the respect with which we treat it now.
Jesus rose with a body that was real, physical, and recognizable (even down to the scars). Yes, his flesh was restored and better than before (seemingly operating in another dimension where doors were optional), but he did not proclaim this coming improvement to be a reason for his disciples to disparage and ignore their current bodies; rather, he called them to take them to the ends of the earth proclaiming good news. As Wright puts it, “[W]ith Jesus, new creation has already begun, and Jesus’ followers are invited not only to benefit from it, but to share in the new project it unleashes,” work that includes “search[ing] out how the present, groaning creation can be set free from its bondage to decay and experience the freedom that comes when the children of God are glorified.” As Paul notes in interesting but often overlooked language of Colossians 1:23, “The hope promised by the gospel . . . has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”
C. S. Lewis
The Brits have been sending this message over for a while. The importance of Colossians 1 and Romans 8 was not lost on C.S. Lewis, another multi-platinum hit maker from the U.K., who had this to say in his classic Mere Christianity:
It says in the Bible that the whole universe was made for Christ and that everything is to be gathered together in Him. I do not suppose any of us can understand how this will happen as regards the whole universe. . . . What we have been told is how we men can be drawn into Christ . . . . And there are strange, exciting hints in the Bible that when we are drawn in, a great many other things in Nature will begin to come right. The bad dream will be over: it will be morning.
Lewis did the bulk of his work before the modern environmental movement fully blossomed and so his writings have but strange, exciting hints of what might have been a more developed creation care ethic in another era. Nevertheless, at least two thoughtful observers—Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara, authors of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis—make a good case that the Lewis worldview was naturally tinted green.
Of course, the biggest British influence on American religion was John Wesley whose early missionary journey to Georgia may have flopped but his Methodist movement sailed back across the ocean and helped to shape a new nation. His vision of the Christian faith was not one that simply instrumentalized other creatures into means for human ends; instead, the good news for Wesley was expansive, as this quote now featured in the introduction to The Green Bible demonstrates:
I believe in my heart that faith in Jesus Christ can and will lead us beyond an exclusive concern for the well-being of other human beings to the broader concern for the well-being of the birds in our backyards, the fish in our rivers, and every living creature on the face of the earth.
Wesley wasn’t just a one quote wonder in this regard, as his sermon “The General Deliverance” exploring Romans 8 demonstrates.
With a nudge from our accented British brethren—Wright, Stott, Lewis, and Wesley form a pretty fabulous four—America may be waking up to a new creation song. That’s a good thing, because at a time when the modern church has too often embraced consumption over stewardship, there are certainly plenty of trees that now need planting.