Re-placing The Gospel (Tom Rowley)
Heretical though the title of this essay sounds, there’s no need to warm up the tar or pluck the chickens. The heresy lies not here, but rather in a truncated Gospel, which has effectively dis-placed the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s time to re-place it.
For reasons I do not fully understand, the Gospel preached from the North American pulpit has largely begun with sin and ended with forgiveness, which, to be sure, are absolutely essential elements. But the Bible contains more. A lot more. And what’s left out of this CliffsNotes version is also essential: namely creation and new creation, garden and city, the orthodox beginning and end. In the Bible, place matters—both as part of God’s very good creation and as the arena in which we encounter the living God. In the truncated Gospel, place is irrelevant.
And that irrelevance shows in all-too-familiar and all-too-painful ways.
The creation groans with mass extinctions, pollution, desertification and more. People, most profoundly the poor, suffer the results along with our non-human fellow creatures. And our Gospel witness is tarnished and even our relationship with Christ is strained by our lack of care for His creation.
What if it were different? What if we Christians stewarded the creation as we were assigned in Genesis? What if we celebrated (not worshiped) the creation as the lovely handiwork of a loving Creator? What if we re-placed the Gospel? Doing so really isn’t that hard. Even the simple steps of learning where our food comes from, where our trash goes and the names and needs of the birds, bugs and botany in our backyards goes a long way. Plus, it’s a great way to get the kids outside and away from their addictive electronic gadgets.
The Potential Impact
And as for impact, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, 247 million Americans identified themselves as Christian in 2010. Estimates put the number of evangelicals alone at some 90 million. And every single one of us lives in a specific place. A place where people and plants and animals and forests and fields and streams all need our care. All need the restoring love of Jesus Christ, who we are told in Colossians created all things and through his sacrificial death on the cross redeems and reconciles all things to God.
Worldwide, the potential gets even more impressive, more hopeful. Our sheer numbers—2.18 billion—are one reason; but our locations—our places—are even more eye opening. The 2013 article in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation, “Biodiversity Priority Areas and Religions—A Global Analysis of Spatial Overlap,” by researchers Mikusinski, Possingham and Blicharska shows a remarkable co-location of Christians and places high in biodiversity and therefore in need of protection. Using data from the World Religion Database and seven methods of identifying critical biodiversity regions, they found that Christians were the dominant religious group in all seven types of regions. All seven.
The Real Problem
Findings like that combined with the growing realization among secular environmentalists that technical and regulatory fixes will not, in fact, fix our environmental challenges lead to astounding quotes like this one heard on BBC Radio by Gus Speth, whose environmental resume runs for pages and includes such stints as founder of the World Resources Institute, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:
I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation and we scientists don’t know how to do that.
The need is obvious, the invitation has been given, the people are in place and the first steps are easy. What are we waiting for? It’s time to re-place the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Put out the fire and let the chickens go.