A November 2009 “Who’s Next” column in Christianity Today hailed Jonathan Merritt as “The Green Baptist.” While still in his twenties, Merritt has accomplished much, bringing into being the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative and developing a successful writing and speaking career, all while attending seminary. His first book, Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet, is an effective distillation of his core message: we should care for creation because it is God’s.
I had the pleasure of meeting Merritt last fall, when he came to speak as part of an ethics lecture series at the university where I teach. I observed then how well he drew in students who were initially apathetic or even hostile to environmentalism (or, as Merritt prefers to call it, “creation care”). One of Merritt’s strengths, in the book and in person, is that he has a compelling conversion narrative. He, like many of the people he is effective at reaching, once cavalierly abused the earth, assuming that environmentalism was just for “liberals.” His road-to-Damascus moment came in a seminary classroom, when a professor, discussing general and special revelation, compared destroying the earth to tearing a page out of the Bible. For a scripture-revering evangelical like Merritt, the analogy was powerful. As a result, he began searching the scriptures for evidence of God’s attitude toward his creation.
Having seen Merritt’s unquestionable gift of connecting to naysayers, I hope that his book has a similar effect. In reviewing the book, I have to confess that I’m not really part of the intended audience. As long as I can remember, I’ve connected environmental stewardship and Christian discipleship. As a vegetarian for fifteen years, I’ve gotten rather used to being the recipient of suspicious looks and out-of-context scriptural projectiles in evangelical circles, so the “liberal stigma” of environmentalism doesn’t really faze me. Because of this, it’s hard for me to judge how well the book might accomplish some of its aims.
Given a potentially hostile audience, Green Like God is particularly wise in limiting its focus, stepping carefully around the topic of global warming (though I’ve seen Merritt speak on that subject and know that he is well-versed in it). Instead, the book addresses common evangelical attitudes towards creation and holds them up to scrutiny in the light of scripture. Most compelling is Merritt’s discussion of Genesis 1:28, the “dominion” passage. Drawing insights from John Walton’s Genesis commentary, Merritt discusses how, in the Old Testament, the word generally translated as “subdue” is most often used in the context of a monarch’s rule over subjects. Merritt then points out, “When an Israelite king abused his dominion—when he got greedy, oppressed the people, or enslaved his subjects—God would judge and punish him.” Merritt further concludes, “In addition to the role God gives humans in Genesis, what He doesn’t give us is important. Humans don’t have sovereignty over the earth. God retains ultimate power of the planet . . . The entire creation is still His even though we have been entrusted with a measure of authority. Environmental stewardship, as Scripture defines it, must take into account that at no point did God ever give humans ownership of the earth. He gave us authority. These things are very different.”
While staying focused on his main purpose, Merritt also presents a good case for viewing creation care as an integral part of the gospel, rather than a distraction from it. However, in this section of the book, I see a potential danger when Merritt begins connecting creation care with Christian witness. “The whole world is increasingly equating an externally focused, sustainable, earth-friendly lifestyle with what it means to be a good person,” Merritt writes. “When the world sees the Christian community perpetuating lives of wealth and waste, it damages our witness. When they see us living compassionate, sustainable lives, our witness becomes authentic and convincing.” Everything said here is true—for now. As Merritt himself acknowledges, though, environmentalism in the secular world is something of a fad. If we tune our concepts of what makes good witness to the standards of the world, we turn evangelism into a popularity contest for Jesus. I don’t think this is at all what Merritt is advocating, but I can see young, inexperienced Christians drawing this conclusion from it (and I say this as someone once convinced that if anyone disliked me, that meant I wasn’t living as a good Christian witness). I recently came across a booklet written by Matthew Halteman that addresses “compassionate eating” as a Christian spiritual discipline, and a passage from it expresses the flip side of the “witness” coin: “At the end of the day, it is the faithfulness of our discipleship rather than its impact on the world that matters most. Being a witness, after all, sometimes means being a martyr, and there will surely be times when the different choices we feel called to make will be met with indifference, cynicism, or even contempt by the world at large, indeed perhaps even by our own friends or family.” In other words, live in a Christlike manner and let God worry about whether that message is received or not. Again, I don’t think this is contrary to what Merritt says, but I’d like to see a more balanced acknowledgment of the potential effects of living the lives God calls us to live.
A related minor quibble is that Merritt’s language sometimes conflates “American” and “Christian.” As he explains, “as Americans, we also have a great responsibility because of our association with Christianity. The way Americans behave is noted by others around the world, so when Americans are unruly, Christianity suffers.” Again, true enough, but believing that our Christian witness depends on what this nation does or does not do is fraught with pitfalls. When Merritt writes, “The world needs Americans to become the heroes that God has empowered us to be,” I squirm just a bit at the implication of American exceptionalism. When issuing a needed Old Testament-style prophetic call for reform, we have to keep in mind that we (as a nation) are not ancient Israel.
Aside from these issues, the book serves as an excellent introduction for anyone who has never seriously considered how God’s love for creation should affect our everyday lives. Merritt is very up-front in stating that Green Like God is not intended to be a practical primer in green living: he acknowledges the messiness of navigating environmental tradeoffs (e.g. disposable vs. cloth diapers, which initially seem more eco-friendly but result in a huge spike in water usage) and basically says that God has equipped us with consciences to find our own faithful solutions to these problems. Merritt does provide a helpful list of resources (books and web sites) for those who want to explore both the theology and the practice of creation care in more detail.
On a final note, I’d like to reassure readers who may be misled by Green Like God’s subtitle, Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet, which sounds like either some sort of secret Gnostic knowledge or an end-times conspiracy theory. Green Like God, thankfully, is neither: it’s accessible common sense, informed by scripture and well-targeted to its audience.
Note: I received a free review copy of Green Like God as part of the book’s promotional blog tour.