L.B.: Nineveh

Left Behind, Chapters 1-6

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, "O Lord, is this not what I said? … I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

When we were first putting together the Evangelical Environmental Network, I was kind of jealous of our partners forming similar groups among Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jewish congregations. They all had structures to work with. Those groups had organizations and hierarchies that allowed our partners to quickly and officially establish legitimacy with the constituencies they were trying to reach.

Evangelicals have no such structures. Instead of church polity, we have a marketplace. Influence and authority are not determined by tradition, by hierarchy, by spiritual discernment or democratic election embodying collective wisdom. Instead, they are determined by book sales, TV ratings, fund-raising acumen, and how many radio stations one owns.

This is a hell of a way to run a church.

Some of these market mechanisms can, I suppose, be passable proxies for a democratic form of church governance. Take for example the recent rise to national prominence of the Rev. Rick Warren. One could argue that the success of his book, The Purpose-Driven LIfe, represents the wisdom of the people — that the body of believers has voted with their dollars to elect Warren as a pseudo-bishop in our market-driven church. But this kind of "election" usually has more to do with the flim-flammery of marketing than it does with the will of the Holy Spirit. I'd trust the system more if we just cast lots like the early church did in selecting a replacement for Judas.

This market-driven ecclesiology gets more disturbing the more you learn about the cynical, pragmatic outlook of groups like the NRB and the CBA. That would be the National Religious Broadcasters and the Christian Booksellers Association (although books account for less than a fifth of their sales). Think of them as our colleges of pseudo-cardinals, or the pseudo-archbishops who with their money and marketing appoint our pseudo-bishops.

This is part of what frightens and angers me about the phenomenal popularity of the Worst Books Ever Written. LaHaye and Jenkins are spreading their political agenda and worldview — their triumphalist, Jonah-like delight in the damnation of their enemies, their sociopathic lack of empathy — and the popularity of this agenda in turn lends it a kind of spiritual authority. And that is part of why this quixotic, elliptical-but-thorough assault on these awful books means more to me than simply a diverting way to spend my Fridays.

So anyway, given the lack of formal church structures, we had to find another way to ensure our evangelical audience that the EEN was a legitimate effort worth their attention. So we collected names. We circulated copies of something called "An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation" and tried to get as many "gatekeepers" as we could to sign on.

By gatekeepers I mean the whole assorted collection of influential evangelicals — pastors, seminary presidents and professors, the heads of mission agencies and parachurch groups, authors and radio hosts. Each of these men (mostly) and women had influence in a different segment of the the evangelical audience we wanted to reach. Their endorsement was a kind of imprimatur.

Not everybody was willing to sign, of course. The activist religious right pretty much blew us off, viewing our environmental message as a kind of crypto-socialism. Others saw this effort as vaguely "controversial," or they feared that others might view it as such. And association with "controversy" could diminish their standing in the marketplace. Still others viewed any new effort as a threat to their market share. They saw us as competition for their slice of the fund-raising pie and refused to help.

But dozens did sign on (here's a partial list). And among them were some pleasant surprises.

Jack Wyrtzen was the president and founder of "Word of Life," a collection of evangelistic ministries and Bible institutes based in Schroon Lake, N.Y. He was a nice guy with an infectious enthusiasm and a penchant for loud sport coats. He was also a premillennial dispensationalist who spoke at "prophecy" seminars and believed the rapture was coming along any day now. Jack Wyrtzen died before the Left Behind books were published, but he probably would have like them.

So I did not expect Wyrtzen to endorse our "Care of Creation" document. Time and again I had encountered the "Late Great Planet Earth" attitude of most prophecy enthusiasts. "Why are you trying to make this world a better place?" they would ask me. "This world is not our home." They believed the Bible taught that the world must get worse and worse. Wars and rumors of wars, famine, earthquakes, dogs and cats sleeping together. They wanted the world to get worse and worse. The sooner that happened, they believed, the sooner Jesus would come and take them away.

But Jack Wyrtzen surprised me.

"Praise the Lord!" his handwritten response began. He wrote that the creation was God's "masterpiece," and that we honor the Creator by caring for it. Jack also believed, of course, that this world was doomed and that soon, very soon, believers would be carried away to a new heaven and a new earth. But in the time remaining, he believed, we still had a responsibility to care for others and for the creation.

His letter was evidence that the prophecy obsession of premillennial dispensationalism did not have to result in a bloodlust for Armageddon. It showed that it was at least possible to believe many of the things that LaHaye and Jenkins believe without drooling for the destruction of Nineveh.

Possible, but not likely. Jack Wyrtzen was pretty much the only PMD to endorse our call for "Caring for Creation." And for most of its adherents, this prophecy-mania is as poisonous as it appears in the WBEW.

That's why this matters. Because this poison is being spread throughout the evangelical church, which is my church, my family. We weren't called to sit off by ourselves, "angry enough to die," bitter that our God refuses to slaughter our enemies. We were called, like Jonah, to be salt and light, to love our neighbors and our enemies, to be agents of God's mercy even in Nineveh. Especially in Nineveh — that's where I live. Some of my best friends are Ninevites.

Should I not be concerned about that great city?

  • cjmr

    I was very impressed by your Declaration. Rarely have I seen any evangelical concern for the environment expressed at all–especially in the Left Behind era–I’m glad to know there are some who care. (A fair number of people, to judge by the partial list of signatories.)
    —-
    Off topic: Apparently the worst books ever written are now about to spawn a video role-playing game with both single-player and multi-player internet modes.
    http://home.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/index.jsp?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20050629005965&newsLang=en
    This is wrong on so many levels!
    —-

  • Lila

    Amen, brother. Most of my friends are Ninevites.

  • gaunilo

    What a fantastic insight into the inroads of marketing into the evangelical church. Only in America – except we’re exporting it to the rest of the world!
    Keep up the assault. It’s a dirty job…

  • Scott

    Does the video game let you be the antichrist?

  • bulbul

    Word of Life? Hmm… Any relation to Ulf Ekman’s Livets Ord (The World of Life)? I hope not, cause I know Livets Ord and they are a nasty bunch…

  • cjmr

    Does the video game let you be the antichrist?
    Nope, sorry. You only get to be a Tribulation Force cell leader or something similar.

  • B-W

    Thanks for this piece. It’s one of your best!

  • Barbara

    Mad props from.. I started to say the other side of the aisle, but after careful reflection it’s more like ‘from that heathen grove down the block’.
    I’ve been following this series with the kind of fascinated interest that only a real outsider can bring. I was raised, more or less, Roman Catholic and wandered away into neo-paganism. These folks *scare* me, because I not only do not speak their language, I don’t speak the language they used to speak.
    It’s truly heartening to me, as someone out here on the fringes, to hear clear and pointed discussion of kind of thinking. Their target audience won’t listen to me. I have some hope they might just listen to you.

  • http://ilx.wh3rd.net/thread.php?showall=true&msgid=5967402#5967441 I Love Everything

    This is kinda neat: “the Evangelical Environmental Network “

    I found this link thru today’s entry at Slacktivist, where he talks about the process they went thru in getting set up, and the weird marketing that goes on with these movements since the infrastructure of other sects isn’t present here:
    Instead of ch…

  • Jay Denari

    Wow. That’s about all I can say; this sentiment is simply NOT what we normally hear from self-professed evangelicals (although I know you’ve mentioned it a little before).
    Although I’m not into the various Jesus references in that document and believe “glory of the Creator—whom we know dimly through creation, but meet fully through Scripture and in Christ” has the relationship backward (we can know the Creator very clearly by understanding and participating in Creation’s wonders, with or without sacred texts), this is an effort I’d support. A truly multi-denominational respect & willingness to fight for the world we all share is long overdue.
    Good luck reaching out to other evangelicals…. but I’m afraid quite a few of the L&J-type crowd aren’t going to hear you because they’re, to put it bluntly, delusional as hell. They already don’t see those elements of the bible as being important and believe they have a vested interest in making things as bad as possible.

  • Darryl Pearce

    Well, as Douglass said of Lincoln, “That, sir, was a sacred effort.”
    Keep up the good work. You give this skeptic… a brief respite of optimism.

  • will

    Thanks for these thoughts. Wyrtzen was a family friend and a man I grew up around, but I would have never guessed this. As someone who cares deeply about the environment, this gives me great hope.

  • will

    Thanks for these thoughts. Wyrtzen was a family friend and a man I grew up around, but I would have never guessed this. As someone who cares deeply about the environment, this gives me great hope.

  • emjaybee

    Amen.
    And to me, care for the environment comes from my reaidng of the parable of the talents; the man who is praised is the one who wisely invested and cared for his master’s gifts, not the one who buried and ignored them, waiting for the master to come home. The environment is our gift, and we are charged to care for it intelligently, even to improve it.

  • Sophist

    I’ve never understood how Evangelicals can be so dismissive about caring for the environment. God has essentially given you the keys to his bachelor pad, and your reasponse is to trash the place? What exactly is going on in your head?

  • Grumpy

    “…this kind of “election” usually has more to do with the flim-flammery of marketing than it does with the will of the Holy Spirit.”
    As the saying goes, God works in mysterious ways. ;)
    Oh, and the Holy Spirit says you should go see War of the Worlds. Have a nice, cold Coke while you’re at the cinema. Thus says the Lord.

  • aldahlia

    I dunno about the WORST book of all time. I’m thinking that might have been Atlas Shrugged. But they’re certainly up there.
    http://aldahlia.net/m/index.php?id=C0_2_1

  • martino

    “Time and again I had encountered the “Late Great Planet Earth” attitude of most prophecy enthusiasts.”
    That’s because they’re talking about a different planet, to wit:
    * on their planet Manhattan is at least 30 miles long: after making it back to Manhattan, Buck has a fifteen-mile walk to his midtown office and another five to his apartment
    * generally, their planet seems much larger than ours (either that, or their technology is way behind — see Fred’s discussion of the spliced computer cables): on his transatlantic flight, Rayford is “too remote even to pick up a radio station for news,” not even from “Greenland or an island in the middle of nowhere”
    * their countries are located on different continents: Russia entered a secret alliance with “Middle Eastern nations, primarily Ethiopia and Libya”
    * though they live “in a fallen world,” like we do, “God left control of it pretty much to Satan”

  • Robin

    Thanks, Fred. As another non-christian, I am appalled at this’God wants us to destroy the world’ attitude that I see everywhere in this country. I remember hearing James Watt, secretary of the Interior under Reagan (Bush’s first presidency) respond to a question about selling off the National Forests for clearcutting: “Jesus is coming again soon, so it doesn’t matter what we do to the environment”.
    Jesus apparently doesn’t give a $h1T about the planet…
    When I was in college, I allowed myself to go to some christian youth service. The ‘blood of Christ’, grape juice of course, was served out in a thousand tiny plastic cups that were all thrown away. I felt in the depths of my soul the hypocrisy of creating pollution in order to take communion. Every service they thrrew out a 36 gallon bag of garbage. I was appalled.
    I have never been able to tolerate Christianity specifically because of the mindless hypocrisy I see in every one of their adherents. I have met less than five Christians that seem to actually be attempting to emulate the Christ.
    Thank you again for dong this. I am grateful that you are deconstructing this miasma of mediocrity. But it seems that this is a metaphor of American Christanity: They can not see the incredible plot holes and bad writing that is right in front of them…

  • Robin

    Thanks, Fred. As another non-christian, I am appalled at this’God wants us to destroy the world’ attitude that I see everywhere in this country. I remember hearing James Watt, secretary of the Interior under Reagan (Bush’s first presidency) respond to a question about selling off the National Forests for clearcutting: “Jesus is coming again soon, so it doesn’t matter what we do to the environment”.
    Jesus apparently doesn’t give a $h1T about the planet…
    When I was in college, I allowed myself to go to some christian youth service. The ‘blood of Christ’, grape juice of course, was served out in a thousand tiny plastic cups that were all thrown away. I felt in the depths of my soul the hypocrisy of creating pollution in order to take communion. Every service they thrrew out a 36 gallon bag of garbage. I was appalled.
    I have never been able to tolerate Christianity specifically because of the mindless hypocrisy I see in every one of their adherents. I have met less than five Christians that seem to actually be attempting to emulate the Christ.
    Thank you again for dong this. I am grateful that you are deconstructing this miasma of mediocrity. But it seems that this is a metaphor of American Christanity: They can not see the incredible plot holes and bad writing that is right in front of them…

  • Kimberly W

    Agreed – on just about everything. Apart from being a non-christian, I am an EX- Christian, and I read 4 or 5 of the horrid things before it sunk in just how NOT LIKE revelations they where..and how bad the writing was – about the same time I realized that Revelations was written by a mad man. There is so much I could write, but it was mostly the overwhelming hypocrasy of the organized church that drove me away to find my own path – that and the demand that I MUST believe that all my good jewish, catholic and other friends are going to hell because they haven’t accepted christ as their savoir. Oh, that and blond, blue eyed white jesuses.
    ::sigh::

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