Preaching the Earth Gospel

An Interview With Green Preacher Matthew Sleeth
By David Crumm

If you're already well informed about the global green movement then you'll understand this comparison: Sleeth, now a very popular writer, lecturer, and activist from Wilmore, Kentucky, is an innovator much like Bill McKibben. The main difference? Not much. Both men are Methodists and both are known for making front-page headlines with their creative methods of communication. McKibben has racked up major, game-changing successes like 350.org. Sleeth also has given the world a few fresh ideas! He created the game-changing Green Bible. There is one big difference between the two men. McKibben is a former journalist and often weaves general spiritual themes into his activism. Sleeth is proud to call himself an evangelical and he preaches evangelical language to that enormously important segment of American families. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

It's good to talk to you again Matthew! At age 53, you've covered a whole lot of turf! You began college late in your life. You worked for years as a carpenter, then discovered you had a talent for academic work and headed back to school. You wound up as a successful emergency room physician, but you felt God calling you to preach a message of Creation care far and wide. Now, you're a noted Bible scholar, as well. You're a very popular author. Wow. You've traveled a long way! So, let's step back and start with a simple question: What triggered this dramatic Moses-like stirring in your heart and mind?

Two things happened to me personally. One was that I was attending a church and I began to wonder why we weren't doing anything about protecting God's world. I had this idea that God wanted us to be concerned with pollution, mercury in fish, and that kind of thing -- but, at church, I didn't hear any connection made with these important things. When I asked about it, one of the pastors joked that I had the theology of a tree hugger.

The Gospel according to the Earth. You include that story in your new book, The Gospel according to the Earth. The subtitle, I think, captures the overall focus of this new hardback: Why the Good Book Is a Green Book. I'd describe this as your manifesto and your own customized toolbox for making a difference in the world. And, once again, your whole approach is rooted in the Bible. You preach the green gospel from the heart of the Bible itself. And that goes back to how you first felt this calling, right?

Yeah. When that pastor called me a tree hugger, it led me to go through the whole Bible and underline areas where God glorifies the Creation and where care for Creation is highlighted. I discovered that this approach to the Bible was a very important guide. I found a lot to underline. Then, someone gave me a Bible, a Thomas Nelson study Bible -- and what was so unusual about that? It turned out the study Bible was published in 1888 and it had roughly 60 pages in it about the ideas I keep talking about. Think about that! The real estate -- every single page of space -- is precious in a Bible and this 1888 edition devoted four pages to full-page etchings of famous trees in the Bible.

That discovery showed me a couple of things. One is that what I was finding in the Bible as I underlined passages is not new. It's sound theology that's been there for millennia. In fact, we forgot it and, now, we need to rediscover it. If you want to understand how important this awareness of Creation care has been for centuries, then listen to the words in our popular hymns. Listen to "For the Beauty of the Earth" and "All Creatures of Our God and King." This shows us that what I'm talking about is not a fad. This is the fabric of God revealing itself to us in each new generation.

I have to say that I've found your preaching in recent years to be a breath of fresh air.

I do things like ask people to think about this: "How many of you have ever heard a sermon on trees?" Out of a crowd of 200 people, I might get one person raising a hand. Then, I say: "Well, that's a profound oversight, considering the symbol of the Lord is a tree, a tree of life. A tree shows up on the first page of the Bible. Think about this: We don't know which way Paul parted his hair or what most of the men and women in the Bible even looked like! But we know the exact species of the tree Abraham sat under. We know the species of the tree Zacchaeus climbed. We know very specific details about many trees in the Bible. Keep reading and you'll find that holds true for fish and water and much more about the natural world. We are material beings. This is God's world and we are material beings in God's world."