L.B.: Nineveh

L.B.: Nineveh July 1, 2005

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?

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