31 Jan

So I Baptized an iPhone…

The mood was set perfectly.  Friends gathered around the baptistry as  I stood  with Andrew who joined me in the water to give his life to Jesus.  Andrew was about to become a new man when all of a sudden an iPhone leaped for joy out of the hand of the one videoing.    He was capturing this glorious moment in high definition on a shiny new iPhone.

We all watched in horror as the iPhone hurdled the railing, smacked the floor beside the baptistry,  and then dove neatly into the baptismal waters.  I think it was actually more like a backflip but either way I’d give it a perfect 10.  Like a scuba diver, the iPhone submerged peacefully to the bottom, capturing every glorious second on its still recording hard drive.  I froze…for a second.  It was one of those, “no way that just happened moments.”  Finally, I reached down into the deep, rescued the iPhone, and handed it back into the hands of its owner who was as in shock as anyone. An awkward pause later, I let out a chuckle to break the tension that everyone felt over an iPhone that sought redemption.  Moments later, Andrew became a new man in Christ.  What about the iPhone?  Read on.  And as you do, let’s explore something together.

What is the role of technology in the life of a Christian?  Does it help or hurt us on our journey? The answer isn’t quite that simple.  Maybe a better question to ask is, can or should technology  be “baptized” or redeemed?  No, I don’t mean iPhones taking the plunge.  What I do mean is something deeper.

Critiquing the role of technology is not easy for me.  As I write this, I am pounding the keys of an expensive laptop computer.  To my left is an iPad with digital Bible apps and note taking apps where some of my research has been ever so “efficiently” done and is now digitally stored and ready to “quickly” access.  To my right is a Kindle e-book reader where I have “frugally” purchased and “consumed” some of the information to be reflected upon in this present task.  A few feet away sits a large, flat screen television that beckons me to engage it rather than critique its high tech “brothers and sisters.”  On my wrist is an “advanced” watch displaying the exact time to the second, reminding me of deadlines and how with each passing moment my time to finish this current work is slipping away.   A few more feet away sits an iPhone, ready to make sure I don’t miss the demands of any one of hundreds of possible scenarios in which I might be summoned to action through an email, text message, Facebook message, or even a good “old fashioned” phone call.  Why, then, is writing this essay difficult for me?  Because I know two deeply engaging and vitally important questions are being asked of me.  First, does modern day technology truly help or hinder my desire to be like Jesus?  And second, what has been lost in the advent of a high tech world?  Again, these questions are far from simple, “yes” or “no” answers. However, they must be asked.  This is my attempt to develop an ethic that seeks to wrestle with these questions as I engage the role technology plays in the life of a disciple of Christ.

While it is tempting to think of technology in electronic terms, such as computers or gadgets, it should rather be thought of in terms of its end goal:  to make life better, more efficient, simpler, and ultimately, more practical.  Technology is defined by Wikipedia, a community based encyclopedia made possible only by advanced technology, as

“the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function.” 

Note that the telos (goal) of technology is to “solve” and “perform” and that this is only made possible through the use of a man-made tool.    This is interesting considering the word originally stemmed from the word techne which referred to an “art, skill, or craft.”  It is easy to to dismiss the questions raised here by disregarding technology as neither moral nor immoral.2

This approach, however, misses the crucial task at hand and fails to see that technology has a creator who designed that technology with a specific goal in mind.  A knife was invented by someone with the end goal of acquiring the ability to cut.   Certainly that same knife can be used for both good and evil.  Will the one who wields it cut food or will they cut people?  The one who holds the technology has the decision to make on how to use it.  Therefore it is both the original telos of technology and the telos of the one using it that must be examined.   This creates an array of scenarios:

1)   A technology is designed with a good purpose and is used for good.  i.e. a knife being used to cut food.

2)   A technology is designed with a good purpose but its purpose is changed in the hands of man. i.e. a steak knife used to attack another person

3)  A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent and is used by man for that purpose, such as a machine gun being fired at a crowd of people

4)  A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent but in the hands of “good” is repurposed for good.

5)  A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent but is destroyed in the hands of good to keep it from accomplishing its original purpose.

With each of the above, there are interactions between the telos of the creator of the technology and the telos of the one wielding that technology. This leads to either the exploitation of the technology or the redemption of it.  Any technology left unredeemed is dangerous.  This danger is perhaps most prevalent, however, in a sixth option:  A technology is designed for “good,” is then used for “good,” but too much of that “good” turns into a “bad” thing.  Such has been the case with modern technology.

Whether it be “low tech” or “high tech,” old or new, the telos of most technology, at least the ones I have most often encountered, is to allow a task to be done with greater ease, more efficiency, more practicality, or some combination of each of these.  It is here, however, that the telos of technology stands in juxtaposition with the way of the cross.   While technology promises to make life easier and more efficient, the cross asks for nothing less than inconvenience and death to self. 3

Does this simply make all technology “bad” or sinful?”  Not necessarily.  It can however prove to be a stumbling block or an “off ramp” from the Way of Christ that results in the following teleological distortions.

First, technology offers the telos of saving time.  It is a promise it cannot keep up with in the long term.  While the Enlightenment opened our eyes to information, modern technology gave us access to that information.  The “Information Age” inevitably became mostly intertwined, for better or for worse, with the church, the Gospel, and the Christian.  The lure of fulfilling technology is nearly inescapable lest one “escape” to the wilderness without a GPS in hand.   Why do we acquire new gadgets?  The new one is faster and we will save more time and be more efficient if we have the new one.  The telos then of each “new” technology is to save time.  Ironically, what was fast a year ago now seems painfully slow.  Has the device actually slowed down?  In most cases, unless the device has not lived up to its original promise, no.  Instead, the world has sped up.  A “faster” world demands faster technology.  A “dial-up” pace is no longer acceptable.  I remember marveling at the “abilities” of a dial-up internet connection just a few years ago.  Now, however, I become angry when my broadband equipped mobile phone briefly fails and achieves only “ancient” dial-up speeds.  It is never enough.

This “need for speed” is not only unhealthy, it breeds addiction, and leads to the second stumbling block of technology – the promise of fulfillment.  This process is subtle but steady.  Technology creates a desire.  It is a desire to consume.  That desire become insatiable because it is utterly dependent on technology’s ability to “keep up.”  The only thing that can fulfill the desire is something newer, better, and faster.  Whether we care to admit it or not, this can be a form of idolatry.  “Surely not!” we are tempted to declare.  The words of Jesus leave no doubt.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” 4

Technology promises a treasure.  That treasure is saving time and being fulfilled.  How, then, can we know if our hearts are invested in technology’s “treasure?”  We have to look no further than how deeply our wallets have invested in technology.  Technology has promised treasure and our hearts and our wallets have followed.  Only Jesus, however, has true treasure and can fulfill the deepest desires of mankind.    The “God-shaped hole”5  inside of man cannot be filled with a gadget.  Discipleship is not a speedy process and any attempt to speed it up comes with a cost.

The question then must become, “What effects does an unredeemed technology have on the follower of Jesus?”

Christians are called to follow “the Way” of Jesus Christ as a “people on a path.”6

This Way is an invitation to life in the very “way” intended by the One who designed the Creation.  Only He can know best how it should be lived.   Technology offers shortcuts.  The Way of God, however, is a journey and a process.  It cannot be rush.  As Kallenberg points out, the way of God, is a process of “orienteering” which is only done through hands-on experience, learning from failure, and hard work. 7

The Way of God has never been a shortcut.  Moses spent forty years as a goat herder in the wilderness before God sent him back to Egypt.  Israel spent forty years in the wilderness learning to walk with God.  Even Jesus, who only spent around 33 years in the flesh, appears to have spent 30 of those years growing in “wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man.”

The impact of a high tech world cannot be underestimated on discipleship.  While Christ offers a narrow journey that requires self-denial, deep trust, bold faith, and rejection, technology offers another way.  It is a “super-highway” that promises a “broadband” speedy journey into fantasy, pleasure, “fulfillment,” and an avatar that allows you to be whoever and wherever you desire.

The impact of this type of journey is not only felt in Christian discipleship but also in the discipline of education.  Leonard Sax shows the impact technology has had on young people who have “learned” information but failed to acquire vitally important skills.  In his book, Boys Adrift, Sax offers the following vitally important wisdom from Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurology professor at Stanford, who reflects on how difficult it is for many current medical students to understand the concept of the heart working like a pump. Wilson says this is difficult because,

“these students have so little real-world experience. They’ve never siphoned anything, never fixed a car, never worked on a fuel pump, may not even have hooked up a garden hose. For a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields, and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through [computers]. These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior – but now we know that something’s missing.” 9

Technology offers the goal of making a person smarter by having more information but, in the end, it fails.  The consumer of information has become consumed by the information in a way that nothing is actually “made” but only bought, 10 or to perhaps state it better, borrowed, using the so called expertise promised by technology.  Expertise, however, without experience, is only a myth.  It is not the Way of the cross.   Being a disciple is not about gathering information but about gathering the experiences that come through a process of learning from failure.  Jesus allowed his disciples to fail knowing they would learn and be shaped by the very things that were difficult and that hurt the most.  This is a vital process that produces craftsmanship much like apprentices during the Renaissance learned after thousands of hours learning from a master.  These  men were appropriately called journeymen. 11

Life is a journey.  It is a story.  Any technology that seeks to shortcut that journey or offer an alternate story should be considered a threat to the telos of the Gospel.

Next, the telos of technology is often productivity and efficiency.  Being high tech is meant to save time.  Nothing about this telos may appear distorted on the surface.  Most people today see work as a burden.  Technology promises to ease that burden by making a task less difficult.  It is here that we see a “fallen” world, an old “aeon,” creeping onto the stage.  In the beginning, work was not a burden.  Adam delighted in his work in the Garden of Eden.  It was a privilege, better yet, a delight to partner with God as a co-worker in the Kingdom.  What was Adam’s job?  It began with naming the animals and then caring for them.  It also included caring for all of God’s glorious creation and exercising a God-given task of ruling.

Everything changed at the fall.  Work became a curse – a burden.  From that day until this present one, technology has offered to ease that burden.  The problem with this promise is that it is not healthy on any level for a person to live a life of ease.  Growth takes place in the difficult places, in those “dark nights of the soul” that are so necessary for the disciple to endure.  Bly suggests we need not of ascent, but descent.  This descent takes  a person on the much needed, humbling journey down to the basement kitchen.  Bly says,

“for young men who have graduated from privileged colleges, or who have been lifted upward by the expensive entitlement culture, their soul life often begins with this basement work in the kitchen.” 12

It is the “kitchen” where technology takes a back seat to work.  Without this journey, we are tempted to ascend too quickly, miss the value of hard work, and develop a sense of entitlement.  Technology instead offers the “easy” way to the top.

This offer comes in several ways.  One of those ways, as just mentioned, is to reduce the work load.  Another, perhaps not as obvious, way is to offer an alternate identity.  If we can harness the power of technology we are led to believe we can be someone who can rule again.  Sadly, these dominions come in created fantasies that only technology can produce.  As one recent video game maker offered in a commercial for its gaming system – “Live in your world.  Come play in ours.”  In other words, “Your world is work. That’s not fun.  It’s not good enough.  Come inside to a fantasy world where you can play and everything can be yours.”  This sounds eerily similar to the temptation that led to the fall in the Garden.

This identity can also take the form of an earned identity.  We are led to believe that if we harness technology in a way that helps us produce enough we will be valuable.  It is the story of Babel retold a thousand ways as man seeks to build or technologically advance his way to God.    There is, however, only one way to God, and that is the way of the cross of Christ. 13

Technology, then, should be seen as potentially offering a way of distraction.  This is perhaps most seen in Jesus’ parable of seeds in Luke 8.  One of the seeds falls on soil with weeds.  Jesus explains that the original intent of the seed is good.   But the one who “hears” over time is choked out by “life’s worries, riches, and pleasures” (Luke 8:14.  Technology has the potential to be the weeds.  The wielder of these technologies must then ask the question, “Are the ‘weeds’ of technology choking true discipleship in my life?  If so, what am I going to do about it?”  These weeds do not come up without a fight.  They are deeply rooted.  Pulling them causes pain and even threatens the good roots of the good plant.  Technology has developed a similar choke-hold on many.

Technology can distort the nature of quality by replacing it with quantity.  One has to look no further than Facebook for this to be seen.  It is a place where people have hundreds, if not thousands, of “friends” while only truly being “liked” by a few. 14    In a similar way technology distorts authentic community by providing a synthetic alternative where “more” looks better but only offers less.  This has been evidenced in recent years trough the cability technology has offered to download music through websites such as Napster.  This music was “free” and could be downloaded by anyone.  The problem with the music,however, is that the quality was drastically reduced in order to make the file size small enough to download.  Many became obsessed with acquiring any and all music they could download regardless of the quality.  Ironically, only a decade before, the CD promised a high quality music experience that exceeded anything ever heard before on the cassette or 8-track.  The CD was expensive but it provided quality.  Soon enough, people were less concerned about the quality of the music because it costs them too much to get it.  Instead, they turned to the free, low quality version.  The same comparison could be made between the DVD and YouTube.  No less is true in discipleship in a high tech world where the temptation is to trade the quality of a journey that costs something for a cheap alternative that offers more while actually delivering less.

Technology also presents another stumbling block in that it has a tendency to replace the “joy” of work that was intended in the Garden with a mechanism.  The danger of technology is that it can easily become corrupted, or fallen, even when the telos is originally good.   An example of this is seen in the invention of the clock.  While most assume the telos of the first clock would have been to work more efficiently, this was not the case at all.  The first clocks were designed by monks who desired joyous reminders to balance intervals of the soul-elevating tasks of labor and prayer. 15

The clock did not make them work more efficiently but allowed them four to five hours of reading and prayer.  It was invented, in ways not too dissimilar from the Sabbath, to produce freedom.  The technology of the clock sadly became the measuring tool for efficiency and became a device, not for freedom, but for the “enslavement” of the work force.  This technology “devolved” as it evolved.  The clock gave birth to the stop-watch and was championed by Frederick Wilson Taylor who in 1911 took the stop-watch to the steel plant and invented rigid systems of efficiency for which he could declare,

“In the past, man has been first, in the future the system must be first.” 16

His prophetic words still ring true today.  A technology that began with good intentions grew into an oppressive system.

It is exactly here that an ethic on technology must be engaged.  Technology, when left unredeemed, is counter to the Gospel.  By “unredeemed” I mean any technology whose telos either begins with, or is turned into, something that counters the way of the cross of Christ.  Technology, like all of creation, must be subjected to the redeeming power of God.

This is not an easy task because there is no formula for “baptizing” an iPhone, although I’ve tried.  So what about that iPhone?  Amazingly it worked just long enough for us to all watch the whole incident on its wet screen before finally giving up the ghost.   But when the owner took it to Apple, something quite remarkable happened.  Although the phone would not stay powered up, it showed absolutely no signs of water damage to the Apple technicians.  And so…they gave the owner a brand new one.   I guess you could it was at least an echo of redemption.  In the end, we must come back to the end goal.  If the telos of any technology has hindered, distorted, or replaced the telos of the Christian Way, it must be uprooted, or should I say…unplugged.

 

Footnotes

1 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology

2 Brad J. Kallenberg, God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age [Kindle Edition] (Eugene, Oregon:  Cascade Books, 2011), e-book location 450 of 4685.

3 Luke 9:23

4 Luke 12:34, NIV

5 The description of a “God-shaped hole” is most frequently attributed to Blaise Pascal from his Penses. The original idea can be found in Penses 10.148

6 James Wm. McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), 50.

7 Kallenberg, e-book location 377 of 4685

8 Luke 2:52

9 Leonard Sax, Boys Adrift (New York, Basic Books, 2007), 29-30.

10 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 37.

11 Xan Hood, Sweat, Blood, and Tears (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010), 139.

12 Robert Bly, Iron John (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 70.

13 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996) 27-32.

14 This is a play on words to reflect the way in which users of Facebook can “like” something posted by another user by clicking the “Like” button underneath the posting.

15 James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),  174-175.

16 Smith, 176.

25 Jan

Escape Artist Christianity?

A few years ago my kids and I came across a TV show called “Masters of Illusion” featuring magicians doing all sorts of interesting tricks.  It got our attention so we watched for a few minutes and saw that “coming up next” was a guy who was going to strap himself lying down in a coffin shaped box.  That didn’t seem like too big of a deal until they showed the lid.  It was hinged to the box and contained 5 or 6 huge spikes that would fatally pierce anyone in the box when it closed.  To complicate things further, the hinges on the box were held open by a string that was attached to a fuse.  Once the fuse was lit, the man in the box would have seconds to escape before the string was set ablaze.

Okay, maybe I should have changed the channel but by now my 7 and 4year old were hooked.  They had to see what would happen.  Well, so did I.  So we watched.  The tension built as an assistant from the audience fastened all the straps and lit the fuse.   We watched nervously as the man used his teeth to undo the straps on his chest.  The fuse was burning fast.  There wasn’t a second to waste!  He then wiggled, twisted, and turned until he was able to slip his arms out of the straps.  But the fuse was inches away from igniting the string that would release the spikes!  We squirmed and wiggled toward the edge of our seats as we watched as if we were the ones in the box.   The fuse was burning fast!  No time left to escape!  But in a split second, the man freed his arms, bent toward toward his feet, undid the straps, and rolled out of the box as the spike laced top came crashing down.  We breathed a sigh of relief and cheered his perfectly timed escape.  I gasped in relief that I hadn’t just scarred my kids for life by allowing them to see a man getting horrifically gored to death by metal spikes!

I wonder if most Christians live their lives as escape artists?   After all, we’re taught that it’s “all” going to burn anyway, right?

The way a person views a particular thing directly influences the way they treat that thing.  If something is seen as disposable, it will be valued only for the moment it is being used.   If, however, something is seen as deeply good and long lasting it will be treated with great care.  Sadly when it comes to God’s Creation, Christians most often fall into the “disposable” category.

Secularists have accused the Christian community of contributing to ecological disaster and, as Wright points out, “there’s more than a grain of truth in the charge.”1  One of God’s first commands was to care for the Creation (Gen. 1:28-31) and God gave provisions to protect the land from being overworked (Lev. 25:3-7).2  The following discussion will seek to provide a framing story for Creation-care by looking at the redemptive nature of God’s Creation and the role that the Christian community plays in caring for all of God’s Creation.

Christian’s often times live their lives as escapist.  By simply listening to hymns that are sung on a given Sunday at a Christian gathering, one might be led to see the Christian community as on board a sinking ship.  The pages of Christian hymnals are filled with language of temporal living, escape, and future rewards.  The Christian is depicted as “just a pilgrim in search of a city”3 making his or her way “to Canaan’s land…where the soul of man never dies.”   The escapist echo continues as a Christian sings of how he or she will “fly away”4 to a land where joy will never end” and ultimately receive “a mansion just over the hilltop in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.”5

These hymns are often followed with a fiery (pun intended) sermon on how “it’s all going to burn when the Lord comes” to warn against attachments to this world.  As Wright notes, some, especially in the Western church, have argued that “since God intends to destroy the present space-time universe…it really doesn’t matter whether we emit twice as many greenhouse gases as we do now, whether we destroy the rain forests and the arctic tundra, whether we fill our skies with acid rain.”6

This approach has ignored the grand narrative and distorted the telos of Creation.  As Wilson points out well, the Christian community must think like the Hebrew community who believes that everything God created is good and sacred.7  Time is not merely a passing object to be “killed” but rather redeemed.8

This has implications on how the Christians addresses world issues such as poverty, how the Christian treats the physical body, and how the Christian treats the earth itself.  Christians, who should be leading the way in Creation care, have instead led the discussion of what a “worldly” attitude it is to be concerned with things that are going to soon pass away.  This ignores the vital narrative and the “struggle” to develop an ethic of Creation-care that is so vital to all of Creation.9   McClendon rightly reflects the role of the Christian community in what he calls “watch-care.”10  This care is not only for the community of God but for all of Creation.   What then does the narrative say about the Creation?

First, the narrative of Scripture declares that the Creation is “good.” This declaration is made six times as “God kisses his fingers with each new delicacy that he brings from his creative workshop, until, after the piece de resistance, in a seventh and final verdict on whole achievement, God declares it all, ‘very good.’”11   Often times this obvious beginning is distorted by later entries in the narrative which will refer to the earth being destroyed by fire.

For many Christians this means the telos of Creation is to self destruct.  This view declares that what started “good” has been decaying ever since.  On the surface, this approach seems in harmony with both Scripture and the reality of what is taking place in the surrounding world.  Wickedness and evil spread.  The hole in the ozone layer and global warming become progressively worse.  Terrorism and war continue to breed fear and destruction.  Poverty runs rampant in over half of the world.  Disease ravages human bodies.  It is no wonder then that Christians are the first to remind all that this world is temporary.  They do so mostly in the name of hope.  It is a hope that God will hurry to the rescue by destroying everything and ushering mankind away from this sinking ship that is quickly going down.

While intentions may be good in declaring this “hope” there is a deep price to pay for trading the narrative of Scripture for an “it’s all going to burn” theology.  This approach misses the foundational truth that the identity of the cosmos is deeply connected to the identity of humanity.  As Christopher Wright declares, “we ourselves are part of the whole creation that God already values and declares to be good” which means “we need to be careful to locate an ecological dimension of mission not primarily in the need-supplying value of the earth to us, but in the glory-giving value of the earth to God.”12

Not only does this approach fail to see the entire Story, it ends up playing a role in the destruction.  Rather than declaring the telos that starts “good” ands ends “good,” the Christian is tempted to help accelerate the destruction.  In his book Radical Together, David Platt goes as far as to say that the motive for evangelism is to usher in the return of Christ.  While this may not be participating in destruction, it misses something valuable – the telos of evangelism.

Much like the Billy Graham Crusades of the 20th century, the goal is get as many “saved” before the ship completely goes under the surface of the water and descends to the deep.  Is evangelism, however, simply about crossing a line into salvation or is it about calling others to participate in the Story of God through a relational discipleship that transforms life NOW, in the present moment, as well as the future?  The only place to find the answer to this question is by turing to the entire narrative of Scripture from beginning to future.

God’s Story begins with a garden centered around a tree of life.  Surprisingly for most, it also ends, or better stated, never ends, in a garden centered around a tree of life.  Life then should be seen as a journey between those trees.    The grand narrative of Scripture has a redemptive trajectory of returning to where the Story begins.

Typically the Christian sees the Story in decay.  This is evidenced by the view Christians have of death.  Death is seen as an unstoppable force pushing all living things towards a day of complete expiration.  McLaren helps show another trajectory.  Rather than seeing death as a pushing force, McLaren paints a portrait of life being like a baby learning to walk.13  This baby is being called forward by his Father, step by step, until he reaches his loving arms that have been outstretched toward him the entire time.  This may seem like a subtle difference but these two ways of seeing are quite distinct.  One is a pessimistic view that death is coming and there is nothing that can be done to stop it.  This view sees life as decaying constantly.  The trajectory is downward.  A redemptive trajectory, however, sees life as guided by a loving Father who cares about each step and is lovingly calling the Creation to participate.  Grenz states well that God is “ordering our story to its intended goal,” and “the grand culmination of history arrives only because God stands at the end of the human story.”14  This does not mean there will be the absence of missteps, bruises, and bloody knees, along the way.

The difference then is that one view sees each fall as “just what happens in a fallen world” while the other seeks to learn from each misstep and press onward toward the loving Father who participates in each moment.  Creation care is participating with God in the journey.  That journey is heading somewhere and that “somewhere,” as Grenz says, “is not an illusive human utopia in history, which we are ultimately powerless to create” but rather is “the realization of God’s purposes for his creation.”15

In returning to the narrative between the trees in the Scriptures, God is telling a Story that is redemptive.  The creation begins good.  There is a Garden and it serves as a beautiful portrait of all that God intended.  It is a harmonious place where man lives in harmony with all of Creation including the animals and the environment.  At the fall of mankind, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden.  Interestingly, the Genesis story describes this banishment as losing access not just to the Garden but to the tree of life.  Everything changes at the fall.  The harmony is disrupted.  Animals will become wild and will now be consumed as food.  The creation is marred. This is represented perhaps best by the weeds that bring about toil and labor.  A redemptive process is needed.

God brings this redemptive process forward by calling a people.  He names them Israel and he calls them his “olive tree” (Jer. 11:16).  Why an olive tree? They are to be a people who will take the world back to the Garden.  They will be called to do this by displaying for the world what Garden living looks like in a beautiful, intimate relationship between God and man.  When Israel fails in its mission to truly be “a light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 49:16) then God must prune.  He sends prophets to warn but interestingly the messages of impending doom are almost always coupled with hope and restoration.  When Israel ultimately fails to repent God does more than prune, he raises the axe to the olive tree.  Within the tree metaphor, this is essentially a cutting down of the tree to the stump.  From this stump a “tender shoot” is promised (Isa. 53) from the “stump of Jesse.”   As Israel is being cut down, there is a redemptive plan at work.  The Messiah comes into the world bearing the name that represents his mission.16

The gospel story has often been reduced to Jesus coming and dying for sins but the metaphor of the trees keeps the narrative in focus.    He came to bring about new, or better said, “renewed” Creation.  As Jesus grows up as the tender shoot he does what Israel failed to do in showing the world a display of Garden-living.  He undoes the curses placed upon humanity.  His miracles can be seen as a reversal of the fallen creature.  His casting out of demons loosens the grip of Satan on a fallen world.  His raising of the dead challenges the curse of fallen bodies inherited in the fall.  At the cross, Christ reverses that curse by “becoming the curse for us” (Gal. 3).  As Jesus hangs on the cross, the words he speaks to one of the thieves are traditionally translated, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  The word paradise here can also be translated, “garden.”  This translation better reflects his intent.

The cross and the resurrection have made all things new and when he cries, “It is finished,” that work is accomplished.  It should therefore be no coincidence then that John records that Jesus will be buried in a “garden tomb” and be mistaken at his resurrection for “the gardener.”  This is a deeply theological statement.  Jesus is the Gardener.  He has come to restore and to redemptively call all of Creation back to what was “good” in the beginning.

This reversal sets forth a redemptive trajectory not just for sin but for all of Creation.  As Paul describes, the community then can join Christ in his death (Romans 6) and in his resurrection and follow this trajectory towards an apocalypse in which “all things are made new.”  The present tension of the cosmos is within the overlap of the aeons.  Paul reflects the tension in between the old  and the new “in a crucial intersection of Gospel and eschatology.  The old aeon is one in which chaos reigns and the world is under the curse of fallenness.  It is within this tension that an ethic is formed and embodied.  Christians live in a Story that is moving forward with hope and renewal.  Virtue then can be described in Paul as the ways in which a Christian lives within the new aeon as opposed to the “vices” of the old aeon.   Anything that participates in the old is a vice.  Not caring for the Creation is one of those vices.

The telos of Creation care can be seen in the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah who sees all creation being renewed in which the “lion will lie down with the lamb” and the “child will play near the hole of the cobra.”  Creation is moving not toward a linear destruction but instead is in more of “circling” trajectory that is heading back to the shalom of God in the Garden at Creation.  The church and the cosmos lives in the overlap as a witness.  This witness does not participate in destruction but rather joins in the process of renewal.

Creation care ethics are about presently participating in the apocalyptic trajectory that is moving toward a hopeful and redemptive future.  This calls the Christian community then to join the life giving narrative of God now in a way that calls for an embodied ethic that produces “fruit.”  This fruit that Paul describes is a metaphor for the  Spirit filled life that is to be experienced and witnessed to and in the present.  Life then is not about simply “going to heaven when you die.” This leads to little witness and little virtue and leads to a desire to abandon the “decaying” Creation rather than playing a role in its renewal.

Finally, in a narrative that knows no ending, John sees an apocalyptic vision that is revealed in the book of Revelation.  It is a glimpse into a restored world.  What will that “new heaven” and “new earth” look like?  The tension builds as the story unfolds.  As Hays points out, John is not revealing an eschatoology that is “otherworldly” as is best seen in the way heaven comes down to earth (Rev. 21:2-3).17  As the book draws to the conclusion and brings the Biblical account of the narrative to a close, John has his final revelation. It is a tree but not just any tree.  It is the tree of life.  Access has been restored.  The curse is no more.  God’s people will return to the Garden.

What will the Christian community do with the Creation from now until that glorious moment?  Passivity and complacency are not an option as is seen in the scathing indictment of Laodicea.18  For the Christian community, an ethic of Creation-care is lived out of the present reality of “new creation.”  This is not only a communal calling but a cosmic one.  Paul writes that “all creation” groans for complete redemption. (Rom. 8).  Until that day the church community lives with an apocalyptic vision that seeks to participate in new creation now.  The Christian community joins with God “in rescuing nature from an exploitative urban industrial society.”19  As Hays says, “the church embodies the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world.”20

The old aeon is gone and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).  Creation ethics then become a way of deciding which age in which to participate.  This is why Paul can write in Romans 12 how the Christian community should no longer live according to the patterns of the old “aeon” but should instead be “transformed” into living into the new.

 It’s time to see life in God’s Kingdom as a present reality.  We are not merely passing through. We are on a redemptive mission.  There will be a day when all things are made new.  It is a day when heaven and earth will come together in beautiful harmony.  As we journey toward that day we participate in the beautiful and organic kingdom of God that is presently at hand in our lives between the trees.

 

Sources:

1  N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 90.

2 Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren, Adventures in Missing the Point:  How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2003), 167.

3 “This World Is Not My Home” hymn arranged and copyrighted by Albert E. Brumley

4 “I’ll Fly Away” hymn written by Albert E. Brumley, 1929. Interestingly, Brumley admits that he actually wrote the song as he imagined himself flying out of the cotton field where he was hard at work. www.brumleymusic.com

5 “I’ve Got a Mansion” hymn written by Ira Stamphill, 1949.

6 Wright, 90.

7 Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 162.

8 Wilson, 162

9 McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), 17.

10 McClendon, 53.

11 Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grover, IL:  InterVarsity, 2006), 398.

12 Wright, 399.

13 Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2003), 148-151.

14 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville:  Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 791.

15 Grenz, 791.

16 His Hebrew name, Yeshua, means salvation

17 Hays, 180

18 Hays, 182

19 Campolo and McLaren, 167.

20 Hays, 198