Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Resisting the Green Dragon -- A Scriptural and Thelogical Response

(Below is my scriptural and theological response to this new DVD series put out by the Cornwall Alliance)
On the heels of the recent nuclear accident in Japan, not long after British Petroleum’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf, I’ve found myself increasingly on-edge about the ecological health of the planet. A few months back, while online, I stumbled across the trailer for a new DVD series, put out by a highly recognizable lineup of evangelical Christian leaders, entitled, Resisting the Green Dragon.[1] The series claims to be an exposé on the modern environmentalist movement, casting its supporters as touting a hidden agenda to promote “pagan” ideals and, ultimately, to gain global political dominion. Their fears struck me as doubtful, due to their fantastical nature, but as a Christian who loves many outdoor activities, such as hiking and camping, and as someone who has long since considered himself to be pro all-things-environmental, I wanted to check out their assertions to see if there could be any truth in them. Furthermore, as a seminarian with a love for theology and the natural world, I wanted to examine their claims that environmentalists hold unbiblical views of humanity’s place in creation amongst other creatures and that God’s exclusive concern is for human souls. Finally, many of the views expressed in the film reflect those I grew up believing, but have since found problematic. My response then will be to explore the assertions made by the film’s cast, in light of what I’ve learned and hold to be true, using scripture and historical Christian perspectives as my footholds, while seeking a better grasp on what a healthy human relationship with creation might look like. In past efforts, I have written about such questions focusing on the earth as a whole, concluding that scripture portrays land as a gift from God for our sustenance and continued thriving, but such views can be problematic when applied to our relationship with other creatures as they leave us to see them as existing solely for our use and exploitation. For this reason, below, I plan to specifically address humanity’s treatment of and possible obligations to the so-called “animal kingdom.” 

Before rushing into such questions, it might first be useful to look at how people viewed animals in times past. Today, people often balk at notions of giving animals moral consideration (except when considering household pets), but these culturally, ingrained attitudes where not always so. Recently, I was surprised to learn of a practice in the Middle Ages known as “animal trials,” in which animals such as mice, pigs, and other barnyard creatures were actually tried before secular and ecclesiastical legal bodies for alleged crimes. Most often, cases involved pigs or other farm critters, but some tried insects and even leeches. Amazingly, such trials were not conducted by superstitious, poorly-educated peasants, but actual, legally-trained barristers.[2] I find these trials significant, not because they should be revisited, but because they show how humanity’s regard for non-human species is ever-changing, rather than static. With this in mind, as we turn our attention towards what scripture and theology say about the charges made by Resisting the Green Dragon, let us do so recognizing that a changing awareness of our world and its needs sometimes demands our willingness to take courageous leaps of moral faith in the chasing of God’s redemptive workings.
             In the film, Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, says that, “[Environmentalists] don’t see humans as the Bible—as God’s sees them—that human beings are made in the image of God and they have dignity, they have worth, they have the right to life.”[3] Referencing the latter half of Genesis chapter one, Mrs. Wright’s use of the phrase “made in the image of God,” (or imago dei) to draw a sharp distinction between humans and other creatures. While her reading of this passage is certainly in keeping with how many have understood these verses, readers would be wise to ask what the phrase imago dei intends to signify. It certainly does not mean to suggest that God has human-like arms, legs, or other physical attributes! In fact, the original authors of this text, themselves being theologically trained Jews, would have been careful to avoid describing God with any material specificity. This is because they would have wanted to avoid violating the commandment against creating graven images.[4] More likely, they would have viewed God much as theologian Paul Santmire describes the views of Church Father Augustine, saying that, “God is timeless, [an] unchanging One, who dwells in unapproachable mystery.”[5] As such, those who first penned Genesis 1:27 must have been alluding to other qualities they observed within human nature. Christians regard Jesus of Nazareth as the fullest revelation of God—therefore Christ is seen as the most pure imago dei we know. When looking at Christ’s life, we see how he willfully took on humanity’s inferior, finite condition. According to theologian Jurgen Moltmann, this loving, self-limiting decision is known as Christ’s kenotic action, or self-emptying. In Jesus’ example, we see a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the gain of lesser beings.[6] Commenting on the relevance of this to Christ’s followers, Church Father Irenaeus proclaims humanity’s ultimate end to be, “conform[ing] to the image of God’s Son.”[7] Thus, in following Jesus, we are to take on God’s sacrificially giving, justice seeking, and compassionate nature. Such an understanding, imparts a rather hefty call upon those seeking to embody the imago dei. In the verses to follow, we see that God’s commission comes with a blessing.

            Mrs. Wright’s quote references this blessing as humanity’s “right to life.” One gathers that she bases this upon Genesis 1:28, which reads “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” Before unpacking the meaning behind subdue and dominion, let us focus of God’s blessing that people “be fruitful and multiple.” As Hebrew scholar John Rogerson puts it, from the beginning, God clearly wanted the human species “to become viable.”[8] What is significant to note here—a point overlooked by Mrs. Wright—is that this same blessing is spoken over creatures of the sea, the air, and the land.[9] In fact, following the creation and blessing of every creature, God reflects on them, calling each one “good.” From this we can gather that all creatures, not merely humans, possess the same blessing and therefore the same affirmations to live and thrive.  

            Later, in this verse, we encounter the words subdue and dominion, both of which can have troubling implications for someone concerned about animal cruelty and excesses of modern industrial agribusiness. In the film, this point is raised by David Barton, a well-known, evangelical commentator, who posits that, “Mankind is the apex of creation. He (meaning God) placed it over the planet—over the environment.”[10] Here Barton states a commonly held premise of modern society—one that has largely gone unquestioned until recent decades. But before blindly accepting humanity’s primacy, let us pause to consider why God created the Universe to begin with (as if we could ever really know!) to see what insight can be gleaned on the matter. When asking questions of why—such as why the Universe was created—we are really asking about purpose. To use philosophical terminology, we are questioning a thing’s telos or teleological nature. In classical Christian theology, as expressed by Santmire’s summary of Augustine’s thoughts on the matter, “the most fundamental telos of the whole creation is beauty, and the glorification of the God who wills such a magnificent community of being, every part of which has its own divinely validated integrity.”[11] Thus, life, as God wills it, is to flourish and bring glory to God! Augustine’s views were later echoed by another theological giant, Thomas Aquinas. Since then, this view on Creation’s telos has largely been accepted as a foundational Christian doctrine. When pairing this truth alongside the blessings cast over all creatures in Genesis chapter one, we can conclude that anything interfering with a species’ ability to live and thrive goes against God’s intended blessings for that creature. 

Given this affirmation, it is interesting to note that in the following verse, Genesis 1:29, God tells humans that we are to eat only fruit, seeds, and plants. (Sound of record scratching to a halt!) What? No animal flesh? That’s right. Whatever God intended by the words subdue and dominion, consumption was not part of the original plan—at least not as the Bible tells it. In fact, as the story in Genesis goes, people are not given permission to eat animals until after Noah leaves the ark, in Genesis 9:3—presumably several generations later and “the Fall.”[12] Thus, according to scripture, the eating of animals was a post-fall concession made by God. (Here is a point you won’t find in Resisting the Green Dragon!) Bearing these things in mind and returning to the words subdue and dominion, according to Hebrew scholar Ellen Davis, when properly viewed as intended, these words capture a poetic expression of what it means to be human. They were meant to convey a need for an intentional, artful approach to living. As such, Davis recommends that the words be translated as “exercising a skillful mastery of,” because this better reflects the spirit of the passage’s intent.[13] Moltmann, on this point, draws our attention to the fact that Genesis actually presents us with two creation stories, back to back. In the first account (Genesis 1:1-2:3), humans are created last—in the second (Genesis 2:4-25), they are created first. He believes the two stories are paired this way because each of them reveal significant, but unique truths about God and the order of creation. As such, he believes that the ‘subdue and dominion’ of Genesis 1:28 ought to be read alongside Genesis 2:15’s ‘tilling and keeping.’[14] Furthermore, as was noted by Moltmann’s notion of Christ’s kenotic example, theologian Jeremy Law concludes that, “If Christ is the measure of the image of God, and a model of the exercise of dominion, then what is envisaged is a servanthood aimed at community.”[15] But, if such things are true, what has kept Christians from realizing these aims and striving for them?

            Throughout time, humanity’s misuse of these scriptures has led to many excessive injustices being committed on our fellow creatures. I will leave the recounting of these horrors to those more qualified to report them, but one need only think of laboratory animals, the concentration-camp-like living conditions of modern factory farms, and the countless ecological disasters of recent decades to get my point. These practices point to humankind’s, thus far, un-checked exercise of earthly power, without regard to the welfare of other creatures. While it is not hard to understand our historic lust for power, having seen the repercussions of our ways, we must now search for the truth. In the film, Dr. Richard Land, President of the South Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says that, “God created human beings and he created the earth for their habitation.”[16] Such a view fits nicely with current practices, but, upon closer theological analysis, proves problematic. A similar statement is echoed by Dr. Frank Wright, who in the film says, “We must care for creation, yes, but by caring for the things God cares for most—the souls of men and women.”[17] Such ideas encourage people to think of the earth as merely a stage on which the drama of human life is to unfold. In this casting, animals become like props to be manipulated at will. As we will find, suggestions like these run contrary to scripture. 

For example, in Genesis 9:8-17, after having destroyed the earth with a flood because of human sin, God promises to never repeat such a devastating punishment. Genesis 9:9-10 reads, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.”[18] This passage is commonly referred to as the “Noahic covenant,” but upon closer reading, God clearly includes all creatures in the promise. This refrain is repeated four times, yet people still read this passage as pertaining to Noah and his human counterparts. Similar reminders of God’s universal care for creation can be found elsewhere in scripture (particularly in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Job, Psalms, and Revelation), contradicting views portraying God’s concern as solely for that of humans. When considering the theological implications of this truth, the premise of seeing this world as a stage for humanity gets even more dicey. But to grasp this one must understand the prevailing forces present during Christianity’s formative years.  

During the same time period which begat Christianity, a religion called Gnosticism was on the rise. It embraced the neo-Platonic conception that reality was divided into two distinct realms: the spiritual (of which the soul belonged to) and the material (of which matter consists). The spiritual realm was seen as positive and holy, but the physical realm was seen as negative and corrupt. On top of this, Gnostic doctrine teaches that God is alien from creation, meaning wholly other from our fleshly pain and trials. Salvation then, under this conception, involves leaving behind this earth, which is corrupted and evil, for a wholly spiritual, divinely other dimension. The earth is seen as a prison we must transcend.[19] Early on, the Church Fathers and Mothers saw such dualistic thinking as problematic, believing it was reckless to suggest God would create something, deem it good, then allow for its decay and destruction. Such a reality would suggest God is an abandoning, irresponsible creator, which runs contrary to the Christian ideal that God is working out the redemption (therefore perfection) of a fallen creation. Irenaeus, for example, points to the Old Testament to show how God worked intimately throughout history’s unfolding to save creation. Such stories contradict notions of a distant, removed God.[20] According to Santmire, Irenaeus posits that, Christ’s goal, in becoming flesh, was to, “[move] the whole creation decisively toward the goal of fulfilling the original divine intention for the creation,” meaning the perfection and beauty that God originally intended and is still being working out.[21] Thus, “All things are moving toward, are destined for, a final day of salvation or consummation... Everything will be saved. Nothing of the good creation will be lost.”[22] Or as Moltmann puts it, “We shall not be redeemed from this earth… [but] with it… We human beings are earthly creatures, not candidates for angelic status. Nor are we here on a visit to a beautiful star, so as to make our home somewhere else after we die.”[23] Such classical, Christian views stand in stark contrast from theologies teaching that this world is a fallen reality to be transcended and ultimately discarded. Eventually, the disembodied theories of Gnosticism were deemed heretical, in favor of Christianity’s embrace of God’s immanence, or nearness. 

As reflected in the statements of Dr. Land and Dr. Wright, views polarizing the spiritual and the material have once again infiltrated popular Christian thought. Such perspectives can lead people to view this earth and its creatures as disposable, therefore unworthy of protection. This, in turn, perpetuates the exploitation of the earth and its creatures, because it predisposes us to view them as resources, rather than as valuable in and of themselves. To put things more concretely, let us think, for a moment, of a fox. If viewed as a resource or prop for humanity’s continued survival, a fox can be seen as the bearer of a coveted fur or as a villainous pest. Or, from the perspective of a scientist, a fox might be seen as a research subject or as part of a broader eco-system, integral for supporting human life. In all these perspectives, the fox’s value is linked to its usefulness to humans. But when viewed from the perspective voiced above by Augustine and Aquinas (that each creature’s existence is a manifestation of God’s will bringing glory and praise to God), the fox’s life begins to take on new meaning. From this view, the fox’s life and ability to thrive become valuable, in and of itself, because God wills it. Were people to accept such a reality and apply this in their dealings with the world, there would be cause for massive changes.  

At the start of this essay, I set out to evaluate claims made in the film, Resisting the Green Dragon, about humanity’s relationship with its fellow creatures and the earth. By no means have I exhausted this subject, as many things have been left for future exploration, but as the above findings show, many of the film’s points now seem problematic, in light of closer scriptural analysis and scrutiny with regard to the wisdom of orthodox Christian theology. This journey has uncovered some of the underpinning ideological constructs at the heart of today’s ecological crisis exposing the need for a newfound awareness of and care for our earthly neighbors. Much as our outlook has shifted since the time of animal trails, present challenges demand we find new ways of relating to our fellow creatures giving them the consideration they need to live and thrive unhindered by humanity as God intends. We have seen that, to embody the imago dei ideal, a self-sacrificing love for those at the mercy of our doings is in order. We have also learned of the need for an artful and skilled mastery of being human, for if we are to effectively cope with today’s ecological needs, a great amount of study and intentionality will need to be harnessed. Underlying each of these pieces is an understanding of creation as God’s communal, self-willed expression of glory—a reality charging us to become agents working to protect and foster life, rather than stifling or working against it. Such a vision leaves no room for supremacist arguments about human superiority or that portray this earth and its inhabitants as a mere stage with disposable props. Only by dispelling such misguided notions can God’s people live into their sacred callings, found in Genesis, as caretakers of creation. In closing, Derrick Jensen is a poet and philosopher who has given much thought to the paradox that the life of some requires the death of others. While this reality is inescapable, the manner in which these exchanges occur is within our control. According to Jensen, “When you take the life of someone to eat or otherwise use so you can survive, you become responsible for the survival—and dignity—of that other’s community.”[24] Thus, we become indebted to those we consume, by the very nature of God’s ordering. For this reason, the benefit and welfare of all hinges upon humanity’s ability to learn this lesson and transform its ways. God help us.

Dinzelbacher, Peter, “Animal Trials: A Multidiscipliary Approach,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXXII:3 (Winter, 2002), 405-421.

Michael Farris and Janet Parshal, Resisting the Green Dragon, DVD, Burke, Virginia: Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, 2010.

Jeremy Law, “Jurgen Moltmann’s Ecological Hermeneutics,” Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, New York: T and T Clark International, 2010.

Jensen, Derrick, Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, Volume I, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006.

Moltmann, Jurgen, Science and Wisdom, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Moltmann, Jurgen, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.

Rogerson, John W., “The Creation Stories,” Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, New York: T and T Clark International, 2010.

Santmire, Paul H., The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985.

Watson, Francis, “In the Beginning,” Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, New York: T and T Clark International, 2010.

[1] Dr. Michael Farris and Janet Parshal, Resisting the Green Dragon, DVD, Burke, Virginia: Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, 2010.
[2] Peter Dinzelbacher, “Animal Trials: A Multidiscipliary Approach,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXXII:3 (Winter, 2002), 405-421. http://courses.csusm.edu/hist400ae/culturaltrials.pdf
[3] Wendy Wright, Resisting the Green Dragon, DVD.
[4] Exodus 20:4, NRSV
[5] H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 60.
[6] Jurgen Moltmann, Science and Wisdom, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003), 49-50.
[7] Francis Watson, “In the Beginning,” Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, (New York: T and T Clark International, 2010), 136.
[8] John W. Rogerson, “The Creation Stories,” Ecological Hermeneutics, 22.
[9] Genesis 1:20-25, NRSV
[10] David Barton, Resisting the Green Dragon, DVD.
[11] H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature, 61.
[12] John W. Rogerson, “The Creation Stories,” Ecological Hermeneutics, 23.
[13] Ellen Davis, “Land, Life, and the Poetry of Creation,” On Being (podcast), Produced by American Public Media, hosted by Krista Tipett, (time 25-27 minutes in the program), found at: http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2010/land-life-poetry/
[14] Jurgen Moltmann, Science and Wisdom, 47.
[15] Jeremy Law, “Jurgen Moltmann’s Ecological Hermeneutics,” Ecological Hermeneutics, 229.
[16] Dr. Richard Land, Resisting the Green Dragon, DVD.
[17] Dr. Frank Wright, Resisting the Green Dragon, DVD.
[18] Genesis 9:9-10, NRSV
[19] H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature, 33-35.
[20] Ibid., 35.
[21] H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature, 35.
[22] Ibid., 36-37.
[23] Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 74.
[24] Jensen, Derrick, Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, Volume I, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), 138.


  1. Great Job. As an environmentalist, I can say -for myself, I don not want to take over the world and turn all the children into pagans. I do want to control and/or exercise regulations for corporations through our government. And, if profits are lost, they are lost - find a better way to do business. I do not want to see another great depression or another dust bowl. And I expect christians to take care of this planet so that their children may have a safe world (environmental speaking) to raise their family. Please look into who is sponsoring this Cornwall Alliance - $20.00 says there are several oil execs behind this. -nathan u

  2. thanks for an insightful and beautiful essay. (and have you read derek jensen's newest, dreams? i would, however, like to ask a little question about your quick spiritualization of the holy one's making the earthy one "in our own image." you see, the commandment that we make no graven image does not mean that the holy one need make no graven images. indeed the requirement of our living in paradise, to speak only a bit metaphorically, is that we do not presume to take the place of the holy one.

    when the holy one decided to most fully show us "his" glory, it was as one of us, with arms, legs, and other physical attributes.

    indeed, i rather suspect that the roots of the "theology" of resisting the green dragon are in augustinianism.

  3. I'd certainly be proud to have a seminarian with this much understanding in one of my classes. I'm going to post this on the Green Seminarians Facebook page for others to read.

    Thanks for making this effort to respond to Resisting the Green Dragon--an example of extremism in its purporting to respond to what it claims is extremism.

    Check out the Green Seminary Initiative www.greenseminaries.org