Noah and dominion: toward an evangelical environmentalism

ImageWhen I was seven, a young lion cub danced across the silver screen and onto the apex of American pop culture. Simba, protagonist of Disney’s The Lion King, grabbed the hearts of millions of kids by singing that he “just can’t wait to be king.” What young kid, in today’s culture of independence and self-determination, couldn’t identify with the desire to be in charge as soon as possible? Simba quickly learned, however, that proper ruling doesn’t mean doing what you want; it means doing what is right and serving those entrusted to you.

The flood of subsequent Mufasa-induced tears is only matched by the flooding called down by the wickedness of Cain’s descendants as portrayed in Genesis and Aronofsky’s Noah. Many prominent conservatives, including Albert Mohler and Glenn Beck, have roundly condemned the film for a host of reasons (for more in-depth reviews of why Noah isn’t evil and is worthy of some great discussion, check out this well-written review from The Gospel Coalition or this interview with a pastor who consulted on the film). But perhaps the most troubling and perplexing critique is the backlash against a perceived “antibiblical” environmentalist agenda in the film. Tubal-Cain, the leader of those who defy God’s designs, openly advocates for the exploitation of resources with no thought to longevity or stewardship, leaving dead hellscapes in his wake. In contrast, the patriarchs of Noah’s family mark the passing of generations by reciting the Genesis account to their sons, passing on to them the charge of dominion that first came to Adam and Eve. Negative critics take this to mean that the God of Noah destroys the world in response to humanity’s failure to be tree-hugging liberals. These viewers stop in their interpretational tracks once they see the strip mines and leveled forests, failing to ask why the descendants of Cain ravaged the landscape and whether it was tied to something that matches with the Genesis description of God’s judgment.

Tubal-Cain and his followers in the movie feel entitled to make choices that gut natural resources not because they are anti-environmentalist but because they are arrogant enough to think that they deserve to use Creation as they choose. They want to be kings like young Simba, with no one to tell them what to do as long as they’re strong enough to defend it. Far too often, we join them. We do what is right in our own eyes, and to hell (I choose that word quite intentionally) with how it affects anyone else. Surely our turning of a blind eye to how we receive cheap Chinese consumer goods won’t mean that Chinese schoolchildren will have to spend recess inside multimillion-dollar filtered domes rather than face life-threatening pollution outdoors. As big as the ocean is, our trash surely won’t affect it by making it harder to find a lost Boeing 777, or by creating floating blobs of life-suffocating plastic thousands of miles across in each of Earth’s three greatest oceans. And compared to the loss of safe drinking water, agriculturally-induced dust bowls, and killing of human food sources, these implications are tame. It is this kind of arrogance, entitlement, and disregard that manifests not only as destruction of the environment, but also as rape, theft, and murder. Though there are many symptoms, it is the same disease, and God in both Genesis and Noah removes this diseased hubris through the Flood.

But dominion, as given to us by God, means something else entirely. In the beginning, God took chaos and brought forth beauty, and it was good. Amongst that beauty, God put humans, telling us to have dominion over nature and subdue it, to make it a garden. God had designed something beautiful, and yet He purposefully stopped short in order to give us the brush for the finishing strokes. Our interest in the health of Creation does not grow out of the idea of rights as is common today, but out of obligation to the One who entrusted us with His property. Like the servants in Jesus’ parable of stewarding money entrusted by the master, we are graciously given authority of something we neither made nor deserve. Our dominion should not look like Simba’s youthful aspirations or Tubal-Cain’s murderous intent; it should look like Christ. His kingship looks more like a gardener and less like a dictator. He holds, cherishes us, and thanks God for us. He cultivates us for His purposes, according to our design and in order to make us better than we can be on our own. In this process, all things are made whole. God does not simply desire to save human souls and whisk them away; He plans to use Jesus, the Jesus we are to emulate, to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” As Paul says to the Romans, all Creation was subjugated to frustration through our poor stewardship of God’s gifts (including our bodies, our time, our energy, our mind, and the earth) and “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” for the freedom of Christ’s reconciliation.

This cherishing of what we’ve been given should be right in the wheelhouse of evangelicals. If we take Scripture as seriously as we say we do, we don’t just take seriously that God made the universe. We must also take seriously what God says about the universe and to whom it has been entrusted. We must take seriously what our impact on nature says about how much we esteem both God and our neighbor. We, you and I, have been gifted with the work and the joy of bringing about a better world for the entire world and everything and everyone in it despite all our pollutions, both physical and spiritual. And we shouldn’t have to rely on non-Christian Hollywood directors and Captain Planet to learn this; we should learn it from the Bible of the One who gave us this world.

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Noah and dominion: toward an evangelical environmentalism

4 thoughts on “Noah and dominion: toward an evangelical environmentalism

  1. “God, however, does not simply desire to save human souls and whisk them away…”

    Right on. The ignorance in Christian culture about the need for an active environmentalism is akin to my 4 year old covering his years saying, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you…”

    This world matters. Our present lives matter. Jesus has come to both.

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