Brief Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Image result for the uninhabitable earth“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

So opens David Wallace-Wells’ harrowing, terrifying journey into the almost inevitable future of our planet.

Except it’s not really the future of the planet, the book’s title notwithstanding; it’s the future of humanity, or the immiserated, dessicated disaster-plagued remnants of it we have inflicted upon ourselves.

Everything about The Uninhabitable Earth, from its title to the minimalist cover to the unrelenting parade of horribles Wallace-Wells describes, is bleak. Here, for example, is the list of chapter titles in Part II, titled “Elements of Chaos:”

Heat Death
Hunger
Drowning
Wildfire
Disasters No Longer Natural
Freshwater Drain
Dying Ocean
Unbreathable Air
Plagues of Warming
Economic Collapse
Climate Conflict

This is no dry and technical document of climate science; Wallace-Wells is a journalist and brings a journalist’s gift for distilling complicated concepts into digestible prose – even if the result makes you lose your appetite. In fact, Wallace-Wells spends little time attempting to convince the skeptics of climate change; at this point, as yet another hurricane described as unprecedented has leveled another island in the western Atlantic, only the willfully obtuse continue to deny the existence of global warming. Rather, his goal is different: To make abundantly clear that our current trajectory is catastrophic, and what exactly that means in terms of temperatures, sea levels, food shortages, pollution, migration, disease and disasters.

Because, Wallace-Wells argues, even those who accept the factuality of anthropogenic climate change have swathed themselves in comforting falsehoods:

The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a mater of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended agains nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.

None of this is true.

And that’s just the first paragraph.

Continue reading Brief Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

Image result for cambrian explosion creationismYou may or may not be aware that one of my research interests is the response of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to the theory of evolution. It was actually my whole master’s thesis.

So in studying how Christians have tended to oppose the teaching of Darwinian evolution (in which all living species are descended from a single common ancestor through natural selection and genetic mutation, among other processes) over the past century, one of the key arguments they’ve used against it is the existence of the Cambrian Explosion.

The argument is typically made this way: “Darwinism argues that all of life has gradually evolved from a single common ancestor, but they can’t explain the Cambrian Explosion, where the fossil record goes from basically no living species to an incredible amount of diversity in a very short time.”

This argument had two prongs: One was negative – the explosion is something evolution cannot explain; therefore, it chips at the foundation of support for the theory – and one was positive: The explosion is the fossil record’s evidence of God’s special creation of a limited number of “kinds” that then evolved to the current diversity of life. This idea, let’s call it young earth evolutionism, is still propagated by Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and Ark Experience, as scientific creationism.

Here are some examples from my research: Continue reading The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

Centaurs, Harry Potter and the Book of Revelation

Once you teach a class focusing on a single book of the Bible for 10 straight weeks, you notice allusions everywhere, even if the author didn’t have that in mind.

Last week, it was while I was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to my daughters.

The scene was when Harry and his friends are serving detention in the Forbidden Forest, looking for a unicorn who seems to have been wounded by someone or something – an act of unimaginable evil.

The group runs into some centaurs, and quickly grow frustrated at their enigmatic answers; they read portents of danger in the stars but provide no practical help.

Firenze, a centaur with apparently different views on relationships with humans, eventually rescues Harry from a sticky spot. His centaur brethren are less than pleased:

“What have you been telling him?” growled Bane. “Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets? … Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our Forest!”

Image result for harry potter and the sorcerer's stone

Firenze responds with some heat of his own: “I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.”

Later, Firenze tells Harry, “The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times.”

It strikes me this could apply to many interpreters of Revelation – so certain they have read the signs correctly, they disengage from the world around them. Evil runs rampant, but that’s just what the prophecies foretold so there’s nothing that can be done. Better to wait for the rapture and let God take care of business.

But that’s not the message of Revelation at all. It’s very interested in this world – in the powers that control it and the ability of the followers of Jesus to resist them. It’s filled with warnings about assimilating into the dominant political and economic cultures and compromising the self-sacrificing example of Jesus.

In fact, to take it one step further, I’d argue it’s precisely because so many Christians have trained themselves to look for portents in the heavens that they have become so vulnerable to the whispers of Revelation’s corrupting and violent Beast.

Let me be clear: Donald Trump is not the Beast. To the extent any world leader ever was the Beast, it was probably Nero. But the Beast as a symbol for the rapacious and seductive power of empire lives in every time and culture, including ours.

And perhaps no one better personifies that power in our time and culture than the American president – especially when that president uses fear and paranoia to amass power and wield it against the marginalized.

This is one of the greatest and saddest ironies of the current American moment: Numerous Christians raised to scrutinize world leaders for signs of the Beast have fallen prey to it. Senses dulled by the drugs of fear and paranoia fed them by the False Prophets in their pulpits, over their airwaves and on their televisions, they have embraced the Beast’s promise of security and victory in this world, abandoning the values of grace, love and self-sacrifice typified by the Lamb and his promise of eternal security and victory in the next.

To merge the metaphors, we are now deep within the Forest, and the Beast is lurking. A large number of Christians, believing they read the stars correctly, have abandoned the fight against the Beast – many have even embraced it, mistaking it for a savior who will lead them to safety. Which of us will stand against it, no matter who is alongside us?

The prophecies of Revelation have been read wrongly many times before now, even by Christians. I hope this is one of those times.

7 Revelations About Revelation

People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them my favorite book of the Bible was when I was growing up was Revelation.

Yes, that Revelation. The one with the beasts and fire and blood and war.

Here’s the thing. In the Plymouth Brethren tradition in which I was raised, the worship time includes a lot of dead space – stretches of silence while everyone waits for a man, believing he is led by the Spirit, to rise and offer a scripture or a hymn for us all to sing or a prayer.

And when you’re only allowed a Bible with you to fill those interminable spaces, you go to the most action-packed book of the canon, the one that is literally apocalyptic.

Unfortunately, when Revelation is your favorite book and you grow up in the religious tradition begun by the man who literally invented the rapture-tribulation interpretation that forms the basis for much of the way people view Revelation today, your view of the book – and consequently your view of God can get a little dark.

So when the opportunity arose to teach a class on Revelation at my church – well, OK, I’m a member of the adult education committee, so maybe I carved out an opportunity for myself – I jumped at it. What better way to understand a misunderstood book than by having to explain it to others?

I expected the class to be fun. I expected to learn something. I didn’t expect to finish it with the feeling that Revelation is once again my favorite book.

So how did that happen? How can a 10-week class so thoroughly redeem a book that scares so many people?

1369659Well, since Revelation is filled with sevens – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls – here are seven, um, revelations that came from the class, mostly courtesy of the excellent “textbook” we used: Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester.

  1. We all know Revelation, whether we realize it or not.
  2. Revelation never intended its message to be hidden from its audience.
  3. Revelation constantly subverts readers’ expectations.
  4. Rather than a linear story, Revelation is cyclical.
  5. The judgments are real, but so are the promises bookending them.
  6. We all fight the Beast.
  7. God’s grace is beyond what you can imagine.

Continue reading 7 Revelations About Revelation

Reading a Different Revelation

Image result for revelation and the end of all thingsWhen I was a kid, my favorite book of the Bible was Revelation.

Granted, this almost certainly was because it was easily the most interesting book to read for a kid who wasn’t allowed to bring an activity bag or any other distractions for worship service – also known as the slowest 45 minutes of my week. All I had was my Bible, and beasts, earthquakes and other calamities helped the time fly right by.

Obviously, growing up in a conservative evangelical faith tradition, I learned the “left behind” interpretation of Revelation, or to use the fancy technical term: premillennial dispensatiionalism. Rapture, Tribulation, World War III, Armageddon and all the rest.

Fast forward two decades or so, and I’m now teaching a class on Revelation at the Episcopal congregation my family attends. Far from repeating the code-book style of interpretation so common in American Christianity, we’re trying to find a healthier way of reading the book that would be recognizable to the original recipients. After all, it seems like the ultimate practice in arrogance to assume that a letter written 2,000 years ago is somehow all about you, and it certainly does us no favors to uncritically accept a reading that argues, as philosopher-theologian Randy Harris once called it, that “God so loved the world that he sent World War III.”

Continue reading Reading a Different Revelation

The Radical Incarnation

It’s the late 100s CE. A century has passed since Roman troops have destroyed the Jerusalem temple and crushed the Jewish revolt, unwittingly scattering a sect of Jews who followed an itinerant preacher whom the Romans had crucified some decades earlier.

Over the decades, that sect had separated from its parent faith; its followers were known, perhaps derogatorily, as Christians, claiming the crucified preacher they followed had in fact risen from the dead and was the son of God, if not actually God in some way. Subject to occasional persecution by various local officials in the Roman Empire, the Christian movement nevertheless had grown to a size and influence that it reached the notice of a Greco-Roman philosopher named Celsus.

We know very little about Celsus, except that around this time before the end of the second century, he felt compelled to respond to the Christian claims – the earliest known attack on Christianity. Called The True Discourse of Celsus the Epicurean, his work is only known insofar as it’s quoted by the famed bishop of Alexandria, Origen, in his apologetic work Contra Celsus, written around 247.

Image result for the interpretation of the old testament in greco-roman paganism

In his The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Hendrickson, 2000), John Granger Cook writes: “Celsus was something of a social conservative who viewed Christianity as a departure from everything that was ancient and true in the Hellenistic tradition.” (p. 17)

To the extent Origen fairly caricatures Celsus’ argument – and to his credit he does seem to quote Celsus at length without apparent modification, though you can’t really be sure about that sort of thing – what jumps out at me, especially in this season, is how much Celsus hated the notion of the incarnation.

The bulk of Celsus’ argument against Christianity could be boiled down to just one sentence: Gods don’t do that.

Continue reading The Radical Incarnation

Ted Cruz and Les Misérables

This election season, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ted Cruz and Les Misérables.

In case you didn’t know, Cruz is a big fan of the musical, which is set during the 1832 Paris uprising.

My introduction to the story and music of Les Mis came courtesy of the 2012 film, and even then, as Barack Obama was beginning his second term in office, I was struck by how timely was Les Mis’ exploration of social injustice and economic inequality.

From beginning to end, poverty and injustice are principal characters of the plot. Jean Valjean and Fantine cannot escape the marks poverty has left on them, and those scars pass down to the next generation, which fights, loves and dies in an effort to overthrow a system that perpetuates the injustices inflicted on their parents.

“At the end of the day,” the ensemble cast sings early in the musical, “you’re another day older, and that’s all you can say for the life of the poor. It’s a struggle, it’s a war, and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving. … One day less to be living.”

The callous indifference of the power elites to the suffering of the underclass is clearly unsustainable.

“Like the waves crash on the sand,” the song continues, “like a storm that’ll break any second, there’s a hunger in the land. There’s a reckoning to be reckoned, and there’s gonna be hell to pay at the end of the day!”

Entwined around these themes of injustice, oppression and poverty is the question of God. Does God care, do God’s followers care, is Christianity something that effects change or sedates the masses?

“Here in the slums of Saint Michele,” the orphan Gavroche sings, “we live on crumbs of humble piety.”

Continue reading Ted Cruz and Les Misérables