I almost titled this post “Green Theonomy,” but when Ahab brought in the worship of the green god Baal to help out the fertility of Israel, one of the first things that happened was that it did not rain for three years, and Israel turned crispy brown. What is printed up in the prospectus is not always how the stock performs. And so we need to set the theme for this post: advertising green is not the same thing as accomplishing green.
The word theonomy comes from the late Greg Bahnsen, who triggered quite a debate a few decades ago when he argued (competently and well) that the basis for Christian ethics ought to be the Scriptures, and that, incidentally, the Old Testament was not the Word of God emeritus. It caused quite a ruckus back in the day, but one of the quiet untold stories of the last decade has been how theonomic assumptions have been quietly adopted by just about everybody who thinks that Christians ought to be involved in public policy. Adopting Nixon’s comments about Keynes, “We are all theonomists now.” This includes McLaren, who laments Christians who get their theonomy “wrong,” and celebrates those who get it “right.” When he talks about green activists discovering that he is a pastor, and they are astonished that he is out there working with them, McLaren says this. “I know what they’re thinking: Christians are part of the problem, not part of the solution. They read James Dobson, Chuck Colson, and Jerry Falwell, not Wendell Berry, Herman Daly, or Al Gore; they focus on the family and the military, not the environment” (p. 233, emphasis his). But he is happy about other Christians who have convictions similar to his, and points to them “jumping into the public policy arena” (p. 233).
So apart from the small handful of Christians still sitting on the roof of their house, waiting for the divine rescue helicopter, all Christians appear to think that Christians should be involved in the public realm, and they all appear to agree that Christians ought to be informed in this venture by their faith. McLaren ends this chapter on this note. “. . . but if our theology doesn’t change our level of caring soon . . . My care flows from my generously orthodox identity” (p. 243). Note well. Our theology needs to change the level of caring soon, and McLaren’s care flows from his generous orthodox theology. Amen, and many thanks to Dr. Bahnsen. As we are fond of saying here, theology comes out your fingertips, and whatever is coming out your fingertips is in fact your theology.
But before we Christians go out into the realm of politics (which is the realm, never forget, of coercion), we need to make sure the exegesis and the theology is sound. If it is not, we will soon find ourselves imposing one statist monstrosity after another on the general population, and we will be legislating these travesties in the name of Jesus, and amen. So it matters if the “theonomy” is statist, socialist, right-wing, moderate, or Trinitarian. It matters if the scriptural has been made or not.
But McLaren does not need to be troubled with detailed exegesis, because his marching orders actually come from a certain sector of the culture around us, and the scriptural justifications offered for becoming an echo chamber for the secular left are just a thin cover for those emerging Christians who still feel like they “need a verse.”
McLaren goes after conservative theology explicitly, but he leaves his own (not emerging very far) theology implicit. This is because that theology, if it emerged fully, would likely be immediately identified as Pelagianism. And of course a book like this would not be complete without Pelagianism in it somewhere, so he does give us hints. “The standard, stagnant theology of creation/fall is giving way to a more vigorous theology of continual creation” (p. 234). McLaren worries about an “exaggerated doctrine of the fall,” (p. 234), by this meaning any notion of an ontological fall. This would be bad because it’s “far easier to put a price tag on a fallen creation than on a still-sacred one” (p. 234). McLaren praises “emerging narrative theologies where creation is still seen as sacred, ‘good,’ ‘very good’ . . . and, in fact, ongoing”(p. 235). And all the people said, “Uh oh.”
Before getting into the next act, I have to paint some of the back scenery. Anybody with any acquaintance with the green movement knows that it is all about law, policies, regulations, regulatory agencies, restrictions, and other forms of statist coercion. An environmental activist is someone who is actively engaged, in one way or another, in the attempt to get Caesar involved in the issues that concern him, and to get Caesar to make somebody else “stop it.” I do not qualify as an “environmental activist” just because I mow my lawn, keep it green, plant trees on my property, and let the geese fly over us every fall without shooting at them. I am not an environmental activist because, to be perfectly honest about this, I am minding my own business. Environmentalists are on the side of government restrictions on the activities of private owners. Get this picture in your mind. Private owner, standing by a creek on this own property, with a shovel, about to dig a hole. For what purpose, we need not ask. It’s his property, and not really our business. Across the creek from him is a visiting official, holding a clipboard with lots of regulations on it, and behind him is an “environmental activist” trying to get him to add some extra regulations. Got it? Private owner over here, and Caesar over there, with a green activist perched on his shoulder, whispering draconian solutions to him about how to save the spotted hoppy frog. With all this in mind, take a look at what McLaren says here:
“The surface causes of environmental carelessness among conservative Christians are legion, including subcontracting the evangelical mind out to right-wing politicians and greedy business interests. Too often we put the gospel of Jesus through the strainer of consumerist-capitalism and retain only the thin broth that this modern-day Caesar lets pass through” (p. 233, emphasis mine). Not only does McLaren get everything exactly backwards, he then accuses those who didn’t get it wrong. He is like a kid who flunked the quiz, and then upbraids all the A students for not studying.
It kind of takes the breath away. Conservative Christians want to stay disentangled from Caesar and his interests. McLaren and friends want green-friendly laws to pour forth from the nation’s regulartory agencies. McLaren then uses the conservative separation from Caesar as a basis for accusing them of being in cahoots with him, and his cheek-by-jowl relationship with Caesar is taken as encouraging sign that Christians are getting involved with “public policy” again. But then, not noticing the inconsistency, a few pages later, McLaren is admonishing his conservative brethren again for being too stand-offish with regard to Caesar. He accuses them of liking that word private way too much. “No wonder, then, that many Christians defend private ownership and private enterprise as vigorously as a line in the creeds” (p. 239). Actually, I would defend private ownership more strenuously than a line in the creeds because private ownership is a straight-up biblical issue. As in, found in the Ten Commandments. Work with me here. What does the seventh commandment prohibit? It prohibits adultery. What does a prohibition of adultery presuppose? It presupposes marriage. What does the eighth commandment prohibit? It prohibits stealing. What does a prohibition of stealing presuppose? It presupposes private property.
Another thing needs to be noted. Caesar is capable of breaking any of the Ten Commandments. As God’s laws, they are over him. If a king takes his brother’s wife, a prophet can come to him and say that it is not lawful for him to have her. And if another king determines to seize Naboth’s vineyard, yet another prophet can come and rebuke him. The king can’t slip off the point by re-zoning Naboth’s vineyard for light industrial only, or calling the whole thing “land reform,” or discovering that Naboth’s vineyard is home to the last three darter snails in the county.
But that which is presupposed by God in the Ten Words given to Moses is far too restrictive for McLaren’s plans, plans he is cooking up with Caesar. McLaren again: “So I ask, ‘Can we imagine other understandings of ownership that acknowledge, whatever land records say, that the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains? Can we imagine an economy based on stewardship rather than exclusive ownership?”(p. 239). Huh. Look what he opposes and sets at odds. Stewardship over here is opposed to exclusive ownership over there. Exclusive ownership must not be stewardship, quoth McLaren. But what is to prevent us from taking the standard biblical and Christian position that the earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains, and that He has delegated the stewardship of this land to private owners? What McLaren is doing is trying to accomplish a transfer of authority from one set of stewards (private owners) to another set of stewards (some kind of regulatory eco-fascism), and he is doing this in the name of “stewardship.” This is like one man stealing another man’s wife because he wants to promote “marriage.”
McLaren also invokes a “concern for the poor and oppressed” (p. 238). It has to be admitted that his political vision is fully integrated. “The same forces that hurt widows and orphans, minorities and women, children and the elderly, also hurt the songbirds and trout, the ferns and old-growth forests: greed, impatience, selfishness, arrogance, hurry, anger, competition, irreverence — plus a theology that cares for souls but neglects bodies, that focuses on eternity in heaven but abandons history on earth” (pp. 238-239). McLaren is right that the same forces that hurt the poor and oppressed also hurt the environment. But he leaves the central culprit off his list. The central culprit in harming people and harming the land is the government. Judas was one of the loud ones when it came to voicing concern for the poor. He did this, John tells us, because he was the treasurer and used to help himself. The poor! The poor! The two richest counties in the United States are on either side of Washington D.C. where our politicoes have discovered that the poor, as always, are a gold mine. The one thing they cannot do is actually eliminate poverty, because that would be killing the goose that is laying the golden egg. What somebody needs to do is take all the money that is being spent on “poverty,” add it all up, divide by the number of poor people in America, and then explain to me why the poor people aren’t all filthy rich by now. Who made off with their money?
McLaren wants to eliminate poverty while also eliminating the only thing that can eliminate poverty, which is to say, private enterprise. His vision of economic bliss would be to throw us all down into a government-owned rock pit, and we could all live comfortably by sharing rocks with each other. A godly Christian merchant, with strong views of private ownership and his responsibility to God as a steward of it, is the kind of person who will actually do something about poverty — by creating jobs, wealth, and opportunities. He is driven by self-interest, which is not the same thing as greed, and somebody needs to get a basic economics text into McLaren’s hands.
One last thing. McLaren taunts conservative Christians (again) for not being able to see past the demise of modernity. McLaren equates this modernity with scientism, consumerism, and individualism. He says, “twentieth century Evangelicals couldn’t imagine the gospel outlasting modernity, the empire of Scientism, consumerism, and individualism” (pp. 237-238). We have already seen what a consumerist mentality McLaren has when it comes to religion, cherry-picking his way through the orchards of Christendom. He ambles through the orchards and takes three cherries from the tree of methodism, and one from catholicism, none from calvinsim, and two from the anabaptists. And he does this all by himself — McLaren the individualist. Given this, it should not be surprising that McLaren has sold out to scientism too, all while accusing us of having done so. And thus, we are not surprised.
“Smokestacks in Japan can kill orcas in Puget Sound; smokestacks in Ohio can kill yellow perch in the Adirondacks; runoff from farms in Pennsylvania can bury oysters in Chesapeake Bay; the pet trade in the United States can deplete rare parrots in New Guinea”(p. 241).
Consider the epistemology involved in almost every one of these claims. For McLaren, a straightforward claim that the Scriptures prohibit homosexual acts is a problematic claim that is beholden to Enlightenment assumptions, even though God’s people were affirming this centuries and millennia before the Enlightenment. But then, Mr. Epistemological Humility himself pronounces this decree over our heads. “Smokestacks in Japan cab kill orcas in Puget Sound.” Where did he get this? And by “this” I mean this information, not to mention this confidence. It is not a big secret, if you just think about it. He got it from Scientism, from a guy in a white lab coat, one who spake with great authority. If Scientism is as big a factor in modernity as McLaren says it is, then going off his assumptions in this chapter, McLaren might be a teeny bit postmodern. He is postmodern in the same way that little three-year-old Billy Smith, having decided to run away from home, and having made it to the end of the driveway, is now having second thoughts and is pondering whether it wouldn’t be better to head out after lunch, is a post-Smith.