A Feature Review of
Following Jesus in a Warming World: A Christian Call to Climate Action
Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia
“This book…is for every Christian who has looked out at a world ravaged by the impacts of climate change, at the inability of their seemingly oblivious faith community to do or say anything about it, and quietly wondered if they are losing their mind.” (Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, introduction)
When his older brother comes home from college and announces that he has become a vegetarian, young Kyle Meyaard-Schaap is plunged into something of a spiritual crisis. Both Kyle and his brother were formed and educated in conservative Christian schools and an evangelical church community. But his brother attended a study-abroad program where ecology and environmental studies were placed in conversation with scripture and theology studies, and he came away understanding that his environmental lifestyle choices could be an expression of his Christian values. Kyle realizes that nothing in his own religious education and formation has prepared him to make this connection, and he begins to wonder why, and what else has been omitted from his Christian formation.
Following Jesus in a Warming World is the result of Meyaard-Shaap’s long and difficult journey to re-examine the conservative evangelical teachings and traditions he inherited in light of the economic and ecological realities of climate change, and to construct a model of discipleship that understands that loving our neighbors increasingly means protecting them from human-caused environmental disasters.
If that makes the book sound like a grim and overly-introspective read, rest assured, it is not. Pastor Meyaard-Schaap – now Vice President of the Evangelical Environmental Network – creates a sense of hope and agency with a combination of story-telling, scriptural analysis, and real-world action steps to face what he calls the “defining moral challenge of our time” (6). And while the book addresses itself first to millennial and Generation Z Christians who have been formed by white, conservative evangelicalism, it is useful to anyone who struggles to explain their climate concerns and climate advocacy in the language of faith (3).
Central to his approach, and probably his biggest contribution to the genre of creation care or climate care literature, is Meyaard-Schaap’s understanding of the power of story – the way stories shape and form us, and the ways stories can inspire and change us. He shows how the U.S. church has been blinkered (to tragic effect) by its own stories, especially those that reinforce and reify human dominion as domination of creation, and depict the earth as little more than a disposable waystation for heaven-bound humans. A church sign I passed recently is a perfect example of this kind of story-telling; it read simply “The world is not your home.”
The new and different story we need, he says, is the old, original one: “the Big Story of God’s saving work in the world, creation’s central role in the unfolding drama, and our invitation to join in the beautiful, cosmic dance” (36). This story teaches that God created the world, called it Good, and entrusted it to human care. Humans, in turn, are called to rule as Jesus ruled: not through “dominance, extraction, or exploitation, but through humble service, sacrifice, and by seeking the good of that which is ruled” (45). In Chapters 3 and 4, Meyaard-Schaap shows how the creation story is woven throughout scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and is at the heart of the Gospel. In his words and deeds, Jesus demonstrated the in-breaking of the kingdom of God: his evangelism accomplished real relief for those suffering; it “transformed lives… upended entrenched systems of abuse and oppression… challenged power…” (70). In a warming world, where the most vulnerable are disproportionately harmed by the effects of climate change, if Christian evangelism does not have the same effect as Jesus’s, then, the author says, “we’re doing it wrong” (45).
Nonetheless, many Christians still dispute that climate change has any bearing on discipleship. It’s a message that Meyaard-Schaap says he heard “more than any other in my years of organizing, speaking, teaching, and advocating with Christians for climate action.” (It’s a message this mainline Lutheran reviewer has heard too much, as well.) But in fact, “our calling to proclaim (the) good news to all creation has everything to do with climate change. Our faith not only permits but requires us to clean up toxic waste sites, protect our neighbors from harmful pollution, and safeguard God’s human and nonhuman creation from the ravages of a changing climate” (79). Furthermore, the author argues, Christians who consider themselves to be pro-life must drastically expand our understanding of what that means in the twenty-first century, when so many lives are threatened by this climate chaos. But how do we invite others into this expanded understanding?
to shape reality, to define the horizon of the possible.” (100)
Throughout the book, Meyaard-Schaap shares some of the personal stories and encounters that transformed him and shaped his evolving understanding of discipleship in a warming world. The reader learns about Larry, who fought to his dying day against mountaintop-removal in coal country, despite being harassed and terrorized by mining company representatives. In addition; Margaret, a hardworking Kenyan farmer who can no longer reliably feed her family from her weather-ravaged crops; Robert, who lost two members of his family in hurricane Katrina. Stories, he says, are the most powerful tool we have in our toolbox to respond to the threat of a changing climate. Chapter 6 introduces some of the author’s principles and examples of effective communication, including his expansion of climate scientist and evangelical Christian, Dr. Katharine Heyhoe’s maxim for constructive conversations about climate change, “bond, connect, inspire, and invite.” Stories give us an experiential basis for connecting with another on an emotional level. Once a personal, emotional connection is established, and shared values are acknowledged, the storyteller can move to solutions – sharing some of the many ways humans can still cut the carbon emissions that cause climate change.
This leads to another strength of the book. Dire recitations of terrifying climate statistics can create despair and resignation – a sense that climate chaos is now inevitable and irreversible, so there is nothing else we can do about it. But Meyaard-Schaap believes there is much that can still be done, and much that Christians are morally obligated to do, to protect the most vulnerable members of human and nonhuman creation. He uses the final chapters and appendices of the book to offer concrete examples of discipleship for a warming world. He explains how daily practices of simplicity and sustainability can become spiritual disciplines. He argues that in a globalized economy that privileges fossil fuel and wealth, advocacy is an expression of being a global citizen, finding a way to love our neighbors in public. This could include advocating for policies that end tax subsidies for the oil industry or that encourage the development of clean energy sources; writing letters to the editor, or to Congress, that explain why your faith compels you to speak up about climate change; or joining marches and nonviolent protests against environmental racism. Ultimately, caring for creation and climate is the job of every disciple of Jesus, but it will look different for each of us, depending on our unique callings and aptitudes.
As the saying goes (and the author deploys it in his first chapter), “creation care is people care.” Following Jesus in a Warming World makes this case with a deft combination of urgency and approachability, weaving together “just right” amounts of science, scripture and story. And while Meyaard-Schaap says he wrote the book for Christians frustrated by their faith tradition’s inability or unwillingness to speak into the climate crisis, it’s a resource that can also be used for group study, in a college or seminary curriculum, or as a primer for those who still struggle to see the relevance of creation care in the Christian moral universe. If I have any quibble at all, it is that the impacts of climate change on nonhumans, and the need for a more biocentric eco-discipleship, are barely acknowledged. But for a Christian audience still very much under the influence of anthropocentrism, and for those looking for “permission” to care about creation, Following Jesus in a Warming World is superb.
Marilyn Matevia is pastor of Celebration Lutheran Church in Chardon, Ohio, co-facilitator of the Creation Care Affinity Group of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, and coordinator of Holy Hikes-Northeast Ohio. She occasionally teaches Christian Ethics, and Religion and Ecology at the college and seminary level.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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