Like many of my college-aged contemporaries, I have in recent years become rather selective in the movies and media I choose to absorb. When one’s daily planner is soaked through with ink and coated in illegible reminders of exams, research papers, club meetings, social obligations, work hours and volunteer commitments, it becomes necessary to filter out a great deal of unnecessary movie-watching time. Some videos, however, are well worth the effort spent to rearrange one’s daily to-do list and sit down for an hour or two. Lately, I was given the opportunity to expand my knowledge of how religion and science can work together through the documentary RENEWAL (read a post from one of the film's creators here). Another ink-scribble was added to my planner, and I carved out time to absorb the content of this inspiring documentary work. They were 90 minutes well spent.
RENEWAL presents a dynamic snapshot of how religion and care for the environment (“creation care” if you will) have become deeply intertwined in American society. Eight stories are told in which communities from different religious backgrounds take up arms in defense of the earth around them. Each of these stories is unique; each tells of a different community from a different faith background engaged in caring for a certain part of creation. The themes threaded through each, however, are constant. Throughout the documentary flow the underlying ideas that humankind and creation are deeply interconnected; that we as humans are responsible to take care of the earth; and that, through renewing the environment, we worship God and grow closer to him.
The fourth episode of RENEWAL, cleverly dubbed “Ancient Roots”, tells the story of the Tevah Learning Center- a Jewish environmental learning center where groups of children are invited to come, grow in their faith, and learn about the value of creation. While the Tevah center is an inspiring idea in itself, what I found to be most captivating about the story was how deeply these individuals felt connected to creation. The environmental movement, to these people, is not a modern phenomenon drawn out of a pagan worship of the Earth; rather, it is an idea born out of the ancient texts of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Ecclesiastes. In fact, as the Tevah founders explain, the connection between humanity and earth is as ingrained in Hebrew religion as the language itself. The word for human, Adam, is derived from Adammah, the Hebrew word for earth. People are a part of the earth; we are bound up with the entirety of creation as one. Teaching children to care for the environment is an expression of faith, a means of worshipping God and growing closer to him.
An understanding of humankind’s connection with the earth, however, is not limited to Jewish students at Tevah. Another segment in RENEWAL, for example, tells the story of Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), a religious group formed to combat global warming. The founder of IPL, an Episcopalian minister, is motivated by the understanding that God left Adam to take care of the earth and we, as the “seeds of Adam”, are left with that responsibility; God created us to be one with the earth, to love it, and take care of it. In the case of IPL, this religious conviction motivates people from the Episcopalian church, in addition to those of other religions, to campaign for tighter restrictions on carbon emissions. Their efforts arise from passionate moral convictions and a desire to serve God.
One especially potent episode takes place in the mountaintops of Eastern Kentucky, where mining companies engage in the destructive practice of “mountaintop removal” so they can easily access the coal stored beneath them. This means of harvesting coal destroys the aesthetic beauty of the Appalachian Mountains while also causing erosion, flooding, and contamination of water sources, jeopardizing the lives of those who live in the valleys. To local evangelical Christian communities, however, the implications of mountaintop removal are deeper still. As believers in a Creator, they understand their role as members of creation and caretakers of the earth. The act of destroying mountains is not just damaging to nearby human communities; it is also a crime against all creation, a sin against He who created. Their response to these convictions is visceral and powerful: they form a mountaintop tour which allows people to witness firsthand the damage being done to the earth by mountaintop removal and hopefully spurs them to take a stand against the destructive practice.
As the stories in RENEWAL unfold, it is clear that each community is characterized by deep feelings of unity with God’s creation. These sensations of awe for creation compel people of faith to take up arms in defense of that creation. Personally, I was moved by the sincerity of feeling and the depth of dedication demonstrated in these stories. The people in the film are clearly not just joining the “green movement” to be trendy; nor are they simply engaging in empty banter about what people “should” do. Rather, as Proverbs 31:8 urges, they are “speak(ing) up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and taking action in response to their faith. Their care for the environment is not a religion unto itself, but an extension of their own love for God and their desire to be stewards of his creation.
The religious-environmental movement is powerful exactly for these reasons. When people are motivated by a deep-rooted desire to worship God, they are willing to invest time, energy and emotion to what they believe is the right thing to do. Throughout history, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in his famous work Mere Christianity, “those who did most for this world are those who thought most of the next”. In the case of creation care, this statement certainly seems to ring true. For the people in these stories, hectic schedules are not an excuse to ignore our calling to care for and protect creation. Rather, caring for creation is an expression of faith and a way of worshipping and thanking God for the gift he has given us.