Book Review: Following Jesus In A Warming World: A Christian Call To Climate Action by Kyle Meyaard-Schaap

InterVarsity Press, 2023

An evangelical minister shares his journey from climate change agnostic to activist – sharing lessons for Christians and non-Christians alike.

My climate change question to my evangelical Christian friends is always this: “If you believe that God created Earth and all living things, why are you so hell-bent on destroying them?”

I rarely get much of an answer. Silence, mostly – which is something that Reverend Kyle Meyaard-Schaap can relate to when he poses the same question.

But unlike people on the receiving end of the query, he is unafraid to answer: The genesis of his environmentally ambivalent to hostile views toward climate change and protecting the planet formed in his own Christian church and its accompanying religious right political bent.

“These were biases that had me believe that authentic Christian faith and a concern for the well-being of God’s creation were dissonant, if not mutually exclusive,” he writes, “and assumptions that led me to believe a commitment to following Jesus called me only to a narrow set of political concerns, and that climate change lay firmly outside of it.”

A personal journey through dark times filled with social isolation from friends and family ultimately prompted him to write the sensational new book Following Jesus In A Warming World: A Christian Call To Climate Action. The result is a piece of work delivered not from an unrelatable pastor perched high atop a pulpit, but from a minister you know outside of a church — a person you break bread with while talking about life and everyday things. A person you can trust.

“Thank God that the gospel and its good news for the world are so much bigger than the lines we draw around it,” he declares in the introduction.

Meyaard-Schaap states that he aims the book primarily at Millennial and Gen Z Christians – people whose world views may not yet be anchored in concrete.

Meyaard-Schaap invites us on a dance through the cosmos as part of getting inspired to fight climate change. Photo by Chris Lancette.

Its reach doesn’t stop there.

While the malformed doctrine of the church I was forced to grow up in sent me fleeing Christianity at my first opportunity, I still yearn to find the words and ideas I can use to help my own evangelical friends and family members see the light on climate change – and understand that taking action to combat it is consistent with Christian values. Following Jesus is a desperately needed godsend that all of us who care about Mother Earth can use to talk to our evangelical loved ones in positive, productive ways. The book builds bridges on every page that enable Christians of all stripes and non-Christians alike to identify shared values that can lead to actions that save humans, animals and all of creation.

In other words, the book designed for Christians delivers spinoff benefits for people like me – providing my first-ever understanding of — and hope for – people Meyaard-Schaap refers to as “evangelical Christians.” Historically, I’ve referred to them only by a slew of derogatory names – which Meyaard-Schaap helps me realize serves no purpose.

I leave his pages uplifted – filled with that precious rare commodity known as genuine hope for evangelicals, America and the planet. Following Jesus is a masterful work of cultural architecture and prose: It deserves to be read widely. It deserves to win awards.

Kudos and amens to Meyaard-Schaap for taking on the role of David in the fight against the Goliath of climate change denialism – and for doing it in such a positive manner that it inspires readers to heed his calls for action that mirror “the heart of the Creator.”

He opens the book right where he should, in a chapter entitled “Coal And The Greatest Commandment.” It’s game over for the planet if we can’t break our addiction to fossil fuels. Meyaard-Schaap uses the chapter to introduce us to a West Virginia man, Larry Gibson, fighting to save what’s left of his Kayford community – mountains and people devastated by strip mining. Gibson advises the author to use his ears when a heavy fog prevents him from seeing the devastated landscape. It’s a horrifying scene straight from Rachel Carson’s apocalyptic warning in Silent Spring.

Eastern bluebird by Won-ok Kim.

“I listened hard. I heard absolutely nothing, no cacophony of birds calling to one another from the branches of Appalachia’s old-growth pines, no abundance of life that should have been pulsing to us like an electric current across the expanse. Instead, I heard the vast emptiness left by the thousands of feet of ancient elevation now leveled forever. I heard nothing out of the void. Nothing at all. I never knew silence could be so deafening.”

Gibson introduces Meyaard-Schaap to some of the endless problems that come with our addiction to coal. The author meets rural West Virginians suffering from god-awful diseases brought to them by the very coal mining that once paid their bills. He meets a pastor who shrugs it all off by saying that “God gave us the coal to bless us. He wants us to use it.”

Meyaard-Schaap pulls out of the on-the-ground tour for a moment to expound on the question once asked of Jesus: “What is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus’s answer, he writes, refuses to take the bait in a limited, dualistic thinking question. Jesus responds by stating that the most important principles to live by are to love God and love your neighbor.

Meyaard-Schaap expands on Jesus’s words by asking his own questions that aren’t entirely rhetorical – even adding more inclusive perspective on what the concept of “pro-life” means:

“After all, how can we love our neighbors well if we remain silent in the face of circumstances that threaten their livelihoods and poison their bodies? How can we tell our brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘I believe you,’ when they describe the ways that climate change is harming them and their families, and then do nothing to try to change their circumstances? How can we love our neighbors without fighting for their right to clean air and water, and a safe and stable world where they can flourish and thrive? How can we be pro-life in a warming world if we ignore the myriad ways in which climate change endangers and extinguishes life?

“The Bible has a word for the kind of faith that sees the suffering of its neighbors and does nothing to respond: dead.”

Diving back into the coal mines, Meyaard-Schaap offers perspective on our country’s past and future with coal:

Photo by Chris Lancette

“We can honor the contributions that fossil fuels have made to American prosperity and well-being without giving fossil fuels a free pass in perpetuity. We can acknowledge both that coal has unlocked tremendous economic growth and that it is simultaneously endangering that growth by driving dangerous climate change. We can recognize that coal has put food on millions of American tables and poisoned the drinking water. Both can be true at the same time.”

The vice president of the Evangelical Environment Network next lays the foundation for the rest of the book. In a word, it’s about love. Loving our fellow humans better, and loving more strongly everything in “the Creator’s masterpiece.”

While Meyaard-Schaap is writing for evangelical Christians, his book simultaneously tugs the heartstrings of former Christians who fled the church when the religious right took over too many churches with its toxic political and social views. Following Jesus is a reminder that there are a great many Christians who believe in protecting the Earth. It’s a reminder that both spiritual and secular people can be well served by — and serve humans and animals alike– by loving better.

Readers only two dozen pages in can’t help but ask ourselves the question of how church and politics have landed us in a world in which protecting the life of our planet is a bad thing. Meyaard-Schaap anticipates our conundrum, using his second chapter to highlight the frightening history that wedded religious fundamentalists with the political right. He traces the roots to a number of false narratives that many evangelical Christians tell themselves – that “Good Christians vote for Republicans”, science is a threat, and that, in the words of evangelical pastor John MacArthury, God made the Earth as a “disposable planet.”

Those roots entwined themselves with sinister actions by oil extractors big and small to justify exploiting the planet. He documents the link among disinformation campaigns conducted to promote insidious practices including the use of tobacco, DDT, and more. Meyaard-Schaap shares data proving that White evangelicals are what he too kindly calls the “most vulnerable” to misinformation. (I have always argued that the term should be “willfully ignorant,” but Following Jesus is inspiring me to try to walk a mile in their shoes.)

Fake news has consequences.

“When Christian identity and partisan political identity become conflated,” he writes, “the moral and political imaginations of generations of Christians are allowed to atrophy.”

“When Christian identity and partisan political identity become conflated,” he writes, “the moral and political imaginations of generations of Christians are allowed to atrophy.”

The disheartening historical backdrop made plain, Meyaard-Schaap uses the rest of the book to lift readers up – to fill us with knowledge, insight and actionable tips that more than deliver on its subtitle: “A Christian Call To Climate Action.”

Inviting us to “join in the beautiful, cosmic dance” of God’s saving work in the world, he delves into a number of Scriptures.

“The Big Story held out to us in Scripture is not a disparate collection of proof texts to be harvested in defense of a Christian ethic of climate action. It is a radically coherent love story of  a God who creates a good world and entrusts humans with the awesome task to preserve it.”

A beaver goes for a swim in Sligo Creek in Silver Spring, Maryland. Photo by Won-ok Kim.

He notes that God created all the “badgers, beavers, and billy goats” and “all the plants, trees, birds and fish” before he made humans, and that we should look at ourselves as a part of this world – not rulers of it. Meyaard-Schaap builds his case by flipping that Genesis-born ruler concept on its head, suggesting that the real question isn’t what special privileges God gave humans over other creatures but this: “What unique responsibility does the image of God call forth in humans toward the rest of creation?”

Put another way: “If our dominion of creation doesn’t look like Jesus, then we’re doing it wrong.”

Meyaard-Schaap pulls no punches when he argues that evangelical Christian Republicans aren’t really “pro-life” – a case I’ve made for decades but am not the right messenger to deliver to that demographic. It’s far better for it to be made by a minister who lives in the evangelicals’ world and speaks their language.

“I have deep respect for those who advocate for an end to abortion – many of them my own friends and family,” he writes. “But I can’t help lamenting that for so many a Christian political commitment to life begins and ends with advocating for the legal abolition of abortion.”

He later adds that, “It’s high time for those of us who consider ourselves on the side of life, wholeness and full flourishing to drastically expand our understanding of what it means to be pro-life. For too long, a relatively small group of powerful Christian leaders and their political allies have been allowed to hold hostage the moral imagination of millions of Christians. They’ve been allowed to circumscribe the definition of pro-life to mostly mean pro-birth.”

Meyaard-Schaap provides a wide range of specific details on the types of actions and policies a true pro-life position encompasses — swinging profound yet self-evident questions that strike with the force of a sledgehammer.

Caring about climate change means loving even a tiny chipmunk. Photo by Chris Lancette.

“Pro-life advocacy has long been laser focused on ensuring all children have the opportunity to get that first gulp of precious air. But shouldn’t it also matter to those of us defending life that for most children around the world, that first gulp – and every gulp thereafter – is toxic?”

Meyaard-Schaap acknowledges that many Christians will struggle when they challenge their own beliefs.

“It will no doubt feel scary for many to leave the solid ground of moral certitude and to venture out into the murky waters of moral discernment, but there is freedom in these waters,” he shares. “There is freedom to use our God-given intellect to weigh the fullness of all policies that impact that ability.”

But how does one Christian who is pro-planet approach the Herculean task of persuading other Christians who aren’t?

Meyaard-Schaap devotes a chapter to the basics of communication and persuasion – encouraging climate apostles to understand their audiences, identify shared values, inspire listeners with details of what a better world could look like, and, ultimately, invite them to participate in shared events or experiences that introduce them to a flock of other Christians advocating for climate change solutions. The process starts with active listening to find that common ground – not by preaching.

Personal actions and policy prescriptions for protecting all living things in the fight against climate change are laced throughout the book for people already convinced of the threats. He bangs away at many huge, systematic, macro-level changes the United States (one of the few countries, he points out, where climate change denialism is prevalent) and all other countries must take immediately. Lest readers get overwhelmed by how daunting those changes may be, Meyaard-Schaap also identifies a wide range of individual actions people can stake to do our parts to make a difference in our corners of the world.  

He covers everything from composting to contacting members of Congress. (If the thought of calling Capitol Hill terrifies you, he even offers a script that will zap that fear.)

Don’t discount the value of small, personal actions, either. They add up. Meyaard-Schaap also advises people to take these actions not as acts of self-sacrifice but of joy.

“This accountability must always be balanced with joy,” he writes, “for when we are living properly into our God-given role as earth keepers, joy abounds.”

Combatting climate change one shovel at a time. Photo by Chris Lancette.

That call resonates with me when I’m toiling away in my yard – digging out every inch of grass in my lawn and replacing it with wildlife friendly habitat (and plenty of fruits and veggies for me and my wife, too). Environmental virtues are the underpinnings of the work, but I’m more driven by my spiritual love for and kinship with the increasing number of critters that now share our home. It gives me enormous joy to commune with Monarch butterflies, chipmunks, groundhogs, at least a dozen species of birds, and countless other animals and plants.

I can’t count the number of times passersby have stopped me while I’m in the yard to ask what’s behind the beautiful flora and fauna show our property has become. I listen for what piques their interests most and then share my story of how I got started – by digging just one hole in the ground.

The story about my yard speaks volumes about my life and my values. It’s a story I love to tell, and it’s a thrill when people come back and tell me they’ve created their first little patch of habitat in their yards.

Meyaard-Schaap implores Christians to use their own personal storytelling to multiply their collective impact on reducing the climate change threat. This can be particularly effective with friends and family who view them as trusted people even if they disagree with them on religious and political issues.

“Each of us has a story with the power to change the world,” he declares. He picks up the thought a few pages later. “I believe with all my heart that if we do our best to keep trying to be the best communicators and storytellers we can be; if we keep inviting people into action with us; if we keep connecting climate change to people’s hearts, identities and values; if we refuse to acquiesce to the false perception that Christians don’t care about climate change and instead create a new narrative that bold climate action is simply part of what it means to follow after Jesus – then we might just find that we have more power to effect change than we ever dreamed possible.”

A view of the Colorado Rockies by Chris Lancette.
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