Wonder and stewardship
Each episode of Our Planet (2019) opens with the same dazzling image. The camera is in space, hovering above the surface of the moon and over the lunar horizon we watch our planet rise in the sky. A bright blue orb flecked with white swirls of clouds and storms, a vivid globe of stunning and fragile beauty.
Just 50 years ago, we finally ventured to the moon. For the very first time, we looked back at our own planet. Since then, the human population has more than doubled. This series will celebrate the natural wonders that remain and reveal what we must preserve to ensure people—and nature—thrive.
It is a worthy goal, pursued with great and lovely creativity by the BBC in a series of eight hour-long episodes in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund.
Christians believe that human beings were never intended to be separate from nature. Rather we were intended to enjoy it, to find our place and fulfill our callings within it and to experience in it the very character and glory of God. “What can be known about God is plain,” St Paul insists, “because God has shown it.” It is not a hidden or furtive thing, but revealed, not secret but declared. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20). When God met with Abraham we are told, “he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them’” (Genesis 15:5). When the psalmist considers “your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,” the poet is only then able to see reality and his own humanity in proper measure (Psalms 8:3-4).
To be cut off from the wonder of nature is to be cut off from one part of God’s revelation of himself. I am reminded of a talk I heard years ago, given by Calvin DeWitt. He was speaking, as he so often did, on the glory of creation and the responsibility of our stewardship, and told how he had returned recently from a camping trip that had taken him far from city lights. I don’t remember where he had been but he had been able to see the full expanse of the Milky Way spread out across the clear night sky. It’s a breathtaking sight, so vast and brilliant that it can seem impossible, yet there it is, a celestial canopy of light spread out above us. Now DeWitt was driving home, and as he entered Madison (where he was professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin) he became aware of how the urban lights drowned out the night sky. He pulled to the side of the road, overcome by the thought that some urban children might never glimpse the full wonder of the Milky Way. The Creator had made the lights of the night sky, Genesis tells us, and though the lights of the city represent their own kind of progress, that progress should not divide beings made in God’s image from the glory of God’s handiwork. “God never intended that,” Cal DeWitt insisted, “and it shouldn’t be.”
The gospel of grace begins not at the cross but at the beginning. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are central to a proper understanding of the Christian faith, but they are not the full story, nor are they the beginning. And if we get the beginning wrong, our understanding of that central fact of Redemption will be skewed so that all sorts of mistaken ideas and practices fall out.
The beginning is Creation, followed by the Fall. God called all things into existence, and declared them good. He did so in an act of creative imagination, not out of necessity but out of love. Like the rocks and birds and the Milky Way, we are his creatures, though different from them in bearing God’s image and so needing to bear special responsibility as his stewards. And ever since the beginning the rocks and the birds and the Milky Way have been content to be as God called them to be while we have stubbornly gone our own way. Human beings are the ones who are fallen and who tend to spread the dust of death rather than the breath of life. Rather than being content to live according to God’s word we suppress the truth and so leave a legacy of destruction and exploitation rather than life. “Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers,” Francis Schaeffer argues.
We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect. We may cut down a tree to build a house, or to make a fire to keep the family warm. But we should not cut down the tree just to cut down the tree. We may, if necessary, bark the cork tree in order to have the use of the bark. But what we should not do is to bark the tree simply for the sake of doing so, and let it dry and stand there a dead skeleton in the wind. To do so is not to treat the tree with integrity. We have the right to rid our houses of ants; but what we have not the right to do is to forget to honor the ant as God made it, in its rightful place in nature. When we meet the ant on the sidewalk, we step over him. He is a creature, like ourselves; not made in the image of God, but equal with man as far as creation is concerned. The ant and the man are both creatures.
As God’s stewards we are to work and to keep God’s good world, to cultivate and maintain, to till and to defend (Genesis 2:15). We are to creatively and imaginatively develop God’s world while caring for it with tender and life-enhancing respect. But instead we bicker over what that might mean in practice, argue that obedience is too costly, and even imagine that though the earth is the Lord’s we won’t actually be held responsible for our failure in the end.
But we’ve been warned. When Israel was taken into captivity—a time of horrific warfare, suffering, death, and dislocation—part of the reason, God said, was that his people had failed to treat their land—God’s creation given into their care to work and to keep—properly as his chosen stewards (2 Chronicles 36:21).
The Book of Common Prayerhas a lovely collect that touches on this responsibility given to us by our Lord:
O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Occasionally I am asked to lead our congregation in the Prayers of the People, a time in our service of worship when a lay reader leads a prayer for the church and for the world. In our previous church it was called a Pastoral Prayer, but the intent and content remain the same. It is a time when the church corporately prays for the things that concern it. One entry in the Prayers of the People is this: “Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.” After which, I say, “Lord, in your mercy” and the people respond, “Hear our prayer.” I think it is good that we pray that each week, for the thrust of modern society in the pursuit of productivity is so fast and furious that it is easily forgotten. At least I find that true for myself.
I am often told that environmental concerns are complicated, the politics fraught with hidden costs and the divisiveness of the issues such that we will never achieve agreement. All that proves is that we live in a very fallen and very fragmented world. It is the place as God’s stewards where we are called to live faithfully.
One thing should be clear to every Christian who takes Scripture seriously: the issue is not complicated for the Christian. The biblical mandate is that of stewarding God’s creation, doing all that is necessary to both work it and keep it. We may not know what that looks like, but that is not surprising since it is called a walk of faith. With prayer and study and experimentation we can find a way forward, just as we do in other slices of life.
Even those of us who have had the privilege of camping somewhere in view of the Milky Way, there are unnumbered wonders of creation beyond our horizon. As finite creatures we see and experience so little when there is so much more to be seen and experienced. So, I give two cheers for good nature documentaries—and Our Planet is among the best.
Over 600 crew and photographers worked over four years in 50 countries to produce the series. The breathtaking creativity of the filming is cutting edge, and repeatedly we wondered how they managed to capture such images and scenes. “The series focuses,” the production notes say, “on the breadth of the diversity of habitats around the world, including the Arctic wilderness, the deep sea, the vast landscapes of Africa and the diverse jungles of South America.” In every episode some plant or animal we had never heard of is introduced and we were left wondering at the imagination—and humor—of the Creator. We see instances where nature is in trouble and floundering, stressed by human activity or natural upheavals so that the care of a steward is needed. And we see instances where the amazing resilience of nature causes flora and fauna to rebound when given the chance. These moments are like little estimations of what the new earth may be like, and that is a joyous anticipation.
And I confess, Margie and I like Sir David Attenborough as narrator. He is grandfatherly and knowledgeable, not too wordy, always slightly amazed by what nature includes and subtly witty in a dry, British way. I don’t always agree with the producers of Our Planet, but I am always grateful to them for inviting me into such a worldwide exploration of God’s creation, our home and the place we are ordained to steward, world without end.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. What was your initial or immediate reaction to the series? Why do you think you reacted that way?
2. In what ways were the techniques of filmmaking (casting, direction, lighting, script, music, sets, action, cinematography, editing, etc.) used to get the film’s message(s) across, or to make the message plausible or compelling? In what ways were they ineffective or misused?
3. What is attractive here? How is it made attractive?
4. Why is caring for the earth so divisive among Christians? What does this reveal about the health of the church and its commitment to Scripture?
5. Which scenes in which episodes were particularly striking or compelling to you? Why?
6. When and where have you experienced creation or nature in a way that deeply refreshed your soul and led you to gratitude and worship?
7. How should Our Planet change our prayer life?
Source:Pollution and The Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology by Francis A. Schaeffer (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers; 1970) pages 74-75.
Our Planet credits:
Directed by: episodes directed by Adam Chapman, Hugh Pearson, Huw Cordey, Sophie Lanfear, Mandi Stark, & Jeff Wilson
Produced by: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey
Starring: Sir David Attenborough (narrator)
United Kingdom; BBC, World Wildlife Fund & Netflix; 2019
Documentary; each episode approximately 1 hour.