Are Churches Like Zoos?
A decade ago I spent an unforgettable week in the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago of islands off the coast of Ecuador hasn’t changed much since Charles Darwin sailed there on the HMS Beagle in December 1831 and studied fifteen species of finches. The Galapagos may be the closest thing to the Garden of Eden left on Earth!
My son and I saw a two-hundred-year-old turtle weighing in at nearly a thousand pounds. We came face-to-face with giant iguanas that weren’t the least bit intimidated by humankind. We watched pelicans that looked like prehistoric pterodactyls dive into the ocean and come back up with breakfast in their oversized beaks. And we went swimming with sea lions, which we later learned isn’t altogether safe!
A few weeks after returning home, our family went to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. The National Zoo is a great zoo, but zoos are ruined for me. Looking at caged animals isn’t nearly as exhilarating as witnessing a wild animal in its natural habitat—it’s too safe, it’s too tame, and it’s too predictable.
As we walked through the ape house, the four-hundred pound gorillas looked so bored, so emasculated, behind protective plexiglass. That’s when a thought fired across my synapses: I wonder if churches do to people what zoos do to animals.
I don’t think it’s intentional. In fact, it’s well-intentioned. But I wonder if our attempts to help people sometimes hurt them. We try to remove the danger, remove the risk. We attempt to tame people in the name of Christ, forgetting that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe. Jesus died to make us dangerous.
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
That doesn’t sound safe, does it? That’s because it’s not. The will of God isn’t an insurance plan. The will of God is a dangerous plan. It takes tons of testosterone, and it produces high levels of holy adrenaline.
Charles Darwin’s Loss of Happiness
Charles Darwin, known for his theory of natural selection, noticed that his later life included a “loss of happiness.” While he never acknowledged that it might have been related to his changing worldview, which eventually rejected the idea of a higher power in favor of philosophical naturalism, it is hard not to wonder about the connection.
Darwin observed, “Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds . . . gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. . . . Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. . . .
I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Introduction by Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (Rockville, MD: Serenity, 2008), 80–81.
George McDonald’s Great Fear
George MacDonald, The Scottish author who had a profound effect on C.S. Lewis among others, once wrote a letter to his father about what he believed would be a great obstacle to his faith; that once he became a Christian he would no longer be able to appreciate beauty and the natural world.
Ultimately, his experience was quite the opposite:
One of my greatest difficulties in consenting to think of religion was that I thought I should have to give up my beautiful thoughts & my love for the things God has made. But I find that the happiness springing from all things not in themselves sinful is much increased by religion.
God is the God of the Beautiful, Religion the Love of the Beautiful, & Heaven the House of the Beautiful—nature is tenfold brighter in the sun of righteousness, and my love of nature is more intense since I became a Christian. . . . God has not given me such thoughts, & forbidden me to enjoy them. Will he not in them enable me to raise the voice of praise?
If God Wanted to Remain Silent…
If God wanted to remain silent about His existence, He wouldn’t have bothered creating the stars; He wouldn’t have made the Milky Way, or Betelgeuse. In fact, He wouldn’t have made the majestic Rocky Mountains, the rippling oceans, or the magnificent hummingbird. If His goal was to remain quiet and anonymous, He wouldn’t have created anything at all. Instead, He spoke into existence a smorgasbord for our senses. Wonder for our eyes, beauty for our ears, fragrances for our noses—and rapture for our hearts.
His creation screams about His unseen beauty; it shouts about His unseen qualities and His magnificence. When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he crafted an outward expression of his inner person. In the same way, God’s creation exhibited through the mountains, stars, and oceans is an expression of the God we can’t see. . . . God didn’t remain anonymous because He didn’t want to. Rather, He wanted to display His glory throughout the universe as His gift to man.
A Lack of Accountability
Whenever I have encountered any kind of deep problem with civilization anywhere in the world—be it the logging of rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance or the brutal destruction of a cultural landscape that has taken centuries to develop—somewhere at the end of the long chain of events that gave rise to the problem at issue I have always found one and the same cause: a lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.
Vaclev Havel, Civilization
Missing the Trees in the Forest
Years ago, my family and I visited Sequoia National Park in California. The highlight of this trip was seeing the Giant Sequoia redwoods, after which the park is named. These trees are awe-inspiring, both for their beauty and their size. The largest redwood in the national park is the General Sherman tree, which towers above the forest at 275 feet in height. It is also 25 feet in diameter, with an estimated age over 2500 years.
As my family and I ambled among the giant redwoods, drinking in their exceptional elegance, I noticed a teenaged boy walking along with his family. His eyes were transfixed, not by the trees, but rather by his Game Boy device. (Today, it would be his smartphone.) He was engaged in some sort of video game that demanded his full attention.
I was both fascinated and distressed by this boy’s apparent unawareness of the extraordinary beauty all around him, so I continued to look his way every now and then throughout our tour of the big trees. Sure enough, as near as I could tell, he never once lifted his eyes to gaze upon some of the most beautiful and astounding of God’s creations.
As I think about this boy today, I feel sad. My sadness is not just for him, though. I feel sad for so many others who are just like him. I would confess there are times when I am one of these people. I can get so wrapped up in whatever is demanding my attention that I neglect the beauty of God’s creation.
Sometimes I’m caught up in work. Sometimes I’m blinded by worry. Often, what keeps me from delighting in beauty is my ever-present hand-held device. I don’t have a Game Boy, but I do have a smartphone that calls to me its siren’s song.
Our Changing Landscape
What we call “nature” isn’t the same nature our great-grandparents knew. Even if they lived as far south as Baltimore, they could cut eighteen-inch blocks of ice off ponds in the winter to cool their food in the summer. Now, thanks to global warming, we don’t get enough ice up here next to the Canadian border to do that.
Today my family lives on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, sixty miles north of Dartmouth College. Dartmouth was founded to counter the liberal trends in Boston colleges, so it’s surprising that Dartmouth was the site of one of our nations’ first college protests. Students had finally grown tired of the kitchen workers plucking forty-pound salmon from the Connecticut [river] and serving them day in and day out, week after week. Now there are plastic bottles and tires in the Connecticut, but no salmon.
Similar stories abound nationwide: No chestnuts on Chestnut Street, no elms on Elm Street, and soon no maples on Maple Street. In 1880, the residents of New York City ate half a million passenger pigeons [now extinct]. What if they had stopped to think before they “spent” the whole species? The great auk, the caribou, the blue pike, the parrot owl, and the Carolina parakeet are the top of a melting iceberg of God’s creation. They are gone forever.
There is nothing that can be done about these vanished species, except to learn from our mistakes. As a society, we have far fewer natural resources in our “account” than our predecessors. We need to be more careful stewards or we will leave our children a legacy of malls, big-box stores, highways, houses—and worse—potential catastrophe resulting from global warming. If people of faith have no concern for the future, who will?
Re-Wilding and Restoring Balance to Nature
In 1995, the gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park after a seventy-year hiatus. Scientists expected an ecological ripple effect, but the size and scope of the trophic cascade took them by surprise.?
Wolves are predators that kill certain species of animals. But they indirectly give life to others. When the wolves reentered the ecological equation, it radically changed the behavioral patterns of other wildlife. As the wolves began killing coyotes, the rabbit and mouse populations increased. Thereby attracting more hawks, weasels, foxes, and badgers. In the absence of predators, deer had overpopulated the park and overgrazed parts of Yellowstone. Their new traffic patterns, however, allowed the flora and fauna to regenerate. The berries on those regenerated shrubs caused a spike in the bear population.
In six years’ time, the trees in overgrazed parts of the park had quintupled in height. Bare valleys were reforested aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees. And as soon as that happened, songbirds started nesting in the trees. Then beavers started chewing them down. Beavers are ecosystem engineers, building dams that create natural habitats for otters, muskrats, and ducks, as well as fish,’ reptiles, and amphibians.
One last ripple effect.
The wolves even changed the behavior of rivers—they meandered less because of less soil erosion. The channels narrowed and pools formed as the regenerated forests stabilized the riverbanks.
My point? We need wolves!
When you take the wolf out of the equation, there are unintended consequences. In the absence of danger, a sheep remains a sheep.And the same is true of men. The way we play the man is by overcoming overwhelming obstacles, by meeting daunting challenges. We may fear the wolf, but we also crave it. It’s what we want. It’s what we need.
Picture a cage fight between a sheep and a wolf. The sheep doesn’t stand a chance, right? Unless there is a Shepherd. And
I wonder if that’s why we play it safe instead of playing the man—we don’t trust the Shepherd.
…Ecologists recently coined a wonderful new word. Invented in 2011, rewilding has a multiplicity of meanings. It’s resisting the urge to control nature. It’s the restoration of wilderness. It’s the reintroduction of animals back into their natural habitat. It’s an ecological term, but rewilding has spiritual implications.
As I look at the Gospels, rewilding seems to be a subplot. The Pharisees were so civilized—too civilized. Their religion was nothing more than a stage play. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing. But Jesus taught a very different brand of spirituality.
Foxes have dens and birds have nests,” said Jesus, “but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” So Jesus spent the better part of three years camping, fishing, and hiking with His disciples. It seems to me Jesus was rewilding them.
Sherlock Holmes and Watson Go Camping
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are going camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. In the middle of the night Holmes wakes Watson up: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce.”
Watson: “I see millions of stars and even if a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”
Holmes: “Watson, you idiot, somebody’s stolen our tent!”
Surrounded by Beauty
I am abashed, solitary, helpless, surrounded by a beauty that can never belong to me. But this sadness generates within me an unspeakable reverence for the holiness of created things, for they are pure and perfect and they belong to God and they are mirrors of his beauty. He is mirrored in all things like sunlight in a clean water: But if I try to drink the light that is in the water I only shatter the reflection.