667: Interview with Green Preacher Matthew Sleeth

IF YOU’RE READING THIS ON Wednesday April 21, click here to find out about a nationwide online broadcast tonight with Dr. Matthew Sleeth, linking millions of in a nationwide green revival on the eve of Earth Day 40. If you’re reading after April 21, then just consider the influence of this one former physician!

If you’re already well informed about the global green movement—then you’ll understand this comparison: Sleeth, now a very popular writer, lecturer and activist from Wilmore, Kentucky, is an innovator much like Bill McKibben. The main difference? Not much. Both men are Methodists and both are known for making front-page headlines with their creative methods of communication. McKibben has racked up major, game-changing successes like 350.org. Sleeth also has given the world a few fresh ideas! He created the game-changing “Green Bible.” (Visit our new Environmental Religious Resources Page for more on that Bible.) There is one big diference between the two men. McKibben is a former journalist and often weaves general spiritual themes into his activism. Sleeth is proud to call himself an evangelical and he preaches evangelical language to that enormously important segment of American families.

You can order “The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book Is a Green Book” from Amazon.

Highlights of our Interview with Matthew Sleeth on “Gospel According to the Earth” … and More!

Dr. Matthew SleethDAVID: It’s good to talk to you again Matthew! We’ve been encouraging readers to find out more about your work for a couple of years, now. At age 53, you’ve covered a whole lot of turf! You began college late in your life. You worked for years as a carpenter, then discovered you had a talent for academic work and headed back to school. You wound up as a successful emergency room physician—but you felt God calling you to preach a message of Creation care far and wide. Now, you’re a noted Bible scholar, as well. You’re a very popular author. Wow. You’ve traveled a long way! So, let’s step back and start with a simple question: What triggered this dramatic Moses-like stirring in your heart and mind?

MATTHEW: Two things happened to me personally. One was that I was attending a church and I began to wonder why we weren’t doing anything about protecting God’s world. I had this idea that God wanted us to be concerned with pollution, mercury in fish and that kind of thing—but, at church, I didn’t hear any connection made with these important things. When I asked about it, one of the pastors joked that I had the theology of a tree hugger.

DAVID: You include that story in your new book. The subtitle, I think, captures the overall focus of this new hardback: “Why the Good Book Is a Green Book.” I’d describe this as your manifesto and your own customized toolbox for making a difference in the world. And, once again, your whole approach is rooted in the Bible. You preach the green gospel from the heart of the Bible itself. And that goes back to how you first felt this calling, right?

Tinted photo of Oak of Mamre in Hebron from about 1900.MATTHEW: Yeah. When that pastor called me a tree hugger, it led me to go through the whole Bible and underline areas where God glorifies the Creation and where care for Creation is highlighted. I discovered that this approach to the Bible was a very important guide. I found a lot to underline. Then, someone gave me a Bible, a Thomas Nelson study Bible—and what was so unusual about that? It turned out the study Bible was published in 1888 and it had roughly 60 pages in it about the ideas I keep talking about. Think about that! The real estate—every single page of space—is precious in a Bible and this 1888 edition devoted four pages to full-page etchings of famous trees in the Bible.

That discovery showed me a couple of things. One is that what I was finding in the Bible as I underlined passages is not new. It’s sound theology that’s been there for millennia. In fact, we forgot it and, now, we need to rediscover it. If you want to understand how important this awareness of Creation care has been for centuries, then listen to the words in our popular hymns. Listen to “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “All Creatures of Our God and King.” This shows us that what I’m talking about is not a fad. This is the fabric of God revealing itself to us in each new generation.

DAVID: I have to say that I’ve found your preaching in recent years to be a breath of fresh air.

MATTHEW: I do things like ask people to think about this: “How many of you have ever heard a sermon on trees?” Out of a crowd of 200 people, I might get one person raising a hand. Then, I say: “Well, that’s a profound oversight, considering the symbol of the Lord is a tree, a tree of life. A tree shows up on the first page of the Bible. Think about this: We don’t know which way Paul parted his hair or what most of the men and women in the Bible even looked like! But we know the exact species of the tree Abraham sat under. We know the species of the tree Zacheus climbed. We know very specific details about many trees in the Bible. Keep reading and you’ll find that holds true for fish and water and much more about the natural world. We are material beings. This is God’s world and we are material beings in God’s world.”

I say: “Why were we born here? If this life is immaterial, then why weren’t we just born in Heaven?” You ask people in the average congregation some of these questions and this leads people to see that this life and this Earth are gifts. We should approach these gifts with a grateful heart and not a feeling that it’s all disposable! God is revealed in this Creation.

Jesus and the Fig Tree, etching from Bowyer Bible (1790s)DAVID: This is a good place to ask you to say a word about the “Green Bible”—your first really big splash nationally, I would say. If people didn’t know about Matthew Sleeth before that, then a whole lot of people met you through the “Green Bible.”

MATTHEW: Well, the goal of the “Green Bible” was to produce a Bible that in some measure models sustainable printing. That Bible is produced with recycled content in the paper, which is unusual for a Bible. Then, in green ink, the Bible highlights verses similar to the ones I had underlined in my own earlier search through the Bible. Plus, the publishers collected a broad group of essays talking about these themes and included those in the Bible, too. That book has had a strong impact. Its first printing was 25,000 and sold out in a week’s time, which the publisher didn’t expect. It’s convinced quite a number of people to start reading the Bible for the first time.

That Bible then led to this new book I’ve written for HarperOne: “The Gospel According to the Earth,” where I’m able to explore the themes that run through the Bible—to do more than just highlight passages in green. I didn’t want to leave people with just a kind of proof-texting approach to picking out individual verses. I wanted to help people see the larger themes that run throughout the whole Bible, so that’s what I’ve done in this new book.

DAVID: Well, I’ve read this new book and I can recommend it to readers, especially for small-group discussion. I can envision that Bible study groups, in particular, can really dig into this new book. You include some powerful, ancient themes in your book. Here’s one example: Hospitality. You focus one whole chapter on this theme and how hospitality relates to caring for the Earth. Let me read a couple of lines from page 47: “Hospitality isn’t about us. It’s about others. It’s about giving and expecting nothing in return. It’s aobut using less so there will be enough for everyone. It’s about being a good steward of resources so there will be plenty for all.

Tree of Jesse from French illuminated BibleMATTHEW: Hospitality is the reflex we need to cultivate as believers. Our society has more material things than perhaps any other culture in all of history. A new sense of community can only come through offering signs of hospitality to others. The Bible teaches us about this. Part of hospitality is becoming good stewards of resources so there is enough to share with others. And, Sabbath is part of good stewardship. We live in a society that has no restraint. We can’t stop ourselves. We have no natural break built into our system of living.

This is a concept that’s foreign to the modern church. I was in Nashville a few weeks ago, speaking mostly to an audience of college students. I asked them: “Who believes in the 10 Commandments?” Everybody indicated: Yes. Then, I asked: “How many of you remember the Sabbath and keep it holy?” I got about two hands from the whole audience. So, I said: “Basically, we’ve just subtracted that commandment.” And, I tore the page right out of the Bible in front of them. You do that in front of a crowd of Christian students and that gets their attention!

Most people don’t even see environmentalism as related to Sabbath, but it’s right there in the Bible. When I talk, I ask people about these things. I ask: “How many of you say a prayer of thanks when you fill your gas tank? We say thanks when we eat dinner, at least on Thanksgiving in most homes. When we do that, we’re acknowledging God’s sustaining hand in or lives, so why don’t all those things apply to the gas we’re putting in our car?” Most people don’t even think about expressing thanks for gasoline or cell phones or electricity that comes into our homes. We’re just not even aware of these things. We feel we’re entitled to all of it.

DAVID: Do you feel discouraged? Or, do you hear a rising chorus of voices around you?

MATTHEW: I don’t feel like a solo voice at all. Maybe six years ago I felt that way, but I see wonderful things happening out there. I see a convergence in which people come at these issues in many different ways. And, people are listening. Think about this: I’m just a 53-year-old guy and I look like a square 53-year-old guy, but I find college students everywhere I go who are very excited about this work. I’m encouraged to see this next generation taking up their faith.

You can order “The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book Is a Green Book” from Amazon.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com)


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