Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

I normally don't read novels. Right or wrong, my attitude is why bother reading fiction when there is plenty of non-fiction reading to do. But a doctoral student and friend at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln wanted me to read this book because it had such a big impact on him. So I agreed to do so.
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn (ISBN 0-553-37540-7) is a story about a man who answers ad which reads "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The guy arrives to the location to find a large gorilla. The gorilla can talk and leads the man through a process to help him understand how mankind fell into the trap of destroying the planet.

I am almost at the book's midpoint and wanted to provide a brief review of the text. On an artistic level, the book is rather interesting. Unlike the Planet of the Apes, the ape in this book doesn't hate or want to enslave people. Instead the Ape wants to teach humans how to save the planet. The Ape leads his pupil through a thought exercise to help the human understand how things got this way.

First, the Ape invites the human to think about the cultural myth that blinds him to the problem. Core elements of the myth are  1. humans are the pinnacle of evolution (creation isn't permitted), 2. the planet is for mankind, 3. that the problems with the planet is because there is something wrong with humans, and 4. facts are different from values in that facts can never prove values. All four of these ideas are mistaken and leading humans down the wrong path according to this Ape.

What I find interesting about this book is that it diametrically opposes the teaching of Scripture. Let's look at the elements in parallel. 1. Bible says humans are the pinnacle of creation (Genesis 1). 2. The Bible says the planet was made for mankind (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 8). 3. The Bible does teach that there is something wrong with humans, it is sin in that we have rebelled against God (Genesis 3 and the teachings of Christ). 4. Interestingly, Scripture would agree that the fact-value split is over played. However, the reason for the split is due to humanity's willing rebellion and subsequent denial of the Creator. Paul says humans suppress the knowledge of God and therefore fall into great moral evil (Romans 1).

In summary, Christians should recognize that key elements of the doctrine of creation are under assault because non-Christians believe that those doctrines have encouraged humans to abuse the planet. Plenty of articles have demonstrated that self-professing Christians (I hasten to point out that plenty of people call themselves Christian because they believe their religion is a genetic heritage) are not alone in harming the earth. Even Buddhist and Hindu lands have a poor record (Dr. Robert Wright has an excellent article on this. Find it at the American Scientific Affiliation website). The ultimate point I want to make is that Christians must understand that this anti-christian story is what is feeding the actions of many so-called environmentalists. We must understand their story in order to have a proper answer.

I will have more on the book in the future.

Stephen M. Vantassel is a tutor of theology at King's Evangelical Divinity School and author of Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009). 
I welcome book submissions. Contact me at King's Evangelical Divinity School or through my website.

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