One benefit of retiring carols for most of the year is that when we return to them at Christmas we can hear them afresh despite their familiarity. This Christmas, as we sang Isaac Watts’ classic carol “Joy to the World,” I noticed something new about it.
Until now I had missed its earthiness. The coming of the Savior was good news for the Earth as well as for its people. Fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains rejoice at the coming of Jesus; thorns will no longer infest the ground and heaven and nature will song with joy.
My new appreciation of this carol was enhanced as a result of my attendance at this year’s Baptists Today Conference in Melbourne, Australia. This year the theme was “The Earth is Mine, Says the Lord: Environment and Discipleship.”
Prof Norman Habel, director of the Earth Bible Project, awakened us to the insistence of Scripture that the salvific work of God has a temporal aspect. God cares for and nourishes the earth. It is part of the life of the disciple to think about how we honor and care for the earth.
Some years ago, the Baptists Today Conference theme was structured around the question, “Is the Gospel Good News for the Aborigines?” We might now also ask, “Has the Gospel been Good News for Planet Earth?”
Evangelical Christians–and we are among them–have not distinguished ourselves as environmentalists. We generally identify as people of the Word. and our interests and activities have, over time, become confined to that sphere. In the absence of a thoroughly articulated position on our relationship with the Earth, we are content to describe ourselves as custodians or stewards or harvesters.
These concepts come from Scripture and are capable of sustaining a position that honors the Earth. However, as they are not central to our identity, we have become careless and allowed them to be employed as rationales for practices that more closely resemble plundering of the Earth than careful husbandry.
It is hard to imagine a similar carelessness with the doctrines of salvation, forgiveness, atonement and the like. Our statements that affirm the grandeur of creation, its preciousness and fragility are qualified by concerns about preservation of livelihoods and lifestyle. The Earth is regarded as a resource that must be manage, not for its own worth but so that it can continue to satisfy the human appetite for consumption.
Yet we have in our own non-conformist, dissenting tradition someone such as Isaac Watts who wrote a hymn that included the confession that the restoration of the Earth was part of God’s plan of salvation. Can we make the claim that Isaac Watts was an enthusiastic environmentalist? I wouldn’t, and we don’t need to.
We know enough of Isaac Watts to know that he was devoted to Scripture and spent his life in the study and preaching of the Word. “Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98. It was written as part of a volume of hymns published in 1719 entitled The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Scripture told Isaac Watts of the excitement of the Earth at the arrival of Earth’s Savior, and he dutifully provided us with words to celebrate and proclaim that joy.
At a recent Walk Against Warming held in Sydney, various speakers acknowledged the contributions Christians have made in the environmental movements. Cathy Zoi, previously a policy adviser to the Clinton administration in the United States, spoke of the ecumenical Christian environmental movements gaining in strength and influence around the world.
Zoi attributed some of the success in the recent growth of such movements to the participation of Christians, and made a plea for Christians to be more active in environmental organizations. Catholic EarthCare Australia is one local organization that is attempting to articulate the relationship between faith and how we relate to the planet.
It is time for Christians and people everywhere to be concerned about the state of the planet. This does not necessarily mean that Christians must become “environmentalists.” Our call is the same as ever. We are to continue to be disciples of the Living Word. As we continue to open our lives to the life of discipleship we discover, as Isaac Watts did, that we are to be means of restoring joy and abundance to the Earth as well as to its people.
Kristine Morrison is a midwife at Sydney‘s Royal PrinceAlfredHospital. She and Joan O’Donnell attend AshfieldBaptistChurch in Sydney. This article appeared in “Soundings,” a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics at MorlingCollege, a Baptist school in Sydney, edited by Rod Benson.