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True Believers

Montana's Christian environmentalists crusade for an ecological revival

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Woe to those who add house to house
and join field to field
until everywhere belongs to them
and they are the sole inhabitants of the land
—Isaiah 5:8

They built a long gibbet, low enough for the toes to touch the ground and prevent strangling, and hanged thirteen [natives] at a time in honor of Christ Our Savior and the twelve Apostles ... the Spaniards tested their strength and their blades against them ... and there were those who did worse ... straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive.
—Bartolome de Las Casas, Spanish missionary accompanying Columbus



At last weekend’s spirit, ecology and commerce conference in Missoula, there was one faction that represented a seldom-visited realm of the nation’s religious landscape: the Green Christian movement. With advocacy groups named Targetearth and Earth Ministries, these folks fit inconspicuously into the lobby of the Holiday Inn. There were no seminars about the observations of Las Casas or lectures on the implications of the words of the prophet Isaiah. The trials and tribulations of being Christian wasn’t the topic at hand. Local church-goers, environmentalists and green businesses were putting their heads together, rolling up their Patagonia organic cotton shirtsleeves, and trying to figure out a holistic approach to earning, preserving, and loving at least two different varieties of green.

As is customary at such events, many of the region’s thinkers were engaging in earnest and intelligent dialogue about environmental problems that must be solved by cooperation between the often opposing interests of industry and ecology. And the Green Christians were there, some of them; no doubt, some people wondering why. This is, after all, the family of religions that brought the Inquisition mindset to the continent, helping clear the land of its first people, sometimes promoting intolerance, racism and genocide. More recent cultural criticism leveled at the theology of Christianity questions the wisdom of a belief system that divorces an eternal spirit from a sinful, expendable flesh. Some critics pinpoint this as a precondition for the dominion of powerful and wealthy interests over land and people. Even forgiving past transgressions, the current hierarchical structure of the church bears some eerie resemblances to a gargantuan corporation.

The ecology movement, meanwhile, borrowing from native and Eastern traditions, has helped rekindle among its believers profound notions of faith, humility, reverence for mystery, generosity, and love of fellow creatures, all of which seem perfectly attainable outside the church, some would say in spite of it. For millions of folks, where some vestige of the natural world is plainly visible, the land still contains within it enough integrity to rejuvenate the spirit. Some even maintain karmic good luck or faith by avoiding things like fast food, corporate hegemony, and Christian churches. Until recently, the only religion invoked at an ecology conference attended by Christians might have been, “Jesus Christ, who let these people in?”

The spirit, however, is nothing without the possibility of redemption. The Catholic church of Canada recently apologized for a litany of sin against Indians there going back 400 years. Seven Catholic bishops from the Pacific Northwest recently completed a faith-based vision of the Columbia River watershed. In it, they dubbed the whole drainage a “Sacred Commons,” labeled the extinction of salmon and subsequent Indian treaty violations a sin, and chastised the cynicism inherent in power politics. Bishops are praying for biological integrity, for free scientific inquiry, to turn a few fish into a multitude: a miracle. Elsewhere, a consortium of churches in the Midwest is looking into a wind-driven power grid to supply their buildings with electricity. (“Energy is eternal delight,” said poet William Blake.)

Still, it’s a long way from a miracle or two to a full-blown ecological revival. For that to happen, the church would have to revise its long-standing theology, perhaps incorporating the more ecological notion that heaven could be at our feet. In that light, eco-Christians are themselves at the brink of recognizing that it’s not easy being green. Which is part of what makes the whole notion, and these three ecological believers, so intriguing.

Peculiar Waters:
Author David James Duncan

A self-proclaimed “iconoclastic fishing dweeb,” Lolo author David Duncan drifts a line through some strong, broad, twisting and braiding spiritual currents, incorporating the enlightenment of Eastern and Western wisdom traditions with a homespun recognition of the holy in trout-bearing waters. “I would feel like a traitor to a thousand things I love if I called myself a Christian,” Duncan says in an interview at his Lolo home, “because the church has betrayed a thousand marvelous things.”

How then to explain this passage in this month’s issue of Sierra magazine, written by Duncan? “Is it a failure of faith to want to fight back physically for the sake of the physical world? Or is the physical world the one God loves enough to send a physical Son?”

To the uninitiated in Duncan’s peculiar spiritual waters, such rhetoric seems to confuse his identity, much in the way a beginning fly-fisher might mix up a cutthroat with a rainbow. Part of Duncan’s iconoclasm is a refusal to bow to institutions, especially at the expense of better possibilities. To put it in more ecological terms, Duncan’s disdain for the church is comparable in an only slightly goofy sense to his deep suspicion of guided fishing, a viewpoint he aired in the Independent a while back, and more recently in other publications. In experiencing both nature and God, according to this line of thought, no intermediary is truly necessary, given an open mind, eye and heart. To pay, either in cash or allegiance, for what is always second-hand wisdom and could backslide into a shameless scam, is to shirk both the experience and the ultimate truth. “Go out into creation, with no preachers, no pundits, no intermediaries,” Duncan urges. “What better example do we have of what God thinks of us than what we see in nature?”

Unless of course, that specific parcel of nature has been logged, dammed, polluted or paved over, a reality that Duncan sees as driving a need for an intense spiritual practice.

“I don’t see how you can gain the detachment to fight really coolly and well for this earth unless you have some kind of deep metaphysical well that you can go to,” he says. “When you’re so full of despair and anger and you’re saying ‘God, this battle is not going well, there’s six billion people, we’re trashing the planet so fast, so many species are already extinct, we are the blight ... where do you go for consolation if not to a really deep wisdom tradition and a really hard-core faith?

“Some kind of spiritual view has to go hand in hand with the activism, or it becomes a kind of empty cardboard posturing, or you become helpless in the face of your own rage.”

For Duncan, the call to maintain a sense of equilibrium is especially challenging, maintaining a double life as an activist and a novelist. “If I didn’t fight, I’d soon fall into a hopeless depression,” Duncan predicts. “I didn’t fight hard enough before, and I found it was actually impairing my ability to be a novelist, to sing a blithe song. So when I moved here, I reluctantly began getting involved with the fight to save the Blackfoot from being mined. I like the people I met in the fight, and it also happens to be one that we won, at least for now.”

Between battles, Duncan composes manuscript pages, meditates on the wise words of the world’s sages, and fishes a bit. “I love and am a great admirer of the gospel of Jesus,” Duncan says. “He’s right in there on the shelf with the Bagavad Gita and the others. I don’t feel like I’ve ever drifted away from faith, just closer to it. And I haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater, I’ve just thrown out a hell of a lot of bathwater.”

Spreading the message: Activist Peter Illyn

Peter Illyn is irreverent in talking about the Christian church. “I went to a Christian conference in Boise,” Illyn recalls. “They had 50 local church leaders’ mug shots up on a bulletin board with a question underneath: ‘What do these people all have in common?’ I thought to myself, white penises.”

Illyn, a former evangelical minister, is reverent and rapturous these days when talking about preserving wildlands. When he tells the story of his epiphany about God’s creation, the wild gesticulations and intonations of a pentecostal preacher return to him. “It was in Crow Basin, in Washington. I had hiked in with my llamas; it was two in the morning, a full moon, an incredible night. I couldn’t sleep well; you could plainly see shadows in the white light. Crows were calling back and forth. Then a herd of 30 or so elk wandered into my camp. A big bull started bugling, and I thought of the words in Genesis, when God finished the world he saw what he had done and called it good.”

So what does a llama-loving nature freak with a clergyman’s call to serve God do to reconcile his passions? “One thing we do is load up the llamas with camping stuff and those mini-kegs of beer, and take these Christian rock bands into the woods. I call them keggers for Christ.” This is the high-profile end of Illyn’s operation, an eclectic blend of young musicians, Jesus, and ale that has attracted the attention of CNN and Jim Lehrer’s “The News Hour.” Next month, Outside magazine will run a feature on Illyn’s keggers.

But there’s a serious side to all this as well. Illyn, a native of LaCenter, Wash., is the director of Targetearth, a ministry he formed, he says, to “get Christians to love the wilderness and love the poor.” It’s a calling he approaches earnestly, but with a proper mix of humility and good humor.

“We’re too Christian for the environmentalists and too environmentalist for the Christians,” Illyn jokes. “But we certainly aren’t interested in converting environmentalists to Christianity. Quite the opposite, actually. Church goers see our list of other organizations we team up with and see Greenpeace and raise a lot of eyebrows. But we are committed to partnering with any organization that loves the earth and wants to preserve wilderness.”

For the most part, Illyn walks the talk, keeping a busy schedule with speaking engagements year-round in churches and environmental organizations. He has specific battles in the wilderness he is focused on, including drumming up support for the roadless initiative, and preserving and strengthening the Endangered Species Act. “We had young, idealistic Christians travelling the country this summer, setting up at these Christian rock festivals, and trying to explain to other young Christians the biblical imperative to care for the earth,” he says. “The result is that next week, the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., will get a letter signed by 1,800 young people asking them to implement the roadless initiative.”

Illyn finds much in the scripture that encourages Christians to be stewards of the earth rather than plunderers. Like a lot of eco-Christians, he has spent considerable time in the Word, hunting for verse that points to a more holistic approach to humanity’s relationship to the planet.

“I always tell people Jesus went into the wilderness for those 40 days, and if it was good enough for him, it must be good enough for us,” Illyn points out. With the verses collected, Illyn and his decidedly grassroots Targetearth, familiar with the affinity of the evangelical movement with bumper stickers, has created some of their own: “Your soul needs the wilderness. Luke 5:16.” “If you love the creator take care of creation.” “God’s original plan was to hang out in the garden with a bunch of naked vegetarians.” And a new take on the whole Darwin vs. The Christian fish controversy: A Darwin fish, the one that’s evolved with feet, inside the belly of the Jesus fish. The message written underneath: “Extinction is not Stewardship.”

“If you look at what scripture says, the message is clear,” Illyn says. “God created us in his image, and called it good. We have no right to destroy what God called good.”

Between two worlds: Artist Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose sits next to Rattlesnake Creek on a sunny afternoon, patiently and politely trying to answer some difficult and personal questions about what drew her back into the Christian faith. An artist and student in the University of Montana’s Wilderness and Civilization program, Rose chooses her words thoughtfully, as someone might who centers her life around the unlikely trio of art, wilderness and God. She met Targetearth founder Peter Illyn last spring, when he came to Missoula to speak at a church in town. She wound up stumping for the roadless initiative at outdoor Christian festivals for part of last summer, and backpacking in the North Cascades as part of her wilderness studies at the university as well.

“I had always called myself a Christian, but never really practiced it,” Rose recollects. “A few years ago, I was backpacking in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I was out for 10 days solo, smoking marijuana and really hating it. I was bored. I wondered what I was doing out there, and then I ran into this guy.” Rose pauses, ostensibly not wanting to sound like an evangelical at a revival giving her testimony. “We kept running into one another, you know? I’d be going eight miles, he’d not be sure where he was going, but we’d end up walking together for a time. I got to know him, and he started talking about how much he loved the wild places, how he’d been through some of the same things I was going through now, and how it had led him back to Christianity. It really made sense to me. I guess that was the time I started being a practicing Christian again.”

But for Rose, the story isn’t that simple. There is another reason for her self-consciousness, her caution in telling this story. It would make a good testimony at a revival. “That guy I met backpacking died about two months after I met him. He’s been gone almost two years now, almost to the day. The more I thought about him, and when I met him, the more I started to think he was placed in my life when he was for a reason. And that made me feel better about his death, I was OK with it.”

Rose is forthright about not having all the answers, especially in bridging the sometimes considerable gap between the frames of mind of her studies at the university and her faith. “I don’t know if what others believe about the afterlife, or about the spirit, is true, and I’m not sure if our time on the earth is just sort of practice for the afterlife or whatever,” Rose says in a casual tone. The mystery has given her lots of inspiration for painting, where the subject of death and the afterlife is a focal point. “I keep painting or drawing these figures that are resurrected but sort of caught between two worlds,” she says. “It’s weird, but I think struggling with the issue is good for my art.”

One area where Rose is more certain about her faith is the role her church should play in the community. " I think young Christians are less interested in the issues of faith that come up when you start talking about denominations, and more interested in getting out in the community and working on problems like the environment." As for what Rose sees herself doing as a career five years from now, she seems quite certain. " Something that combines, art, wilderness, and Christianity."

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