Reviewed by Andy Patton
Flourish magazine, Fall 2010
Jonathan Ingleby thinks you should be worried. Very worried.
In his book, Christians and Catastrophe (Wide Margin Books, 2010), Ingleby argues that the world is headed for disaster, and states that careful students of modern history and the Bible should be convinced that we live in a historical moment when life is poised on a precipice: “everything can be lost, but also everything can be saved.”
The book—really a slim booklet—opens with the establishment of what one might call a hermeneutic of paranoia. The world, because of numerous factors including globalization, abuse of the environment, and insufficient political and economic structures, is headed for an implosion. Ingleby does not predict which of these will be the ultimate culprit in the great global catastrophe, but he asserts that with so many things going wrong, something has to give. To Ingleby, the best way to stave off disaster is to accept it as certain fact, which perspective will mobilize us to take action against it. The surest path to safety may be to see disaster in every nook and cranny of current events. According to him this is not paranoia, but foresight and impetus for action.
In this vein, the book tackles two great evils: ignorance and apathy. Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality, writes about the difficulty of getting people to care about big issues: “It turns out thinking and feeling are incompatible. When you get people to feel, we care and are willing to take action, but when we get people to think they basically become selfish, not willing to give.”
Ingleby steps into that deficit of knowledge and action in the prophetic tradition of the Jeremiad, seeking to wake the reader from complacency with his certainty of global catastrophe. He claims that great masses of people are, “just keeping their heads down and hoping the trouble will pass.” If nothing else, after turning the last page of this book the reader is left with an ominous sense that, if the church and society-at-large do not rouse themselves to make needed changes, catastrophe will surely overtake us.
What form will disaster take? Standing chief among the list of villains is catastrophic climate change. Ingleby is convinced that the “environmental crisis which is now upon us will be felt first and most profoundly by the Global South … and that the West, who are largely responsible for the crisis, must be prepared to sacrifice.” The book paints a picture of a world grown top-heavy and rotten—with globalization, capitalism, and a host of other “-isms”—and poised to collapse, with the destruction of the environment being one of the most imminent and catastrophic consequences of that collapse.
What can be done about such disaster? Ingleby, in broad brush strokes, throws out a few ideas peppered with his own political views: “[The answer] prescribes socialism rather than capitalism, distribution instead of growth, local solutions rather than global ones, limits rather than excess, regulation instead of deregulation, cooperation instead of competition, instruments of production instead of weapons of war, and so on.”
As the title indicates, the book also has a bent toward what Christians in particular might do. Ingleby proposes an alliance between the church and the environmental movement. He briefly references “green churches” that are doing their best to convince people there is “another way of living beyond their wasteful and destructive lifestyles…” Toward the end of the book he points out that churches should be communities seeking to heal the world’s wounds before the earth dies of them. However, how and why the church might have an interest in this earth, outside of the fact of mere survival, is a question largely left untouched.
Ingleby sets before himself the tremendous task of changing the world, or at least changing enough minds to avert the coming disaster. The ambition of changing hearts and minds inevitably raises the question: How are hearts and minds changed? Essentially, there are two ways: the negative and the positive. Ingleby’s slim volume chooses the former rather than the latter and is the weaker for it.
The world and the church will always need Jeremiahs, prophets who show rot and wrongdoing for what they are and who warn of disaster waiting at the end of the present course. But if there is to be lasting change in the world, we need so much more than that. We need to be given a vivid and concrete vision of another, better world, and we need to be shown how to get there. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it has its limitations.
The weakness of Christians and Catastrophe is an over-emphasis on the doom earth is heading toward and a lack of specificity about the solutions. On the one hand, Ingleby sketches possible solutions, as mentioned above, but does not go into sufficient detail to carry the reader fully across the threshold from ignorance and apathy to activism. On the other, even for those solutions he proposes, Ingleby neglects the spiritual resources of Christian theology that lead the church to care for creation and to steward the earth with wisdom and zeal.
The church needs to be woken up to the present challenges facing the world, but it does not only need awakening. It also needs teaching.
In fact, thinking and action are not incompatible. As Francis Schaeffer wrote in Pollution and the Death of Man, “Men do what they think.” Both bare emotion and bare activism can go wrong. What the church feels and what the church does as a result from what the church believes. To return to Ingleby’s thought experiment, if we project ourselves into the post-catastrophe future, it is a fallacy to ask ourselves the question, “What should we have done differently?” without asking, “What should we have believed differently?” If there has been a deficit in the church’s actions in working to set right the problems facing us, it is because there was first a deficit in teaching. The church will not live up to its calling to cause the earth to flourish until that more fundamental wrong is set right.
Christian teaching must tell the story of a God who is radically committed to his creation, who is intimately involved in sustaining the earth at every moment, and who has given humankind the charge to take care of it and cause it to thrive. Ingleby could have shown the reader that earth is a product of God’s mind and the object of his care, impelling us to care for it lest in destroying the earth we efface God’s image. Ingleby could have shown the reader that God set humankind in a garden and told us to cultivate it, impelling us to work toward its flourishing. This kind of theology sets the church on a radically different trajectory than the ignorance and apathy that Ingleby rightly warns against. However, the church will also need a more nuanced articulation of God’s commitment to his creation and our respective calling to steward it well than Ingleby offers here.
The scope of Christians and Catastrophe is too large for the book’s slight size. In the end, Ingleby touches too briefly on solutions to give some concrete work for the church to do, and too briefly on the problem to be left with anything more defined than an ominous sense of a shadow looming, a vague and formless dread.