From the Garden to the Cross
Matthew Sleeth’s latest book walks among the trees of the Bible
In parking lots across my native Texas, it is the time of year where the priority shifts from store-proximity to shade. There, on the hot asphalt, we appreciate that a single tree can save us from a mini-inferno at the end of our shopping journey. But we may not always think as much about the role of trees in our journey to salvation. Matthew Sleeth has, though. His recent book Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us makes for a fine summer read — preferably under the shade of a good tree.
God’s ‘Organic Language’
If you are not familiar with the author, this slim volume is a good place to start. Sleeth shares much of his story of coming to faith in Jesus and then leaving his life as an emergency room physician to become something of doctor for God’s creation. In 2006, Sleeth penned Serve God, Save the Planet and the successful book helped to spawn a non-profit called Blessed Earth.
Reforesting Faith recycles Sleeth’s testimony in anecdotal asides as he leads us on an arboreal stroll through the Bible. We step from the Garden to the Ark to Abraham under the Oak of Mamre and on to Moses and the burning bush. We then consider prophets like Isaiah who saw trees clapping their hands in anticipation of a messiah who would come, work as a carpenter, call himself the vine, and redeem the world by being cursed on a tree. Finally, we are reminded that Paul exhorts us to bear the fruit of the Spirit and that Revelation ends the arc of salvation history with a tree of life in view.
Sleeth highlights the “organic language” of God and considers why the Creator has so directed our attention this way. He also laments that modern study Bibles seem to have clear cut trees from their pages, while earlier versions reveled in discussing them, even providing ornate full page illustrations. He worries that readers of scripture today are often missing the forest because they are missing the trees.
Caring for Creation as Believers
Certainly, one reason for the declining emphasis on trees in American Christianity is a fear of “treehuggers.” (With a wink, I sometimes describe myself as “Christian. Conservative. Treehugger.”) It is true that there are real issues with paganism in the modern environmental movement. Sin, however, is usually the perversion of the beautiful. It would be a great shame to miss some of the wonders of creation simply because we fear we might encounter some sinners in the forest. Sleeth writes, “Having a proper regard for trees is no more the slippery slope to idolatry than giving a bowl of rice to a starving child is a slippery slope to gluttony.”
Andy Crouch, a noted Christian author, describes Dr. Sleeth as “the perfect missionary to American evangelicals for the environmental cause.” That may well be true. With his interesting story — which also includes several years as a professional carpenter before this dyslexic student went to college and then medical school — and a winsomely quirky sense of humor, Sleeth is a non-threatening bridge for believers into the world of creation care.
For better or worse, Reforesting Faith avoids discussion of hot-button issues like climate change and focuses on personal, rather than political, action. While policies are important, there is certainly something to be said for a focus on the practical possibilities that are always before us. The world would likely be better off if we planted trees more and posted our outrage to social media less. So, I can agree with Crouch that Sleeth is a good guide to help Christians find trees again, and maybe even give them a hug. But even more importantly, it is clear that Sleeth wants treehuggers to find Christ.
Sleeth himself loved trees before he knew to love God. Paul reminds us in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans that creation was intended to serve this instructive purpose. Reading Sleeth’s book, one senses that the author still cares for those who only now know the love of trees. That is an attitude that all believers should have. Too often, though, we are tempted to approach environmentalists and others we see as political adversaries with contempt rather than compassion. Yet, for those willing to venture into the divine woods, Reforesting Faith is a fine book to read and share with a nature-loving friend who has not yet fully encountered the Maker of it all.
John Murdock is an attorney and a Senior Fellow with Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship.