A Christian defense against the Book, Wilderness and the American Mind.
“Their Bible contained all they needed to know in order to hate the wilderness.”
-Roderick Frazier Nash, in “Wilderness & the American Mind”
My Macedonian Call
When I first decided to devote my further education and ministry to creation care and environmental theology, I received the same reply from countless people: “Have you read Nash?” “Have you read Wilderness and the American Mind?” I had heard of the book. It was required reading for my friends majoring in Environmental Studies at the University of Maine, where I studied Wildlife Biology and Zoology. In writing this book, Nash has dramatically shaped America’s conception of itself, its past, and its beliefs.
It was not until a couple years later, though, that I realized why so many brought this book to my attention. A friend of mine- an environmental student- came to my lecture at the University of Maine’s Scholar’s Symposium in 2012. When it was over, she brought me her copy of Wilderness and the American Mind. “The things you just presented, about Christian theology on conservation and ecology” she said, “are diametrically opposed to what Nash has said about Christianity and conservation. Will you please read what he wrote tell me your thoughts on it?”
I began working through her copy of the book right away. Most of what was underlined in my friend’s copy were the anti-christian accusatory statements of Nash, with her own comments written in the margins like, “Really?” and “Even God worked against the wilderness?” Whatever Nash had hoped to achieve with the first few chapters of his book, he certainly succeeded in undermining my friend’s faith, and making it seem beyond question that Christianity was the cause of western civilization’s devaluation of wilderness.
I sat down with her over coffee and explained why so much of what Nash says about Christianity in this book is wrong. But I feel it would be good to voice my criticism of “Wilderness and the American Mind” to the world. For I am certain that there are many others who have been mislead by his assertions.
This was a well written and perfectly timed book, to ride the wave of American consciousness into ecological awareness. Sadly, however, Roderick Nash built his work on a very poor foundation. This foundation was an all out attack on Christian theology. And a theologian, Nash is not.
It has been popular, in recent decades, for westerners in general, and American Christians in particular, to exercise a self-deprecating, self flagellating masochism. In recent years, no one has come to hate the middle classed evangelicals as much as themselves. In this new vogue, the greatest praise always goes to those who criticize their roots. Certainly there is much there to criticize. But let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or,as my genetics professor was fond of saying, associating does not prove causation.
Syllogisms are rhetorical devices used in logical argumentation. Syllogisms consist of three parts: Two independent facts that, when joined, form a third concluding fact. An example of a proper syllogism would be:
All dogs are canines.
Fido is a dog.
Therefore, Fido is a canine.
But syllogisms can be used to form incorrect conclusions, or “Syllogism Fallacies,” as they are called. An example of a syllogism fallacy would be the following:
Some televisions are black and white.
Zebras are black and white.
Therefore, some zebra’s are televisions.
I know this is a ridiculous example. But I will suggest to my reader that Nash’s treatment of Christianity and wilderness, is as ridiculous a syllogism fallacy as our tv zebras.
Nash’s unspoken syllogism is;
“Early Americans were Christians.
Early American’s didn’t value Wilderness.
Therefore, early Americans didnt value wilderness because they were Christians. “
Nash lays the blame for past generations apathy and disdain for nature squarely at the feet of Christianity. I hoped to work my way through this faulty foundation to his book, and then enjoy the rest of the book (as Christians are often forced to do in all forms of media). This proved impossible however, as it was a recurrent theme throughout.
The premise upon which he establishes the entirety of his work is that European colonists saw the wilderness as their nemesis. Since European colonists were from “Christian cultures” he makes the brash assumption that it must follow that their disdain for the wilderness stemmed from their Christian theology. He then goes about cherry picking and misappropriating random and inapplicable passages of scripture to support his bias to the biblically illiterate.
BC: Before Christ
He begins by doing a good job establishing the psyche behind primitive and classical man’s angst against the wilderness. He points out that being pitted against the elements and the wild beasts would naturally engender ideas of what is “good” and “bad” in the primal mind.
He then goes on then to discuss the evil monsters that lurked in the wilderness of Greek mythology. Again, in his exposition on central and northern European mythology, he argues that- in essence- wilderness is a place of evil.
But I feel certain that a strong case can be made to the contrary in each case. For we know that druidism and even early Celtic Christianity, for example, was very nature-centric in its theology. But an exploration of classical mythologies are beyond the scope of this essay.
Soon enough, Nash’s crosshairs come to rest, and Judaeo-Christianity is the recipient of his primary arsenal.
His first error is in lumping the Old Testament words for desert and wasteland with the word wilderness. This would be forgivable if he did not know that these distinctions existed in the original language. But he tips his hand and reveals that he knows there are distinctions in these passages by saying, “in some cases the identical root” word is used. This statement, leads me to the sad conclusion that he has looked at the original language and the words used, but is counting on his reader’s biblical illiteracy. After setting this false premise, he can now use verses that use any of these words to call biblical theology into ecological question.
But before we go on to consider that very different words are translated “wilderness,” let us consider his statement that some of these words come from “the identical root.” Think of the ridiculousness of this when put into terms we all can understand. The words “kindness” and “unkind” have the same root. Do they not? And yet they do not mean the same thing, do they? In this way, he goes on to use biblical passages about rainless and desolate places as negative statements of wilderness when it is obviously speaking of desert. It is not that these places are evil, rather that they are inhospitable to human habitation.
“300 Words for Snow”
Allow me to set the record straight on the issue of Wilderness in the Christian Scriptures. Studies of the Sami people of the Scandinavian arctic have shown that they have nearly 300 different words for and snow and ice conditions. Why? Because it is where they live their daily lives. From the comfort of our modern climate controlled homes, we can lump it all in as snow, but to those who live and work in it, it is obvious that snow types are very different and can make travel easy or difficult, safe or hazardous.
Likewise, the people of biblical times lived in close proximity to “wilderness.” Hebrew scholars are clear that there is no Hebrew equivalent to our word, wilderness. Not because they were unfamiliar with it, but because the word is not descriptive enough to be of value to a people so intimately associated with it. They therefore had many words for various types of wilderness. The word wilderness itself appears nearly 300 times in the English Bible, and there are several Hebrew and Greek words that are translated into our English Bibles as “wilderness.” Let us look at a few.
The word “Midbar” means an uncultivated and uninhabited land that is good for grazing of domestic livestock alongside wild animals. But when it is translated into our Bibles, we only get the word, wilderness.
“Arabah” depicts a desert, but it is often translated into our Bibles as, “wilderness.”
The word “Yishimon,” translated as “wilderness” in our Bibles, would more be used to describe a land without any water for livestock and crops.
We also find the word “Eremos” translated wilderness in our Bible. This would literally translate to “an isolated place.”
On the flip side, this single word, Eremos, with some 48 occurrences in the New testament, is translated as desert, desolate, wilderness, open pasture, secluded, and unpopulated.
I point this out to show how reckless Nash’s treatment of this topic is. “He isn’t a Greek or Hebrew scholar. He was unaware of all these nuances!” you say? Precisely! He should not have based his work on a premise outside of his expertise, and lead so many astray with his poorly concealed hostility toward the faith of so many of his readers.
Nash’s Commentary on the Bible
In Judeo-Christian scriptures, “Even God changed the wilderness” Nash states disapprovingly. To illustrate, he references passages where God promises to open brooks, streams, and fountains into a now desolate and parched land. I understand and appreciate a desert ecology as much as the next naturalist, but if an “act of God” opens again the “floodgates” to allow water to restore life to a wilting ecosystem, how is this bad? Nash is really reaching in order to portray these passages as anything other than what they are: God restoring the ecology of a parched land. This “act of God” would not only serve to help humanity, but the plants and animals that also call the region home.
In the Bible the “Wilderness was the environment of Evil,” Nash preaches, “A kind of Hell.” He then seamlessly switches to references of what he calls “Hebraic folk imaginations” or Hebrew folk lore, not Hebrew scriptures, to illustrate his point: again, banking on his reader’s biblical ignorance. The unwitting reader would surely have been left with the idea that these ridiculous illustrations Nash sites are Biblical. The mythologies he sites are nowhere to be found in Judeo-Christian teaching, and yet these ancient and unknown folk tales are dredged up from the depths and presented as influential parts of the European colonists psyche. Then, without missing a beat, he throws out a scriptural reference as though he has been within the leather bindings of the Bible all along.
Next, his cavalier treatment of the scapegoat and theology of substitutionary atonement shows his true ignorance of the waters he has waded into so emphatically. Here, one will see that the words outside the quotation marks are far more directive than those within, and it becomes glaringly obvious that he has taken an eisegetical approach to Christian environmental theology.
In turning to the Garden of Eden story, Nash summarizes the Biblical narrative by wrongly paraphrasing that the trained and tame garden was paradise, while without was this evil desolate wilderness. Nash again is exposing His ignorance of Christian theology here. None of creation was evil. No place on the planet was “bad.” Sure, there was provision for man in the garden (and I’d like to see Nash make it through life without the benefits of a garden) but biblical teaching is that humanity’s later failure brought disorder to the created world. It was not Heaven within and Hell without. All the earth was as it should have been until the failings of man brought disorder. This is what the Bible teaches.
“God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the [a]sky and over every living thing that [b]moves on the earth.”
On this passage, Nash postulates that the scripture Genesis 1:28 made “the fate of the (American) wilderness plain.”
In the scripture Nash is citing, God tells Adam and Eve to have children and to establish dominion over the earth. Again, Nash’s careless (at best), deceptive (at worst) and cavalier handling of scripture banks on a Biblical illiteracy of his reader. And, sadly, he has this in his favor, as few Christians know their Bible well enough to defend the faith from such assertions.
I cannot speak for the colonists. I am certain that some unlearned amongst them had the misconception of the mandate God gave Adam and Eve that Nash is setting forth here. But I assure you that this interpretation of the passage is misguided.
In Nash’s application of Genesis 1:28, a discerning eye can see a few faults. The primary fault is that it shows an ignorance to the fact that Lucifer (now known as Satan) was first given dominion over this planet in the time period referred to as the preadamic earth (or “before Adam”), by scholars. Under Lucifer’s reign, the planet fell into disarray as a result of his rebellion against God. God set forth to recreate the earth, and to set humanity up as the new and righteous rulers of the planet. This is called the “gap theory” by theologians. And it is supported by the same verse. Notice that God instructs Adam and eve to replenish (to fill again something that has been depleted) the earth.
The word “subdue” is Kabash and literally means to conquer or tame. The first king (Satan) was still present in this world, with his fallen followers. Therefore, God was, in effect, coronating man as the rulers of the planet, knowing that there was a battle yet to be waged before that lordship would be exercised. Man must first take from Lucifer what he had destroyed in his tyranny.
The word translated here as “domain” is Radah. It is used nine times in the Old Testament, and every time it is used in a military sense of ruling over an enemy. As has been shown, and will be shown, it is Lucifer (the “king of this world” as Jesus called him in John 12:31) in the earth, that must be conquered in order for the earth to enjoy it’s reign of peace.
Now I know the notion of humanity having lordship over the planet, rather than merely being part of the mosaic of the planets ecology, is unpalatable to many of my fellow environmentalists. But I will here again state what I have stated elsewhere, that it would be willful ignorance not to acknowledge that the human race has the greatest ability to work good or evil upon this planet. What other species could wipe out entire species from the planet at will, or to rescue another species from extinction? No other species has had the ability to heal and destroy the entire planet as we. With this power, comes great responsibility. A responsibility we have failed in, as a race.
How are we to have dominion over the earth? Well, ultimately, we are only representatives, caretakers of our Kings property. “The Earth is the Lords and the fullness therefore”, after all! So we should apply this word” Radah” in the same way God does. How does he? That answer we discover in Psalms 72:8, 12-14 where the Psalmist proclaims that God will rule (Rabash) from sea to sea and from the rivers to the ends of the earth, not for the purpose of subjugation alone, but so that he can “save the needy” and “rescue the oppressed” for they are “precious in his sight.”
His conquest is not as man’s conquest. His is a conquest of Love, Grace and Compassion. And as his active agents in the world, our dominion of earth must also be a conquest of Love, Grace, and Compassion. If a king is benevolent, His reign is praised. If he is a tyrant, he is despised.
“…creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” (Romans 8:21-22)
Moving to the Biblical Exodus narrative, Nash is forced to acknowledge that the wilderness served as a refuge from oppressive society and offered one the opportunity to draw closer to God. He discredits this though, by again superimposing his bias and saying that “ there was no fondness in the Hebraic tradition for the wilderness itself.” Has this man never read the Bible? As one who has spent his life studying it, I can testify that anyone who has would not come to Nash’s conclusion, unless it was their preconceived notion.
The fact of the matter is, as Nash is forced to concede, the Bible does offer the wilderness as a place of refuge and renewal, not an abode of evil. Those who withdrew themselves into the wilderness to become closer to God and to see His purpose for their lives reads like the “who’s who” of the Bible. Nash would have us believe that it was only the solitude they sought in wilderness. But this is not true. For solitude can be had within ones inner chamber of behind closed doors. No. The prophets of old withdrew themselves into the wilderness to be enveloped by the direct works of God’s hand. To remove oneself from a chair that a man built in a house that a man built protected from the elements and warmed by the hearth fire a man built, and to go out into the climate God controls, in the house God built and sit upon the chair of moss or stone that God has hewn, is to be nearer to God, not to be in the abode of evil. This, is the teaching of Christianity. “For from Him, through Him, to Him, are all things.” (Romans 11:36)
Following this, Nash gives us examples of early Christian saints, prophets and teachers living in wilderness, loving wilderness, and advocating for wilderness, but insists to His readers that these pillars of our faith are outliers, exceptions. No, sir! Mr. Nash. They are the rule and not the exception; no matter how much damage this truth does to your thesis.
If the bias of Nash is not apparent to the reader by now, it soon will be. For Nash spends 8 pages proposing that Christianity is not a friend of the planet, and then he follows with only two pages of discourse on three other major world religions. Of course, Nash gives as poor support for his resounding praise of their theology as he has supported his disdain of Christianity. No fair, balanced and informed mind could read this and for a moment pretend Nash is even attempting an objective review of Christian theology.
Buddhism and Hinduism “emphasizes compassion for all living things” Nash lauds. “Chinese…sought out wild places in the hopes of sensing more clearly,,,the unity and rythem they believed pervaded all the universe.”
Dear reader, do not be fooled by his blatant bias. All of the aforementioned praises of other religions can readily and easily be shown factually to be true of Christianity! From Saint Basil to Stain Francis, who preached to the animals as equals to humans, to the Celtic Christian monks that stood in the icy north Atlantic waves as part of their meditations, so that they can be in unison with the rhythms of nature. And further back to those within the Bible that were protected by nature, and the prophets that were fed by the benevolence of the wild animals God used to sustain them. No, dear friends, the writer of Wilderness and the American Mind is on a mission to unfairly and deceitfully undermine the true Christian world view.
Nash gives one very long paragraph to describing a Chinese painters comments on man’s connectedness with nature and landscape. Although No such flattering grace is extended to the voluminous passages in Christian scripture, tradition and history on the same subject. Nash’s criticism of Christianity is four times as long as his praise for the other three world religions. So great is the wealth of pro- nature Christian teaching, and so little negative, that it must surely have been a concerted effort of an anti-Christian mind to have formulated the conclusions here presented. And the use of such sparse evidences as an Chinese artists comments to show the affection of nature in other traditions, this apologia demanded to be written.
If we had not been certain of Nash’s motives throughout the first chapter of his book, any doubt is erased in its conclusion, where he states emphatically that, “freed from the combined weight of classicism, Judeism and Christianity, eastern cultures did not fear or abhor wilderness. Nor did they feel the conflict between religion and appreciation of natural beauty…”
To this I must come to the conclusion that Nash himself is ignorant of Judeo-Christian theology. That he is a product of a generation of self deprecating westerners that so naively buy into the notion that the West has always had it all wrong, and the East has had it so right, that we must detest what we are and love what we are not.
As a Christian reader with a passion for wilderness, I felt relieved when I finally reached the end of His opening chapter. Taking a deep breath, I thought, “now I can enjoy the rest of the book’s offerings.” Those hopes were dashed, however, when I discovered that he picks up the antichristian theme again, just seven pages later.
Because of Christianity, Not despite it
I think Nash hit on the reality of the problem in chapter three and would have done well to have begun from the position he postulates there. The fact is that urbanites can appreciate wild beauty in the natural world, more easily than those pioneers who have to struggle with it to eke out a living from day to day.
Like a maiden taking pleasure in coddling an infant before returning the child to it’s mother when it screams for a diaper change; urban people can more easily romanticize the often savage realities of true nature and return to the comfort of their homes when it no longer suits their notions.
Pioneers felt the bite of the cold, the bite of the serpent, the squelching heat, the effects of drought on their crops, the effects of floods in their fields. So it would be far more difficult for those early settlers to romanticize the infant they loved, yet daily labored over. Like a sleep deprived mother in the dead of night hearing her screaming child awaken yet again; nature was not loved less, but not romanticized so much.
And so it was from those comfortable at their hearth, that Ameica begins its love affair with the wild as Nash rightly points out. But, again, Nash shows his bias by ignoring what seems to be glaringly obvious. It is the Christian community that begins the groundswell of praise for the American wilderness.
Men like Thaddeus Mason Harris, an 1805 Harvard educated minister that wrote, “There is something which impresses the mind with awe in the shade of silence of these vast forests. In the deep solitude. Alone with nature, where we converse with God.”
Men like Jeremy Belkin, a congregational minister who wrote of the New Hampshire White Mountains in 1784, “Almost everything in nature. Which can be supposed capable of inspiring ideas of the sublime and beautiful is here realized.” And went on to write, “the sublime in nature captivates while it awes, and charms while It elevates and expands the soul.
The truth is that America’s environmental consciousness springs from the Christians faith. Most of the early American nature writers and explorers were clergymen or devout Christians; many of which Nash cites in his early chapters!
Far from finding nature the abode of evil, these early Christian Americans saw it as a place of great inspiration! Consider the words of Charles Landham with me, when he wrote in 1846, “Those glorious forests, the home of solitude and silence, where I was want to be so happy alone with my God.”
Somehow Nash cites these men, with a straight face, hoping we will not make the connection! These men, and many others, sang the praises of nature because of their Christian faith, not despite it.
Theology in The Geography
The father of the American conservation movement, John Muir, said that nature is God’s first Temple, and to that I would add that, (according to the teachings of Scripture) wilderness is God’s first Book.
“The things of God are clearly seen by the things He has made…” (Romans 1:20)
“The devil is there in the wilderness” you say? Yes, but the Spirit of God, the voice of God, is there as well! The wilderness in the Bible represented all things intense. It was the place for intense experience, as it is today. Hunger, thirst, isolation, divine deliverance, renewal, self discovery and close encounters with God. According to scripture, these things seem to be facilitated by the natural environment. Theology itself is obtained in the geography of the wilderness, we discover in Scripture. At every critical juncture in the life of Jesus, you could find him in the Wilderness. The Spirit of God Speaks in the wilderness (Luke 3:2-4). The Revelations of Jesus came to John the revelator, when he was called out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God (Revelation 17:3, 21:10). John the Baptist was “the voice of one in the wilderness calling prepare you the way of the Lord.”
The Psalmist David removes all doubt as to the value, not only of cultivated land, but of wilderness, in Psalm 65:9-13 where he paints the picture of God, as though he is a benevolent gardener, tending to the entirety of the earth as his garden. There the psalmist says God waters the land and fills the streams with water, not only to give man grain and bless crops, but also to cause the wilderness and grasslands to overflow and with bounty and to be clothed in joy.
God used the wilderness to purify and test and strengthen His people, to develop their dependence on him as we see in Ezekiel 20:34-36, where he tells the people that he will call them too, out of the cities and into the wilderness, like he did their forefathers.
The conclusion, when all has been heard…
God chose, in His sovereignty to culminate the teachings of the Bible with the book entitled the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” The only book of prophecy found in the New Testament, it is only here that we get a glimpse of what God intends His church’s relationship to be with wilderness. As I have already pointed out, this Revelation came to the Apostle John when the Spirit called him into the wilderness, but the greatest glimpse of Christian environmental theology is also here exposed.
In chapter 12 of Revelation we read of a pregnant woman clothed in the sun. She is a symbol of the bride of Christ- the church. A fiery dragon (Satan) draws a third of the stars of heaven (angels) with his tail. But this dragon knew the child being born would take His place as the “king of this world” so he sought to destroy the woman and her child. But the eagle gave her wings and she fled into the wilderness to be protected from evil. Please hear me reader, she did not run from the wilderness to the tamed cities, but ran from the cities into the protective arms of the wilderness. When the dragon discovered she was in the wilderness, he issues forth persecution like a flood of water against her and her child. It is here that we see the most amazing thing (and the most damaging to Nash’s narrative). The roles are reversed, and instead of the woman protecting the earth, the wilderness, rises up against the evils of Satan in the woman’s defense.
Far from being our adversary, we have been given stewardship over earths fragile beauty. And like those stewards in the parable of Jesus, we will be judged by how well we have cared for what God has entrusted us with. According to the Bible, All the earth groans under the weight of man’s sin. Longing for the day it will be partaker of the rebirth of the sons of God. And in our day, the earth is suffering the birth pains to bring this about (Romans 8:22). And someday, at the end of this age, when humanity is in its darkest hour, that which we have protected, will rise up as our protector. Like subjects willfully taking up arms in defense of their beloved king, Nature will come to the defense of those who have reigned tenderly over her.
Whether you buy into the prophecies of Scripture or no, it must be acknowledged that this is the teaching of Scripture. This is the teaching of Christianity.