(Photo: Allen Johnson)
"The Endangered Species Act is our Noah's Ark and Congress and special interests are trying to sink it!"
Cal DeWitt's angry words vaulted into the New York Times, triggering a conservative Christian countermovement that led to derailing a congressional bill to kill the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that had been signed into law by President Nixon two decades earlier.
In early 1996, DeWitt was a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. As a boy growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, DeWitt had been steeped in the teachings of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). He had also spent his childhood roaming his surrounding woods, fields, and wetlands.
The CRC holds to the Belgic Confession, which begins asserting that God is wise, just, and good, and who reveals Himself mainly through two means: "First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God…" Second, "God makes himself known to us more clearly
by his holy and divine Word [Bible]." These two books of revelation became DeWitt's life and witness.
Republican leadership sailed into a majority in the House of Representatives in 1994 with a promise-laden "Contract with America." By 1996, House Speaker Newt Gingrich had laid the framework for bipartisan legislation that would loosen regulations defining endangered species, protection of their habitats, and restrictions on land development.
The mild-mannered DeWitt led a coalition of Christians organized by the Evangelical Environmental Network to Washington. Speaking at a press conference with an endangered Florida Panther and a Bald Eagle, the group continued pressing the Endangered Species Act as "today's Noah's Ark." They organized letter writing campaigns and call-ins. I remember calling my congressional office to be told that, "Your congressman is voting to uphold the Endangered Species Act. It is our 'Noah's Ark.'" Realizing that an important component of their base, namely conservative Christians, was favoring the continuance of the Endangered Species Act, Gingrich quietly withdrew the legislation.
Darren Aronofsky's forthcoming film, Noah, is heating up dialogue prior to its March 28th release. In a recent post on Lifeway Research president Ed Stetzer's blog by Jerry Johnson, President of the National Religious Broadcasters, "Noah [the film] gets Noah [the biblical figure] wrong, gets the environment wrong, gets evolution wrong, gets angelology wrong, and gets some biblical details wrong."
In another piece in Christian Post, Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, director of Azusa Pacific University's Story Institute, chastises "…Aronofsky for using the Bible as fodder for his personal crusades of over-population and environmentalism."
I'm not sure what Harrington means by "environmentalism." Would it be a distortion to extrapolate into the Noah's Ark story contemporary efforts to preserve animal species? Opponents of the ESA often dismiss rare, obscure species, such as the Snail Darter fish, for thwarting human infrastructure projects. On the other hand, environmentalists might counter that The Ark preserved at least a pair of each land and flying animal provisoned with food for their future reestablishment on Earth.
An anthropocentric view holds that Creation is privileged and subservient for the benefit of humankind. A biocentric view positions natural ecosystems as preeminent over human desires. Christians can avoid either of these positions in favor of a theocentric view in which Creation exists for the pleasure and purpose of Creator God who appoints humanity to nurture and protect God's handiwork, derivatively to enjoy and live from creation's continued fruitfulness, and to stay within God's appointed boundary to not presume "god status" (Genesis 2:15-17). One might ask which of these views Noah held?
It may well be that Aronofsky distorts the Genesis message by inserting his ideological prejudices into his "Noah" film. Filmgoers, also colored by their own ideological and theological presuppositions, can decide. I'm glad that Noah will be graduate from a children's Sunday School story to an adult conversation piece. Yet I hope the conversation goes beyond debate on the film's accountability to scripture and the invariable spinoff arguments over literal interpretation. The biblical account of Noah is rich with theological meaning and application, which should not be lost sight of in arguments such as how all the animals and their food could fit on the Ark.
I will mention in conclusion, yet with great emphasis, that increasing numbers of plant and animal species are passing into the forever night of extinction. Habitat destruction, overharvesting, and invasive species vectored through human agency are blasting holes in Noah's Ark. The consequences of human sin and hubris are consequential to all of creation. During the 1996 battle to save the Endangered Species Act, Cal DeWitt challenged Christians. "Where are the Noahs? Where are the courses and curricula in ark-building? The whole creation is standing on tippy toes, waiting…!"