catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 14 :: 2008.07.11 — 2008.07.25


Last topic standing

“Some places we’d kill everything just about, except the white pine.  But you know, now we kill pines.”

Kathy Dobie’s interviewee is talking about the Daniel Boone National Forest, where Dobie spent time exploring the nature of crime in the forest for Harper’s Magazine (July 2008).  What Dobie discovers is not encouraging.  On average in the Forest Service, there is one law officer for every 291,000 acres of land and for every 733,000 visitors.  In the Daniel Boone, historic archeological sites are routinely ransacked by haphazard campers and professionals alike.  Off-road vehicles damage soil, plants and wildlife when they stray from the paths, but there simply aren’t enough resources to monitor and enforce such incursions.  This damage is in addition to body-dumping, suicides, attempted murder and other incidents to which Forest Service law officers must respond.

And as the forest is being abused from the grassroots, it’s also equally, if not more, at risk from the top down.  The opening quote about white pine trees is from Johnny Faulkner, the last and endangered archaeological consultant for Daniel Boone’s 700,000 acres.  Faulkner and others are fully aware that the Forest Service does whatever the government wants to give it money to do.  Lately, there are two extremely well-funded programs.  One is a battlefront in the drug war, rooting out and destroying patches of marijuana, mostly through helicopter surveillance.  The other is burning 4,500 acres of forest a year to remove “fuel build-up” (with no requirement for studying the environmental or archeological impacts).  Wearing the noble mask of preventing forest fires, many wonder whether this initiative isn’t just a nod to the lumber industry which, under the same act that burns the forest, can log 1,000 acres.

Faulkner’s reference to the white pine is a reference to the routines of the 70s, when the Forest Service used chemicals to remove all trees that weren’t “crop” trees, like redbud, red maple and dogwood.  Because white pine grows quickly and can be harvested for timber, it wasn’t destroyed.  However, as Dobie writes, “when the pine-beetle epidemic swept the Southeast seven years ago, the Daniel Boone was devastated.  So much of the forest had been turned into a pine plantation that the beetles, as one resident put it, ‘just walked from one end of the forest to the other.’”

Reading Dobie’s extensive article with this issue of catapult in mind, I couldn’t help seeing the problems of the white pine as a metaphor for ideas in the Church.  A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine was lamenting the single-mindedness of the Church on certain issues.  The example he cited was the current obsession with homosexuality, a topic on which the Bible spends very few words, compared to our grave neglect of the problem of poverty, which receives thousands of verses’ worth of attention.  The idea that only a few black-and-white moral issues are at stake in contemporary society leads to the kind of rhetoric I saw in a recent e-mail forward that calls this November’s vote for U.S. President “the scariest election we as Christians have ever faced.”  This rhetoric is a symptom that the pine beetle has invaded our ideological forest, revealing how narrowly we’ve defined the implications of following Christ and how little we may actually believe in the promises of the resurrection.

Robert Roth writes in American Religious Philosophy:

What we ask from Christianity is not a narrow concern for personal salvation but a social ideal that will stir enthusiasm and gain our devotion.  Christianity must not give a warning to set one's face against this world but a vision of the worth and meaning of the work to be done in this life.

Another way of stating this idea might be that Jesus saves our souls, but also our cities and our households and our way of doing everyday life, which gives us a lot to care and talk about—certainly much more than contemporary hot button issues.  According to Derek Kidner, “for his neighbours' sake if for no other reason, the Christian should beware of becoming a person of so few earthly interests that he cannot sustain a conversation, let alone a friendship with anybody outside his religious circle” 
(The Christian and the Arts).  Kidner’s caution is applicable to individuals, but also to the Christian community as a whole, which is called to love what God loves and employ all kinds of gifts and passions in doing so.

We perpetuate poor conversations and dysfunctional relationships when we allow singular topics to obsess us to the point of worry and fear.  For example, too many denominations and churches have been born out of a dispute over one or two very specific issues as debates from head coverings to fraternal organization membership exercise their ability to trump love and discernment.  Good conversations and friendships “outside [our] religious circle,” on the other hand, are not achieved by watering down or burying our convictions, but by being both broadly and deeply studied in a variety of areas that we find interesting.  We should also maintain a posture of humility and curiosity toward those who know more than we do on a particular topic.  A healthy, diverse forest of ideas and interests rooted in the Kingdom provides a place for all kinds of life to thrive and resists devastating crises to thrive for many years—sounds like a good place to live in and care for, rather than escape.

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