Friday, November 10, 2006

Book Review on Sleeth’s SERVE GOD, SAVE THE PLANET by Kevin Stoda

Recently, I finished J. Matthew Sleeth’s (M.D.) Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action(Chelsea Green Publisher). On the one hand, it is an epistle to Christians and others in America concerned with the quality of humanity now threatened by modern adverse trends in consumption and lifestyles--stoked by run-away Madison Avenue oriented economic theory and other misguided thinking. He also targets those who mistakenly abuse the study of scripture to condone America’s great consumption of global natural resources. Interestingly, Sleeth does this from a firm evangelical Christian perspective Finally, the book is also fairly practical and provides tips as well as a lifelong methodology for individuals and families to benchmark, measure and change their energy consumption practices in order to both serve God and save the planet.

I must admit that Dr. Sleeth’s literary effort reminded me of my college years living in a Mennonite community in Kansas. I recall in those days reading and using Mennonite cookbooks, like Living More with Less, and other self-health books from Christian authors concerned with living simply and living lives that empower others around the globe. This was during the early 1980s when the seedy side of Christian evangelism had begun to raise its head as media manipulators and as political leviathans. In short, Anabaptist doctrine which had spawned great non-violent fellowships around the global provided an antidote to the mainstream Christianity dominating TV and radio. As I continued to read Sleeth’s focus on stewardship, I thought also of the path of socially responsible investing in which I have been involved in with Mennonite Mutual Aid over the last two decades.

Sleeth is not a Mennonite but he reminds me of many of both the best liberal and best conservative branches of Mennonite traditions on stewardship. The idea of a good leader being a great steward was something the Anabaptist tradition of social conservative leadership had spawned in Europe, the U.S. and Canada over the past few centuries.

In his book, Dr. Sleeth tells of his personal journey as an emergency room physician and administrator who has gained an ever growing joy as over the past decade he moved from the stage in his life where he was: (1) simply uneasy with the failures of the modern world to solve man’s problems and help the majority of the world’s peoples to the stage where he had begun to (2) more fully apply the Biblical lessons of discipline, responsibility, simplicity, and stewardship in order to reduce and avoid further growing national and international calamities in the coming century.


By the late 1990s, Dr. Sleeth, who had been working for over a decade in emergency rooms in the United States, came to understand that something was horribly wrong with the American Dream. The physician had noted that peoples in America were increasingly suffering with asthma, varieties of chronic diseases and cancers. He and his family finally turned to their religious faith for guidance and studied the various growing pathologies. Quickly, the doctor and his wife determined that the earth and its habitants are all in trouble.

This is why Sleeth and other Christians-who-care are beginning to build a new movement in the U.S.A to change how Americans and other concerned world citizens live. He does this by explaining how households can reduce and reign in their material consumption levels and make greater differences—while living ever more positive and rewarding lives. For example, by conserving the family’s expenditures on energy and other needless consumption, the good doctor and his family are able to go to third-world countries and volunteer their medical know-how for more than a month each year

Dr. Sleeth’s narration is developed from various perspectives, e.g. from his perspective as consumer, his experience as a parent, his work as a doctor, his attempts to live out his Christian faith, as an American who recognizes the role Americans play on this planet, and as an international development worker.

For example, as a Christian, parent and as a consumer, Sleeth looks at the story of Jacob and Esau. In his narration, Sleeth paints Jacob as a modern day Madison-Avenue-type who can get his identified customer to buy into anything has to offer. Meanwhile, Esau is painted as a “”now- or “me”oriented teenager who cannot think past his own hunger, desires, or drives. In short, he is like many adolescents. Naturally, under such manipulative conditions, there should be little wonder that Esau is persuaded quickly sign over his “birth-right” for a great bowel of stew. In short, how Americans raise their children and permit them to be conditioned to respond to the world of advertising is facet of a very important process for both serving and saving the planet.

Similarly, using other multiple perspectives, Dr. Sleeth points out to American evangelicals that they must seriously begin talking about birth control and recognize the fact that modern scientific practices for centuries have been manipulating the life and death expectancy of the world’s population. This recognition of man’s ability to manipulate life and death means that as we Americans prolong lives and as the U.S. national population (not-to-mention the global population) grows both larger and older the world’s resources are going to be strained more and more. This straight-talking to evangelical and pro-life readers is particularly timely as the third-largest nation on the globe, i.e. the United States of America, has just passed the 300 million population mark.

Dr. Sleeth makes clear to readers that Americans, especially American Christians, have a responsibility to the entire planet Earth and its inhabitants to significantly reduce their per-capita average energy consumption level. Interestingly, this matter appears to be an-idea-whose-time-has come in America. This current great progress in this growing national paradigm is exemplified by the tremendous concern that more and more average Americans reveal as global warming gases, often produced by man, are being released into the environment each year. Many see this as a national threat on par with terrorism.


In short, Americans as a whole have shown more political and social concern about business-as-usual in terms of energy production and consumption in the U.S. than have government leaders—who under the Bush Administration are very far behind the curve in showing real concern and failing to demand sufficient action at a national level.

In the U.S. Dr. Sleeth is at the forefront of the Creation Care movement. With his book, Sleeth is trying to get evangelicals more and more involved in caring for the planet and being responsible stewards by reducing consumption and by acting as positive role models for children as well as for other adults. He ends his writing by asking the reader to do an energy audit and provides a checklist for doing something. He follows this checklist with an appendix that provides individual tips of his concerning mundane but important items, such as appliances, room lighting, and other facets of consumption.

Sadly, here is where Dr. Sleeth’s book is weak. Quite obviously, a more complete list of ideas would have been much more useful. He certainly should have provided lists of websites that promote better lifestyles. There have certainly been other Christians at the forefront of this sort of responsibility and social awareness campaign for over a century in America. He could have mentioned the various institutes and Christian voluntary organizations that support an promote lifestyle shifts in ways that reduce man’s negative global footprints, e.g. reducing the production toxic chemicals (like red dyes), creating less waste, promoting alternatives to the heavy usage of chemicals and fertilizers in agriculture, etc.

In light of this weakness in an other wise great book, I recommend that you look at some of the following websites from Mennonites and other Christians wanting to making more positive Christian stewardship model for others to follow. Here are some of those websites, including the Koinania Partners and the Land Institute.

Suggested resources are as follows:

Alternative Simple Living,

Koinania Community,

The Land Institute,

Brethren Witness,

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