Rx for Excess

By Andy Crouch, Christianity Today

As our family sits together, eyes closed, we say grace. Today it’s Timothy’s turn. “God, thank you so much for all we have,” he begins in what turns into a typically prolix nine-year-old’s prayer. Eventually he is done—”in Jesus’ name, Amen”—and I turn the key. We have just filled up our car with gasoline.

Those of us who say grace at restaurants know the discomfort one feels bringing a visible expression of religious gratitude into a public place. I can testify that it’s stranger still in a gas station, where one becomes aware just how unprayerful the act of pumping gas normally is. Unlike a well-prepared meal, gasoline does not prompt gratitude unbidden. The stuff is smelly, dangerous, and not at all self-evidently good in itself. It is a means to my ends, juice for a momentary sense of power and control. It is surprisingly hard to remember to stop and say thanks before I pull out, a little too quickly, into traffic.

Yet, of course, thanks is due, if not overdue. I can reasonably expect that the food I eat today will

be replaced by a fresh crop next season. But the gallon of gas I burn today is gone for good (though it does leave behind 19 pounds of carbon dioxide for the biosphere to absorb). In this fleeting historical moment that will be remembered as the petroleum era, saying grace seems like the least we can do.

Sleeth, it seems to me, is the perfect missionary for the environmental cause to American evangelicals (indeed, he is now in great demand as a speaker to churches and colleges). Evangelicals trust doctors—many evangelicals are doctors. Doctors specialize in practical intelligence; evangelicals, no matter how intelligent, lean toward the pragmatic side. Sleeth’s bedside manner is perfect. He sees the symptoms of too much in our lives—the stress on the environment, on our families, and on our own bodies. He wisely does not prescribe quick fixes, but he does offer disciplines that could restore health. He does not dwell on grand global debates over climate change and overpopulation (though he has opinions on both, and shares them with his readers); he recognizes, in time-honored evangelical style, that the most important battleground for any social change is the human heart.

And Sleeth understands the value of symbolic practices—grace at the gas pump, compact fluorescent bulbs in the sockets, clothes on the line rather than in the dryer. Compared to the vast global structures that just today have gobbled up 80 million barrels of oil, any single family’s reduction of consumption seems pitifully small, however admirable. But the value of these small practices is the way they transform our vision—and Sleeth truly believes, as every Christian should, that repentance changes hearts. Fifty million Americans saying grace at the gas pump would not reduce America’s consumption of oil one bit. Or would it? Perhaps we should try it, and see.

Andy Crouch is editorial director of the Christian Vision Project and executive producer of the documentary series intersect|culture.