Want to hear a secret most of us know but rarely admit? The good life in modern society really isn’t so good. In fact, these days it often feels exhausting. Frantic. Broken. Headed for a cliff. Actually, why is it called “the good life” when it’s so often a stress-inducing, resource-hogging, soul-deadening, never-ending pursuit of more? What once was good—personal advancement, increased consumer choices, and technological progress—has gone haywire. For all its glittering perks, the current version of “the good life” often feels suffocating: to ourselves, other people, and the planet.
Millions of us know we are shackled to earth-ruining, life-sucking systems—like an economy based on producing plastics, burning coal, driving cars, and ripping resources out of the ground. Because we depend upon these systems, we act in ways we know are not best for ourselves and the wondrous planet we depend upon. Fast food, cheap oil, chronic debt, and constant pressure are only some of the slippery cultural cages that hold us captive. Bottom line: We’ve been constrained and colonized by corporations. We’ve become their tamed and well-fed pets. And we willingly let it happen, every day, through the choices we continue to make. I know I do. We let our very identities be domesticated by a dominant and destructive consumer culture.
Enough is enough. Our authentic selves, our awaiting children, and our aching planet need us to find a better path. It’s time to break from dominant culture to become the free and untamed people God has always wanted us to be. Many of us are waking up to realize our current version of the American Way—a path of strength, superiority, and self-centeredness—is often opposed to the Jesus Way. We’re also seeing that what has become the modern “American Dream”—ensuring personal privilege by raiding the commonwealth of the planet—is not nearly as satisfying or significant as God’s dream. Millions of folks seeking to follow the way of Jesus in the shadow of modern culture are—in ways both small and large—defecting from business as usual. We’re beginning to ask: what kind of a better “good life” can we embody in today’s times—one that is better for us and our world?
Making a Break
Fifteen years ago, my wife and I acted on that question. What kind of a better “good life” did we embody? We moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, into a little adobe house, heated by a wood-burning stove, high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Taos. There we raised our son, ran a summer camp, and started an innovative public school that uses the surrounding farm and wilderness as its classroom. We dove headlong into transformative work with youth and the task of reinventing public education. It was an amazing life, full of close friendships, meaningful labor, inspiring breakthroughs, and incredible natural settings. It was also exhausting. For those ten years we worked extremely hard with little time for anything else, which meant we were still deeply engaged in the American Way, purchasing and consuming and throwing away far more stuff than any generation before us.
Five years ago, we made another significant shift. We decided to engage deeper with our watershed in our search for a better practice of the good life. We reduced our work demands a bit and relocated into a yurt we built in our backyard. With some like-minded friends we milk goats, shear sheep, plant trees, catch water, and try to grow a lot of our food in the high desert. More than once we have been called “feral.” Once a citified visitor from Philadelphia giggled in awe when she entered our thirty-foot diameter yurt, and she immediately started snapping photos. She simply couldn’t believe we use a composting toilet and carry water by hand in buckets, like millions of people across the world.
If you’re daunted by our example, don’t be. We’re pretenders. Yes, we’ve cultivated a slightly parallel existence, but don’t be fooled: we’re still solidly embedded in American consumer culture. My family has a laptop per person, too many cars, a cappuccino maker, cell phones and a voracious appetite for Netflix. We daily take our son to soccer practice in a Prius and monthly drive a hundred miles to shop at the nearest Trader Joe’s. Though we dabble with homesteading in the high desert, we’re still embedded in the economy of empire, deeply conforming to the system.
Like us, you too might be deeply enmeshed in the very systems we need to transform. Lucky for us, we follow a God of mercy who ever invites us to take another step deeper into the Way. As the poet Rumi invites: “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”[i] Our wildly loving and extravagantly forgiving God knows our inconsistent hearts, and asks us to take another stumbling step into the Kingdom. But I’m not going to lie: we’ve got some creative and courageous work ahead of us. For modern affluent Christians, our task is clear: it’s time to reinvent our current American Way so we can better follow the Jesus Way. It is time to rewild our Way.
Rewilding Biology, Rewilding Spirituality
Rewilding is a concept I’ve borrowed from conservation biology to name the system-changing, ecologically-grounded spirituality Christians need to embody in our times. In biological terms, rewilding means just what it sounds like: a scientific vision to bring our ecosystems back to a wilder state, at a scale previously unimagined. Ecological rewilding—as a guiding vision—has become the ultimate weapon in the fight against fragmentation over the last two decades, as a coherent way to design, connect, and revitalize protected areas.[ii] Since the late 1990s, extraordinary steps to “rewild the world” have been taken across the globe. Countries have rallied to place vast amounts of land under protection. Geographical “megalinkages” have been restored, throughout and in between vast continents. These restored megalinkages—massive, international land corridors linking core wilderness areas—once again allow apex predators and keystone species to migrate and flourish, which then improves health for the entire bioregion.[iii]
Rewilding the Jesus Way
So how can rewilding inform the Jesus Way? Ecological rewilding resurrects natural vitality within ecosystems that have been overly controlled, manipulated, and domesticated. I want spiritual rewilding to do the same for the Way of Jesus: resurrect its original vitality after being, for far too long, alienated from Earth and manipulated by corporate industrial culture. Many Christians like me live too easily in this time of unprecedented environmental and economic precariousness. We’ve become like domestic housepets, tamed by the twin masters of nonstop technology and comfy consumerism. How we who follow the Way of Jesus choose to act right now—in this “watershed moment” of history—matters more than ever. We need to rewild our Way, and restore our own “megalinkages” between a God-filled heaven and a God-filled earth, between following Jesus and doing justice, between sacred belief and transformative praxis.
A Look Ahead
Do you love Jesus, but you’re leery of what institutional Christianity has become? Me too. Are you eager to redirect a consumer-frenzied culture gone terribly awry? So am I. Ready to become the earth-honoring, untamed people God yearns for us to be? Then let’s get going.
My new book Rewilding the Way, coming out in September 2015, is an unapologetic rallying cry to revive a Christianity that has become terribly tame. Can today’s cozy Christians become the countercultural prophets God aches for to be? Will we repent—turn around to God—and be able to vitally embody the subversive and transformative lifeway that Jesus practiced and offered? Raised in our over-civilized and ecocidal society, what traits must we rediscover to be partners in God’s plan, so that instead of being anxious foot-draggers and bland bystanders we can be salt, light, and leaven in a future where God mightily uses our gifts?
Over the next six months, I’ll be blogging about these questions. I’ll be writing about our current predicament and our incredible potential as children of God, and the wilderness testing that has always been God’s way to craft a transformed people. I’ll be writing about how we might become deeper allies of God: more love-spreading, culture-defying, fear-abolishing, earth-honoring followers of the Jesus Way. And I’ll be writing about some of the highlights I see in our society today: some of the Spirit-filled cultural initiatives and social movements that are already shifting our society toward a positive future in an uncertain time.
Read on, if you are willing to be transformed and become one who transforms. The road is long and there are no maps. Together we have a journey of doing and undoing to begin. Remember that we follow a ferociously loving and fantastically living God, whose unbound Spirit is always present and active, ready to lead us even in the most troubling of times.
May the wild return.
[i] Faith Citlak and Huseyin Bingul, Rumi and His Sufi Path of Love (Somerset, NJ: Tughra Books, 2007), 81.
[ii] Caroline Fraser, Rewilding the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, Harry Holt & Co, 2009), 8–9.
[iii] Ibid. 10. Fraser reports: Only one thousand protected areas existed in 1962, representing 3 percent of the earth’s surface. Now there are over 100,000 protected areas worldwide, expanding conservation to more than 12 percent.