My friend Dean Ohlman is a Christian nature writer and photographer, and host of the RBC Ministries blog site The Wonder of Creation, the publisher of Our Daily Bread devotional. Dean is a prolific writer on the topics of the theology of nature, environmental stewardship, and the joys of celebrating the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
I met Dean Ohlman when I was the community manager for SustainLane Creation Care. In, 2009, Dean was a regularly featured contributor. Dean recently shared some of his personal history with me – his Christian upbringing, life experiences and spiritual journey, which led him to discover what he refers to as “The Lost Fundamental”. This is Dean Ohlman’s story and, true to his faith and calling, a challenging, yet encouraging message from scripture regarding God’s mandate that we take responsibility for caring for His creation.
Finding the Lost Fundamental
I grew up with the Baptist, premillennial, dispensational mindset. Vivid in my memory are numerous Sunday evenings when prophetic speakers, supported by massive charts that spread across the entire platform, electrified us with predictions about the soon-coming Rapture, tribulation, Second Coming, the Judgment Seat of Christ, the millennium, the Great White Throne Judgment, and our eternal state in heaven.
My mother and father lived in expectation that this would all occur in their lifetimes. They were made more certain of this by the strident, gravely voice of M.R. DeHaan, founder of the Radio Bible Class (now RBC Ministries) who pronounced at the end of every broadcast that “perhaps today” Jesus would return for His people. Fearing, as a child, that I had not sufficiently repented and given my heart fully to Jesus, I sometimes panicked when arriving home from school to find an empty house. I was convinced that the Rapture had come and I had been “left behind.” Thousands of my fundamentalist contemporaries shared that anxiety.
Generations of us have taken the temperature of the times to ascertain if the great tribulation was almost upon us, and in each generation there were evidences. Citing those signs, I spent many heated hours as a teenager seeking to convince my Reformed friends and neighbors that their far less detailed view of the future was wrong. They said the millennium and the tribulation were virtually past and that the Rapture and the Second Coming had to do with the same thing. They even believed that by working hard, going to church, living a good life, not playing ball on Sunday, and keeping their “Reformed TV antenna” in the attic, they would actually help to usher in the Messianic Kingdom. O such heretics! They didn’t know that in spite of all that, they were heading for the tribulation. They didn’t understand that to make it in the Rapture, they had to stop smoking, dancing, going to movies, playing cards with the “devil deck” and drinking wine or beer. Further, I felt bad that their TV reception was not as good as ours, our having our “Baptist antenna” boldly perched atop our house. Hard as I tried, I failed to “evangelize” them.
Because M.R. DeHaan had bolted from the Reformed Church in the twenties, and since my parents had done the same from their Christian Reformed Churches, my mom and dad were convinced that they had passed from darkness into light, especially since both of them claimed that they did not make a personal commitment to Christ until they had heard Doc DeHaan’s bold evangelistic sermons addressed especially at that time to those of Reformed faith. In the period between the World Wars my home town of Grand Rapids was astir not only over the battle between the fundamentalists and modernists on the authority and truthfulness of the Bible, there was also a rebellion among those of Reformed persuasion (mostly Dutch) toward the perceived rigidity of Calvinism, the practice of child baptism, the meaning of the Covenant, and the amillennial or postmillennial interpretations of the end times. When my mother and father were baptized by immersion and joined DeHaan’s new Calvary Undenominational Church (made up initially of the former board and many members of Calvary Reformed Church, the church from which he had resigned), my folks became persona non grata with many of their Dutch Reformed relatives.
I came on the scene a few months after Pearl Harbor. Three years later, we moved thirty miles south of Grand Rapids where we eventually joined the First Baptist Church of Hastings. Gone was the Heidelberg Catechism and in its place was C. I. Scofield’s study Bible and his views of the divisions of Scripture as presented in his booklet, “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth,” based on 2 Timothy 2:15. My father, eager to share his new enthusiasm for evangelism, quickly joined with several other men to incorporate a nearby youth camp that had been started by Lance Latham, founder of the AWANA clubs. Named Camp Michawana, the camp’s theme was that of Latham’s also drawn from 2 Timothy 2:15: “Approved Workers Are Not Ashamed. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth ( 2 Tim 2:15).
Later my father became involved in the Gideons, the Christian Business Men’s Committee (CBMC), and Youth for Christ (YFC). As a youngster I attended Camp Michawana every summer, and in junior high and high school I worked myself up to the presidency of our local high school YFC Club under the direction first of Dave Breese and then Ted Bryson. My first memories of “the movies” were not from Hollywood; they were forbidden. In stead, our family saw “Hidden Treasures” by Moody Institute of Science, films by Bob Pierce and his new World Vision organization, and “Oiltown, USA” from the Billy Graham Association. Challenged by these, I even auditioned for the first teenage films by Ken Anderson and his fledgling Gospel Films. The biblical drama “Wine of Morning” by Unusual Films from Bob Jones University, the world’s most unusual university, heightened my interest in Christian colleges.
Eventually I would attend, graduate from and even teach at Bob Jones, spending seven years on the campus. During those years, the leadership of BJU joined Jack Wyrtzen and denounced Billy Graham for his “compromise evangelism.” They battled the government and defied the Civil Rights Act by continuing a strict policy of segregation. They gave honorary doctorates to segregation advocates George Wallace and Lester Maddox. And when Strom Thurmond bolted from the southern Democrats and joined the Republican Party, they made him a board member. Elvis Presley records and all rock music were banned from the campus, and making a habit of listening to the Beatles or even the Blackwood Brothers would likely have resulted in your being shipped home. Vocal opposition to the war in Viet Nam would have had the same result. Hawks were good; doves were bad.
Stories from the campus of Bob Jones during those times would make an endless book. But one that was passed on from year to year was about the dramatic arrival of the Spurr brothers, Thurlow and Theron, who, according to legend, arrived sitting on the back of a convertible playing their trumpets in grand fanfare as a celebration of their arrival. Bob Jones, with its renowned music education program, was glad to have these talented musicians. Brass instruments formed the core of the orchestra and the concert band since so many fundamentalist youth dreamed of playing like brothers Howard and Clarence Jones or Bill Pierce. Combining trumpets and dispensational theology, it was only natural that the sadistic would eventually pull a Rapture stunt. A story was passed along from class to class about a nervous and apparently guilt-plagued young man (as if we were not all guilt-ridden) who nearly suffered heart failure when he was awakened from a late afternoon nap by the blare of a trumpet blasting just outside his door. When he jumped to his feet in confused stupor and ran to the door, he discovered an empty dorm with little piles of clothes, underwear and all, lying as though their owners had been instantly translated to Glory. He sank to his knees in terror and earnest confession. But he was brought to reality by the laughter of a few pranksters who did not want his prolonged terror to result in permanent mental derangement.
The thought of the Rapture and the coming judgments were constantly on our minds. In high school, I volunteered as an aircraft spotter for the US Civilian Ground Observer Corps, looking and listening two mornings a week for ballistic missiles and Soviet bombers. Regularly on Saturday nights YFC speakers, literally trying to scare hell out of us, would tell us that within a few years we would likely either be vaporized by Russia’s atom bombs or captured and tortured for our faith by an occupying Red hoard. We were always on edge not wanting either the Rapture or World War III to come until we had gotten careers, had married, and had safely brought our own children into the world. It all came to a frightening climax when the “brinkmanship” game played by America and Russia brought on the Cuban missile crisis that threatened to unleash a barrage of ICBM’s upon the two countries. It was even more agonizing for me since my older brother was caught up in the middle of it as a navigator aboard a Navy P2V, which on one mission returned to US intelligence officers photographs of Soviet missiles on the decks of ships heading for Cuba. Fear was constant. Fear for my brother, fear for my country, fear for my life and my soul: I must have confirmed my salvation every six months in those years. And to add to the burden of fear, the Great Lakes states were also in a period of high tornadic activity; a period introduced by a twister that devastated an area just five miles from our home killing more than thirty people and making a number of families in our church temporarily homeless.
Threatened by the bomb, by Communist infiltrators (in spite of Joe McCarthy’s attempt to ferret them out), by deadly twisters, and by the unsettling prospect of being translated to a strange heaven out of warm and loving homes, we of the dispensational bent were a paranoid lot. At least my Reformed friends and relatives could rest in the comfort of believing that all this was just a passing phase and that by following the protestant work ethic they would gradually, and rather undramatically, usher in the Messiah and his Kingdom. How nice it must have been to think that by being a faithful and loyal employee of GM, then the major employer in Grand Rapids, not only would you bring in the kingdom, you could even afford to send your kids to Christian school, build a nice brick home, and own a cottage on the Big Lake as a sort of comfy waiting room for the day of salvation. My adamantly premillennial mother, always, I fear, with a tinge of envy, would comment on this: My, my; all this and heaven too! My parents’ discretionary income almost always went to the church, to individual missionaries, toward the education of their three boys at Bob Jones, to Camp Michawana, to World Vision, to YFC, the Gideons, Mel Trotter Mission, and Dave Breese’s fledgling Christian Destiny ministry. Dad died just before Jim Dobson’s rise to fame, and Mom, true to form, sent regular donations to Focus on the Family as well.
In retrospect, what do I think of all this now?
And do I still call myself “fundamentalist”? Not often. Certain fundamentalists spoiled the word by messing it up with politics and legalism. Do I still believe in the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity? Absolutely. In fact, I’ve added one: the lost fundamental. The discovery of the lost fundamental was actually serendipitous. I wasn’t looking for it because most fundamentalists felt we had them all well in hand. Our theology and our God were always neatly boxed.
The discovery came after a photojournalism trip to India in 1982. Shortly after that trip as director of communication for Bibles for India, I was asked to help research the influence of Eastern religions on the West for a seminar on the New Age Movement. In my research I came across the book Well Body, Well Earth, a Sierra Club source book. I was stunned by what I found in the book: it was a virtual manual for New Age mysticism, its editors apparently convinced that Eastern religious thinking had the best hope of resolving the world’s environmental crises. My conservative bias should have expected it, but the boldness of it caught me by surprise. My reaction went something like this: “We have allowed humanistic science to tell us the story of the earth for decades; now we are letting New Age mysticism tell us the story of earth.Why can’t there be a Christian nature agency that relates the biblical story of the earth?”
That question led over the following seven years to my founding of the Christian Nature Federation. As president of the organization, my dream was to develop a sort of Audubon Society for Christians which would have a sharp glossy magazine, have local chapters, do field trips, print beautiful nature cards with Scripture verses, and even sponsor tours to exotic natural destinations for well-to-do believers who wanted a new Christian adventure. We might even address some genuine environmental problems, if there really were any. (My conservative Republican nature still chafed over the radical environmental activism of the sixties).
Things started out well. In fact, our existence and our phone number were announced by Focus on the Family’s “Family News in Focus” every day for a week after Earth Day 1990. On the third day of that week our answering machine recorded 117 addresses! In six months we had 450 members. Radio stations all over the country interviewed me. Coral Ridge Ministries interviewed me for Dr. Kennedy’s national radio broadcast.
But that interview was never aired. And that was the first hint that all was not well with me in conservative evangelical circles. The issue was that for several months I had been spending about two hours every weekday sitting in an over-stuffed chair with a notebook, my Bible, and all the books and articles I could find on the true state of the environment and on the rarely-addressed “theology of nature.” What I discovered had brought me to tears of sorrow and repentance. In particular I was compelled to go back to a book I’d been avoiding for almost twenty years: Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology. That book and George MacDonald’s novel The Highlander’s Last Song read in conjunction with God’s Word revealed to me one fundamental of the faith I had never been taught. It is found in Genesis 2:15. It is called the “creation care” or stewardship mandate. It states that a fundamental responsibility of the people of God is to cultivate, care for, guard, put a hedge around, and be servant-master of the earth.
When I put that next to my growing understanding of the reality of environmental degradation, which was caused in great part by our materialist nature (often excused by the Protestant work ethic), I was compelled to write a confession for myself and for the church. I shared that confession with our CNF constituency and began suggesting that Christians, of all people, should be supporters of genuine environmental protection. I began sending our members newsletters about environmental responsibility and even dropped plans for all the glitzy things I’d wanted to do embarrassed that I had intended to make CNF more a part of the problem than part of the solution. Very soon membership growth began to decline, and potential sources of financial support evaporated. After three thrilling, traumatic, spiritually fulfilling, and financially devastating years, CNF closed up shop.
Fortunately, during that time I’d become acquainted with many bold and honest Christians who had earlier reached the same conclusions I’d come to about the fundamental of creation care. I had discovered a significant cadre of past Christian writers and preachers whose orthodoxy rightly included a biblical theology of nature [George MacDonald, Abraham Kuyper, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, and so forth]. Such theology, I discovered, has never been very popular and, in fact, can make one who teaches it very unpopular in fundamentalist circles now more generally termed “conservative evangelical.”
Nonetheless, there are now hundreds of evangelical leaders and thousands of people in the pews who acknowledge that creation stewardship is indeed a fundamental truth of Christianity to be lived out actively and authentically in our times. It is a privilege for me to fellowship with committed evangelical Christians I’ve come to know in the Evangelical Environmental Network and its Christian Environmental Council, Restoring Eden, Care of Creation, Inc., the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, and among the science and humanities faculty of the many Christian institutions that make up the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).
Regardless of the opposition of many large and influential evangelical para-church organizations, which depend upon the donations of conservative evangelical Christians who more or less automatically oppose most government policies calling for environmental protection, I’m convinced that a large part of the church will once again embrace the biblical understandings about stewardship voiced by the early church.
And regardless of whether one is a premillennialist, who believes that the Messianic reign of Christ on earth is merely a thousand-year millennium, or an amillennialist, who believes it refers to our final eternal state, we all believe that the next great blessing for the earth will be its supernatural restoration under Christ. So why not agree now to link arms and hearts in a grand looking forward to that great day. And we can all acknowledge that since God’s chosen people got it mostly wrong with the First Advent, we ought to humbly recognize that we may not have it all right in our opinions about the Second Advent.
May our theology of nature be based on Paul’s great passage:
“In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us. The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the [children] of God coming into their own. The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited, yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God! It is plain to anyone with eyes to see that at the present time all created life groans in a sort of universal travail. And it is plain, too, that we who have a foretaste of the Spirit are in a state of painful tension, while we wait for that redemption of our bodies which will mean that at last we have realized our full [rights as His children]. Romans 8:18-23 J.B. Phillips
Dean Ohlman lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with Marge, his bride of 40+ years. They enjoy their family — blessed with three married sons and seven grandchildren.