Harper's July, 2003, pgs. 41-55.

A Gospel According to the Earth

Sown by science, a new eco-faith takes root

By Jack Hitt

I. The Book of Tomato

I first encountered the mysteries of compost when I rented a farmhouse in Connecticut a few years back. There was an apple orchard on the land and an old red barn. Alongside one listing wall were two old compost bins, both topped off years ago and neglected by a series of unconcerned tenants. At the bottom of each bin was a slot with a door just big enough to accommodate a shovel. After a struggle involving my boots, a shovel, and some cuss words, out fell black dirt that crumbled like a muffin. And almost smelled like one, strangely sweet.

A friend who was becoming a fantastic gardener cautioned me to be sparing with the stuff. "It's nuclear," he warned. I was old enough to know better but still young enough to cling to the logical fallacy that if some is good, a lot more is better. So I filled two half barrels on my back porch with pure compost. From a nearby nursery I bought a couple of tomato plants. The pictures that came with them indicated they'd be just like the ones I grew up eating on John's Island, South Carolina -- big, fat, deep red, juicy beauties that would need only to be sliced and salted. The plants seemed to tremble in anticipation, their ganglia of white desperate roots trapped in no more than a thumb of dirt. I poked a soft hole in the compost and inserted a single plant in each new bed. I couldn't wait.

And, given what I had done, I didn't have to. After a day or so of quietly settling in, the plants went berserk. They seemed to double in size every night, like some mathematical fable about the dark side of exponents. In the morning, standing out on the porch with a cup of coffee, I would eye them warily -- the way I once stared at kudzu as a kid. Kudzu can grow eighteen inches a day in the South. Its nearly visible movement is languid and serpentine, even beautiful. My new plants, on the other hand, seemed to lurch toward the heavens with a beanstalk's intensity. Soon enough I had to stake them, then run strings to nearby eaves to hold the plants up. As the sun rose each morning and burned off the dew, the tomatoes appeared to shudder, as if in anguish at the steroidal mandate of the day. I came to fear my tomatoes.

The flowers appeared one morning, in full bloom, but soon enough they were gone. Not fallen to decorate the soil with romantic decay; gone -- poof -- incinerated by the strain of living so large. The tomato fruits that followed immediately grew just as quickly and reddened even faster. I didn't know whether or not to pick them. They didn't appear big enough, but they did seem ripe. No matter. The next morning it was obvious that some varmint had gotten to them. They hung like spent red balloons. Then I looked more closely. My tomatoes -- wracked by compost overdose, forced (by me) to endure some unspeakable hellish chaos at the cellular level -- had simply exploded. gabber

II. The Book of Stag's Bladder

Roughly a year later, I was visiting another friend deep in the woods of Appalachia, where he lived in a cabin. It was a late spring night, warm enough for five or six of us to sit on the porch and talk, unaware of time until rosy-fingered dawn fired off a few early warning flares suggesting we get some sleep.

In that long stretch of fluid darkness, an acquaintance and I talked while rocking on a porch swing. He lived "off the grid" -- no electricity, no gas bills, grew most of his own food, shit in the woods. Every aspect of his comparatively ascetic existence involved thinking about the relationship between his desire and nature's. He strived for a kind of simplicity that I, as a man with more than a decade of Manhattan life behind me, could only listen to as some charming and exotic idea, like hearing a Zen monk explain that he can grip a prickly burr with the muscles of his sphincter and transport it backward via reverse peristalsis until it reappears at the other end, still sharp enough to catch on the bristly surface of his tongue.

Impressive, but, you know, why?

Then the man mentioned his compost pile, and I at last felt free to enter the conversation. I had my tomato anecdote. He listened to me without laughing. Compost had long ago ceased to be a source of humor for him. After my tomato fiasco, I wasn't surprised to hear him describe compost's physical warmth as transcendental. He, too, had experienced its mysteries, and where I had found a story for cocktail parties, he'd found a way of life. He told me of his unusual and ornate method for preparing his compost. The system was developed by Rudolf Steiner, an early-twentieth-century thinker whose ideas ranged from the brilliant to the freaky. On the matter of compost, he indulged the far side of freaky.

"It involves remaking the soil itself," my acquaintance said hesitantly. "It's a complicated process. I can't really describe it. I'm not sure I should. It involves using, you know, yarrow flowers fermented in stag's bladder."

As a professional listener, I sit through boring stories all the time. But occasionally some detail will force me to pay attention. The phrase "stag's bladder" pretty much is a dictate to listen until daybreak. Into the night he described an elaborate and mysterious process. Cow manure was buried all winter, dug up, and mixed with bark that had been fermented in an animal skull. He took this rich blackness and solemnly cut it into the beds of his carrots and his asparagus and his corn. Then he said this: "The food I grow from this soil is different from other food. It's better. It's superior. It changes you when you eat it. The vegetables from my garden, I believe, are actually structurally different from the ones you buy in the store. I believe they actually are changing the cellular structure of my body. They're turning me into something different. When I eat now, it's like I'm consuming something sacred, something holy, something divine."

Sitting on the porch swing, I didn't speak for, oh, it might have been two minutes, or two hours. At some point I excused myself and went to the bathroom, where I wrote down a mess of notes like some pumped-up ethnographer who had stumbled upon a new tribal ritual. My swing companion had described, almost exactly, the act of theophagy: the consumption of the divine essence, the total conversion born of epiphany, the payoff of transcendence. It was communion, but a rustic one not yet encumbered with liturgy and custom. No ceremony, no interpretation, just the thing itself.

In the clear light of the following afternoon, I reread my notes, and I couldn't quite decide whether what I had heard was important or absurd. I filed my papers away, but I couldn't shake this small moment. I never again thought of environmentalism as a movement about the politics of the land without noticing how often there were about it inklings of the divine.

III. The Book of Zealots

CRITICS of the environmental movement frequently charge its members with being "zealots" on a "religious mission." They are usually talking about the kind of Green Party kid who handcuffs himself to the fence of a nuclear plant or gathers out front before a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Calling people "religious zealots" is mass-media shorthand for kook -- a term of contempt applied to almost any group other than actual religious zealots. What I saw in the woods was less political. It was cultural, anthropological. It made me aware of just how deeply some of the new ecological ideas kicking around about our relationship to the land were affecting people.

"Communion" and "compost" -- the words, oddly, have similar roots in Latin, meaning a sharing or putting together. The real differences between the words exist in the extensive connotations they have (or have not) gathered over time and the sound they make when spoken. "Communion" hums serenely on the palate like notes of celestial music; the other plops earthily from the mouth, suggesting something else altogether.

Scribbling down these simple comparisons between organized religion and environmentalism became a little game for me. "Off the grid," "monastery": Both are forms of asceticism, and the practices of friends of mine who live off the grid do resemble a monastic life. Both involve a kind of sensual denial. Nature freaks (as they're known in the mass media's land of zealots) eat simple foods grown in the back yard in order to avoid fast foods, processed foods, and environmentally luxurious foods (such as winter strawberries flown in from New Zealand). The more restrictive clans of monks avoided just such foods, though perhaps for different reasons. Monks and off-gridders both resist the comforts of urban living, whether electricity or a comfy bed. Both groups try to integrate into the world around them ideas they have about living a just life. Both find virtue in absence, and cultivate abstention because they believe that by opening an intimate space within their daily lives, it will be filled with something that is closer to God or Nature.

One of the comforts of religion is that it provides a wide frame of understanding, a worldview that gives a devotee a sense of how everything works. Environmentalism seems to do this in a harmlessly practical way. Or maybe not so harmless. A great deal of current biblical scholarship regarding the advent of a much earlier worldview -- that brought to the Roman Empire and Judaism by Jesus -- is revealing just how grounded those ideas were in a practical and material understanding. We think of the Bible as chock-full of spiritual language, but that's not the only way early followers heard it. They also understood it, to use an anachronistic term, literally -- as a Weltanschauung describing the concrete world around them, a view that very much resembles how we now think about the environment. These shifts in the power of words are not inconsequential. Religious leaders today strain to retrieve the literal quality of Scripture. Contemporary notions of apocalypse are (dangerous) efforts to re-anchor religious ideas to the realm we inhabit. Or take creation science, a nearly comic attempt to reclaim a factual reading of Scripture.

In the decades leading up to the odometer turn of Y2K, it was possible to hear from each of the three faiths of the Book -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam louder and louder cries for a return to a literal reading of the Word. From Christians we hear that wives should be subservient to their husbands or that queers should be stoned. To settlement-obsessed Jews, Yahweh is less a deity than an ancient realestate broker whose original land grant preempts all subsequent claims. Among the new murderous wing of Islam, a novel interpretation of the word "jihad" has moderate Koranic scholars wincing in agony. Maybe it's just the inevitable periodic spasm of internecine destruction that has characterized the three great faiths over the ages. Maybe.

Or it may be that a competing framework -- one that for now doesn't even begin to resemble what we calf "religion" -- is eroding the explanatory power of Scripture. Perhaps one day this time will be remembered as the moment when the academic, remote, and ancient quarrel between science and religion found a vernacular -- environmentalism -- that permitted many new ideas about the world to enter the hearts of the democratic populace. I'm not arguing for or against this proposition. I'm only noting an inexorable flow of explanatory power from one realm to another. I'm only stating the obvious: that even as middle-class moms forcibly drag their children to "church" because it's good for them, simultaneously these same people are mining other places, often literally their back yard, for deeper meanings that affect their lives.

Once you start thinking of environmentalism in this way -- not merely as a set of nice feelings about land and animals but as a rival to the power religion has held in people's lives -- then the vocabulary game I had been playing becomes more revealing. Take "pollution," a simple enough word as it commonly is used in magazines or newspaper editorials, such as these recent headlines:


Now replace the key word with "sin" and you're reading a copy of The Watchtower.

Early one morning, I stepped out of my house with a large container and walked to the curb, only to look up the street and see three neighbors doing the same thing. We all nodded. In Connecticut one recycles by putting bottles and plastics in distinctive twilight-blue bins. Newspapers and cardboard are also presented to the garbage collector separately. It was an odd scene, men and women carrying what looked like votive baskets to lay them on the ground in front of their homes.

Try describing the purpose of recycling to a five-year-old daughter and you find yourself suddenly toiling like a second-year seminarian with a fresh allegory. Recycling is about redeeming old waste by transfiguring it into something new. The theological potential is almost too easy: "recycling" (Greek, "to come full circle") and "resurrection" (Latin, "to rise again"). The first word practically clicks in the mouth like a new machine getting started; the other murmurs with that harmony of the spheres.

As a household practice, recycling is quite recent, dating only to the 1960s. According to President George W. Bush, recycling's popularity throughout America managed to reclaim 64 million tons of the nation's annual 230-million-ton garbage pile in 2000. When he signed into law the new America Recycles Day (November 15, in case you've forgotten), President Bush urged his citizenry toward more participation in order to "close the recycling circle."

What's most curious about recycling is that it seems bulletproof to criticism. A few years ago, The New York Times Magazine ran an article exposing curbside recycling as a sham. Turns out there are much more efficient market systems that would dispose of our trash without all that individual participation. Worse, around that time one began to hear other reports that in many locales those newspaper bundles -- bound with twine at a tremendous cost of hassle, if not of time -- are just trucked to the dump and bulldozed into the steaming offal.

I seriously thought I would give it up, in part because, like the author of the article, I hate to recycle. But I found I couldn't give it up. My kids had already heard the little story about bad things being turned into good things. Somehow this puffball of a parable had staying power. It was one of those trends -- you run across them from time to time in our culture -- that logical argument is impotent to stop. I often brought up the pointlessness of recycling with friends. It would turn out that they, too, had read the article. Yet they always said they recycled anyway because "at least it's something." Such a packed word that last one.


You mean, something like a feeble sacrifice set out to slake the fury of a vengeful God angry with mankind's... sin?

IV. The Book of Fireflies

Creation science is a hobby of mine. I keep up. I read the reports of its researchers and marvel at the baroque I fantasias about God's architectural career. Their theories make no sense, yet creationists show up in the headlines every three or four years. They persist, in some American way, like a signal from far off trying to tell us something else, which in a way they are. It doesn't have much to do with science, but it has everything to do with how we derive meaning from the world around us.

The original creationist notion emerged from the mind of a seventeenth-century Irish archbishop named James Ussher. He added up all the begats in the Torah and combined that sum with the length of the rules of kings listed in judges to crunch a precise date for creation, October 23, 4004 B.C. It's no coincidence that while Ussher was engaged in his "research" the scientific method was sweeping the academies of Europe. The French Enlightenment was on the way and, with it, a methodology that felt bold enough to draw conclusions about nature through observation while deliberately ignoring scriptural revelation. By definition, Science had become a challenge to the power of the Bible's words, so Ussher brought "science" to Scripture.

Every time science has blazed with some achievement, creationism flares right beside it. When science in the public-school curriculum caused a controversy in the early twentieth century, America took evolution to court with the Scopes trial. Most Americans willfully forget that science lost. Creationists ruled the day, as in many ways they still do.

Beginning in the 1960s, the creationists watched a number of Supreme Court rulings restrict the telling of Bible stories in the public schools and immediately figured out how to shoehorn them back into the regular curriculum: recast them as geology. So the stories of God's first week and Noah's Flood, among others, were rewritten in the lingo of engineers and newly labeled "creation science." These scientific rewrites could get quite elaborate. In 1996, John Woodmorappe published Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study, which explained the technical feats achieved during the forty days and nights of Noah's Flood, or, to put it in creationist jargon, the "960 continuous hours" of the "Noachic Deluge."


The book is laced with schematics of proposed ark floor plans, with page after page of imaginative "conjectures" about how Noah might have solved all the problems that naturally come up when you're aboard a ship with, according to Woodmorappe's deductions, 7,428 mammals, 4,602 birds, and 3,724 reptiles. Going to the potty takes up a lot of the book. He also notes that with persistent rain and cloud cover, there would have been the problem of constant darkness. He theorizes that the interior of the pitch-black ark might have been lit by the glow of millions of fireflies. It is an image so willfully naive it approaches beauty.

With each defeat by some school board or at the hands of enraged parents who want to see their children educated in the proper sciences, the creationists go back once again to retranslate the essentials of what they believe the Bible says into the jargon of lab grinds. There has been "youngEarth" creationism followed by "old-Earth" creationism (in other words, the idea has evolved). A few years ago, the smarter creation scientists conjured the term "intelligent design." This view argues that the odds of a universe big banging its way into precisely the set of physical laws that permit mankind to evolve are so remote that the science of it can't be explained without the intervention of an extremely smart cosmic Engineer. And not just an Engineer who ignited the bigbang blast and then stepped back to observe his clockwork plans unfold like a 20-billion-year time-lapse photo. No, intelligent designers reject the uninvolved Engineer. This Designer tinkers. He's involved in the day-to-day goings-on of His creation, intervening in much the way, well, that the personal deity of American Protestantism is said to be intimately involved in the lives of believers.

Meet God: He's wearing a pocket protector these days. And, had we cultural artists like Michelangelo who could tap the unarticulated zeitgeist for their inspiration, God's personage in a twenty-first-century triptych might bear a vague resemblance to Albert Einstein about the hair and Stephen Hawking in the sly ungovernable grin.

The alleged scientists behind intelligent design (one is a retired lawyer) have never published a peer-reviewed paper because that's a lot of work. And, frankly, "science" is actually marginal to the larger purpose of building their rickety Trojan horse to smuggle God back into the public schools. This is what I like most about intelligent design -- besides its hilariously tendentious name. After three centuries of dickering, creationism has whittled itself down to a bare nub, a single idea, an assertion of epistemology -- that we cannot "know" without God. Because that is, finally, all creation science really cares about.

This is why intelligent designers are so angry. They are angry at science. They are angry with this paragraph. They seethe at the certainty with which mainstream scientists approach uncertainty. They are furious with the (literally godless) way scientists achieve that certainty. IDers are livid with science's pretense that it is only "describing" nature without acknowledging the inherent power of having a narrative and a language so vivid they can describe all of creation. Creationists feel that they once possessed that language, but they realize that it has lost something -- its literalness. Other modern theologians have come to terms with this denotative loss and are happy to describe Scripture as a "metaphorical" language or a "spiritual" language. But the creationists are not giving up the realm of the concrete that easily. They suspect that something much more important is slipping away from them. Literal meaning has a plain-Jane way of convincing people of simple truths. And religion is built on the pilings of simple truths.

Trying to prove the existence of the ancient story with the tools of the lab can lead to strange places, like the hypothesis of a million fireflies. Right now, for example, a schism is about to rip through the American Episcopal Church. The disagreement turns on whether Jesus Christ was literally resurrected. Well, say the new militant literalists, that's what the Bible says, so that's what happened. His reappearance was not in the "hearts" of his disciples or some such abstract thing. No. He physically returned after three days of death, and he walked among his apostles in his actual old body, bleeding nail holes and all. This wasn't "poetry" to describe how the apostles felt. Jesus returned from the dead. His soul came back and reanimated his old flesh. His former body was -- what is the literal word for this? -- it was recycled.

V. The Book of Jesus Christ, Freelance Writer

Forget everything you think you know about Jesus for a minute. Imagine knowing him only by the few stories of his that have come down. His words. His sentences. His parables. These are the stories he told. He wrote them. Jesus was, first and foremost, a writer.

The notion of the parable existed before Jesus. The Greek philosophers had worked this genre. Jesus merely popularized it. But his real achievement was to take the parable out of the garden of academe and put it to work in the real world -- that is, he applied the Socratic method and perfected this literary form by bringing to it the writer's sharpest tool, new metaphor.

Parables had been used in teaching, but often to make pointed lessons for their listeners. Jesus doesn't provide lessons. His parables are often half-finished, sometimes half-baked. They can feel like contradictions. Or the conclusion may seem unnervingly obvious. Jesus' stories stake out a new, almost democratic, ground between the detachment of the regal tales familiar among Jews and pagans (King David, Zeus) and the airy remoteness of mysticism. (One of the rejected gospels reads almost like a collection of Zen koans. The Book of Thomas has Jesus talking like this: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." It's probably a good thing Thomas didn't make the cut. Jesus' parables work best not when they mystify but when they push the listener into supplying some intellectual sweat.)

"The parables were really lures for self-education," says John Dominic Crossan, the DePaul University theologian whose groundbreaking books used modern literary theory and anthropology to reexamine the stories of Jesus. According to Crossan, the audience was drawn to participate in the meaning of the parables. Jesus made the listener into a kind of assistant rabbi.

At the time, a teacher like Jesus had a readymade warehouse of God comparisons waiting for him in which God was always beyond comprehension. It was the same store of language available to the hierarchical elites of Judaism. "Mightier than the thunders of many waters,/mightier than the waves of the sea,/the Lord on high is mighty!" says Psalm 93. In Hebrews, God is a consuming fire. In Genesis, God is a shield. In Exodus, God is a mountain. In Hosea, God is a lion. In Solomon, God is like the cedars of Lebanon. In the Psalms, He comes robed in light.

It's in this context that Jesus appears and achieves his literary mark.

The kingdom of God "is like a mustard seed," he said in one of his most famous riffs. At the time, anyone alive would have understood the reality of a mustard seed. It grew everywhere and was considered, especially among farmers, an annoying weed.

"Now, imagine a group of people listening," says Crossan. "You just said it's a big weed. Why don't you say a big cedar of Lebanon like everybody else? Why a big weed? Besides, mustard is dangerous in our fields. We prefer to control it. How is the kingdom like a weed just outside that grows everywhere? There's every reaction in the audience, this is the genius of parable. It trusts the audience to figure it out, to make up its own mind, doing exactly what Jesus wants."

If you look at all the parables together, it's clear that Jesus intentionally avoided the grandiloquence of the Temple (not to mention the larger-than-life grandeur of pagan Olympus). His stock of metaphor is drawn from the daily life of any soul struggling under the rule of Rome in the first century. Jesus goes for agricultural references -- seeds, weeds, plants, farming. He also likes to draw upon daily chores, but not those of kings and deities: the kingdom of God is like "leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it all was leavened." Or they tend toward quotidian family quarrelsagain, intensely familiar dramas -- among prodigal sons, feuding siblings, enraged fathers, all of whom are just regular working folks, fishermen, shepherds. The prodigal son story in Luke may be the most famous parable ever.

Even Jesus' miracles have a domestic humility to them. The Man from Galilee doesn't part the Red Sea and save a nation. He turns a few bottles of water into wine at a wedding feast. He heals a single leper. You'd think a great messiah would perform a miracle to teach an entire nation to fish. But, no, Jesus works his magic on a human scale, turning a few fishes and loaves into one afternoon's picnic lunch.

Jesus' stories draw upon metaphor that one could experience every day, right at home. This intimacy brought a sense of the divine down to the scale of an average person's life. In these literal actions -- the pleasure and the pain of mundane life -- one finds the kingdom of God. In a verse (Matthew 11:18-19) that few fundamentalists like to quote these days, here is Jesus complaining that authorities mock his daily-pleasure theology: "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"

Jesus made listeners realize what St. Teresa would write a millennium and a half later: "The Lord walks among the pots and pans." Or Wallace Stevens, some centuries later:

Divinity must live within herself: Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued Elations when the forest blooms; gusty Emotions on wet roads on autumn night; All pleasures and all pains, remembering The bough of summer and the winter branch. These are the measures destined for her soul.

The achievement of Jesus' quotidian parables was that the listener got to intimately tailor a personal sense of God to his or her understanding of the world. One parable Jesus taught was this one, from Matthew (dig the first question): "What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, `I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, `I go, sir,' but did not go." Jesus' disciples all strenuously raised their hands. They knew the answer! The first son was the most virtuous!

Whereupon Jesus (whose sense of humor is underrated) replied: "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you."

What does that mean? Frankly, I am not sure. I have my own thoughts, but they all feel tentative, and I can only hope I'm right. Jesus doesn't accuse his disciples of being wrong; he just mocks the easiness of their quick answer. Taken as a whole -- straight through Jesus' slapstick rebuke -- it's not a parable with a clear and right answer. You have to sort of toss it around in your head, think about people you've dealt with who've said one thing and done another, and then try to come to some answer. Chances are that few will agree in their interpretation, which is rhetorically so sly.

Jesus is telling his listeners -- poor folks, outcasts, and anyone else standing around -- that evidence of the divine is right beside them. He invites them ("What do you think?") to look among the weeds, the family quarrels, the problems at work, for intimations of immortality. The audience is seduced into examining their own experiences as they relate to these stories. What results is an explanation of the world not only grounded in literal occurrence but customized to one's own experience. The stories gather power by building cumulatively on the small truths of daily happenstance. Who hasn't planted seed, weeded mustard, quarreled with dad, eaten a fish, or hoped the wine would hold out? These literal actions of pedestrian life formed the foundational pillars on which this new religion was built -- a scaffolding of truth erected out of simple domestic actions packed with hidden meaning, like carrying a load of recycled bottles to the curb or a bucket of potato peels to the compost bin.

VI. The Book of Jupiter, Role Model

As religions go, paganism wasn't much to write about. There was no standardized text of stories, no Bible. Even if there had been, what good would it have done? Pagans didn't study the gods for moral guidance the way Jews and Christians studied their stories. Pagan gods were not to be emulated; they were to be avoided. Jupiter, Venus, Minerva, Mars -- these were troublesome figures who lived on Olympus, and when they descended, basically you got raped, kidnapped, or killed. Pagan gods were like drunken rich kids who occasionally decided to slum among the peasants, who in turn paid dearly for the privilege of acquaintance.

So from time to time the authorities would sacrifice an animal and hold a big festival to keep the anger of the gods placated. That was the best you could do. There were great temples to some of the gods. But in most small towns and villages throughout the Roman Empire, paganism's daily rituals might have entailed going to a grotto at the edge of town devoted to particular niche deities, say Lares and Penates. These were the household gods. If you were having trouble with your debts or some other household problem, you lit a candle to them. If your love life was tanking, you visited Venus' grotto, as it were. If a big fight was looming, Mars got a candle. And so on.

Paganism was partly like astrology is today. It was more private than anything else. If a pagan wanted moral guidance, he would consult the philosophers. A Greek might read Plato; a Roman, Marcus Aurelius. God knows, you wouldn't want your kids imitating the gods. Zeus a role model? That would be like expecting American parents to turn to the private lives of Winona Ryder or Robert Downey Jr. for moral instruction. Pagans loved their gods' doomed adventures for the same reason we voyeuristically keep up with our celebrities. We are drawn to the same mythic storiesJoan Crawford's Medea-like butchery of her own offspring, Michael Jackson's Ovidian metamorphoses, Elizabeth Hurley's Venus-esque promiscuity -- because we marvel at their excess, scanning the tabloids to learn each star's tragic flaw so that we can make sense out of the inexorable self-destruction that is satisfyingly to come.

Pagans easily segregated morals from their gods because that's the way people thought then. It was really one of the innovations of monotheism, in Judaism and Christianity, to imagine the divine being as having any moral significance at all. One can argue that this segregation is beginning to occur again. Today when we ponder the Solomonic questions of our time -- Who gets the limited resources of donated organs? How should crosscultural adoption work? Is human experimentation right? -- we turn to think tanks that employ working philosophers known as "ethicists."

Still, it's difficult nowadays to imagine a religion divorced from morals, because the Western tradition has so seamlessly married the two. Likewise, it's hard for us to reimagine Jesus' teaching as it affected those who first heard it. We too readily separate the literal from the figurative. But doing precisely that is an epistemological habit we all picked up after the Enlightenment. It's a holdover from that same impulse that taught our scientists to look at nature without the benefit of transcendental wisdom. It's why we so often read the Bible with a modern eye; that is, as a collection of good life-lessons for the kiddies. We fail to see that the original power of Jesus' teaching was grounded in hard-core reality.

Imagine the average pagan. Festival time was pretty much the only time he ate meat and didn't feel hunger. Otherwise, life in the kingdom of Rome was a desperate bargain. And against it Jesus posited the kingdom of God, which on Earth meant people banding together in communities and forging among themselves a sense of a living divinity built on quotidian reality -- the provision of bread, the maintenance of shelter, some kindness.

Archaeological digs of the earliest Christian communities show that many of them were headed by women and many smashed through Roman class divisions, bringing together former slaves with people of means. This was a real communion, not some fuzzy feeling of middle-class moms cooing about the joys of "community." These groups were life-support systems. In those days, a woman whose husband died was pretty much finished. But perhaps not if she were a Christian. These people had figured out how to live outside Roman norms in a way that was grounded in the provision of life's basics. Food, shelter, help.

"Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, `Take, eat; this is my body."' Did he mean it literally? Of course, both literally and figuratively. The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, the essentials of being human, were also the essentials in knowing the divine. ("The Son of man comes eating and drinking...") It's only during the Enlightenment, when we bifurcated our habits of thinking, that theologians started arguing enthusiastically about these ideas and priests started poking around blessed bread looking for bits of flesh and holding up the wine chalice to look for corpuscles.

In the first centuries of the last millennium, several high-impact publicity opportunities launched Jesus' new idea on its way to continental recognition. The first and greatest, however undesired, was the bloody occasion of martyrdom.

The accounts of the early martyrs still have power. In A.D. 203 a rich twenty-two-year-old named Perpetua was accused of being a Christian. Every attempt to give this wealthy man's daughter a break failed. She did not fear death, and on her appointed day this young beautiful woman was stripped naked and wrapped in a net with her servant and friend, also a Christian. They were tossed into a coliseum to be mauled by a savage beast. (It actually was a wild "cow.") Even the Romans, though, suddenly became horrified by the butchery of a lovely, well-to-do madonna (Perpetua was nursing her newborn up until the moment of her slaughter). So the governor paused the Grand Guignol and ordered that a tunic be provided and that a gladiator be sent in to finish her off. According to written accounts, the gladiator was totally unnerved by her calm. The rabble sitting on the stone benches could see that the hand in which he held the sword was trembling. He froze. So Perpetua did him a favor. She reached up, steadied his weapon, and plunged it into her throat.

Picture that pagan guy again, sitting there, watching this. Um, Lucia, tell me again the name of this new religion?

After the conversion of Constantine in A.D. 312, the techniques for attracting followers had to become more creative. Martyrdom was no longer an option, so the more innovative followers relied upon unusual types of performances. In some locales, Christians tried to get closer to God, paradoxically, by isolating themselves in some way. These were sort of beta tests for behavior that would eventually be codified as monastic life. With these early proto-monks, though, the point seemed to be to draw attention to their beliefs. They were performance artists of sorts, and in fact they make our own-the folks who stick yams up their rears or publicly pierce their bodies with pins-look like hopeless pikers.

Take the boskoi -- the word means "shepherds" in Greek. Intentionally homeless, these early monks wandered hillsides alone and were said to eat grass on all fours like beasts of burden. They were hard to miss, according to Ephrem the Syrian, because "in appearance their hair bears a closer resemblance to the wings of an eagle than the hair of a human." Observers of the boskoi also seemed obsessed with the improbable length of their fingernails. Ephrem wrote that they were often "mixing with stags and leaping with fawns." They didn't do this just for a onetime appearance at the Performing Garage in SoHo. They did it for the rest of their lives.

The Catenati wrapped themselves in chains and dragged their literal burdens everywhere. Other devotees, such as the stylites, climbed up a pole and never left. St. Alypius spent fifty-three years standing upon his pillar. When age and fatigue reduced him to lying on his side, he spent the next fourteen years on his pillar, couchant.

Nearly all these early saints drew crowds. Their very oddness was the point. It disconcerted the Establishment and made people try to understand what powerful idea nested in the hearts of these lunatics. Tell me again, Lucia, the name of this new religion? One subset of stylites chose not to live atop man-made pillars. Even that was too easy, too comfortable. They were called the Dendrites. They built their platforms in trees.

VII. The Book of the Tree Sitters

On October 4, 2001, a radical environmentalist who had taken the forest name Tre Arrow shimmied up a tree as a crew of loggers arrived to cut timber on a parcel of Oregon public land called God's Valley. Then Tre Arrow fell, breaking his sixty-foot plunge by slamming into some limbs before crashing to the ground, his head split open, a lung punctured, bones broken.

The news coverage was interesting. The Associated Press simply reported that he "tumbled 60 feet from a treetop perch in the Tillamook State Forest and suffered multiple broken bones." What none of the stories reported was that the loggers chased this radical higher and higher up the tree, lopping off all the lower branches. When the chain saw got close, Tre Arrow leapt into another tree, so they sheared the bottom limbs off that one too. With no way out, Tre Arrow sat in the tree with no water or food. The loggers and law-enforcement officials below shouted insults, shone lights, and blared music at him throughout the night. The jeering and mockery at this guy lasted for forty-eight hours. It only ended when the object of their hatred passed out right in front of their eyes and plummeted to the ground. The state forestry spokesman, Jeff Foreman, told a newspaper: "That was unfortunate and obviously something we hoped would not happen."

Or precisely what we hoped might happen. You know, depending.

Tree-sitting dates only to the late nineties as a form of protest. The practice became popular in 1998 after a young woman named Julia Hill climbed up a giant redwood tree in California and stayed there for two years. She took a forest name, Butterfly, and gave her tree a name, Luna. She later wrote a book about her experience at defeating a timber company's intention to cut down thousand-year-old redwoods. On some websites, the denunciations of "dreadlocked bongo-playing hippies" and rage at their "stupidity" are commonplace. Tree-sitters tend toward odd language, like calling their trees "ancient ones," one of those crypto-aboriginal terms that drive opponents berserk. In terms of private property, tree-sitters are obvious trespassers. The timber companies have legal permits. Often they are cutting trees on land they own. As a matter of law, tree-sitters are completely wrong. As a matter of logic, they don't make any sense; saving one tree, as often happens, would appear to accomplish nothing.

"We climb the trees so people will look at them differently," said a tree-sitter named Spindle whom I contacted by cell phone. "These trees want to survive. They are not just lumber to be milled. We want people to see that they are homes to dozens of animals, they hold the soil, and they are there because they want to be."

Beginning in 2000, the citizens of a town in Oregon called Cottage Grove grew concerned that a stand of ancient Douglas firs that they had all grown up near was going to be timbered. They protested to the state and federal governments but were rebuffed. So a few of the locals joined with Janine Nilsen, who runs a horse stable outside of town, and contacted some tree-sitters. Under cover of darkness, they slipped onto this publicly owned land and erected a platform 130 feet up a Douglas fir to support three newly baptized dryads -- Talcon, Savage, and Kiwi. The cut has been postponed as the owner tries to find out what his legal options are.

"It's more than just the tree-sit," Nilsen said. "We need to take a look at our forest. We're letting our natural resources go. But we are part of it, and we can't lose that part of ourselves. It's hard to put into words. It's a feeling. Language is so limited. It's something we need desperately. We have a misapprehension of nature. We're trying to make the world live by our standard instead of understanding how the world works."

Now many in Cottage Grove support the bongo-playing hippies. It might not have happened only a few years ago, but, according to Nilsen, there is mainstream support as folks bring water and provisions to supply the dryads in the trees.

"I think it's very dangerous the way we're cutting trees," Nilsen said. "I think that's the message of the tree-sitters. You can't replant a thousandyear-old forest. We're destroying something we don't understand."

The middle-class acceptance of tree-sitting broke new ground last fall when a man climbed a tree in northern California. This single old tree was scheduled to be cut to make it possible to widen a road. Public support gathered regularly near the tree. In the end, the police got him down with a court order, but only after the developers agreed to hire a company that specializes in the moving of giant ancient trees.

Since Julia Hill's debut, dozens of tree-sitters have popped up in California and Oregon. Right now, to the best of my research, I can find five active tree-sits, three in Oregon and two in California. In each case, the trees have been given names. A giant 800-year-old Douglas fir named Monteverde is currently being occupied to prevent the Zip-O Lumber Company from clearing out its stand. Down the road, Happy is being occupied by two sitters, Life and Glisten. The names can get funky. One tree-sitter who went by the name Dirt inspired classrooms of children to write him letters. Their thoughts aren't all that different from my own: "Why is your name Dirt? Is it because trees don't have showers? Maybe it's because you love dirt."

What's truly peculiar about tree-sitting is that its inherent danger hasn't stopped the flow of volunteers. Two people have died. One was a twenty-two-year-old girl who accidentally met her end, as local reports noted, "falling from a tree that the logging protesters called Truth."

In California, another forest dryad named Gypsy -- formerly David Chain of Houston -- was killed on the ground, but in a particularly ugly way. An infuriated logger cut down a tree and crushed him to death. At first the logger said he didn't know that there were activists in the area, at least not until other activists produced a videotape revealing that in fact he had been yelling things such as "I wish I had my fucking pistol."

No charges were filed in the death of this boy. The company settled with his mother out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. It also did something else that it thought, from a financial perspective, was a brilliantly cheap buyout of these zealots. It permitted the fallen tree to become a memorial, creating a zone of nature around it. Lying on the ground, decomposing, it is what foresters call a nurse log, a dead tree whose detritus refeeds the woodland floor. There is an access route off the highway now, and people have begun to call the area by a new name -- Gypsy Mountain -- drawing young pilgrims to the site of one of their early martyrs.

VIII. The Book of the Weather Channel

The Weather Channel opened for business in 1982, and its owner, Frank Batten, endured a persistent shower of media hooting at the idea that forecasts of precipitation could pull down any kind of audience in a broadcast medium. Twenty years later it is one of most recognized cable brands after CNN. Have you spent any time watching the Weather Channel? It is the cable station of the environment -- not in the Sierra Club sense but in the sense that I am talking about. It is the unnoticed explainer of the larger world around us. It has insinuated itself into the lives of millions as harmlessly as a county ag show. Watching it, though, is a caution, a reminder that as descriptions of the environment begin to take on the coloration of religion, the moral tone will not be Jesus' Good News but decidedly more Elijah's Old Testament.

When Batten was getting the station up and running, it faltered until he had an epiphany. "Severe weather caused large spikes in our ratings, and quiet weather depressed our ratings," he confessed in his own history of the channel. Like all television producers, Batten went in search of "action news." So, he explains, he "dramatically ramped up our live coverage of hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and other severe weather." Fortunately, a seemingly disintegrating planet happily obliged. Batten hired John Hope, the hurricane expert at the National Weather Service. But he needed more scolding prophets, so he got them: "tropical-storm expert Dr. Steve Lyons, tornado and severe-thunderstorm expert Dr. Gregory Forbes, and winter-weather expert Paul Kocin."

This season the Weather Channel is producing a highly anticipated series called Storm Stories. In its promotional material, the producers described the show in terms that sound like the lamentations of job scraping his wounds with a potsherd: "Viewers witness a baby ripped from its mother's arms by a violent tornado; victims who survive a shipwreck only to face deadly sharks; and the panic of skiers as they realize their friend has been buried alive under a suffocating blanket of snow. In every Storm Stories episode, there are three 'stars' -- the rescuers, the survivors, and, of course, the weather."

Great epics always need a trinity, like Moses, his suffering people, and, of course, Yahweh.

It may sound ridiculous to talk about environmentalism and religion as if the two were in competition. Especially because, if history is any guide, the current crop of organized faiths may simply absorb any compelling environmental ideas into the older traditions. Such efforts are already under way. Harvard recently sponsored an Ecology and Religion seminar at which the brainier wings of the world's major religions discussed methods for incorporating the "values" of environmentalism into traditional frameworks of God. The sessions produced a 700-page book full of niceties that, despite my best efforts, proved unreadable. Even among the evangelicals, who prefer the Bible's talk about holding "dominion" over all living things, there are eco-stirrings. The Christian Society of the Green Cross declares its purpose to be "Serving and Keeping Creation." And evangelical teenagers -- on those rare occasions when they interrupt their proud talk about all the sex they're not having-ask themselves, What Car Would Jesus Drive?

The question is curiously jarring and has by now attracted a certain amount of scorn. But is this not, in a way, the sort of question (and answer) we are already engaged in? As we begin to ponder the values buried deep in our environmental choices (buy a super-polluting SUV or not), we are writing our own parables and crafting a new morality born of the ethics inherent in the relationship between ourselves and our planet. In the face of this process, trying to yank Jesus into the twenty-first century and locate him inside a furor born of scientific inquiry is not just anachronistic. It's desperate.

Maybe organized religion will succeed in co-opting this new scaffolding for knowing things and creating values, but there's a sound argument it can't. As a basis for understanding the world, the cool rationalism underlying environmentalism is about as compatible with "faith" as, say, Christianity's single-minded deism was when it got adopted into the multifarious pagan state by Constantine.

New paradigms do not take over in a generation or even a half dozen of them. And Homo sapiens is, in the end, not all that fleet an animal intellectually. We take our time, so that any new paradigm has to work on us like a shaggy-dog story (or a shaggy-god story), whose point is its windy telling and retelling. How long did it take for Christianity to drive the pagan gods into the musty books of "mythology" and emerge as a fully organized religion? Three or four centuries, easy.

We are more bound up than ever in a fight that dates back to the Enlightenment. Ideas this large, changing over temporal landscapes that outlast a single human life, are hard to limn accurately. Think about "race," another large idea whose shadow we huddle beneath. Only a hundred and fifty years ago, redheaded freckled Irish boys were perceived by the racialists of that time as comparable to "Negroes." Like evolution among the species, well-entrenched norms can be completely upended -- it just takes time.

Some of these ideas, such as environmentalism, have a power to affect us on a level that may eventually alter the way we describe God, or our relationship to all that is unknown in the universe. Any shift will begin with kids in school, and already has. Complaints that children can't pray in school or that the Ten Commandments can't be posted are the fights some religious institutions have chosen to take on. But which prayer and which Ten Commandments? The Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant faiths all have slightly different versions of the Ten Commandments. So as that battle becomes more prominent, expect it to devolve into internecine bitterness -- and, in the process, to totally miss the thing happening down the hall.

It's not uncommon these days for high schools to have an ecology course in which the kids marvel at the tidiness of forest succession, or a biology teacher who builds an earthworm compost bin that transforms the scraps from the lunchroom into sweet topsoil. In New Haven, Connecticut, where I live, there is a charter school called Common Ground, essentially a farm. It was easily sanctioned by the political powers, because who could be against the values of a farm? Besides, the concept of teaching the essentials of learning -- reading, writing, arithmetic -- by threading them through a single framework of understanding is an old pedagogical notion. It's what parochial schools do.

Any visitor to Common Ground cannot miss the huge compost pile. It's a vast, horizontal runway of organic decomposition, a smoldering heap of meaning that confronts you when you first drive up. At one end are mounds of leaves and sticks and chunks of various stinky rotting bits. As the students turn it all over and over, day after day, the muck forms little knolls that grow smoother and more funereal as they migrate down the way until they appear as black mounds at the end. An enormous square sieve on a swing allows students to sift out the sticks and clods to produce perfect aromatic dirt. They shovel it onto their greens, cut it into the soil, and grow their own crops. They harvest their vegetables, cook and eat them, and throw out the scraps in the compost pile. The seasons, they go round and round.

And so do ideas. The work of the land is no longer friendly 4-H science. Gardening was once the province of little old ladies giddy about this season's bulbs. Now Americans garden with a near-British passion, not merely for the beauty of their orange gazanias, Iceland poppies, or Johnny-jump-up violas but also for their meaning.

Still, science makes a lousy Weltanschauung, doesn't it? It's so cold and rational. In terms of a sense of place, the sterility of the lab can't hold much power next to the mysterium of a good Romanesque church. As a worldview, Darwinism feels lonely. Before it could insinuate itself in the hearts of people, science needed warmth, blood, feeling, love, poetry, spirituality. As far back as the Enlightenment itself, philosophers such as Giambattista Vico resisted the humorless Cartesian universe and argued that science needed some funk. Vico called it "culture."

If you look at the metamorphosis of scientific rationalism into modern environmentalism, you can see the beginning of just that. Science has always had that potential (which is another reason creationists are so angry). When astrophysicists conjecture about the big bang theory, or when Stephen Hawking talks about funneling all creation into a single grand unified theory, or when other synthesizers wheel out the TOE (theory of everything) -- it drives the intelligent designers crazy that these alleged scientists don't perceive that they are knee-deep in creation stories, universal explanations, and theology.

But Hawking's remote and cold universe needed to find a way into the daily life of the average human being. The groundbreaking book in the poetry of science was Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The very title hints at what the Garden of Eden must have sounded like after the Expulsion. And that is the trope of her book. The first chapter is entitled "A Fable for Tomorrow." Its first line reads: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings." The style is declarative and scriptural. The story is one of a Fall from Grace. In this second Eden, the animals were expelled, and the snake was man. Carson's real achievement was to take the science of DDT poisoning and the intricacies of ecological studies and write them as a story that speaks to us.

Her book was published in 1962. Not long afterward, NASA's moon-bound astronauts returned with their famous photo: Earth as seen from God's perspective. It was a view that had previously been depicted only by great masters who dared to envision God peering down upon His creation. Now NASA's photo, always described as showing a small "blue-green planet," put us on the celestial throne and implied a new kind of responsibility, if not understanding. A new holiday, Earth Day, appeared a year after Neil Armstrong returned with his pictures, and, soon enough, so did a new word. Etymological dictionaries pin down the origin of "environmentalism," as a general term describing this new understanding of Earth's workings, to the surprisingly recent year of 1972. America, famous for domesticating and democratizing every supercilious notion to come out of Europe (we turned opera into musicals, Parliament into Congress, Trollope into Hemingway, Greek mythology into The Sopranos), at last had found a cozy habitation and name to put to the old country's austere rationalism, brought down to earth, like Jesus' sense of the divine, into something as nearby as a park or a back yard-environmentalism.

What catalyst might shock the current sense we have of the environment into something else? It's not hard to imagine one when you consider what the murder of 3,000 people on September 11 did to the nation's sense of liberty. Nature could shrug her shoulders tomorrow and kill 10 million people. That might change things. A massive plague, desertification, a tectonic collapse these things have happened before. What's different today is that we understand them and, way down deep, we fear we are to blame.

Who reads the news of last January's Pacific typhoon, with razor winds of 250 miles per hour, that sheered off the tops of islands or reports that the Austrians are closing ski resorts in the Alps due to bare peaks and does not feel a deep transspecies dread far more troubling than the fear of terrorists? How about that claustrophic nausea you felt when you first read about the transmission of SARS? A disease spread by breathing, with six billion potential victims all now crowded into an ailing habitat?

California has opened a Tsunami Warning System, while folks in the Midwest report that their average annual tornado count -- 200 or 300 back in the fifties -- regularly reaches over a thousand every year now. Scientists recently determined that melting in Canada has made the mythical Northwest Passage a near reality. Every few years, an Antarctic chunk (always described as the size of Rhode Island or Delaware) cracks off and melts away. New plagues erupt, often enough that health officials wonder which bug will be adaptive enough to overpower our usual bag of epidemiological tricks. Unnerving studies report that banana trees flourish in Boston and that 80 percent of species -- ranging from tropical butterflies to arctic foxes -- are blazing new migration trails farther and farther north. The famous snows of Kilimanjaro will soon exist only in the writings of Ernest Hemingway and on vintage postcards. The Andean glaciers of Peru -- whose seasonal waxing and waning provide the country with most of its water supply -- have lost a third of their ice pack in the last twenty years. Where will those Peruvians go when their water supply disappears, as is projected in the coming decades? Agronomists now fear that the equatorial belt may one day be too hot to produce edible crops. Will the people who live there stay put, or will they jump in their rattletraps and follow the South American vicuna's new northern migration?

In the political realm, anti-environmentalists (a term no one, revealingly, would ever use about oneself) argue that there's no science to back up all this Chicken Littlism. Maybe it is all bad science, and the fretting about global warming or disappearing species is nothing more than projections of fear from our scientists. But, as these stories mount, that may be little more than a quaint paradox. The fear, scientifically valid or not, is there. Maybe we can't prove that a billion cars spewing carbon monoxide are causing a specific harm, but we know it's bad. It's enough to drive a nation of homeowners fecklessly to their curbs every week with their blue bins of wretched offerings.

Three centuries of reason have taught us that we are not under God's special protection, though we are very much part of something larger than ourselves that we don't really understand. We fear the effects of our own collective hand every time we turn on the TV and see the coast of Florida festooned with dead whales or that tanker sink beneath the swells off Spain taking with it 20 million gallons of crude to leach out into the deep blue sea for the next two centuries. Or this more recent item from the Washington Post, flashed to me via Internet alert while I edited the previous sentences: "World's Fish Ravaged. Large-scale fishing since the '50s has wiped out 90% of every big species." These stories feel like sin.

All of which may be contributing to the sense of apocalypse gripping the Western faiths. Even though they seem hell-bent on creating a crusadelike battle among themselves, their real frustration is with modernity. Bin Laden's enemy is not America but a hip contemporary Islam. And Jerry Falwell doesn't fear Muhammad nearly as much as he fears a secular society in which tolerant Christians wear their faith with as much gusto as a Shriner his fez.

In America this desperation has reawakened a need for literalism. America is currently governed by an evangelical Christian who swaggers with self-proclaimed moral clarity. Just before the first shock-and-awe bombs fell last March, President Bush announced that God had weighed the merits of the invasion and was "not neutral." Bush has publicly advocated the teaching of creationism in the schools. He makes a show of his religion and his faith in a micromanaging, interventionist God.

That old medieval God has had a rough go of it lately. Pat Robertson, who had once said he "prayed away" a hurricane from hitting his beach in Virginia, explained in 1998 that God was so furious with gays having a special day in Disney World that He might whip up a hurricane and direct it precisely at the amusement park. (God, working that cruel streak of black comedy for which He is famous, did whip up Hurricane Bonnie that year. It bore down on Orlando, as promised, but then skipped out to sea and slammed ashore at Virginia Beach, where Robertson lives.)

That very winter season a new god had descended, an advent missed by Pat Robertson. His arrival was announced by meteorologist Ants Leetmaa. Leetmaa is credited with making the first accurate forecast of a new environmental phenomenon: El Nino, a term that adapts the Spanish nickname for Jesus used by Peruvian fishermen to describe this very weather pattern. The Son of God had indeed returned to Earth and did in fact routinely call down the wrath of the heavens upon us, but on science's terms this time.

El Nino is now an accepted part of the meteorological and cultural pantheon, whereas Robertson's occasional summoning of the medieval Christian God provokes media ridicule. When Robertson and Falwell both noted that the attacks of 9/11 occurred because their God was angry with America's indulgence of homosexuality and abortion, and consequently had lifted His "veil of protection" for America as His most special place, the denunciations were so fierce that Robertson distanced himself from Falwell, and Falwell lamely retreated from his own belief.

(Neither of them has interpreted heavenly signs lately, despite many golden opportunities to do so: during the buildup to the Iraq War, the shuttle Columbia -- carrying a Christian, a Jew, and a Hindu -- exploded. A few weeks before the invasion, a plane carrying Governor Jeb Bush of Florida was struck by lightning, blowing a hole in one of the wings. Shortly after the invasion itself, the heavens descended with a sandstorm that stopped the war for several days and that elderly Iraqis described as the worst they had ever seen. When it lifted, and British prime minister Tony Blair flew to Washington, lightning blasted his plane, prompting an emergency landing. The logorrheic Falwell, for once, was speechless.)

Organized religions seem enraged these days, all over the world. Scriptures are brandished like swords. Talk of apocalypse is in the air. Secret cabals hope to use the power of government to prompt the rapture. It may he millennial fallout, or the end of the world may actually be imminent. But there may also be another reason for all the noise. According to a comprehensive survey by The City University of New York in 2001, as well as other studies, organized religion in America is in trouble. The number of people identifying themselves as Christian is dropping one percent per year. And regular attendance at services, that is, people who give money -- the more important number to organized religion-has plunged from 49 percent in 1991 to 36 percent by 1996. A lot of the action that is interpreted by the mainstream media as a return to faith has been a clamorous shift from the lame liberal theologies to the more righteous infuriated evangelisms. As marketing experts would put it, these shifts don't show any new product introductions, just some changes in brand identification. With one exception: the most rapidly growing religious niche most of whose adherents are under thirty goes by the demographic rubric "No Religion," ranking as the third largest cohort after Catholics and Baptists.

It may seem as if a growing multitude is marching to Jerusalem, their heads high, in a bold show of faith. Then again, all the noise may be coming from a dwindling band slouching to Washington, their hands out, for a mess of desperately needed pottage called "faith-based initiative."

IX. The Book of the dead, Again

Old cynical priests (they're easier to find now than ever) like to tell you that you can judge a culture by looking at those moments people consider most sacred birth, marriage, and death. Cynical priests, when they loosen their cassocks and have a scotch in hand, refer to their life's work as "hatching, matching, and dispatching."

It's no secret that birth and marriage are both red-hot centers of contemporary public debate. Consider abortion, stem-cell research, disposal of fertilized eggs, postmortem inseminations, as well as gay marriage, single motherhood, and new definitions of the "extended" family. All these issues go right to the heart of an old religious standard being threatened by science's unblinking sense that these things aren't sacred in the way previous generations believed (stem cells are just cells; gayness might be nothing more than a gene). The emerging new sense of marriage is really just an acknowledgment that we couple the way Nature works: by the grace of selection and the miracle of contingency.

The place where you can see the real effect of the environmental paradigm on the sacred is with the disposition of the dead body. Its place in the pantheon of the sacred was once primary. The dead bodies of saints held magical power. The ritual of putting a dead relative into the ground had to be done with care, because when the day of reckoning occurred, just like Jesus, he'd come back to recycle his old body. Early concerns with amputations centered around the fear that the limb would be missing even in heaven. In the nineteenth century, though, with the development of surgery, the need for cadavers created a popular fight that rivals our current abortion clash. In the pursuit of science, Dickensian doctors employed grave robbers even as official clergydom wailed about the consequences of abandoning the sanctity of the body.

In time, though, we cut a deal -- abandoning the body in return for the benefits science could reap from it. First, bodies became tools for surgeons to learn from; now they are warehouses of potential organs, skin, bone, and all manner of other tissue. Increasingly, we see the dead body as nothing more than inanimate flesh. We consider it a noble act to donate the old coil to science, to be dismantled by medical students. We agree to plunder it, right at the point of death, for living organs. This shift is fairly recent. Some religions still prohibit organ donation, but most of the mainstream ones have agreed to approve of it, almost without recognizing what's happened: we have resanctified the body, on science's terms. Donation is now widely considered a more noble act than burial. "The greatest gift," says the family of the child who receives the donated organ. But that's not all they're saying.

Among the growing class of organ recipients, stories circulate that the habits of the dead donee live on in the body of the grateful host. "Actually, I'm dying for a beer right now," said middle-aged housewife Claire Sylvia when she got out of the Yale-New Haven Hospital. She had received the heart and lungs of an eighteen-year old boy who had died in a motorcycle accident. Her book, A Change of Heart, introduced a new kind of story to the public -- the literal resurrection of the dead.

Meanwhile, the entire elaborate ritual of preserving the body -- the formaldehyde, the clothes, the ornate coffins with mattresses and box springs and decorations -- is now understood as part of an ancient fiction that we can slowly let go. Beginning in the 1960s, the shift toward cremation took off. But now even cremation, so reminiscent of chimneys belching pollution, is being shunted aside.

Billy Campbell runs Memorial Ecosystems in Westminster, South Carolina.

His idea is radical in its simplicity. He just buries the body, and not much else. I have been corresponding with Campbell for a while, hoping to see one of these new funerals. "FYI," he wrote me in an email recently, "we are having a burial in the next couple of days -- a guy from near Orlando, who died of cancer. Wants to be buried in his poncho."

Simply put, you are wrapped in a sheet (or your favorite poncho) and put into the ground to immediately decay. The great reward is no longer a chance to physically reclaim the old body on the day of rapture but (perhaps after donating your best organs to science) literally to be composted in the bowels of the earth. Often folks request that the sapling of a favorite tree be planted above them. The detritus of the body begins at once a process of reconstitution, becoming something as simple, literal, and inarguably good as a tree. There's a cleanliness to it, a purity. It feels right, in part, because it makes sense as an idea. It's the ultimate in recycling. But that word practically bangs and clatters in its new context, doesn't it? Maybe at some later date it won't seem so contrived to say it and hear allusions to resurrection.

We live in end times, all right. But it's not the end of the world that's coming; it's the declining power of the sacred word to reach our hearts as something other than shibboleth. Elsewhere new words appear in the culture and assume a subtle power, one that begins to feel like truth. For now, we might not be able to hear the fullness of their meanings or foresee the ripe possibilities of their future connotations. Compost. Global warming. Off the grid. Pollution. Renewable. Tree-sitting. Just words, literal in meaning, only now accruing layers of associations. But where does any idea start? For the answer, let us now turn to the Gospel of the Lord, as revealed by John, when he wrote, "In the beginning was the Word."