Flight Behavior: On identity, climate change, and the evangelical tribe

Identity was the word of the year in 2015. Which I like, because I’m obsessed with thinking about how identity works in shaping our world. There’s people who think stuff happens in the social world primarily because people are rational and weighing the pros and cons and acting in their own self-interest. Then there’s people who still believe in altruism. And then there’s people who think people act not because of some rational thought, but because their actions line up with who they are. “I buy a Mac because I’m an Apple person.” “I’m a Twins fan because I’m a Minnesotan.” “I recycle because I’m a green millennial.”

When we frame things in terms of who we are, we do a couple of things. One of them is shift into a world where no one can judge. Like, “Hey, don’t judge my pickup. I know I live in the city, and I don’t need something that guzzles this much gas, but I’m a truck guy, okay?We don’t see actions as choices. We see them as an extension of ourselves, sort of inevitable and beyond critique. 

We also delve deeper into our tribes. We find other people who identify the way we do. We sit back, get comfortable, and try to avoid rubbing shoulders with those people. Because it’s not just a matter of a difference of opinion– it’s a different kind of person. 

51pqqqclN-L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s book Flight Behavior. I read Prodigal Summer this summer, and I also love Poisonwood Bible. I love Kingsolver because she has such rich characters but her books also spark with the moral outrage of the best of the social reformers. This book was beautiful but incredibly sad, because climate change is sad and terrifying.

In Flight Behavior, which takes place in rural Appalachia, a woman named Dellarobia stumbles across a wildfire of monarch butterflies that have been dislodged from their Mexican wintering homes due to global warming. And in come bands of scientists, the media, hippies from California, and some British ladies who are knitting monarchs to raise awareness. And her sheep-farming in-laws are considering logging the place where the monarchs live to make a balloon payment on some machinery, and she’s barely paying the bills. And people are split between those who see these million butterflies as a miracle from heaven, and those who see it as a horrific malfunction of our warming climate. There’s a scientist who comes to watch hopelessly, he says it’s like watching a loved-one die of a terminal illness. You can’t really do anything, so you do everything. There’s also this guy who hands out pamphlets to people on how to reduce their carbon footprint. The pamphlet says things like, “Don’t fly as often.” “Take tupperware when you go out to eat to take the leftovers home.” “Buy items second-hand.” And redneck Dellarobia, whose community is being judged by outsiders for not caring/believing in climate change says, “I’ve never been on a plane, we go out to eat once a year, and I buy everything second-hand because I have to.” She’s just that poor. It’s very ironic.

But Dellarobia has some great conversations with the scientist Ovid about climate change and identity.

[Ovid] “You think so, it’s a territory divide? We have sorted ourselves as the calm, educated science believers and the scrappy hotheaded climate deniers?”

Dellarobia definitely felt he was stacking one side of the deck with the sensible cards…

“I’d say the teams got picked, and then the beliefs get handed around,” she said. “Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere an the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants. Students e-mailing to tell you they deserve their A’s.” (321)

Ovid looked stupefied. “What, you’re saying this is some kind of contest between the peasant class and the gentry?”

She returned his look. “I definitely don’t think I said that.”….

“Sorry,” she said “I’m just saying The environment got assigned to the other team. Worries like that are not for people like us. So says my husband.”

His brows wrinkled gravely. “Drought and floods are not worries for farmers?”

“You think any of this is based on information? Come on, who really chooses?”

…“These positions get assigned to people,” she said. “If you’ve been called the bad girl all our life, you figure you’re already paying the price, you should go an and use the tickets. If I’m the redneck in the pickup, fine, let me just go burn up some gas.”  (p 323)

There’s a part at the end, where Ovid’s wife Juliet, who studies folk art, comes for supper and the topic comes up again:

Climate-change denial functioned like folk art for some people, he said, a way of defining survival in their own terms. But it’s not indigenous, Juliet argued. It’s like a cargo cult*. Introduced from the outside, corporate motives via conservative media. But now it’s become fully identified with the icons of local culture, so it’s no longer up for discussion.

“The key thing is,” Juliet said, resting her elbow on the table, that beautiful wrist bending under the weight of its wooden rings, “once you’re talking identity, you can’t just lecture that out of people. The condescension of outsiders won’t diminish it. That just galvanizes it.”

Dellarobia felt abruptly conscious of her husband and her linoleum. “Christ on the cross,” she said without enthusiasm. “The rebel flag on mudflaps, science illiteracy. That would be us.” (p.395)

A study from Yale showed that while 64% of Americans think global warming is real, only 44% of evangelicals do. That’s terrifying. It feels like somehow lines have been drawn, and it seems there’s one deck of cards that says, “Scientific illiteracy = Republican = pro-life = trash the environment = racism doesn’t exist in America anymore= Christian.” And if anyone wants to change our minds, we’ll dig our heels in and call it persecution.

Except I don’t think all those  items belong in the same deck. But as soon as I say something about the environment, or racism, I hear people inside the tribe say, “Oh.. you’re not really one of us” and people outside the tribe say, “Yeah, she says she’s a Christian, but– you know, not really.

On one level, Christianity can work (and does work) like any religion- it sorts the world. It gives clear right and wrong, it fits things into a definable story, it gives a sense of meaning and purpose, it gives a context to meet people and get married and gossip. The opiate of the people and all that. And if it’s only working like that, then there’s really not that much point.

But historically, and in many parts of the world, identifying as a Christian and saying you were going to follow Jesus was very disruptive for existing social conditions. Greek philosophers were upset because people were claiming Jesus actually rose from the dead. Jews were upset because Jesus didn’t overthrow the Roman empire like they thought the Messiah would. Rome was worried because suddenly Jesus’ followers were pledging allegiance to someone besides Nero. The apostle Paul was making radical claims like, “There’s no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, we are all one in Christ.” Um, if that’s not upheaving the existing social order and forging a new identity, I don’t know what is. 

I feel like that’s always the pressure. One one hand, we’re pressured to be “conformed to this world” (as the apostle Paul says) and let it hand out the stacks of cards,telling us what it is to be a Christian and which items go with our tribe (whether it was colonialism in the 1800’s, or racism in the 1930’s, or anti-intellectualism in the 1980’s, or any other number of Western Christianity’s besetting sins we’ve picked up from the culture around us)… OR “to be transformed by the renewing of your mind in Christ Jesus, so that you can test and approve what his will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will”. Which Paul goes on to say includes things like humility and working together.

And there has always been that transforming element pulsing inside Christianity through the ages. Martin Luther King Jr and the black Church led the fight against racism, missionaries saved thousands of lives with western medicine and education (with the result that African countries with a history of protestant missionaries have more stable democracies,) and.. uh, Alister McGrath or Alvin Plantinga, or heck, even Tim Keller. (I’m not up on my 1980’s Christian intellectuals. But they existed).

And I believe these things happened not as some accidental positive fall-out of the really bad idea of Christianity. I believe they happened because even as situated as we are in our little tribes and cultures and biases, the Holy Spirit is supernaturally at work, coming in from outside, changing us into people who are more like Jesus in spite of ourselves.

from motherjones.com “Inquiring minds”

So speaking of those currents of Holy Spirit resistance, here’s an awesome evangelical Christian, Katherine Hayhoe, talking to “her tribe” about global warming, and framing it in a way they’ll understand. She’s something the crazy liberals probably get freaked out by: an evangelical, and the product of missionary parents. But she’s a scientist, and she’s using her knowledge of the evangelical community to communicate about climate change in a way they’ll understand. 


*cargo cults are this weird thing that sociologists and anthropologists get excited about because it’s social behavior that seems really strange. Basically when a society that hasn’t interacted with technology a lot suddenly gets it, they don’t know how to explain it, and they give it some mystical/supernatural meaning. So like there’s stories of tribes that would like worship the plane of researchers. Go wikipedia it. 

4 thoughts on “Flight Behavior: On identity, climate change, and the evangelical tribe

  1. I like your use of the word tribe.
    Could it be that long ago when we lived in small tribes that competed for survival loyalty was all important?
    That same residue of loyalty resides in the human mind today. Within the big nation tribe we have the smaller tribal factions who fight for there own veiws. Birds of a feather flock together.
    Are these tribes distinguishable by there members intelligence? or wealth , maybe education. Is it possible to be torn between two or more tribes? What causes a person to change tribes ?
    How do the politicans control the tribes and maintain their positions.
    If we take the Christian tribe and examine it we find large splits and breakaway tribes within it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I like all those ideas and questions! Thanks for taking the time to comment! So in sociology, there is this idea of neotribalism, especially as the world becomes more complicated and our larger kinship networks and allegiance to main institutions (such as church/neighbourhood) break down, we become more fractured around special interests (and also more fanatical because of the echo chamber of the internet). The Barna group did a study not too long ago on the “faith tribes” of the USA, which I have not read, but looked interesting. I’m also interested in people “changing tribes” as you say. What causes people to switch? I’m reminded of a comment that a leading bishop in Rwanda said about the Christians after the genocide. Something like, “The problem was that we were Hutus and Tutsi’s first, and Christians second.” — so kind of that idea that a broader, more encompassing identity (or “tribe”) could be useful in limiting extreme tribalism. But there are literally hundreds of questions to ask about this topic!


      1. It would be good for us all to get beyond the tribe and afirm our membership of the whole human tribe. I’m no sociologist, just an interested layman. Thanks for your reply, keep trying to answer those hundreds of questions.


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