A couple of summers ago, I taught a course on Christianity and the environment at Memphis Theological Seminary in Tennessee. For the divinity students in my class, most of whom were already serving as ministers to congregations in the southern United States, the idea of linking Christian discipleship with creation was new at best and, for many of their congregants, clearly questionable, if not downright heretical.
After all, was not human salvation, rather than ecological stewardship, the primary aim of the Christian vocation? Wasn’t it pagans and secular humanists who were at the vanguard of the environmental movement? Would it not sully Christian orthodoxy, not to mention Christian knees, to get down in the dirt to pursue secular environmental initiatives with such unwashed and certainly un-Christian eco-types?
After the screening of “Is God Green?”, Bill Moyers’s cogent 2006 documentary about U.S. evangelicals’ embrace of and resistance to Christian “creation care,” however, the students’ attitudes began to change. They winced as some celebrated evangelical personalities sanctimoniously denied the scientific evidence of climate change and smiled, perhaps a little self-reflectively, as they witnessed an Idaho Republican evangelical minister, a member of the National Rifle Association and an avid hunter, deliver his first environmental sermon, galvanizing his flock to eco-activism, culminating in a tree-planting junket with the U.S. Forest Service.
They reflected on how Christians in the South, inculturated into Jim Crowism, had opposed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement out of racial prejudice, rather than Christian calling, and began to muse that once again, out of political and ideological entrenchment, rather than authentic adherence to the Gospel, many evangelical brethren were castigating Al Gore and deriding Christian calls for ecological concern.
Today, in the post-Bush era, teaching such a course would, I imagine (and hope), be a somewhat different experience. With a Democratic U.S. president of African heritage in power, who not only acknowledges climate change but also seeks to address it, the political atmosphere has perhaps become more propitious for such learning. And with the recent publication of The Green Bible (HarperOne, 1,440p, $29.95) a green-letter edition of the New Revised Standard Version, the Christian ecological air has become a little more breathable.
With its comfortable, cotton linen cover, recycled paper, soy-based ink and water-based coating, The Green Bible—with a foreword by Desmond Tutu—is a handsome, eco-friendly volume. Akin to “red-letter Bibles,” highlighting the words of Jesus in red ink, The Green Bible features in green over 1,000 verses dealing with nature, creation and the divine origin of and human responsibility toward both.
The volume is helpfully book-ended by St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures,” a short poem from the Christian Kentucky-poet-farmer Wendell Berry and “The Green Bible Trail Guide,” which delineates green biblical themes and the passages pertaining to them. Also included are a “green topical index,” an annotated list of Christian environmental groups, eco-action ideas and practical tips for congregations interested in getting started down the green path of sustainability. In addition, a variety of essays by both scholars and religious leaders add theological salt and environmental light to the edition. The excerpts from the work of the evangelical environmental scientist Calvin de Witt; Pope John Paul II’s statement “Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation”; Sojourners board chair Brian McLaren on the theological shift to creation care; the Jewish environmentalist Ellen Bernstein on 10 principles of creation theology; and the Anglican bishop N. T. Wright on environmental renewal are particularly useful additions.
Coincidentally, 15 years ago, my wife Hilary and I co-wrote The Green Bible for Orbis Books (alas, one cannot copyright a book title), building on the popular Radical Bible published years earlier by my father, Philip Scharper, and John Eagleson. Our volume was not an entire Bible, but rather an ecological, ecumenical and, we hoped, inspirational resource.
Before a book signing at a Christian bookstore in Tucson, Ariz., the owner reported that a few callers would not come to the event because The Green Bible was somehow related to “witchypooh”—a precise definition of which was never provided. Tellingly, the HarperOne Green Bible has also spawned some controversy. According to James Taylor, a senior fellow of environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, a conservative Chicago-based think tank, there is a significant amount of “skepticism” among mainstream evangelicals toward the new Bible.
According to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2006, for example, 70 percent of evangelicals believe there is credible evidence that the Earth is getting warmer, and Richard Cizik, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals, has been an intrepid and inspired advocate for the Earth, especially in light of dramatic climate change, within U.S. evangelical circles.
The environmental theologian Steven Bouma-Prediger, who served on the Advisory Board of The Green Bible, said that while there have been rumblings about the text, he is not aware of any concerted “pushback” against the volume. He also noted in a recent conversation that “there is a real generational shift” emerging among conservative Christians. Those 35 and younger “don’t know the older evangelical figures such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club” and the late Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority. These younger Christians “don’t see the world in the same categories as the older generation,” Bouma-Prediger notes. “They are more concerned with H.I.V./AIDS, global poverty, and creation care” than their forebears, Bouma-Prediger claims, commenting that when his 13-year-old daughter saw The Green Bible in the house, “she globbed right on to it.”
Ellen Bernstein, in her incisive essay “Creation Theology: A Jewish Perspective,” which is included in the volume, writes: “Generally the high point of Jewish faith is thought to be the moment when God revealed the law to Moses. But according to some of the ancient rabbis, creation was God’s first revelation, and inscribed in the creation itself is another dimension of God’s law.”
This speaks to a critical insight within the Judeo-Christian tradition and a sizeable lacuna in this volume: the importance of creation itself as a primary source of revelation, and the absence of commentators such as the “geologian” Thomas Berry, C.P., the mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme and Miriam Therese MacGillis, O.P., the founder of Genesis Farm, who accent the cosmic reality out of which scriptural revelation emerges. Such a perspective represents more than a slight shift in emphasis; the cosmocentric focus of these thinkers has long roots deep within the Hebrew and Christian lineage, and represents a profound antidote to anthropocentric and idolatrous readings of the Bible.
While The Green Bible contains helpful quotes from such figures as Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart and Rashi—in the section “Teachings on Creation through the Ages”—the lack of any sustained reflection from advocates of a cosmological approach is as telling as it is regrettable. It eschews one of the most compelling aspects of the current nexus between faith and ecology, one that unites the Jewish and Christian Scriptures with sacred texts and stories from the world’s other great faith traditions, and tends to de-contextualize the written word of the Bible from the Word that was and is God, and through whom all things “came into being.”
The Green Bible, nonetheless, can help us understand that in the West, and indeed the world over, “people of the book” are failing in one of the first and most important biblical injunctions—to take care of the Garden. This is a woefully belated step, given our current, horrifying despoliation of the planet, but a welcome step nonetheless.