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November 15, 2004
Is the Bible green?
Carol Newsom is professor of old testament/hebrew bible
"Is the Bible green?” the student asked. At first, I didn’t even get the question. As a seminary student deeply interested in the environment, he wanted to know whether the biblical tradition could be a resource for encouraging environmental values and practices, or whether it was part of the problem. At the time I couldn’t give him a good answer, but I agreed to do a directed study with him on the topic.
Although the experience whetted my appetite to do a course on the Bible and the environment, several years went by and I never seemed to get around to designing such a course. Then I heard about the Piedmont Project, directed by Professor Peggy Barlett of anthropology and Senior Lecturer Arri Eisen in biology, which brings together faculty who want to incorporate environmental issues into their teaching and provides resources, training and encouragement for this kind of course development.
The seminar itself was both exciting and more than a little daunting. Here were faculty who did real environmental science, who dealt with the legal context of environmental issues, the economics of environmental protection, the relationship between the environment and public health, and much more. Confronting the immense complexity of the issues, as they were embodied in so many disciplines, was initially overwhelming. But it helped me think about teaching across the University according to a more ecological model. No single discipline can address every aspect of environmental issues.
Each discipline does, however, fill a particular niche. For people to become effectively involved in protecting the environment, they need both knowledge and motivation—and motivation often comes from a sense that one’s core values require a certain commitment.
Since the Bible plays such a powerful role in the largely Protestant denominations my students represent, environmental values grounded in biblical values could help them mobilize the largely untapped potential of religious communities to work for the defense of the environment. One of the most encouraging things
I discovered is that while many issues sharply split evangelicals from Christianity’s more liberal denominations, there is a significant convergence across much of the spectrum of Christian communities concerning the environment.
To be sure, some aspects of biblical tradition seem anything but eco-friendly. Lynn White’s influential article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” written nearly 30 years ago, argued that the biblical reference to humankind’s “dominion” over the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:28) had given inadvertent license to the exploitation of the environment. And who can forget the infamous comment by former Secretary of the Interior James Watt: that there was no need to protect the forests since Jesus was coming soon and this earth would be no more?
More subtle but equally serious questions arise when one considers whether texts written in such a different cultural and technological environment can speak to contemporary problems. The wilderness and its creatures, to name just one example, had a very different resonance in ancient Israel than it does today.
So last spring, when my students and I began to explore “The Bible and the Care of the Earth,” we worked our way through a complex but fascinating engagement with ancient Israelite and early Christian perspectives on the natural world and the human place in it, as these are understood in religious terms. Perhaps what surprised us most was that we often found the most productive conversations in some of the least likely places. The class remained divided as to whether the reference to “dominion” in Genesis 1 was more aptly understood as “stewardship,” or whether Genesis 1 was a culture-bound text about human preeminence that could no longer be appropriately used to direct our relationship to the rest of creation.
But Genesis 2–3 fascinated them. The chapters seem to identify paradise as a sort of permaculture, that is, an ecology in which humans interact lightly with forest resources to supply basic human needs. The Garden of Eden is not much different from oasis cultures that flourished around ancient Jericho and other such places. The fall thus seems to mark the transition from these oases into the more environmentally destructive field agriculture that marks life outside the garden in the Palestinian highlands.
The authors of Genesis were close observers of the environment. In another context, who would have thought that the dry legal material in Leviticus 25 would contain compelling moral arguments that not only do people and animals deserve rest from their labors, but that the land, too, is entitled to enjoy its sabbath?
As my students and I worked our way through the Old Testament, our surprises continued. Psalm 8, long a favorite of many students, appeared in a new light when read in relation to the environment. Was it good to read that God has put “all things under the feet” of human beings, a metaphor that derives from the triumph of the military conqueror over the conquered? (Our discomfort grew when we discovered that astronauts had placed the text of this psalm on the moon!)
But how different was the view of Psalm 104, which seems to place humans as just one among the many marvelous works of the creator. This psalm speaks with an uncanny ecological wisdom, noting the specific environments of many creatures, the shaping effect of water on differing environments, and even the differential uses of day and night by different species.
Of all the texts we read, however, the class seemed most drawn to the speech of God toward the end of the book of Job. Here humans are conspicuous by their absence, as God describes a view of creation that culminates in its extended praise of the magnificence of the legendary animals Behemoth and Leviathan, of whom God proudly says, “I made just as I made you,” “the best of the great acts of God,” creatures “without equal” (40:15, 19; 41:33).
But what made the class memorable was not just the texts but the students. They included a professor of chemistry, a sewer inspector, a contract archaeologist, a restaurateur, an “Alabama farm girl,” an Iowa hog farmer’s daughter, an Appalachian activist, an American Indian, a Burmese from a rural hometown, three urban Koreans and many others with fascinating social and religious identities who lifted our discussions far beyond the merely academic. Their major assignment was to design and, if possible, implement a teaching program in a church or community setting that integrated ecological and biblical study.
The projects were fascinating. The Korean and Burmese students planned a youth weekend for a local Korean-American church exploring the theme of water. They combined education about water quality issues with biblical study of water themes and an action project doing environmental cleanup on the Chattahoochee River.
Another group, which included both the American Indian and the hog farmer’s daughter, designed an assessment project for a Decatur church that helped participants understand how particular consumer choices affect the environment. Two other projects designed for Glenn Memorial Church involved children and youth in stimulating awareness of organic and sustainable agriculture, using biblical texts and traditions, as well as hands-on gardening activities to locate these issues as central to the young people’s religious
So, is the Bible green? That’s not exactly the way I would put it. It is a complex document that cannot be easily appropriated for any contemporary cause or concern. But after having worked with my students to trace the biblical reflections on creation, humankind, land, water, animals, plants and their interrelatedness, I would have to say that, yes, there is a deep and continuous green thread that runs through the Bible.
This essay first appeared in the October/November 2004 Academic Exchange and is reprinted with permission.