Guidelines for Reading the Bible for Preaching Care for Creation

 

Guidelines for Reading/Preaching Care for Creation from the Bible

 

From A Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary (Fortress, 2011)

Norman Habel, David Rhoads, and Paul Santmire

 

During each of the seasons of the church year we approach the Bible from a specific perspective and with specific concerns. During the Season of Advent we anticipate the coming of the Messiah and the birth of the Christ-child. We identify with the people of God who lived in hope.  We read and preach with that same hope in our hearts. We hear the voice of the prophets announcing the coming Prince of Peace and the voice of a heavenly host proclaiming peace on Earth.

During the Season of Lent we walk with Jesus of Nazareth on his way to the cross. We empathize with disciples like Peter and Mary as they share Jesus’ journey. We identify with Jesus who suffers and dies on the cross for us. And we hear the voice of Jesus crying, “Why have you forsaken me?”

During the Season of Easter we experience the risen Christ anew. We empathize with Thomas the Twin and celebrate with Peter in his boat when he sees Jesus walking on the shore of Galilee. We hear the voice of angels announcing that Jesus has risen, and we hear the risen Jesus speaks the name of “Mary!”

So also in the Season of Creation, we see the skies open for the descending Spirit, and we experience Jesus baptised in the waters of the Jordan River. We empathize with Nicodemus, and we join Paul’s longing on behalf of the “groaning” creation. We hear the risen Jesus commission his disciples to “preach the gospel to the whole creation.”

Through the centuries, we have heard and read these messages in ways that are appropriate to various times and diverse cultures. Each season has a context and a set of concerns that provide an atmosphere in which that season is celebrated and in which the stories and teachings of the Bible are interpreted and made relevant. The Season of Creation has its own context and set of concerns. Here we seek to name these as a basis for unpacking the biblical texts for our time.

1. Conscious of the Creation/ Environmental Context

For each of the Sundays of the Season of Creation there is a specific domain of creation that is the focus of that Sunday—rivers, sky, wilderness, and so on. Each of these domains has been affected to some degree by the way humanity has used or abused that domain. The clearing of forests and the consequent displacement of human communities cannot be ignored on Forest Sunday. The rising seas and the refugees that result from inundation into low lying regions provide a context for Ocean Sunday. And so on.

By focusing on the creation context, we associate with at least two aspects of the Season of Creation liturgy analysed in the previous chapter. First of all, in this season we come with an awareness that we are preaching in a sanctuary called Earth, filled with the visible presence of God pulsing through creation. Secondly, that presence or glory is with us not only in the specific domain of creation but also in the sanctuary of the building where we celebrate and in which we worship. In this season, we do not simply preach from a pulpit in a sacred building. In art and imagination, we can take the opportunity to decorate the sanctuary or project pictures of a forest or of a planet. In this way, we can preach beside a river, on a mountain top, or in the ocean of a planet filled with God’s presence. This imaginative liturgical artwork will assist us to read, preach and worship in a relationship with a specific domain of creation.

A crucial context within which we read and interpret texts selected for the Season of Creation is the current environmental context. Interpreting the text in the context of the current ecological crisis connects us with particular acts of confession in the Season of Creation liturgy. Whatever domain of creation that is the focus of our worship on a given Sunday is also a realm that has been exploited and polluted by human hands. We are present with God in a creation violated by human folly and sin. We read with an awareness of this creation context: a suffering sacred planet.

The first question we may ask when we read a text is: How does our presence in a specific domain of creation filled with God’s presence and violated by human sin prepare us to interpret the texts and to preach about a given text in the Season of Creation?

Example: Assume that we are reading Genesis 1 to prepare a sermon for Planet Earth Sunday. We recognise from the outset that we belong to the space age and know planet Earth as a precious piece of stardust. We no longer believe the ancient worldview of Genesis where Earth was viewed as a flat body of land surrounded by sea and covered by a solid canopy called sky.

Not only does our worldview reflect the space-age mindset in which we have been educated, because we are also becoming more and more conscious that we belong to a greenhouse age. This planet is undergoing radical climate changes due especially to the greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere. As we preach, the planet that is the context of our sermon is being transformed by the greed of humanity.

2. Suspecting a Human Bias

Over the centuries we have read the Bible in a variety of ways using a range of different approaches. Almost all of these approaches have been basically anthropocentric; that is, we have read the text from the perspective of human beings. Human concerns, human interests, and human aspirations have dominated our way of relating to nature. We are human beings, and it is understandable that we read from a human perspective and with a human bias. Just as privileged human beings have read the text in biased ways against the most vulnerable human communities, with tragic consequences, so we have read the text with bias against nature herself.

As we re-read biblical texts in the current context of a suffering creation, it is reasonable to inquire, therefore, as to whether most interpreters still reflect an anthropocentric bias and whether, in fact, the texts themselves reflect a similar bias.

Alternatively, we can re-read the text to ascertain whether Earth, members of the Earth community, or given domains of Earth are key characters in the narrative, play a key role in the plot, or represent important realities in the text. Can we discern spiritual, sacred dimensions in elements of the universe other than God or humans?

Before we begin re-reading the text, however, it is wise for us to examine the nature of our bias. If we trace the understanding we have of ourselves as humans, especially in the Western world, we become aware of a duality that has evolved and that has been taken for granted as self-evident. This duality separates humans and nature in a variety of ways. Humans are often assumed to be spiritual, superior, rational beings of a higher order than the rest of nature. Humans claim to be closer to God and of much greater value than the rest of nature. The natural world is believed to exist for the benefit of humans.

This dualism and the resulting alienation of humans from creation was explored in more detail in the previous chapter. Evoking a consciousness of this alienation is a crucial aspect of repentance in the context of a suffering creation. As we read and preach, we suspect that the bias of dualism also informs our approach to the Bible generally. We must also examine whether this dualistic orientation may be present not only in the assumptions of later interpreters but also in the texts themselves. As we read, we ask: Has a homocentric bias prevented us from discerning the unique presence, value, and spiritual significance of non-human characters or domains in the text? 

Example: A frequent feature of scholarly analyses of Genesis 1 is the identification of the creation of humans in 1: 26-28 and the climax of the creation story. This homocentric focus often leads interpreters to view humans as the pinnacle of creation. God, it is argued, created the world for the benefit of humans. Just as some nations have used the Bible to justify imperial colonization and domination of other nations, so we have used these texts to justify human domination of nature. This text leads scholars to discern a dualistic view of creation: humans are god-like and superior to the rest of creation.

            If, however, we set aside our prior assumptions and take a closer look at the opening verses of Genesis, we discover another perspective. Verse 1 presents us with the title for the narrative that follows. Who is the subject first introduced in the text? Earth! How is Earth described? Earth is present in the darkness but without the living form it later assumes! Where is Earth located? Deep in the primal waters that are later separated for Earth to appear! What is the metaphor suggested by this image? An embryo in the primal waters! What happens on the third day? Does God say, “Let there be Earth?” No! God says, “Let the waters separate/burst and let the land appear!” Land emerges from the waters and comes into being. Land is born. And what does God name the land? Earth!

In other words, if we set aside the anthropocentric readings of Genesis 1 and focus on Earth as the primary subject in the narrative, we gain a rich new understanding of the creation story.

3. Identifying with Earth.

If we, like most interpreters, have viewed ourselves as human beings separate and superior to the rest of creation, how might we re-read the text so that Earth, the wider Earth community, and the various domains of nature are not dismissed and devalued as secondary? 

This is perhaps the step that requires the greatest leap of faith on the part of the reader, a step designed to overcome the bias of dualism that we find in ourselves, other readers, and potentially within the text itself. As human beings, we identify, often unconsciously, with the various human characters in the biblical story. We can identify with the experiences of these characters, even if they are not necessarily individuals we admire or emulate.

The challenge we face is to empathize and even identify in solidarity with Earth, domains of Earth, or members of Earth community—and then read the text from their perspective. Why? In part, because we dwell in a living planet called Earth, where we are an integral part of the web of nature, where we are kin with all creatures on this planet. We are born of Earth, made of Earth, and survive as living expressions of the ecosystem that has emerged on this planet. We are in fact in solidarity with the rest of creation, whether we realize it or not. We are Earth beings and we are here invited to read and preach of our relationship with all Earth community. Just as we are called to solidarity with our vulnerable human brothers and sisters, so we are called into solidarity with vulnerable and suffering Earth.

When we empathize with Earth and members of the Earth community we become conscious of the many injustices perpetrated against Earth. It is natural therefore that readers in solidarity with Earth may seek to expose the wrongs that Earth itself has suffered and also to discern, where possible, the way Earth has resisted these wrongs. We ask our Lord to make our spirits sensitive to the cries for justice from the soil and the seas, the suffering of lands exploited by human greed, and the groaning of creation in anticipation of a new creation. Empathy with the domains of creation when reading the text translates into empathy with a suffering creation that is our home.

We are acutely aware, however, that we are human beings. We are not trees or mountains or kangaroos or snow leopards. Any attempt to identify or empathize with Earth or members of Earth community will remain less than ideal. That does not mean we should dismiss this step as futile. Far from it! We are part of Earth and can no longer ignore those non-human subjects, our kin in creation, who not only have intrinsic value but have a voice to be heard in the text. Just as the vulnerable humans of the Earth need to be heard, so now also vulnerable Earth itself needs to be heard.

As we read we ask:  What is the message revealed in the text when I identify with Earth, domains of Earth, or members of the wider Earth community and then read from their perspective?

Example: If we now seek to be in solidarity with Earth in Genesis 1, we are privileged to discover a remarkable experience. We begin with Earth as the unformed land mass deep in the primal waters, deep in the darkness, waiting to appear. We have a sense of identifying with an embryo anticipating birth.

We have a new appreciation of the creation of light that will enable Earth to be seen. We may also appreciate anew the creation of a sky beneath which there will be space for plants and animals to appear and come alive. But especially, we will celebrate the call from God for Earth to emerge from the dark waters and appear. Yes, appear or be revealed! The Hebrew word used here for “appear” is the word normally used for God appearing. It is the Hebrew word for a theophany. So the appearance of Earth is more than one of a series of acts of creation. Earth is revealed.

The Earth story continues throughout the creation account. Earth comes alive with vegetation. Earth brings forth living creatures. Earth is a co-creator with God, a creative presence for us to celebrate and hold sacred.

4. Retrieving the Voices of Creation.

When we empathize with Earth, we are more likely to hear the voices of Earth, whether explicit or suppressed by the bias of the context.

Earth or members of the Earth community may play a key role or be highly valued in the text. However, because of the Western interpretative tradition we have inherited, that dimension of the text has been ignored or suppressed. Moreover, when we read about non-human figures communicating in some way—mourning, praising or singing—we have tended in the past to dismiss these expressions as poetic license or symbolic language. But these passages may well reflect how nature communicates, even if in its own way.

When we identify with Earth and members of the Earth community, we recognise them as subjects with a voice. The exegetical task is to retrieve that voice. In some contexts, the voice of non-humans subjects is evident but has been traditionally ignored by exegetes. In other contexts, the voice of Earth or members of Earth community is not explicit, but nevertheless present. These subjects play roles in the text that are more than mere scenery or secondary images. Their voices need to be heard, voices that need not correspond to the language or words we commonly associate with the human voice. Just as we hear the cries of the poor, so now we hear the cries of Earth.

It is the task of the preacher to articulate these voices. This may be done in a variety of ways. In the tradition of narrative preaching, the preacher may play the role of the key domain or non-human character in the text and tell the story or message from their perspective. Most of us will have heard the preacher play the role of Peter, Mary Magdalene, or another of the disciples. The task here is to let the voice of Earth, the Red Sea, Mt Sinai, or some other domain of creation be heard.

There is a sense in which this process also involves ‘reading the silences’ of the text, silences that support the status quo, the mainstream anthropocentric thought of the author or reader. Like the awful silencing of an abused child or the suppression of the voice of the oppressed, the silence imposed on Earth or non-human members of Earth community ought not to be ignored. Retrieving the voice of Earth is an effort to break the silence. Such a silence need not be devoid of communication; day and night are silent in Psalm 19, yet their voices go throughout all of Earth (vv. 2-4).

The readings and the sermon in the Season of Creation are intended to enable these voices to be heard. There is also a connection here with the mission or ministry to creation at the close of the liturgy. By empathizing with the various domains of creation and enabling their voices to be heard, we may become more conscious of the specific ways in which we might be involved in caring for creation, healing this wounded planet and engaging in a mission to creation.

As we read we ask:  How can we articulate the interests and voices of non-human beings or domains of creation in the text that have been ignored, devalued, or dismissed by past interpreters.

Example: If we now give Earth a voice in the Genesis 1 account of creation, we may hear the following:

I am Earth. I was first revealed when God summoned the primal waters to part. I came forth from these waters as a living domain with potential to give birth. This is a great honor and grounds for celebration. I am a valued part of the cosmos.

At the request of God I brought forth, like a mother, all the flora that covers the land and dwells in the sea. I gave birth to vegetation that has the capacity to reproduce. All flora comes from within me, is inter-connected with me, and is recycled through me.

At the request of God I also brought forth, like a mother, the fauna that live on Earth. They are my offspring and depend on me for subsistence. All fauna depend on the vegetation I produce for their survival and enjoyment of life. I am Earth, the source of daily life for the flora and fauna that I have generated from within me. All are my children, Earth beings.

May I, as the precious being revealed at the beginning, as the source of all flesh and blood, including your own, and as the one who is God’s partner in the continuing creation of life, urge you as Earth beings to treasure, trust, and serve me. Let us unite in celebration and service, in healing and ministry.

 

5. Discerning the Restorative Powers of Earth.

 

The Bible makes it quite clear that Earth has creative powers. In Genesis 1, as we have seen, Earth is the fecund reality that brings forth plants and animals. Earth itself is a co-creator with God. This is not a one-time event, of course, but an ongoing reality. In one of his seed parables, Jesus attests to the fact that once a seed is planted, “on its own” the earth produces fruit, first the stalk, then the head, then the ripe grain in the head. Furthermore, Earth provides food and water not only for humans but also for all animals as the way in which God “gives them their food in due season” (Ps. 104: 27).

We know well the destructive forces of Earth. The Bible attests to them as well. Yet we can, at the same time, proclaim with the Bible that Earth also has restorative powers. Nature recovers from devastation. Nature can bring forth flowers in the desert. Just as Earth mourns and languishes when humans manifest injustice in the land, so also Earth rejoices when humans are living in the land according to the righteous commandments of God. In the psalms, the praise of creation—hills, fields, forests, seas, all creatures—is celebrated in part because it has the capacity to lift the human spirit and to draw us into their praise. All of this is confirmed by contemporary studies that demonstrate how much the beauty of Earth and the flourishing of nature can contribute to the quality of life and well-being of individuals and communities.

Furthermore, nature has healing powers. The author of the Book of Revelation gives his depiction of the New Jerusalem as an expression of the new creation. It is a vision in which humans and nature live in closeness and in harmony with each other. The river of life flows down the middle of the city streets and offers unlimited water free of charge. On either side of the river stand the trees of life offering fruit twelve months of the year, so that no one will go hungry. And, John adds, the “leaves of the trees are a healing for the nations.” John understood the healing powers of nature. As they did in antiquity, so today,  we know and appreciate the incredible medicinal properties of so many plants and animals, many of which are now endangered by human activity. And we also know that an intimate relationship with nature can ease depression, calm fears, and speed recovery from accident and illness.

This is good news about Earth that we need to recover from the Bible and proclaim in our preaching. Just as God’s love can encounter us in the faces of family and friends, so also God’s love can encounter us through the presence of nature around us. Just as we experience healing through our fellow humans, so also we can receive healing from nature. This is a significant part of the proclamation of the good news, that God has created the world in such a way that Earth can be instruments for God’s healing and restoration.

Furthermore, Earth’s restorative powers assure us that we are not alone in our efforts to help the Earth recover from the devastations at human hands. Earth is a partner. And we can often learn from Earth itself what we need to do to cooperate with Earth to speed the recovery of plants and animals and ecosystems under stress and distress. This is a significant part of the proclamation of the good news, that God has created the world in such a way that Earth can be instruments for God’s healing and restoration.

So when we read, we ask: In what ways does the presence and depiction of nature in this passage serve to express creative and restorative powers for humans and other life forms.

Example. When we read the Sermon on the Mount, we learn how humans are to love. They are to love as God does, by treating all people with love, regardless of whether they are just or unjust, good or wicked. In explaining this, Jesus names two ways that God expresses God’s love, namely, by having the sun rise over the wicked and the good and by sending rain over the just as well as the unjust (Matt. 5:45). God’s love is expressed through natural realities on behalf of the well-being of all humankind, and, we might add, all other living things on the face of the Earth. Thus, when we expand the range of expressions of God’s love for people through natural forces, we can see and proclaim, with the Bible, how important is the relationship of Earth to human beings.

6. Human Justice in Ecological Justice.

All that we have dealt with so far assumes that Earth is one interwoven web of creation. Therefore, if we are to connect with all of Earth community, we must see social justice as an integral and foremost dimension of ecological justice. They are one and the same thing, because they are so inextricably related to each other. We cannot separate our abuse of Earth from the abuse of humans against humans. It is the same mentality of domination and exploitation that leads humans to treat Earth and humans with inhumane behaviour.

It is clear that our actions against and neglect of nature is directly related to our abuse of humans. And, equally so, our efforts to restore of Earth are directly related to our restoration of humans from environmental deprivation. Pollution of air, water, and land is causing human illnesses, genetic aberrations, and displacement. Climate change is causing more severe and unpredictable weather, a reduction in arable land to desert, migrations of environmental refugees, a loss of vital fresh water reserves, increased risk of fire due to dry conditions, and human conflicts over scarce resources. These changes in Earth are affecting everyone. However, they are affecting most especially the poor of the world who are most dependent upon the land and the water for their life and livelihood, and who have the least protections against threats to their health and well-being. It is the task of the preacher to articulate these connections both in the text and in its application to our time.

As we read, we ask:  How does the passage show (or not) the connection between human injustice and ecological degradation? How does the passage show a relationship between love of neighbour and care for the Earth? How can we find (in the passage or in the Bible as a whole) guidance to care for the most vulnerable and to restore justice to all Earth community?

Example: In analysing Genesis 1, we see that God creates Earth as a whole, including human beings. The salvation history that follows in the biblical materials is not just human history; it is creation history. All are meant to thrive together. Humans have a responsibility to see that all of life—human and non-human—may “be fruitful and multiple.” The whole creation story and the rest of the Bible stories that follows display what that responsibility is to be like: humans are to “serve and preserve” garden Earth; Noah preserves all species, humans included; the Sabbath laws call for rest for humans and animals and land together; all creation is to worship God in solidarity; when there is injustice among humans in the land, the Earth withers and does not produce crops; when the future is secured by God, the land will produce abundantly year around so no one is hungry. Our common fate as creatures of Earth is tied up together; and humans are to exercise dominion in solidarity with creation, not above it.

This opening story of creation sets the framework for the rest of the Bible. It calls for human beings to embrace a vocation of responsibility: to be Earth-keepers, just as we are to be keepers of our sisters and brothers. The rest of the Bible unfolds the full purpose to act as agents in God’s image, namely to serve rather than to lord over.

7. Connecting with Christ.

In our interpretation of biblical texts, particularly in the New Testament lessons, we need ask how Christ is involved in creation and in the restoration of creation. We need to explore how Christ is connected with us as creatures and with the rest of creation. We need to consider where the good news is found in the text or in the wider context and where Christ is at work in the origins, suffering and liberation of all creation.

As we read we may ask: Does the text point to Christ and the origins of creation or continuing creation? Does the text point to Christ suffering with and for creation? Does the text connect with Christ forgiving sins, including environmental sins? Does the text reveal the presence of the risen and cosmic Christ reconciling all creation?

Example: As we analyse the epistle lesson for Planet Earth Sunday (Rom. 1:18-23), we are made aware that creation is not simply a beautiful work of art. It is also a means of revelation, a vehicle for proclaiming God’s presence. The glory of God mentioned by Paul is the visible presence of the creator mediated through everything from the sunset to the storm, from the garden frog to the mountain lion.

And, as the Gospel lesson for this Sunday discloses (John 1:1-14), God’s glory is revealed to us even more clearly in Jesus Christ. For that very Word that called Earth to appear from beneath the primal waters is now revealed in Jesus Christ. And in one of the most radical assertions of the Gospels, John declares that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). In other words, God “became flesh.” And flesh is composed of water, air, and soil—the basic stuff of Earth. So the Word became part of Earth. In short, Christ and creation are connected from the beginnings of creation through the incarnation to the birth of a new creation.

Conclusion.

We urge you to reread these suggested guidelines from time to time, so that your sensitivities to the presence and voices of all Earth-community in the text are maintained and sharpened. For every Sunday in the three-year common lectionary, not just for the Season of Creation, we can explore in creative and insightful ways the words we need to hear and the messages we need to proclaim that will engage us in “the care and redemption of all that God has made.”

 

Further Reading

 

Bauckham, Richard. The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010.

Bredin, Mark. The Ecology of the New Testament: Creation, Re-Creation, and the Environment. Colorado Springs: Biblica Publishing, 2010.

Davis, Ellen. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

The Earth Bible Series edited by Norman Habel. See the titles, contributors, and tables of content for the volumes in this series on the Earth Bible pages at www.webofcreation.org.

Fretheim, Terence. God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.

Fretheim, Terence. Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010.

The Green Bible (NRSV). Sanfrancisco: HarperOne, 2008.

Habel, Norman. An Inconvenient Text: Is a Green Reading of the Bible Possible? ATF Press, 2009.

Habel, Norman and Peter Trudinger, eds. Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008.

Hiebert, Theodore. The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Horrell. David. The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology. London: Equinox, 2010.

Horrell, David, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, eds. Greening Paul: Reading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010.

Horrell, David, Cherryl Hunt, Christopher Southgate, and Francesca Stavrokopoulou. Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical, and Theological Perspectives. New York: T & T Clark, 2010.

Marlow, Hillary. Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Rhoads, David. “Who Will Speak for the Sparrow? Eco-Justice Criticism and the New Testament” Pages 64-86 in Literary Encounters with the Reign of God: Festschrift for Robert Tannehill New York: T & T Clark, 2003.

Rossing, Barbara R. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2004.

Walker-Jones, Arthur. The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

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