Book Review: God of Earth

I hate preamble, but I must share some background on this book and my relationship to it.  I promise most of my upcoming book reviews will not have so much back-story.  In fact, you can read a much more straight forward bonus book review of N.T. Wright’s God of Earth on my GoodReads page. Oh my, I’ve managed to preamble my preamble.  If I have any readers left after such a sin, let’s get to it:

I met author Kristin Swenson through the farm (for those new to the blog, I’m a farmer when I’m not writing or mom-ing) when we were starting out in Charlottesville.  She gifted us her book God of Earth shortly after it was published in 2016, when I was six months pregnant with Betty.  I got about halfway through it, then had a baby, and it got buried on my nightstand through no fault of its own.

I’ve picked it up several times in the intervening years, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) the first half many times now.  I brought it with me when visiting family last Christmas and finally made it three-quarters through the book, and now have finally finished it for real!

I want to reiterate, my slow reading has nothing to do with the readability of this book – which is an easily-digestible 139 pages – and everything to do with the external pressures of kids and livestock.  It flows gently yet insistently, like a spring creek, and strikes the perfect balance of wonder and urgency discussing ecological issues in Christian terms.

God of Earth brings God, particularly Jesus, into a sphere where I have (in my admittedly limited reading) rarely seen him: in and of the Earth in the most physical way possible.  This book reminds us again and again of Jesus’ visceral nature, challenging us to do the same:

The Earth is not out there, a discrete entity in splendid isolation but enmeshed in all sorts of relationships just as Jesus was with family, friends, and disciples. The God of earth, like the biblical Jesus, is relational. The friendship works boths ways.  What makes a friend to the God of earth, to the Jesus beyond Jesus incarnate in the earth itself?

If we take this question to heart, we will marvel at the world around us anew, and also be moved to attend the myriad ecological crises we face with new determination.  Swenson takes time to marvel throughout the book.  One of my favorite quotes coming from the beginning of chapter five:

The cellular wisdom of dynamic nature (what makes a rose smell like a rose and guides giraffes to evolve long necks), the energy of weather both relieving and terrifying, the urge to love and be loved, the source of all stories and art and surprise, the architect of death and keeper of mystery–that which both contains and transcends everything, the only One worthy of all worship through all time–became of earth-stuff one day, undeniably small, and absolutely vulnerable.

She goes on to describe Jesus coming to earth as a baby, miraculous and normal as any other baby.  It made me think about God in a whole new way, as discussed in this post here, where I reference her baby analogy in greater length.  It made me want to hold the whole earth tenderly in two hands.

And to behold the earth as such a precious object, I am motivated all the more to be part of the solution to climate change.  I have a long way to go, as I’ve discussed before, as I guess you do, too.  Swenson urges us to do better for sure, but she offers us this much needed grace:

“If you already care at all, if you are trying to live responsibly on the plant, then you and I, dear reader, are hardly the ones pounding in the nails.  So, if we spend our time attacking each other, already acting with ecological sensitivity, then we have let Rome–the greater world powers [oil companies, lobbyists, the shipping industry…]–load onto us their far graver sins.

This does not, of course, excuse inaction, and no one could accuse Swenson of saying so.  What this book does do, however, is provide hope where hope is needed, acknowledge grief and sadness both personal and global, and overall speak encouragement.  If you feel overwhelmed by climate change and what your role could possibly be in helping to combat it, this is the book for you.  If you need a new, organic way to think about our Christian God, this book will breathe fresh air into your beliefs.  I encourage everyone to pick it up and read it, it will do good for your soul.

This is my first book review, and I aim to do one a month from here on out in addition to my regular Bible reading.  If you are enjoying what you read please follow the blog for more!  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  And don’t forget to check the blog out on Instagram and Twitter, too!  If you want to see what else is on our reading list, follow me on GoodReads and check out our post 36 Minority Writers for you to Add to Your Reading List.

Bonus Post: So Why Be Good?

My last two posts have been about the universal reconciliation I believe all of humanity can look forward to, and how sin is just another word for animal instinct.  I want to head criticism off preemptively, because I can hear the argument now:  “If we’re all saved and sin doesn’t exist, why bother following Christianity? Why bother following any religion, actually, or even worrying about being good?”  In other words, can we be good without the impetus of damnation or salvation?  It is, ironically, a question from which many atheists have to defend themselves.

The Humanist Connection

At the risk of pissing off both Christians and Humanists, I think the answer lies, at least partially, in Humanist beliefs.  Humanists International says “human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives.”  Human beings have the ability to reason, to be empathetic, and have the capacity for a wonderful imagination and problem solving.  Whether you believe (as I do) that these are God-given gifts or simply the product of millennia of evolution is beside the point: we can all agree these abilities exist.  We are a communal species, and as such, individuals benefit when the community benefits. Monkeys know this – they sleep together for protection and scream warnings to eachother.  Lions know this – cubs are co-mothered and co-nursed by all the females within the pride.  I could go on with crows, ants, and really any other communal animal.  So, if animals with no religious beliefs (as far as I know), no promise of heaven or threat of hell, can behave in a way that is beneficial for their society, can’t we as humans do so as well?

Humanists believe so.  The Humanist Society of Western New York puts it this way:

“We owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet. A belief that when people are free to think for themselves, using reason and knowledge as their tools, they are best able to solve this world’s problems. An appreciation of the art, literature, music and crafts that are our heritage from the past and of the creativity that, if nourished, can continuously enrich our lives. Humanism is, in sum, a philosophy of those in love with life.”

Isn’t that a statement we can all agree with?

I also just want to point out the many secular societies that are doing good without any religious impetus: The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, The Nature Conservancy, and you know I’m going to go ahead and list Planned Parenthood, too.

Getting back to Christianity…

This is quickly turning into a defense of Humanism, so let me tie it back into my own beliefs. As a Christian, I believe it is my responsibility to “do good.”  Not because I will be “saved” for doing so, but because I want to show my gratitude to my God, who has given me so many beautiful gifts: this earth and all its wonders; art in the form of music, painting, and dance; the promise of a life hereafter.  I believe that everyone on earth is my sibling in Christ, and as part of my family it is my responsibility to help them, just as one would do for their flesh-and-blood family.  I act – or at least, I try to act – out of love. My underlying motivations might be slightly different than that of an atheist or agnostic, but the end result is the same: the ability to care about and for humanity without needing to be scared into it by the idea of damnation or bribed into it by the idea of salvation.

A follow-up question might be, “so why keep reading the Bible?”  I do believe it was divinely inspired.  That does not mean I think it is infallible, or a perfect recording of history.  The key word is inspired here, people.  And it continues to provide inspiration, today. I view the Bible as a guide – something that can be read over and over to reveal new truths, help us meditate upon ourselves and society, and give us an idea of what is important to God.  Is it the only way to know God? No.  I think prayer is important, too (even though I’m terrible at it), and honestly just going outside and marveling at nature is probably the best way to be humbled and awed before God.

“Human decency” is a phrase for a reason: It’s something we’re all capable of, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof).  Honestly, if you are only good because somebody is making you be good – whether it’s God, a parent, a parole officer, or whoever, then you’ve got some serious soul searching to do.  So why be good? If for no other reason, be good because a rising tide lifts all boats.  Gratitude to a higher power is optional.

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Romans 04 – Hope over Faith

18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

When faith may be too hard…

It is easy to get disheartened watching the news.  This is probably true at just about any point in history, but I’ve been really affected by it lately:  Mitch McConnell seems hell-bent on rendering the Constitution ineffective in an effort to keep white males in power. Singed koala bears make for a pitiful sight, and then I feel guilty about feeling bad for them before anything else because, yes, there are other problems not being talked about: like the impact those same fires have had on Australia’s indigenous people (a topic totally missing from any news story that I haven’t gone out searching for). A change of residence for Harry and Meghan seems to be the top story in the news cycle over deteriorating international relations and continuing impeachment developments. Yet who am I to judge, because I can’t stop thinking about Kanye and Kim’s walk-in fridge for a family of three – another story that has zero impact on my life but bothers the hell out of me for its sheer excess.

Last post I talked about how it was Jesus’ own faith that saved us, not our faith in Jesus.  When faced with such bleak realities as the ones above, it’s even easier to say “why have faith at all?”  My answer, after reading today’s chapter, is that maybe faith is the wrong word. Maybe we need to have hope.  Faith implies “complete trust and confidence in something.” Don’t get me wrong, having faith is good, but may not be something we are able to carry with us all the time.  Even the most devout have times of doubt, which, by definition, would mean that they lose faith – even if it is temporarily.  That can feel like a failure on the part of the believer and do some real mental damage.

…hope still may be achievable.

Hope, however, means “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”  And it is not to be confused with optimism.  As N.T. Wright explains in his book Paul, “Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark.”  He was writing about ancient Jewish and early Christian history, but the same is true now: Hope must be a dogged and deliberate choice on our part.  Wright goes on to say, “You have to practice it, like a difficult piece on the violin or a tricky shot at tennis.  You practice the virtue of hope through worship and prayer, through invoking the One God, through reading and reimagining the scriptural story, and through consciously holding the unknown future within the unshakable divine promises.”

Who doesn’t wish for – hope for – a better world even in the darkest hours? Perhaps the darkest hours are when our desires are strongest, when our hope is strongest.  Our faith and optimism may be gone, but our deep yearning for a better world remains.  This hope is why we keep going to church, keep reading the Bible, keep praying to God.

I agree with Paul, that our righteousness (to use his word) will be attributed to us, especially when we continue to act when there seems to be no divine promise within eminent fulfillment.  Abraham had faith in God before his promise to be a father of many nations.  As I quoted Paul above, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations.”  If we, too, act in hope – hope that we can restore the ecology of Australia and truly the whole world, hope that justice will prevail in the American political system, hope that the fate of those in need will become more important than the address of one royal couple – then we, too, will be blessed by God.

Take Action.

Practically, this means getting out there and acting.  At least I think so.  Paul may disagree – as he spends a lot of this chapter discussing how works alone cannot prove a person’s righteousness.  However, I think that this criticism was more about a blind adherence to the law (whether secular or religious) to the detriment of acting out of love for your neighbor.  In other words, self-betterment over community-lifting.  Religion at large (and Christianity in particular) seems to have a certain propensity for navel-gazing to the point of ignoring the outside world burning down around it.  Self-reflection is good, but you can think a lot of things. Getting out there and doing them?  That truly reveals where your heart lies.

Let me qualify all of this by saying: start small, and don’t burn yourself out.  The world’s problems are huge and cannot be solved by one person, let alone one person in one day.  As a mother who suffers with a chronic condition that can cause overwhelming fatigue myself, I particularly want to reach out to those just struggling to get out of bed and make PB&J’s for their kids’ lunch: you’re doing more than enough already – I am not asking you to push yourself past your limits.

Now, that being said, everyone else look around you. Think of little ways you can act in hope.  My favorite, as always, is calling your representatives.  (Something I did on Tuesday, to urge Congress to do everything in it’s power to keep the US out of a war with Iran).  It just takes a few minutes.  If talking on the phone raises your anxiety, write them a letter or email- it’s not as immediate (since anthrax scares have become a thing letters take a few weeks to get through the security back-up, and there’s just so many emails it takes a while for staff to wade through them, too) but it still gets your voice heard.  Do a change dig (you’d be surprised how much is lurking in your car/purse/nightstand/junk drawer), take it to a Coinstar, and then donate that cash to any cause you deem worthy. It’s money you weren’t missing in the first place, and can make a huge difference for an organization doing good work.  My favorite local organizations that just about any community has are food pantries, the library, and the animal shelter.  Most take cash donations at the door.  Make extra of whatever you’re cooking for dinner, and take it to that neighbor or friend who has the sniffles.  These are little ways to act in hope that require very little work on our part, but can set us – and indeed the world – on the path to larger changes.

Hope isn’t easier than faith. It is a practice, a rigorous practice, to hope.  For many, this post may be all just about semantics, since faith is a rigorous practice, as well.  But if you struggle with keeping your faith in times of trouble, do not worry: you are not alone, and you are not a bad person for facing that struggle.  My hope is that you will keep your hope.  Even if your faith falters, you can still hope for a better world.  Even if your actions seem futile, you can still take those actions. To you, your righteousness will be credited, and the world you hope for, that we all hope for, will be one act of kindness closer.