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.

Hosea 09 – Stewardship Callings

5 What will you do on the day of your appointed festivals,

    on the feast days of the Lord? (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

Kind of a rough start to a blog entry the week before Christmas, right?  But this chapter does ask us an important question: what will we do on the day of our appointed festivals? On the feast days of our Lord?  Will we participate in hollow ritual, whether that be religious or secular in nature, or will we remember our true callings?  Throughout these recent chapters – indeed, a major message that comes from numerous prophets – is that God does not want lip service, God wants our hearts and minds, our true dedication.

But what does that mean, exactly?  For me, it means stewardship.  I believe the best way to show our love of God is to care for what God cares for: Xyr creations.  The Earth and all its inhabitants.  So stewardship can take many forms, as you might imagine.  That’s one of the beautiful things about it: you can find what makes you passionate and follow that path.  And no one path is “better” or “right.”  There are many, many problems that need to be addressed in this world.

For example, my two major motivators are environmental stewardship and combating racism/xenophobia.  Those are broad topics, and I’ve explored them further I’ve zero-ed in on what really, really interests me.  First, within environmental stewardship is the issue of food waste.  Did you know that somewhere between 162-218 BILLION DOLLARS of food waste is generated in America each year?  That’s food that is thrown out at grocery stores and restaurants, by individual consumers, and the stuff that is left to rot in the field because it doesn’t meet harvesting standards (but is perfectly edible).  Just one third of that wasted food would be enough to feed the 50 million food-insecure individuals in this country.  Instead, it is in landfills producing methane, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. It is a sin of excess compounded by a sin of carelessness.  Did you also know that there are two bills that have been introduced to Congress that would go a long way towards combating this waste….but they have languished since being introduced.  (It’s the Food Recovery Act and the Food Date Labeling Act, both introduced by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine, you can read more about them here.)  You can bet I call my reps about those bills, and spend a lot of time sharing facts like the ones above to spread the word.  And while I’m far from perfect, I try to combat food waste at home, as well: buying only what we need, using leftovers in the next meal’s cooking, and composting as a last resort.

Second, racism and xenophobia, which need to be attacked from so many levels.  The issue-within-the-issue, if you will, that really gets to me is governmental policies towards refugees.  We are a country of plenty – as illustrated above by the sheer waste we are able to generate – and there is no reason we can’t reallocate resources to help those in need, including incoming refugees.  I wrote more about why this issue is important to me last year, in this blog post.  Again, I call my representatives, speak up on this blog and other forums, and donate when I can to organizations like IRC and RAICES.

But that’s just what I’m passionate about.  And it’s OK if that’s not what you’re passionate about.  My plea today is to just find what makes you passionate.  Some other quick examples:  My priest in Charlottesville cares deeply about healthcare in rural communities, as well as the rights and well-being of those in institutionalized care (such as the elderly or mentally ill).  I have friends passionate about criminal justice reform.  Others are dedicated to plastic-free lifestyles and spreading the word on the benefits of that, both personal and environmental.  Many of my favorite accounts on Instagram are devoted to fighting fast fashion with it’s exploitative nature and environmental impacts.

Like I said, there’s a whole world of problems to be fixed.  And that can be scary, when you think about trying to fix all of them. But God does not ask that of you.  God simply wants you to be a part of the larger picture.  When we are selfish, greedy, careless, we turn from God, as the ill-fated people in this chapter.  But if we turn towards eachother, towards stewardship, we can avoid the horrors of this chapter, and that is something to rejoice.

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 us out on Instagram and Twitter, too!

Job 09 – Including Nature in Christianity

Then Job replied:

“Indeed, I know that this is true.
    But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?
Though they wished to dispute with him,
    they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
13 God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet.

14 “How then can I dispute with him?
    How can I find words to argue with him?
15 Though I were innocent, I could not answer him;
    I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
16 Even if I summoned him and he responded,
    I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
17 He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason.
18 He would not let me catch my breath
    but would overwhelm me with misery.
19 If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
    And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
20 Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
    if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.

21 “Although I am blameless,
    I have no concern for myself;
    I despise my own life.
22 It is all the same; that is why I say,
    ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
23 When a scourge brings sudden death,
    he mocks the despair of the innocent.
24 When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
    he blindfolds its judges.
    If it is not he, then who is it?

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they fly away without a glimpse of joy.
26 They skim past like boats of papyrus,
    like eagles swooping down on their prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint,
    I will change my expression, and smile,’
28 I still dread all my sufferings,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 Since I am already found guilty,
    why should I struggle in vain?
30 Even if I washed myself with soap
    and my hands with cleansing powder,
31 you would plunge me into a slime pit
    so that even my clothes would detest me.

32 “He is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,
    that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to mediate between us,
    someone to bring us together,
34 someone to remove God’s rod from me,
    so that his terror would frighten me no more.
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him,
    but as it now stands with me, I cannot.

I once had a pastor who said she thought it was a shame that early Christianity was formed at a time and place where popular thought was enamored with the idea of a separation of body and soul.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with Plato arguing that that soul is immortal (he is not the first to do so, but probably is the most influential), it leads to a disconnect from the physical world. To paraphrase: Stoics believed the highest human achievement was rational thought; Epicureans believed one could only achieve the highest mental state through focusing on rational (instead of physical) pleasures; and Skeptics doubted anything that could be perceived through the senses – basically the whole natural world.  All of these early philosophies were focused on taking man beyond body and the experiences of the physical.  Nature became a second-class citizen.

Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, nature became something for man to dominate through conquering and rules.  This was the great age of exploration, where “new” worlds were discovered, colonized, and bent to the will of the ruling people.  As scientific thought became first less dangerous and then more popular, western society approached nature through rules and laws, and it became at best a system from which to take resources, at worst an adversary to be quelled.  Yes, nature was God’s creation, but one over which people (at least, the people in power) have total control to exploit and subvert at our own pleasure.

It makes some people uncomfortable to think about Christianity being prone to “influences,” but the truth is, it did not form in a bubble.  Jesus was a vocal critic of society in a time of great political tension. Yes, he came to save all mankind, but the problems of his day were searingly visceral as well as spiritual.  And the societal influences, as you can see from the previous two paragraphs, just continued from there, usually at the expense of nature’s influence on worship.  I will say that there has been a slow return towards a respect for nature as God’s creation.  Romanticism, in particular, held a mystic view of nature, and conservation efforts today help us recognize the finite beauty of the world, and our responsibility towards it.  But there are still those who are afraid of nature, afraid that by looking to nature we are introducing pagan practices to Christianity and polluting our Christian faith. Well, I have a news flash for anyone who believes that: Pagan practices have been a part of Christianity from the very beginning, so that ship has sailed.  Here’s a whole Wikipedia article, with a whole subset of links, that describe all the pagan practices currently in Christianity, if you don’t believe me.

The early authors of the Bible did not have a conflict of thought between God and Nature.  And it readily apparent in the Book of Job.  Clearly, God is the great creator of nature, and when we are in awe of nature, we are in awe of Xyr power.  To illustrate this point, I think a whole section of this chapter bears repeating:

He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
10 He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.

I don’t think we should go out and pray to the trees, or the moon, or the sun.  They are all creations – glorious ones, but still just creations – of our almighty God.  But, does a mindful walk through the forest count as a prayer?  If done with intention, I think so.  Same goes for marveling at the beauty of a sunset, the vastness of the ocean, the delicateness of a butterfly.  I think it similar to admiring a painting.  When we admire a painting we are admiring the artist’s skill.  What artist wouldn’t want their painting admired?  To admire nature is to admire and acknowledge God.

And then there’s the act of planting.  Planting, in particular, I find synonymous with prayer.  We plant a vegetable garden in the hopes of a bountiful harvest, or plant bulbs in the fall in the hopes for flowers in the spring. Even planting saplings in the hope of a timber harvest decades from now is a hopeful and even prayerful act: planting implies hope for the future, faith that God will carry us through to the next season.

Perhaps, if we all spend a little more time with nature – admiring it, respecting it, and caring for it – then we will be spending more time with God, too.