Preaching creation: the environment and the pulpit by John C Holbert

This review first appeared in The Preacher: The College of Preachers Magazine in early 2014.

Preaching creation: the environment and the pulpit. Cascade Books, 2011.

“Certainly human praise to God means more to God than clatter of hail on tin roofs or the clapping of the musically inclined leaves of the aspen trees! Perhaps, but not as much as human beings would like to think.”

This provocative statement from the Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim appears an excellent book which aims to help preachers effectively engage with environmental issues from the pulpit.

There are several significant reasons why such preaching is needed. These include traditional theological themes, response to wider concerns, and looking to evangelistic opportunities in our time. The Christian Church has always understood this world and universe as something created by God, an occasion for praise and thanksgiving and entailing an obligation upon humankind for its care. The understanding that current climate change is caused by human activity, with negative impact upon the world and its inhabitants, has added urgency to the need to develop informed preaching on this issue. Since this concern is held by a wider population, including younger generations with which churches in the West have struggled to engage, an evangelistic element potentially becomes part of the equation.

Holbert, professor of homiletics at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, is concerned by traditional biblical interpretations which are problematic in today’s world, for example readings of ‘dominion’ in Genesis 1, understood to permit unsustainable exploitation of the world’s resources. He wishes to offer suggestions about what the biblical texts are saying today and how preachers might use them.

In a slim volume (less than one hundred and twenty pages), a series of chapters explore texts from different areas of the Bible – Genesis, Psalms, Job, Hebrew prophets, Proverbs, Paul’s epistles, the Gospels, and Revelation. Holbert is prepared to question traditional readings; not only ‘dominion’ but ‘stewardship’ are found wanting as ways of understanding the biblical witness. On occasion, in his reading of John for example, he is even willing to express doubts about the original intention in the biblical texts.

Every chapter contains unexpected insights, making the reader think and re-think their understanding of creation in the light of scripture. Additionally, and very helpfully, each chapter concludes with a (short) sermon illustrating how explorations in the preceding pages might work in preaching practice. Somehow, there is even space for an additional chapter on helpful practices to resource ‘preaching creation’. These comprise comments on prayer, exegesis, awareness of listeners, care for one’s self, and a useful selection of reading suggestions that will better equip the preacher for their task.

This is the best book I have yet come across to support those who must preach on environmental issues. The task is important and urgent, for as Holbert concludes, “It is not too late for our conversion to become lovers and partners with God’s world. But we must be honest; it is surely getting very late.”

 

Trevor Jamison is a United Reformed Church Minister, currently working as Environmental Chaplain for Eco Congregation Scotland

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