On my bookshelf is the ‘Green Bible’. Multiple verses of what is otherwise a New Revised Standard Version are highlighted in green ink which (ironically?) makes them more difficult to read. What we don’t have, and what I’m finally persuaded to wish for dream of – maybe even pray for – is something altogether more daring, fun and useful namely ‘A Treehugger’s Bible’.
Plenty of us in the churches – locally and globally – are deeply engaged in the project of discovering what it means to be the Church in a time of acceleratingly urgent climate crisis (and of course, so many other concurrent crises too) specifically as the result of the unjust actions of human cultures, which are now, with complete knowingness, and unprecedented momentum, proceeding to an equally unprecedented catalogue of catastrophe. Churches will not stop or solve these threats, though we have a place, perhaps especially with other people of faith, in the encouragement of spiritual resilience, by grace to face with hope, the wildfires already burning.
The Signs of the Times are primarily those of an emergency: where the standard rules of procedure require some abrupt rethinking in order that our life, work and worship be responsive -always reliant on the Holy Spirit – to the pace of changes beyond our control; that we may at least participate in and raise the prospect of healing, and of a hope-shaped vision for the futures that really do lie before us.
One of our most severe handicaps, as Christian thinkers, is the tendency for what is dominant to become blindingly definitive. Thus, my own formal qualifications in what I have to recognise as western/global north/ straight/male/anthropocentric/academic/enlightenment-intimidated/colonialist/capitalist theology are on paper completely “un-qualified’ as mere ‘theology’. To that’ of course, I add three contextual decades of preaching, of wrestling with scripture and caring for and being cared for by congregations, of which the last five years, as EcoChaplain, have been the most intense of all. And, I have to add – and this with the utmost seriousness – the most fun! And one of the most joyful of all insights has been the liberative permission the crises impart, to celebrate David Bosch’s maxim that we are always ’Christopagans’. Purity is never on offer. The Word is Always Interpreted. Get used to it and thank God with all your heart and mind and soul. Be suspicious only of any ‘final’ version, however wise, erudite or sincere its origins.
Digital resources have long presented every student and/or practitioner in Christian ministry with a smorgasbord of voices, approaches and agendas with regard to the presentation of Scripture, both in English-( or other modern)language versions and of course the commentaries that support earnest study. We benefit from an undeserved magical overview of the blood sweat and tears of countless scholars and poets of widely differing stables.
I’ll say right now, it is no part of my intention to impugn any of these, except perhaps that the dogmatic exclusivism of the language chosen by such as the ESV (for me, the Extremely Sexist Version) should not have been accepted into the repertoire without a health warning as exemplifying the retrograde steps that a late modern translation should have known better than to take. Other versions are almost invariably inclusive in intent. I know that the Good News Version’s intended ease of reading enabled my (double graduate) mother to begin once more to read the Bible, though the GNB’s alarming modesty with regard to the Great Commission of the Risen Christ in Mark 16:15 from ‘all Creation’ to ‘all people’ needs to be seen and wondered at, as part of our education in seeing anthropocentricism at work. The brutal anthroposummism (humans as ‘pinnacle’) of some relatively recent versions – where, bullied by Enlightenment priorities, the personalities of the Earth and creatures are obscured by objectification and every non-human ‘who’ becomes an ‘it’ – are likewise valuable as in them we learn to spot the slants and discern not “how to do without them”, but rather, which slant and what bias might be appropriate for our time and place.
Of course, as social policy will build on the peer-reviewed science of the IPCC, a pastoral use of scripture will build -heavily- on the cultural and linguistic archaeology scholarship can provide, though even the most technically perfect linguistic equivalence with historical footnotes will stop far short of ‘the Word of God’. So: Recyle, Repurpose…..Discern! Nothing of value is single-use: neither prophecy nor our beloved Christian cultures.
‘King James’, ‘Martin Luther’ and many others will therefore continue to inform our insights, but neither of those were at all aiming at presenting or preserving living Scripture as any sort of antique. I wish it were either of their introductions rather than Richard Wagner (!) who had said “Kids, do new stuff!” but I believe that sentiment belongs with the best resources from any age. I’m writing this a day or so after having witnessed the puzzling archaism of almost all the language of the Coronation service. Illuminated, amplified and broadcast by electricity, ‘thee and thou’ nonetheless erected barriers not of mystery but of puzzlement and obscurity in a project otherwise characterised by many welcome nods towards the integrity of inclusivity. Beauty is certainly a legitimate aim, though it’s a counsel of despair to suggest that no living poet could be enlisted to convey spiritual truths in an idiom responsive to our global context. Or, to translate Luther himself, to ‘look the people in the gob!’.
As I began this work as Environmental Chaplain, articles were written suggesting that it would be about the church donning ‘green specs’. I hope I have since refuted any such claim, at least to the extent that it implies looking other than honestly and closely at what’s actually there. From week to week, I’m not crowbarring green stuff into our experience of Scripture but turning up genuine treasures in the field of even the most familiar scripture, some of them long buried under strata of embarrassment, fear of the ‘wild’ or thick layers of obsolete but assertive ‘common sense’ . Climate Emergency, like that blazing yet clearly not flameproof bush, which tore a shepherd from his work ‘beyond the wilderness’, opens up permission to think in ways we thought we really shouldn’t. Discerning the participation of fellow creatures of all kinds, and especially our beloved Earth, in the stories which speak to our need to respond. As the mountains hold human justice to account in Micah, so too the wind and waves receive the personal rebuke of Christ in the Gospels: the rebuke that heals and saves lives. Good News is so frequently a warning or even an ultimatum delivered in love.
Just as “the last thing we need right now” is yet another denominational brand of Church, rather than to repurpose such treasures as by God’s grace, our respective churches already represent, so perhaps ‘the last thing we need‘ is another ‘version’ of the Bible saying ‘this is the way it has to be!’ And yet we need the freedom as pastoral interpreters for communities, to go – though strictly only where vocation leads – beyond the conscientiuously expected idiom of our received versions.
Most formally trained local leaders in most denominations are already in a position to do something like this, though on a spectrum of hesitant, through nervous, to terrified, to give it a go. Maybe there’s that fear of being thought arrogant, though isn’t it also rightful humility to risk falling flat on your face for the Gospel? I suspect that the discernment of a committed group might be more valuable than any individual. A fellowship called lovingly to play with presenting such scripture as might be offered to congregations or study groups with an open bias and slant which allows “heaven” once more to be recognised as ‘Sky’; for Jesus to be in fellowship with the ‘wildlife’ whose habitat is wilderness; which gives Earth the dignity of a capital letter, and yet rejoices to leave things be when we find in existing versions how Sabbath and Jubilee are given for the benefit of Earth and of Wildlife .
A hermeneutic of joyful suspicious recycling towards an inclusion of all Creation might enable a group of friends to present at least snapshots of a ‘Treehugger Bible’, reconnecting God’s people with the experiential, terrestrial and pedestrian inspiration of Bible writers overlayered by the serious and scrupulous propriety which sometimes shies away even from owning the drunkenness of the wedding guests at Cana.
I wonder if the Season of Creation, with its limited number of mostly very familiar lectionary texts, might in a future year be an opportunity to make the first steps with such a project – making abundantly clear that definitiveness is no part of our aspiration, though honesty about our commitment – our bias, if you will – would never be obscured. An organic delight, which risks, but does not seek, ridicule, created by joyful, hopeful fools for Christ the Tree of Life. A Treehugger Bible. To God’s glory, the good of the Earth.