A Treehugger Bible?

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.