The greening of the Bible

By Simon Beard
26 Mar 2009

The Green Bible (HarperOne, 2008)

There is a common thread running through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that highlight God’s good intentions not just towards people, but towards the whole earth. Particular visionaries such as St Francis of Assisi have been identified with this perspective throughout Christian history, but too often the larger agenda has languished in the shadow of theological conventions that see the entire Bible as relating solely to the story of God’s relationship with humanity.

In an attempt to counter this trend, and bring both ancient and contemporary concerns into sharper focus, the newly published Green Bible, with a foreword by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, has highlighted over 1,000 biblical passages that relate to earth and environment.

It does not do this through a new translation, which could easily be faulted, nor through copious footnotes, which would be hard to read, but through the expedient and attractive method of highlighting all such passages in green – much as the famous and historic ‘red letter’ editions have done with the words of Jesus. The root translation is the NRSV.

Alongside this, the Green Bible presents a selection of essays from biblical scholars, representing a cross section of religious traditions and theological positions, outlining their own understanding of how the text relates to ecological concerns.

So we have the Jewish author Ellen Bernstein setting out the many ways in which the Hebrew Scriptures encourage us to appreciate and take care of the world, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the evangelical biblical scholar N.T. Wright, outlining how our care for creation fits in with God’s purpose of bringing about the kingdom ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’. Pope John Paul II’s New Year message for 1990, combining themes of ecological protection, peace and struggling against poverty, is also included.

Other contributors are ‘emerging church’ guru Brian McLaren, Cal DeWitt, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ellen Davis, Matthew Sleeth, Bishop James Jones of Liverpool (another evangelical), and Gordon Aeschliman Some of this material has been reproduced elsewhere, but the effect of collecting it in this volume, alongside the highlighted texts, is to create a conversation of different perspectives.

Additional material includes six ‘trail guides’ that lead the reader through particular biblical passages relating to ecological themes such as the goodness of creation, our interdependence with it, the effect of what has been called “structural sin” and the connection between ecology and justice. There is also a selection of wisdom teachings from Christian and other authors spanning the past 2,000 years.

All of this goes some way to illustrating that those, like the naturalist David Attenborough, who seem to think that the Bible is to be uncomplicatedly blamed for the justification of ecological destruction through the Genesis language of “dominion” (which is actually part of a broader, ethically demanding language of stewardship and responsibility) are reading the text just as simplistically as those who light upon prticular verses or themes to excuse their lack of environmental concern. Deep ecology requires deep reading.

Unsurprisingly, the Green Bible has come under attack from various sources. Some have decried it as a superficial moneymaking gimmick, a charge belied by the contents, which are hardly the stuff of popular media stereotypes. Others with a narrow theological agenda have assailed it for emphasising an allegedly peripheral theme in the Bible, and so detracting from its core message.

Those who object on the second ground would do well to remember, as the Rev Dave Bookless points out in the introduction, that the ‘Bible in a nutshell’ trumpeted by evangelicals, John 3.16, says not that “God so loved humanity that he sent his only Son”, but that “God so loved the world”. The Greek word kosmos refers to the entire ordered universe: animal, vegetable and mineral.

If The Green Bible succeeds in making this fact, and its natural consequences in biblical interpretation, more widely known then it has served a real purpose in helping people see the spiritual and theological errors that have sometimes defined our approach to the earth, and so have contributed to the emergence of our current ecological crisis.

In practical terms, the book is also printed on recycled paper, using soy-based ink with a cotton/linen cover. Its backers include leading scientists such as Sir John Houghton, along with the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States and the Eco-Justice Programme of the National Council of Churches USA.

The Green Bible is available through Ekklesia both in hardback and paperback.

US seminaries are getting free copies of the Green Bible to mark earth Day on 22 April 2009 - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9241

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© Simon Beard joined Ekklesia as a researcher in February 2009 to work on achieving social and environmental justice in land ownership. He has previously worked for two Westminster think-tanks and supported several front bench peers in the House of Lords. He is a Quaker.

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