Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice
This review originally appeared on the reviewer’s blog.
Reprinted with permission.
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Early Christians asked themselves, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” wondering about the relationship between the Christian faith and pagan philosophy. Today many Christians raise a similar question: “What does my faith have to do with the environment?” Western Christianity has imbibed a functional Docetism since Constantine, placing salvation outside of creation’s realm. We’ve also been bequeathed the medieval Doctrine of Discovery, and Industrialization’s anthropological assumption which has enabled colonization and the exploitation of our natural resources (5-6). We’ve commodified our land and resources and a major divide continually grows between our Christian faith and our lived environments. We are now at a critical juncture in which human persons are making a major impact on our world. It is time to re-place Christian discipleship within our ecosystems.
Ched Myers is well known for his theological activism, his work as an educator, and for his political reading of Mark’s gospel, in books like Binding the Strongman, and Say to this Mountain. He is co-director, with Elaine Enns, of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (BCM) where he advocates Christian engagement in the realms of peace, justice, and radical discipleship. At a 2010 meeting of the Bartimaeus Institute, he introduced the term ‘Watershed Discipleship’ as a way of impressing the importance of bioregionalism for North American churches (xvii), In this anthology, Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, Myers draws together essays from a dozen activists and scholars who share his vision for bioregional faith. He frames this collection with introductory and concluding essays of his own.
What does Watershed Discipleship mean? Myers describes the term as a triple entendre:
- It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places
- It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local church take place inescapably in a watershed context
- And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (2).
The essays in this volume engage the realms of theology, history, biblical studies, social science, and environmentalism; however, each essay is also autobiographically rooted. The authors describe how they’ve come to care for their own watersheds. They are cognizant of the human and environmental crisis we face, attentive to their places, listening well to what their watersheds have taught them.
Rose Marie Berger‘s poem, Prophecies from the Watershed Confederacy, stands at the beginning of the book, Denise Nadeau writes the forward. In chapter one, Katarina Friesen essay reflects on current Christian missions, and her experiences on missions and growing up as a Missionary-kid. She explores how the medieval Doctrine of Discovery has shaped conquest politics and contributed to a ‘dis-placed’ understanding of mission. She argues us to redirect missions toward our own watersheds:
As a church, we need a framework whose transformative potential adequately counters the oppressive history of forced conversion of land and people, a resurrection way of liberation for all people and land more powerful than the death legacy of colonialism.
As a people marred by placeless theologies, our challenge is to repent of Watershed Conquest through practicing Watershed Discipleship. We are being commissioned home, through the power of the One who will be with us “to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b).
David Pritchett examines the city, showing how the urban grid has historically been ‘used a tool of the colonization, control and alienation of citizenry, in order to efficiently move goods and military assets across the landscape” (54). Pritchett draws inspiration from the book of Daniel, on how contemporary city-dwellers may subvert the urban grid’s hegemony. He gives contemporary examples of subversion such as urban art, de-paving parking lots (which contribute to urban watershed problems), and food mapping.
John McRay provides a theology and a biblical vision of the Kingdom of God and salvation as a ‘transfigured earth’ (60). McRay explores the biblical narratives of Jubilee, Jesus and Elisha-Naaman story, articulating a ‘hermeneutic of reinhabitation.’ He argues, “Our best chance for justice and peace is to enact Jesus’s blend of Jubilee and watershed transformation. Like Naaman, we must learn to move from profane control to holy conversation through acts of reinhabitation”(72).
Lydia Wylie-Kellermann tells her story of caring for the Detroit River watershed, the place of her baptism. She describes the fight for clean water in the city and its effects on the poor and marginalized. Erinn Fahey, also in the Detroit Watershed, is a water engineer. In her chapter, she explores the contradictions between the discipline of engineering and her vocation as a green engineer. Sarah Thompson interviews Atlanta community organizer, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, discussing environmental racism and ecojustice in the Atlanta Watershed, the next stages of the civil rights movement, and the witness of Christian Peacemaker Teams in violence reduction around the world.
Matthew Humphrey calls evangelicals away from a posture of abstraction to one of action for inhabited bioregions. Humphrey lives in the lower Mainland of British Columbia. He discusses the [North] American lack of place (“Americans have careers not places”) He reads the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard against the displacement of Aboriginal Canadians (in Indian Residential Schools) and the history of displacement of Native. Humphrey encourages us to inhabit our place, and become ‘settlers’ allies’ for ‘the sake of the land and its inhabitants’ (121)
Sarah Nolan interviews Erynn Smith and Reyna Ortega of The Abundant Table project in Ventura County, CA, discussing their experience as organic farmers and activists and the challenge of trying to practice agriculture which offers alternatives to the destructive farming which surround their community (138)
Sasha Adkins maps the disaster the problem of plastic from a public health perspective and the damage it does to bodies and global watersheds calling us to examine our spiritual problem of disposability. Victoria Machado discusses the confluence between bioregionalism and the Catholic Worker movement (i.e. the local and contextual nature and mission). Tevyn East and Jay Beck explore the Carnival de Resistance— a traveling carnival and school of transformation which promotes environmental justice and sustainability. They contend art serves watershed discipleship by supporting cultural transformation and spiritual recovery (181). Myers concluding essay explores the need for a theological and hermeneutic recovery, and the need to re-place our church practices
This is a rich collection of essays. I was familiar with the concept of Watershed Discipleship from Todd Wynward’s Rewilding the Way (also a great book). This book highlighted the perspectives and actions of a dozen theologians and activists. Two major themes jumped out at me as I read these essays. First, they underscore the importance and meaning of place. Missiologists and church planters talk about Incarnational ministry, but they seldom challenge the assumptions bequeathed to us by urbanism, Industrialism, and the Doctrine of Discovery. By conceiving of discipleship bioregionally, the authors in this volume are cognizant of the relationship between persons and their ecosystem (as well as their built environment). This opens fresh possibilities for what mission ‘in place’ means. It doesn’t involve simply asset-mapping a neighborhood for human services. It means understanding food systems, the impact of human communities on Creation, and how environmental problems impact people, particularly the poor and the marginalized. Mission in place means caring for both the community and creation within your bioregion. This is missiologically significant.
Secondly, I appreciate the hopeful tone of these essays. Because of the impact humans have on their environment, many books on environmental justice are kind of bleak. However, each of these authors believe social change and a more responsive relationship with Nature is not only desirable, but possible. They allow their faith and the eschatological vision of a restored creation to inform their thoughts and actions. The overall tone of this book was inspiring, getting me to think about what I can do in my own watershed (a region I’m new to and know little about).
I happily recommend this book to anyone who wonders about the relationship between our environment and faith—our bioregion and the life of discipleship. You will get a sense of what others are doing in the realm Christian creation care. Several of these essays open new avenues for Christian mission.