“An Ecological Framework for Theology.”
A Review of
For the Beauty of the Earth:
A Christian Vision for Creation Care.
By Steven Bouma-Prediger.
Reviewed by Chase Roden.
For the Beauty of the Earth:
A Christian Vision for Creation Care.
Paperback: Baker, 2010 (2nd Edition).
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
American Christians have a complex relationship with the environment. For some, our natural surroundings are always in mind and at heart; these believers see the earth as a source of inspiration and sustenance to be guarded carefully – inherently worthy of respect, proof of the goodness of God. For others, the earth is important only as a God-given resource to be used – its value always to be secondary to spiritual concerns. In the latter group, “environmentalist” is often a dirty word, an example of modern-day idolatry and subservience to a certain political agenda. Tensions between these perspectives have never been clearer than right now, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The environment is once again on everybody’s minds, and even those environmentally-skeptical Christians are asking questions about our care of the world.
It is into this fray that publisher Baker Academic presciently released the second edition of For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. In this update of the 2001 original, Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger of Hope College presents his unapologetic argument for Christian responsibility for the earth.
Beginning with a look at the ways humankind has become willfully ignorant of the natural world and its care, Bouma-Prediger spends his first two chapters inundating the reader with facts and figures. First about the intricate beauty and mystery of the natural world, then about the rampant destruction it is enduring. These chapters are hard to read; not only because the situation is truly grim (although the author tries to offer a glimmer of hope where appropriate), but also because of the sheer volume of statistics presented. It is somewhat unfortunate that the author chooses to start with this information, because readers not already concerned with the environment may not be likely to make it to the more compelling chapters that follow, having already decided that the book has nothing to offer but the old familiar guilt trips often used as arguments by environmental groups.
The third chapter marks the beginning of the theological content of the book, taking on a question rarely addressed by Christians: is our religion responsible for the destruction of the environment? Bouma-Prediger argues persuasively and unapologetically against the common belief – put forth famously by Lynn White – that Christianity and the Bible are diametrically opposed to caring for the natural world. The professor adeptly makes his argument, avoiding the common tactic of separating Christendom from “true Christianity”; he turns the tables and presents his own case that proper theology and biblical interpretation are a stronger resource for radical creation care than humanist philosophies are. Instead of letting Christians off the hook, however, the author makes the case that Christians are uniquely equipped and called to fight the true philosophical causes of environmental degradation: materialism, denial of the earth as God’s creation, and the church’s captivity to Western culture.
Having established Christians’ freedom from inherent responsibility for the destruction of the environment, Bouma-Prediger then sets out to create a positive conception of our role in and responsibility to the earth. He does this in two chapters; the first making a biblical case, the second presenting what he calls a “bare-bones ecological theology.” The biblical argument is well-made, managing to be both hermeneutically conservative – in the sense that he intends to present the original meaning of the interpreted texts, often appealing to the Hebrew or Greek – and theologically creative at the same time, offering the author’s own expansive and enlightening translations based on the work of respected exegetes.
The theology Bouma-Prediger develops in the fifth chapter may be bare-bones in that is it described over only eight pages, but it is impressively complete and systematic. This outline could easily be the basis for a full theology of ecology, but the author chooses to move directly from there into ecological ethics. Doing so, he first surveys the ethical field, describing the most prominent positions and evaluating each on its strengths, weaknesses, and applicability to his theological framework. The author then describes his own ethical position, modified from Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” which Bouma-Prediger finds superior to other ethical frameworks due to its holistic interest in nature (versus those too narrowly focused on the rights of individual creatures), and due to its inherent flexibility to weigh the good of the individual human against the good of natural systems and the community of humankind.
Delving deeper into ecological ethics, Bouma-Prediger spends a chapter developing a virtue ethics of earth care, describing the desired character and practices of those Christians who would resonate with his theology. The author uses the insights of his previous biblical and theological chapters to come up with a list of “theological motifs” and related ethical principles, extrapolating from them a list of virtues and vices.
Concluding his theological and ethical chapters, Bouma-Prediger abruptly moves into a chapter evaluating several arguments for earth-care. The chapter is worthwhile as a tool for environmentally-concerned Christians who would seek to persuade their less-concerned counterparts, although it is strangely out of place. The book ends with a brief but encouraging chapter on hope and radical faith.
Overall, Bouma-Prediger has written an excellent book, presenting a powerful theological framework the church would do well to look at closely. Christians skeptical of the environmental movement — but open-minded enough to give the book a fair read — will find that the author has many of their concerns in mind. He is sincerely concerned with placing humans in their proper biblical place as God’s creation, while also avoiding “ecological fascism,” which would completely overrule the individual in favor of the environment or the collective of humankind. Bouma-Prediger’s character-based virtue ethics may also be appealing to those Christians interested in the traditional virtues of the church, such as respect, self-restraint, frugality, humility, justice, patience, and courage, as the author compellingly and biblically argues these virtues while applying them to creation care. This book would be excellent for group study in a church setting, for an undergraduate class, or for pastors and theologians seeking an ecological framework for theology which is consistent and systematic.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com