Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Author Interview: Sandra Richter

In this post I'm taking you behind the pages of Stewards of Eden to meet the author, Sandra Richter. Sandy, thanks for taking the time to tell us about your work!

So great to get to interact on this important topic, Carmen. Thank you for the invitation!

When did you first know that you wanted to write this book?

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
Hmmm … that is a good question, and one I haven’t answered before. Although my love for God’s creation goes back to before I was even a Christian, the whole business of writing and speaking on this topic in Christian circles just sort of “happened.” As I narrate in the book, the first time I had the privilege of sharing a message of environmental stewardship from a pulpit was 2005 at Asbury Theological Seminary. The response was everything I could have hoped for. And to my surprise, I was asked to publish that message in the Asbury Journal. At the time of publication, I was serving on the Institute of Biblical Research planning committee, and we were casting about for a topic for the following year. I suggested that we do a plenary session on creation care. They said “yes,” if I would be one of the speakers. I was thrilled, but it also meant I had to seriously up my ante—now I needed a message appropriate for an academic conference. Man did I work hard on the research for that presentation. And in the fall of 2008 at the annual meeting … once again the response was everything I could have asked for. Rick Hess, editor of BBR was at the gathering and asked me to publish that presentation. Then there were a slew of speaking engagements—some more enthusiastically received than others. (There was a certain week-long “Holiness Conference” at a not-to-be-named Christian College where I think 17 people total showed up; then there was that walk-out at another not-to-be-named college; and, oh, the conference where I presented on humane animal husbandry in the heart of cattle country in Tulsa--that was a bit awkward!). In each of these my material evolved and developed. Usually the response was beautiful. (I’m thinking of Darryl Williamson’s "Arise City Conference" in Tampa, FL, and the older sister who stood to her feet at the end of my talk, called everybody out, and ran what could be called an altar call for me!) But I think the first time I knew I wanted to publish this book was during my tenure at Wheaton College. I realized (as I narrate in the book), that the Christian community needed a short, accessible, biblical treatment of this topic. A book that didn’t get lost on side issues. A book students could read (quickly), hand off to their parents, and they to the grandparents. I wanted to offer the Church their own book on this topic: “What Scripture says about the environment and why it matters.”  

Did you grow up in a home that valued conservation? If so, how did your parents practice conservation? If not, when did you become passionate about creation care?

No, I can’t say that I did. Like yours, my family was frugal. And like yours we camped a lot (there were a lot of us and we were military—cheap vacations!). I do think the camping and some of the adventurous places we lived as an oft-relocated Navy family awakened my deep empathy for the trials of creation. But I wasn’t raised with any sort of tutelage in environmentalism. Honestly, I think my passion for creation is part of my journey to faith. I believe that it was the image of God in me (prevenient grace for the Wesleyans out there!), and the Spirit of God calling me, that caused the majestic and fragile beauty of creation to resonate so deeply with me. As I say in the book: “When I stand at the ocean’s edge and feel the spray of its raging force on my face, when the wind silences me, when I am privileged to hold a wild creature in my hands” … my response is worship. This has always been true of me—even before I knew the Creator’s name.

What are the biggest hang-ups for evangelicals when it comes to creation care? Do you have a theory about why this is?

Having lectured and written on this topic for more than a decade at this point, I am pretty convinced that the “hang-ups” can be distilled to three issues. (1) The fact that in American politics environmentalism has been pigeon-holed into a “liberal” political agenda and has become guilty by association. Essentially, the accusation is that if you care about stewarding the planet you must also be a “liberal.” (2) The fact that we as Americans don’t typically see the impact of environmental degradation. We export most of our mess and never see the widow and the orphan picking through the trash piles we create. (3) The very unfortunate theological agenda that teaches that this earth will be annihilated at the end of the age. I deal with this misunderstanding of the New Covenant in chapter seven of the book.

You're a busy professor married to a professor with two growing daughters. What inspired you to raise chickens in your backyard? Surely not boredom?

Hah! The infamous chickens! Well Greta, Maggs, and Lucy will be thrilled to know they made the blog! Buttercup, may she rest in peace, will be grieved to have missed out. And we’ll be sure to send a note over to their sisters Sadie and Penelope who are keeping our friends Jack and Maggie in eggs these days! So, yes, I am “wicked busy,” but you make time for what you love don’t you? The chickens were a project for my youngest daughter and me. We both really wanted to do it, and Santa Barbara is a perfect place to raise chickens. California is a very libertarian state, so you can have chickens (not roosters) in pretty much any suburb. Better, you don’t have to heat your chicken coop to keep any of your hen’s feet from freezing off! More seriously, it is important to me that I practice what I preach. So in our house we recycle everything, we compost, we hang out our wash, we read labels, we eat very little meat, we have a vegetable garden, I drive a used Prius, we have rain barrels, and we’ve dropped all sorts of $$$ to landscape with native plants (which in SoCal means less water). Like any homeowner, I’m still learning (like what about solar panels?), but as I believe that environmental stewardship is a part of my responsibility as a Christian … I’m doing my best.  

Climate change is one of the most controversial aspects of the current debate about environmental concerns. Why did you choose not to talk about it in your book?

Great question. Several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the Bible has nothing to say about climate change. So any biblical theology of climate change is going to have to be an extrapolation—something I did not want to be doing in a book I promised was “just the Bible for those justly concerned.” Second and closely related, the steps any believer should be taking to curtail their own over-use of this planet and its resources will help to reverse climate change. So in many ways, climate change is a moot point. If we’d been doing our job as good stewards, we wouldn’t be having this problem. So what changes are needed? As Gus Speth, Chairman of the council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter has stated:

"I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy."

I say it this way in the book: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains. He has given it to us to use in our need, but not to abuse in our greed.” When we get serious about our careless consumption of fossil fuel; when we start thinking about the supply chain for that fuel, our manufactured goods, our food; when we take stock of reckless land development … climate change will begin to unchange. So, yes, climate change is a huge issue that our carelessness has brought to the tipping point, but it is one that regular old responsible stewardship would have/still can resolve.

One of our first purchases when we moved to our current house was a 3-part trash bin for the kitchen, so that we could sort trash from plastic and paper recyclables. Our town has no recycling pick-up program, but we do have a local recycle center where we can bring our own recyclables. We've been pretty diligent about sorting trash making trips there. However, we heard a year or two ago that all the plastic recycling ends up in a landfill anyway because China will no longer accept plastics for recycling, and North America lacks the facilities to handle the volume of plastic waste. Have you explored this issue? Why should we keep sorting recyclables if it all ends up in the landfill anyway?

Yes, in 2018, China said, “We don’t want your trash anymore.” This, of course, sent major reverberations through many US businesses. If China wasn’t going to take our trash anymore, and we are now packaging everything from blueberries to underwear to new tools for our work bench in plastic, what are we going to do? The first question we should ask, of course, is why were we sending our trash overseas in the first place? Where is our sense of national responsibility? And what about the widow and the orphan in China?

The next question is, “Uh oh, if China has been recycling our plastic, do we have the infrastructure in the US to take care of our recycling ourselves?” And the answer right now is, no.  At this point we have more than 20 types of plastic packaging—and every time I go to the grocery store I see that COSTCO and Kroger have figured out a new way to use plastic for stuff that used to come loose or in cardboard. As a result, “virgin plastic” accounts for most of the plastic you and I see, which is produced by petro-chemical companies. These guys make billions producing their plastic (and will make billions more as current plans are to double the industry in the next five years). As the name implies, petro-chemical companies are using fossil fuels to make their stuff. And right now, virgin plastic costs less than 10% of the cost of recycled plastic. So what is a capitalist economy to do? The first thing we need to do is to be disturbed. Statistics such as those below should be a huge wake-up call:

  • More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from plastic pollution every year; 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. 
  • Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into our oceans.
  •  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (made up primarily of plastic) is bigger than Texas. 
Then we need to do something. What to do? Vote with your pocket book. Buy plastic packaging as little as possible. Choose the “avoid plastic packaging and extra packaging” option with Amazon. When you have to buy plastic, look for “recycled” on the label. Tell your grocery store manager you don’t want your food in “clam shell” packaging. Tell COSTCO that apples don’t occur naturally in plastic bubbles. Basically, let us make it as socially inappropriate to buy and sell in plastic as it is to smoke cigarettes in the work place!

Your book goes beyond recycling to talk about mining and food production. Those case studies were incredibly eye-opening for me, especially in light of the biblical teaching on agriculture and animal husbandry that you so powerfully explain. What can one person do to make a difference in a culture marked by greed and consumerism?

Thanks for this question, Carmen. The last section of Stewards of Eden is entitled “Resources for the Responsive Christian.” This appendix gives very practical, hands-on, “I can do this,” suggestions for the average human. Things like getting informed (subscribe to an environmental magazine in order to educate yourself); voting your informed conscience (Sierra Club offers a voting guide every year); voting with your purchase power are a great way to start. Links and addresses are all in there. As above, one powerful thing all Americans and Canadians can do is vote with their purchase power. We are capitalists, oh, yes we are. And if it doesn’t sell, the industry makes changes! So when you go to the grocery store, the hardware store, the car dealership, be willing to spend a bit more to invest in the industries you want to thrive. As with all things in our fallen world, we are not actually going to be able to fix this. The Rider on the White Horse is going to have to do that. Just as I will never succeed in emptying all the brothels in Thailand, finding a home for every abused child abandoned to the foster care system, or feed every orphan in Sub Sahara Africa—I am not going to fix this either. But as a Christian, it is my sworn duty to stand in the gap. It is our calling as salt and light to demonstrate to our bruised and broken world what a citizen of heaven looks like, “to live our lives as Adam and Eve should have, as Jesus Christ has.” Environmental degradation is a global and a local issue, our neighbors are impacted by this, our neighbors care about this. Where is our witness in the mix?  In sum, what I attempt to demonstrate in the book is that God cares about this, and we must too.
It's hard to imagine a more compelling book on this topic for Christians who care about what the Bible teaches about creation. Thanks for your excellent work to help us think well about environmental stewardship! 


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Book Review: Sandra Richter's 'Stewards of Eden'

I grew up in a white, American, conservative Evangelical context, where "environmentalist" was a derogatory term. To us, environmental concerns were a liberal agenda. We certainly didn't want to be guilty of getting all wrapped up in saving the planet when the thing that mattered was people and their eternal destiny. 

At the same time, being of Dutch descent, it came naturally to avoid waste. We washed and reused ziplock bags, kept scraps of paper to use for craft projects, wore hand-me-down clothes, shopped at thrift stores, hung our laundry out to dry (at least for a while), and planted a garden. We were delighted to find free stuff on the side of the road on trash day or go dumpster diving behind the local craft store to rescue stuff from the landfill. Once, when my brother and I were young, we picked up cans on the side of the highway for miles with my parents to help pay for a new Red Flyer wagon. It's probably fair to say that we did all this to save money, not to save the planet. But we also enjoyed nature as a family, camping as often as we could. 

These days I'm puzzled over the apparent disconnect between our thrifty way of life and the aversion we had to environmental concerns. The more I study Scripture, the more I see how the mandate to care for creation is actually a central part of what it means to be human! Genesis 1:26-28 outlines God's vision for human vocation, and it's directly tied to our involvement with the animals and our shared habitat: 
Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." 

One book that is helping me rethink my relationship with this planet is Sandy Richter's brief introduction to creation care entitled Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It MattersSandy is a master at making rigorous biblical exegesis accessible to laypeople. 

She knows her stuff. Her Harvard dissertation was published by de Gruyter under the title The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: lešakkēn šemô šām in the Bible and the AncientNear East, which sounds intimidating before you even open the cover,
but her Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament is one of the most down to earth and accessible books you'll find on the Old Testament. I've come to expect illuminating insights expressed in powerful prose. But Sandy is more than a respected author to me. She was a member of my dissertation committee and has slaved over my writing to help me improve. Were it not for her approval, I would not be Dr. Imes. We attended the same church in Wheaton for 2 years and I am honored to call her my friend. Stewards of Eden is just like Sandy -- short, but powerful, insightful and challenging.

One of the really compelling parts of Sandy's book is the chapter on Widows and Orphans. In it, she shows how our failure to practice sustainable stewardship disproportionately affects those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. In other words, the way we treat the planet affects people, especially the poorBecause most of our food and consumer products are produced and disposed of far from us, we are shielded from the sometimes devastating effects of their production and disposal. We "export" our environmental waste by manufacturing products in countries (or counties!) with looser restrictions. The implications of these business decisions will be felt for decades to come as the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer -- their lands crippled by toxic waste. In my mind this may be one of the most persuasive sections for Evangelicals who value people over the natural world. 

The CoronaVirus pandemic is providing us with a current case in point. Sandy and I can easily work from home as professors, and while our institutions are dealing with new financial challenges, we still have homes, food, and access to health care. "Shelter in place" is more likely to feel like a "staycation" for us than a death sentence. Meanwhile, blue collar workers are in large part unable to work from home and may have very little 'cushion' with which to weather the loss of income. Lower income neighborhoods have limited access to testing and less reliable health care coverage. The Navajo Nation is a sobering example. Limited access to water (right here in North America!) and limited access to healthcare and a lower overall level of community health are contributing factors to their higher-than-average COVID19 infection and death rates. The crisis of this pandemic exposes the inequities of our society and chastens our complacency.

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
One thing I deeply appreciate about Sandy's book is that she consistently demonstrates that Sinai still matters. Sandy takes us through God's instructions for ancient Israel to show how creation care -- including trees, fields, and animals -- is an integral part of God's expectations for the covenant community. These instructions help us see what matters to God and to human flourishing. Under Sandy's tutelage, your eyes will be opened to what these laws would have meant for the ancient landowner, an invitation to a radically generous way of life dependent on God's provision. While she does not suggest that we try to implement Old Testament law wholesale, she shows how the laws should continue to inform our ethics and practice. We, too, are invited to practice radical generosity. Sandy leaves readers with a whole list of practical ways to begin right now to reverse these trends and make a positive difference.

In my next post, I interview Sandy about Stewards of Eden -- what motivated her to write it and how we can begin to respond. You won't want to miss it!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Reading 'Reading While Black' While White

Esau McCaulley is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, an ordained Anglican priest, and a fellow board member of the Institute for Biblical Research. I'm guessing that he wrote Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP, 2020) with Black readers in mind. But this white girl found it both helpful and inspiring.

May I make a public confession? I grew up in a very monocultural environment. We were not just all white, we were almost all of Dutch descent. My family is 100% Dutch on both sides, my church was about 95% Dutch, my school K-12 was probably at least 70% Dutch and about 95% white, and my neighbors were nearly all of Northern European descent. 

I didn't like being in a white bubble. I was intrigued by other cultures. I felt called to be a missionary, to take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. I learned Spanish, read missionary biographies, collected ethnic clothing, and dreamed of life in another culture. But even so, I mainly thought about what I had to offer, not what I had to learn.

I used to think that making space at the table for people of color was a matter of equality or justice, and that's part of it. People of color are made in the image of God and they should get a chance to speak. In theory, I imagined that reading the Bible with people from other cultural backgrounds would also be enriching. But I had no idea what I was missing! 

Over the past 5 years or so I've been reading more widely and adding books to my own library and to my college's as fast as I can. I'm convinced now that when we only listen to people who look like we do, we're missing out on a ton of insight. I'm discovering a rich world of biblical reflection by African, African-American, Latinx, Asian, Asian-American, First Nations, and Islander believers.

Reading While Black fills an important gap in my library as well as in my understanding. Ironically, much of what is published by minority authors reflects the politics of the ivory tower -- critical of Scripture -- at times representing a departure from the faith tradition. (There are probably a variety of reasons for this, but I suspect that university presses are simply well ahead of faith-based publishers in seeking out authors of color.) As a result, it's much harder to find published works that represent the views of the majority of churches in the global south, churches which are by-and-large conservative.

Esau McCaulley, author of 
Reading While Black
(photo: Wheaton College)
In Reading While Black, Esau seeks to recover the resources of the Black church tradition that arises from the pulpit and the pew rather than from the ivory tower. He models a faith-filled reading of the biblical text that remains engaged with politics and justice but does not neglect the call to holy living.

Each of his chapters tackles an issue about which the Scriptures have something profound to say -- a theology of policing, the political witness of the church, the pursuit of justice, black identity, black anger, and slavery. He issues a prophetic call back to the Scriptures and to a life of faithfulness. His is not a call to "make the best of" systemic injustice, nor does he seek a violent overthrow. Esau engages tough questions with verve, urging active but peaceful resistance to injustice.

I'm grateful for his voice. I've known Esau for a while now, and I've come to trust his commitment to the authority of Scripture. I also trust him to say hard things that need to be said, but to do it with pastoral sensitivity and kindness. I'm honored to call him my friend.

Many are wondering what to do when the protests have ended. How can we keep listening? My official endorsement of the book reads:
How can the church today effectively address the racial tensions that plague our nation? Esau has convinced me that the Black Church tradition holds the key -- maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures while fully engaging in the struggle for justice. This book is an excellent starting point for those who want to listen and learn a new way forward. Esau's prophetic voice is rooted in Scripture and full of hope. Highly recommended!
Why not start here? Reading While Black was supposed to release later this fall, but due to popular demand, IVP is stepping up the release to September 1, 2020. You can pre-order a copy here. You can listen to Esau talk about the book here. You can also spread the word and leave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads as soon as it releases.