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!

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