INHABITING EDEN: CHRISTIANS, THE BIBLE, AND THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
PATRICIA K. TULL
WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX PRESS, 2013
In a mountainous region of India, far from the congestion of populous city life, a nun from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity sits eating her lunch on a train. As she finishes a takeout box of chicken, she leans toward the pane of glass separating her from the exquisite mountains rolling by in the background. She opens the window and, without a second thought, tosses the remains of her lunch toward the scenery – the box, cup, utensils and chicken bones – then settles back into her seat and pulls out her prayer book.
Patricia K. Tull begins Inhabiting Eden with this uncomfortably ironic image from one of her travels abroad. Though the actions of one woman in India might seem far removed from life in North America, Tull posits that situations of similar ecological naivete are prevalent not only in the average American home but also in the average American church. Christians, originally called to steward the earth, have turned a blind eye to the injustices of ecological degradation. Do we think about where our plastic communion cups go after their one-time use? Do we know that the chemicals we use to clean our homes are polluting our waters and harming our health? Do we realize that the amazing deals we get at big-box stores cost someone somewhere so much more than the numbers on the price tags? If we know, do we care?
Inhabiting Eden is a compelling call to Christians to recognize how the roots of our faith are grounded in the earth and to engage with that same earth in a way that recognizes the impact of our choices on the environment and the people living within it.
Beyond outlining the biblical basis for earth-care, Tull emphasizes the undeniable link between our actions toward the earth and the effects of those actions on the world’s poor. This link is far too often overlooked, as our focus lies most heavily on whether the earth itself is worth the inconvenience of enacting change. We fail to take the further step – to think about how our neighbors might be affected if we don’t change. For instance, we might throw a plastic bottle into a trash can because it is inconvenient to tote it home with us to recycle. In doing so, we neglect to think about who will be affected by toxic fumes if that bottle ends up in a trash incinerator. Ecological concern, Tull argues, is about both stewardship of the earth and concern for the cause of the poor, the widow and the orphan we are called to defend.
Beginning with a preface on the difficult yet achievable nature of change, Tull points to other movements in history, such as the abolition of slavery, and says the solution to the ecological crisis is similarly daunting but doable. In making the biblical argument for creation care, she takes a close look at humanity’s place in the creation account. God’s creative capstone act is humans, and they are given dominion over the rest of the created world, not as conquistadors but rather as stewards using and caring for what ultimately belongs to someone else. The roots of our concern for the earth are tied up with this original, God-given call to “serve and preserve the garden.”
Tull next focuses on humanity’s disconnect from the rest of creation as a result of sin. When humans are banished from Eden, the first repercussion mentioned is a cursed ground. Today, as society moves even further away from a connection with the rest of creation, the earth continues to be afflicted as a result of human action.
She concludes by focusing on a sampling of contemporary issues of ecological concern. Taking a chapter or two for each issue, she discusses the idolatry of consumerism and materialism, the industrialization of the American food system, the problems of environmental justice and the global repercussions of climate change.
Tull provides scriptural background for each issue, making a strong argument that the ecological crisis is not simply a problem for secular society. In each segment, she invites the reader’s active response by providing excellent questions for thought and discussion, perfect for a group study at church, as well as “Try This At Home” – suggestions for individual or family action.
Tull’s voice in Inhabiting Eden is refreshing because it weaves together two biblical calls: one to steward the earth and one to love our neighbors. For one semester of college, I studied ecology and sustainable development in Belize. While there, I was shocked by the many instances of environmental degradation and the resulting effects on the local community. Plastics disposal is perhaps the most memorable to me, because we were required to carry all of our acquired plastic back home after our four-month stay. In Belize, all trash is burned, and when plastic articles are incinerated, they release toxic chemicals that leach into the ground with other liquids and infiltrate the air that the Belizean people breathe every day. On my return journey to the United States, I carried a burden with me much heavier than the plastic I had acquired. I’d always known that there are extreme situations of environmental degradation and poverty in this world. However, after Belize, images of these situations were burned into my mind: images and smells.
Inhabiting Eden is an excellent resource for Christians who are aware of the ecological crisis but unsure how they can make effective changes. It is also an excellent resource for those who are unaware of these issues or even skeptical about a Christian’s place in resolving them. This book delves into issues of ecological concern with both a biblical and a scientific lens, emphasizing how we should be theologically compelled to act in a way that considers our effect on the earth and our neighbors.
This book is not meant to condemn our naivete. Rather, it is meant to compel us to initiate small changes, to live with more conscious thought about the effects of our actions and to find roots for these changes in our faith.
Heather Brandau is a teacher with Science Explorers in Minneapolis. She runs a small business, Redeemed Dust Designs, where she sells sustainable products and repurposed artwork.