I first began my explorations of the relationship between environmental issues and Christianity some 26 years ago. At that time there were very few books available on the topic of any kind. That has all changed and there is now at least a bookcase of books in the area, tackling the topic from many different angles. So there are deep theological tomes and more popular efforts. There are practical guides on how to live a greener lifestyle, and there are more reflective books with Bible study and prayer as the focus. There are many coming from an evangelical perspective, and JRI has had a major role in this; also many from more liberal viewpoints. This has been a very positive development, and I slightly despair of those who say “not another green Christian book”. The subject is a rapidly evolving one, and Christians need to be kept up to date. If we do not have a section in a Christian bookshop on environmental concerns, then how can we expect Christians to take the environment seriously?
So where does Dan Papworth’s recent book fit on the bookcase? The book has a simple structure where each chapter consists of a reflection on a plant, an animal, a fungus or a rock. Within each chapter Papworth first describes the subject, then introduces a suitable Bible passage, and then gives a short theological reflection. There are no less than 40 short chapters, covering everything from ash trees and mushrooms to red squirrels and meteorites. So in ethical terms this is very definitely a biocentric, organism-focussed, approach. It is a distinct contrast to our own “A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues”, which had a similar structure (with 10 longer chapters), but had an ecocentric, whole environment, ethic.
Obviously I can’t review all 40 chapters here, so I thought I would concentrate on the plant chapters. I am after all a plant scientist!
The ash tree. This is the first chapter. Much revolves around the serious problem of ash dieback and it starts the book off with a very contemporary issue. The biblical reflection considers the tree of life and eternity. There are also practical ideas such as collecting fungi as firelighters and maybe buying a woodland.
Rosebay willowherb. After considering the lengths some will go to in order to create a wild meadow (including the use of glyphosate!) there is some interesting material on willowherb. What is not mentioned is that it was a fairly rare plant in the UK up to the building of the railways and then the Second World War, after which it thrived on bomb sites. The reflection is on weeds and weediness.
White-berried mistletoe. I have always had a fascination with the hemiparasite, mistletoe, which is photosynthetic, but obtains water and nutrients from its host. I was not aware quite how many organisms live off mistletoe. Naturally, Papworth looks at some of the folklore concerning mistletoe. There follows a reflection on Mark 4.
Ivy. Again we have a mix of biology, folklore and stories. The reflection looks at ivy and parties and the Christian eternal party.
Trees. Papworth is an explorer and here tells us how he discovered Tai Chi exercises at Greenbelt. Personally I would not get involved in Tai Chi. Papworth encourages us to spend time in the presence of trees.
Hawthorn. Here again we have a lot of interesting information about folklore, eating haw berries, and making hawthorn schnapps. And, of course, thorns feature in the Passion narrative.
Oak. A tree that supports more species than any other British tree. Papworth looks first at oak in history and then at some recent problems, including the Oak Processionary Moth and Acute and Chronic Oak Decline. The reflection is based on 1 Corinthians 12 and “the body”.
What we have in this book is a wide-ranging mixture of science, folklore, practical suggestions and biblical reflections, not always in the same order. “The Lives Around Us” is definitely within the reflective section of the Christian environmental bookcase. It is certainly off the evangelical mainstream in places. I quite liked it, but at times I was in rather strange territory. This book will most suit Christians of a more meditative type. For the right kind of reader I am sure they will gain a lot from it.
Dr Martin Hodson
Dr Martin J Hodson is a plant scientist and Operations Manager for the John Ray Initiative. He has over 90 research publications and speaks widely on environmental issues.