Book Report: For the Beauty of the Earth

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care
By: Steven Bouma-Prediger
Book Report By: Sarah Shannon

I was fortunate enough to have a theology class entitled ‘God and Nature’ with Dr. Bouma-Prediger during my time at Creation Care Study Program in New Zealand. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care was our assigned text for this theology course. I chose to reread this book because at the time, I did not appreciate it as much as I could have. This is a very challenging book and therefore there are many concepts that I cannot cover in detail, or do not cover as well as I could.

“Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.”[1]

“What does ecology have to do with theology?”[2] is one of the first lines in Steven Bouma-Prediger’s book, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. It’s a good question and one that I had never considered until college. Bouma-Prediger answers his opening question with the words of Thomas Aquinas saying “’Any error about creation also leads to an error about God.’ If we do not properly understand our home planet, we will not properly understand the nature and character of the God we worship and claim to serve.”[3] This is a frightening statement, especially if you’re not someone who has studied ecology or really cared about our planet before.

In chapter one, Bouma-Prediger argues that without an understanding of our ecological place, human kind cannot adequately care for that environment. He asks very pointed questions such as, where does our water come from? Where does our trash go? Name five trees native to your region? What are five invasive species? When was the last full moon? What kind of soil is in your yard? Silty, loamy sand, or sandy clay? Can you answer even one of those questions?[4]

He suggests that this lack of knowledge makes us ecologically illiterate, leading to the degradation of creation. Our lack of knowing where we live, beyond streets and geographical land marks, contributes to our lack of care for and about creation; for knowledge and familiarity lend themselves to love and affection. The more we know, the more we care and the more we care the more we can act in a responsible manner to address the problems Earth faces.

Bouma-Prediger follows this chapter with a survey of the current state of the planet, using a number of scientific studies, with the conclusion that Earth is not doing well at all and then goes on to address ‘the ecological complaint against Christianity’ in chapter three. This complaint against Christianity mostly stems from a misinterpretation of biblical texts, one example being Genesis 1:28. Genesis 1 and 2 speaks about humans in terms of being and doing. Who we are and what we should do in light of that, with a clear divide between humans and non-humans. In Genesis, Adam gives all the creatures names and “to name properly implies knowledge of essence, to get the name right, one must ultimately know the creature named…to name is to have power.”[5] We are called, in Genesis 1:28, to have dominion and rule over all creation and that is an enormous position of power. But how are we to do that and do it well? Bouma-Prediger points to Psalm 72 as a description of the ideal ruler, one who is willing to serve and suffer for the good of the other. To rule well is a calling to serve and protect creation and our dominion, our rule, should be one of service and sacrifice.[6]

In chapter four, the author goes on to examine scripture in a different light asking pointed questions such as “Where are we?” in the context of the creation story. He concludes that we are “in a world of wonders, wisely ordered by God”[7] and that this creation, all of it, is good, and home to all earthly creatures, not just humans. Bouma-Prediger also asks “With whom does God make a covenant?”[8] exploring the story of Noah and the flood, and how God’s divine covenant is established between Noah and every living creature, not just humanity.[9] Another question that is asked is “who is the center of things?”[10] This question is addressed using the story of Job, specifically chapters 38-42. In these four chapters “our anthropocentric pretensions are laid to waste” as the Lord speaks about his creatures and his power to create beings such as the Behemoth and Leviathan. We, as humans, are only part of the entirety of creation, just a part and these chapters in the book of Job are an excellent reminder.[11] We are, according to Aldo Leopold “’plain member[s] and citizen[s]’ of the land community. God, not humanity, is at the center of things.”[12]

In chapters five through seven Bouma-Prediger goes on to discuss how we as Christians should think about the earth, God, and our relationship to it and all its creatures, with the knowledge that everything on earth is interconnected.[13] He lays out a proposed vision for Christian theology and ethics towards creation, affirming that, as followers of Christ, we are committed to the full authority of Scripture and are aware of the many ways we have harmed creation, with the belief that biblical faith is necessary to the solution of our ecological problems.[14] This statement includes a theocentric vision for the lives of all creatures, belief in the Doctrine of the Trinity and the power of the Holy Spirit, combine with the recognition that we are made in the image of God, but that sin “fundamentally breaks God’s shalom.”[15] We are not God and we must have hope in the resurrection knowing that it is God’s good future and that through it, “the restoration and renewal of creation has begun.”[16] Bouma-Pediger writes that we are being challenged to live more earth-friendly lives and that “this is not optional. We will either heed this call in obedience and gratitude, or we will, by neglect or malice, fail to act in ways that reflect God’s desire for shalom.”[17]

Bouma-Prediger begins the conclusion of For the Beauty of the Earth with a quote from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”[18] And Dr. Seuss is right. Unless Christians come together and really begin focusing on using our resources wisely, our finite planet is in trouble. Care for creation effects all things, the poor and marginalized, our future children, and our own quality of life. Imago Dei means that God’s concerns are ours, the things that break his heart are supposed to break ours and the things he cares about, we are supposed to as well.[19] I’ll leave you with Bouma-Prediger’s own words as a conclusion.

“So why care for the earth? For many reasons – many good reasons. Because our own existence in imperiled. Because we owe it to our children. Because an earth-friendly way of life is more joyful. Because various forms of oppression are of a piece. Because certain non-human creatures are entitled to our care. Because the earth is valuable for its own sake. Because it is in the best interests of the entire earth community. Because God says so. Because we are God’s image-bearers. Because grace begets gratitude and gratitude care. Because, in sum, care for the earth is integral to what it means to be a Christian – it is an important part of our piety, our spirituality, our collective way of being authentically Christian. And care for the earth expresses the fullness and vastness of the God whom we love and serve.”[20]

[1] Wendell Berry, “Whatever Is Foreseen in Joy.” A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998), pg 18.

[2] (Bouma-Prediger 2001) 13.

[3] 14.

[4] 21.

[5] (Bouma-Prediger 2001) 73.

[6] 74.

[7] 95.

[8] 96.

[9] Genesis 6:8

[10] (Bouma-Prediger 2001) 100.

[11] 102.

[12] 103.

[13] 117.

[14] 119.

[15] (Bouma-Prediger 2001) 123.

[16] 125.

[17] 135.

[18] 163.

[19] 176.

[20] 179.

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Book Report: Backpacking With The Saints

Backpacking with the Saints
By Belden C. Lane
Book Report by: Abby Stroven

In this book, Belden takes us through 4 stages of a spiritual journey within the context of a wilderness setting. This is a journey that many people throughout the ages have taken and one in which we can learn from if we are willing to risk stepping out on our own to do it.

The first stage is venturing out. During this stage we learn the importance of going out away from the noise and distractions of our modern life as well as stripping away all of the trappings and comforts of our familiar surroundings in order that we might hear and experience God more clearly.

“God is the beginning, the middle and the end of the created universe. God is that from which all things originate, that in which all things participate, and that to which all things eventually return.”- St. John Scotus Eriugena

But this stage of venturing out eventually leads to disillusionment with what we thought this experience in nature would be like. So, we are forced to ask the question what is it that we really want most.

“A thirst for grandiosity- an expectation of success (usually with minimal effort)- is the baggage that some of us carry for years. We long to prove ourselves, searching for more than a Walter Mitty world of imagined triumphs. Our need to excel masks a deep, underlying insecurity. We feel we have to shine even though we know there’s no gold within us.” (Pg 50)

Belden makes it clear that if we go out desiring a grand experience we will be disappointed. We must come to a place of quieting ourselves before God and listen to our hearts deepest desire, which is to be loved and connected with God.

The second stage is Assuming a discipline of being alone, traveling light and practicing mindfulness.

“They went to the desert to learn to delight in spending time alone, to see how lightly they could travel, to ask how available they could be to the present moment. These three elements were central to the spiritual practice they adopted. Having set out on the trail, they were obliged to follow the rules of wilderness. They knew, as wilderness travelers learn, that “If we don’t discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us.”(pg70)

Belden talks about the gifts of solitude and points to some underlying truths about why this discipline is important for Christians. He says that “Paradoxically, genuine community is a sharing of solitudes. The only true self we have to give is one that is grounded in a solitary life.” (pg77)

“It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them…Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say. Only by being alone do we recognize the ties that bind us to everything else. Wilderness can teach this as readily as a monastery.” –Thomas Merton. (pg 170)

The third stage is accepting the decent into fear, failure, and even death. This stage is characterized by our understanding that we need to overcome our fear of failure in order to move forward and that the prospect of dying to ourselves is something to embrace.

“The only way to make progress is by making mistakes…over and over again. The seemingly perfect man isn’t perfect at all. He’s just better than others at hiding his shadow” (pg 137)

“Failure points us back to the true measure of our worth, to something grounded in nothing that we do, but only in what we are.” (pg138)

“A Desert Father once confronted his confrere, Abba Poemen, who had taken personal offense at the words of another brother. “Poemen, are you still alive?” the monk asked him. “I thought you were already dead. Go, sit in your cell, and remind your heart that you have been in the grave for a year.” These old desert codgers had lived long enough in a bleak, empty landscape to have sufficient practice in dying to the easily disturbed, anxious self. They know its death to be the route to freedom…and to the unaccountable wonder of being loved.” (pg 143)

The fourth stage is returning home finally, with the unexpected gifts of insight, community, a fearless commitment to justice, and a laughable awareness that what we’d sought all along had been closer than we ever dreamed. These are the gold the adventurer brings back from the wild places.

“You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, they insist. You are the dwelling place of the most High God. You are loved beyond measure by what you can’t even begin to understand. The wilderness you’ve sought throughout your journey has been within you from the start.” (pg 205)

Departure, Discipline, Descent, and Delight.

 

 

 

 

Book Report: The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
By: Nicholas Carr
Book Report by: Bryn Clark

Point 1: We are losing our ability to concentrate

“Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts- the faster the better.” (10)

Point 2: How we use our brain affects it’s physical and physiological characteristics

Our minds are shaped by the way we use it and the way in which we expose our brain to information and tasks. This notion is known as “neuroplasticity.”

Nietzsche: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” (19)

“Every action leaves some permanent print on the nervous tissue.” (21)

Related aside: Another interesting read on this notion of mind pathways is: Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Mind. In this book, Dr. William Struthers shows how- similar to many other addictions- a thought, emotion, or physiological reaction makes a ‘pathway’ in the mind. Think of this pathway as a trail someone walks over very fragile vegetation. Each time a similar thought, emotion, or physiological reaction ‘walks’ down that pathway, it becomes smoother and easier to travel.

“Evolution has given us a brain that can literally change its mind- over and over again.” (31)

Carr quotes one scientist who says: “If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them, the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.” (35)

A real-life example of this is a study done on NY taxicab drivers. Previous to the invention of GPS, many drivers scored incredibly high on the IQ scale. Surveys and data drawn since the massive implementation of the GPS shows a drastic decrease in short-term memory abilities and overall intellect.

Point 3: Our changing brains may be changing our ability to think deeply

Similar to how a muscle that is unused will dwindle and weaken, so a mind that is unused will lessen in its ability to think deeply or absorb significant and qualitative amounts of information.

Because of the internet’s information distribution that’s a mile wide and an inch deep, we don’t often have to work through the task of reading and interpreting a text. And:

“As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate more resources to the interpretation of meaning. What we today call ‘deep reading’ becomes possible.” (63)

“Developing such mental discipline (is) not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness.” (65)

Carr points out the worrisome reality behind the increased illiteracy of America’s youth when it comes to actual books:

“The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They though deeply as they read deeply.” (65)

Memorization- in Biblical and up through Medieval to pre-Gutenberg time, was not for brute repetition or regurgitation. Rather, memorization was seen as a way of absorbing knowledge into the stores of information already within one’s brain. To memorize the book of John was to connect the book of John with the memorized portions from the book of Genesis and develop the ability to articulate a Biblical theology that goes beyond simply reciting Bible verses here and there.

Point 4: The mediums we prefer contribute to these changes in our brains

Because of the way a webpage features thousands of different messages at one time- the main article, an advertisement up top, down below, a pop-up here, another advertisement that changes on the right hand of the page, etc.- reading on the internet is inherently distracting and necessitates the brain to interact with information in a shallow manner.

Between 2005 and 2009 the amount of time an average adult spent online each day doubled.

Not including time on mobile devices and phones, a 2008 international survey of 25,00 adults between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five found that people are spending 30 percent of their leisure time online. (86)

According to a 2009 study most Americans, no matter what their age, spend at least eight and a half hours a day looking at a television, a computer monitor, or the screen of their mobile phone. Frequently, they use two or even all three of the devices simultaneously. (87)

“It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.” (116)

“With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the New may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” (116-117)

Point 5: Everyone should send their children on La Vida trips and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the La Vida ministries. (Carr’s words) (sorta)

A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending tie in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains are both calmer and sharper. (219)

“The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion and other emotions.” (221)

“Our ability to engage in ‘meditative thinking’…the very essence of our humanity, might become a victim of headlong progress.”  (222)

“One college senior sent me a long email describing how he has struggled with ‘a moderate to major form of internet addiction’ since the third grade. ‘I am unable to focus on anything in a deep or detailed manner,” he wrote. ‘The only thing my mind can do, indeed the only thing it wants to go, is plug back into that distracted frenzied blitz of online information.” He is drawn back into the web even though he knows that ‘the happiest and most fulfilled times of my life have all involved a prolonged separation from the internet.’”  (227)

This makes outdoor, experiential education that is consistently disconnected from modern technology not simply a ‘luxury’ or worthwhile hobby but a very necessary antidote to the power of technology over our brains.

What I’ve changed because of this:

  • Each work day, I complete tasks in “blocks.”
    • I work on a single task or area of my job, and solely on that task- even at the negligence of other tasks– for a specifically scheduled amount of time.
  • I close my email most of the day, only opening it to read during times that it applies to the task at hand or I’ve set aside for reading emails
  • I used to read numerous books at once. Now I only read one fiction and one theology book at a time. Whereas previously I would take an hour of reading and divide it between four books- now I use that entire time to read one book. I’ve been reading faster and absorbing more since I started doing this.
  • I listen to full albums on Spotify more often than mixes. I’ve found that my mind can be a little more disjointed and even ‘stressed’ by hearing a variety of different sounds and having to process those while also working.
  • I downloaded the Freedom application for my laptop. This allows me to block different websites or all network connection for a set amount of time. It’s pretty impossible to work around once you’ve begun a session, so it does force you to streamline what you’re doing.
  • I made a commitment to donate the total value of my trust fund to La Vida.

Book Report: Unselfie

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World
By: Michelle Borba, Ed.D.
Book Report by Amber Hausman

Reading this book made me realize how relevant La Vida is to this generation of young people. We give students an opportunity to make face-to-face connections and develop deep, meaningful friendships.

The book takes us through the following structure to help us understand empathy and its importance in our lives:
Developing the fundamentals of empathy:

  • Emotional Literacy
  • Moral Identity
  • Perspective Taking
  • Moral Imagination

Practice habits of empathy:

  • Self-regulation
  • Practicing kindness
  • Collaboration

Ways to live empathetically:

  • Moral courage
  • Altruistic leadership abilities

Michelle Borba coins the term Selfie-Syndrome which is “Me” centered. It’s a self-absorbed condition that is all about self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns.

Narcissism is on the rise in the Western world. Kids who feel entitled focus on their needs and feelings, direct their perspective on their experiences and see the world through their eyes. Left out of their picture is anyone else, and there go the opportunities to learn to value others.

Empathy on the opposite spectrum is “Others” centered. It is being able to identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. The foundation for empathy is face-to-face human connection.

  • We are born with the ability to empathize but it is a characteristic that must be nurtured. It can be developed.
  • At the base of any empathetic moment is human connection. In today’s hyper-individualistic, pugged-in culture, we need to find ways to create friendlier, caring cultures to help our children see with the eyes of another, listen with the ears of another, and feel with the heart of another.

We must get our kids to switch their focus from “I, Me, My, Mine” to “We, Us, Our, Ours”.

Concerns:

  • Teens are now 40 percent lower in empathy levels than three decades ago, and in the same period, narcissism has increased 58 percent.
    • “I want to be famous” article in Britain shows that the current top 3 career choices for 8-11 year olds is pop star, movie star, or sports star compared to 20 years ago- teacher, finance, medicine.
  • As empathy levels decrease, peer cruelty increases. 1 in 5 middle school students contemplate suicide as a solution.
  • Experts observe more cheating and weaker moral reasoning in young people: 70 percent of college students admit to cheating.
  • Our plugged-in, high-pressure culture is leading to a mental health epidemic among young people. 1 in 5 US youth meets the criteria for a mental disorder in their lifetime. Teen stress levels are higher than adults. As anxiety increases, empathy decreases- hard to feel for others when you’re in survival mode.
  • The average 8-18 year old is plugged in to a digital media device about 7 hours and 38 minutes a day (NOT including texting or talking on a phone)
  • 75% of children 8 and younger have access to a smart mobile device at home.
  • Preschoolers spend 4.6 hours/day using screen media
  • 40% of 2-4 year olds us a smartphone, MP3 player or tablet.
  • 30% of children first play with mobile devices when they’re in diapers.
  • Between school, sleep, extracurricular activities and screen time, there is limited opportunity for REAL face-to-face interactions
  • 62% of school-age kids said that their parents are too distracted when they try to talk to them. The top distraction is cell phones.
  • Study on home sounds found that television reduced parent-kid interaction. For each hour of audible background television, 500-1,000 fewer adult words were spoken and heard by their kids.

Suggestions/Teaching Techniques That Apply to La Vida:

  • Set unplugged times with staff and participants. Identify sacred “family” times and places and set clear media limits. Ex: main lounge at BC is tech-free zone.
  • Kids need face-to-face time to learn to read emotions and develop human connections. We provide that sense of community in our programs, ie life stories, group games/initiatives, debriefing.
  • Jig Saw Puzzle Learning: Originally created out of necessity to defuse racial issues in Austin, TX. Intended to make each student feel a necessary part of the community as well as for other students to view them as such. In a group of 5-6, an activity is broken down into that many parts. Each person is responsible for learning that part and teaching to others. If you have multiple groups, the “experts” of each topic also connect with the “experts” in the other groups before coming back to their group to teach it.
  • Read literary fiction and try to see through the perspective of each character
  • Watch movies and have a discussion about character, morals etc.
  • While watching movie or reading pause and ask: How would you feel if….? What would you do in that situation?
  • Kindness board: could maybe incorporate at the ropes course for a full day group. Each time someone receives a kind gesture they write a thank you to that person and post it on the board.
  • Create a family motto/set of values: we do this with the covenant. Important to always go back to and reevaluate if we are doing what we say.
  • Conflict Resolution:
    • When there is conflict between two people and they can’t make a decision about how to move forward have them use rock, paper, scissors. This seems to apply to younger kids (sharing toys, what game to play etc) but could be useful for team-building activities.
    • Each person (in conflict) needs to tell what happened from another person’s perspective.
    • Use finger puppets to tell the story/how you feel