A number of books have been tried over the years in Saint Louis University’s undergraduate course on “Green Discipleship: Theology and the Environment,” with some turning out to be unsuitable and others proving to be worthwhile. Now in its second edition, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, which is obviously the fruit of excellent classroom experience and solid scholarship, is by far the best theological work used to date. Its author, Steven Bouma-Prediger, who is a professor of religion at Hope College, writes from a Reformed Christian perspective that is engaging and persuasive to readers across the ecumenical spectrum. “What does ecology have to do with theology?” one of his students asked after the author went over the syllabus (xi), and in an Introduction and eight chapters that are organized logically and flow well from one to the next, Bouma-Prediger convincingly demonstrates that it has everything to do with it: “Earthkeeping is integral to Christian discipleship” (xii).
The first chapter asks, “What is your ecological perception of place?” (3) A litany of questions follow: What is the soil like where you live? What flowers bloom there? What kinds of trees are there? What geological phenomena impacted it? What sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are experienced there? Bouma-Prediger suspects that “contemporary ecological degradation is a result, in part, of us not knowing our places, our own local habitats on this our home planet” (2). Ecological literacy, which is interdisciplinary (theological, ethical, historical, political, economic, technological, scientific, etc.) and experiential, is needed.
In the second chapter, Bouma-Prediger provides an informative and up-to-date survey of the ways that creation is “groaning” (Romans 8:19-23). With diagrams, charts, maps, and illustrations, he skillfully and succinctly explains several of today’s major environmental problems: population growth (which he sees as a question of not merely how many humans the earth can sustain, but at what level of consumption); hunger and food production/consumption; biodiversity and species extinction; deforestation; water scarcity; topsoil erosion and desertification; solid waste and “affluenza”; energy usage; air pollution and acid rain; and climate change/global warming. While he clearly shows, “The state of our home planet is not good,” Bouma-Prediger notes signs of hope, such as how the “Cuyahoga River in Ohio no longer catches fire, and Lake Erie is recovering as a viable fishery” (54).
The ecological complaint against Christianity is the focus of the third chapter. Refreshingly, attention is given not only to historian Lynn White’s well-known (by now to most scholars, but not necessarily to undergraduates) 1967 Science essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” but more to other theologians and philosophers who have identified elements within the Christian tradition (anthropocentrism, dualism, patriarchy, and apocalypticism) that have contributed to either the despoliation or the neglect of the earth. Bouma-Prediger devotes a fair hearing to the ecological complaint’s cogency, even as he critiques it and offers better explanations (e.g., economic materialism, the modern craving to master and control nature, etc.).
As a Reformed scholar, Bouma-Prediger shines with the fourth chapter, which concisely and adroitly treats relevant biblical passages (Genesis 1:1-2:3; Genesis 6-9; Job 38:1-42:6; Colossians 1:15-20; Revelation 21:1-22:5) for wisdom and an ecological vision. Chapter five attempts “to articulate a theology and ethic of care for the earth” (111). The “fundamental contours” of this theology include: a theocentric vision; the loving relationality of the Trinity; the work of the Holy Spirit; humankind’s vocation as image-bearers; the reality of sin and its overcoming through the cosmic redemptive work of Christ; the role of Christ as fully human and fully divine; a vision of God’s good future for all creation; and the vocation of the community of faith. As for an earth-care ethic, Bouma-Prediger identifies and evaluates seven approaches: conservationism; sustainability, animal rights, biocentrism, wilderness preservation, Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, and deep ecology—with the land ethic corresponding most with the theological horizon he surveyed earlier. Chapter six offers a creative and constructive account of the kind of character, with requisite ecological virtues, necessary for this ethic of creation care. By adeptly tying pairs of virtues together with ethical principles, theological motifs, and vices of excess and deficiency, Boutma-Prediger helpfully illustrates how these come into play in everyday life, providing readers with a foundation for examining what kind of people they ought to be.
The ninth chapter, “Why Worry about Galapagos Penguins and the Jack Pine? Arguments for Earth-care,” deals with “ten of the most important arguments” (156) that tend to be made for why we should take better care of the earth. In Bouma-Prediger’s view, the cumulative effect of these arguments, some of which individually are more persuasive than others, results in a compelling case for Christians to lead lives that care for creation. Knowing that the overall task that he has set before us may seem daunting—and perhaps lead some to feel overwhelmed or to despair—in the final chapter Bouma-Prediger offers encouragement, drawing from Isaiah 54, through the virtue of hope, which is “not to be confused with optimism” (180).
For the Beauty of the Earth is perfectly suited for college level courses and does not require an extensive background in environmental science or ethics to understand its message. The book models for students how theology can engage a variety of other disciplines in a coherent and integrated fashion in order to address what may be the most important problem facing us for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it is one of those rare books that students say they find hard to put down.