Environmental crisis is a cliché whose connotations of divine judgment we no longer notice. But the term is apt for what is happening to the earth today. Habitats are disappearing and species going extinct at unprecedented rates. Artificial chemicals in ecosystems worldwide are lowering sperm counts and upsetting the gender balance of newborn vertebrates, including humans. The situation is grave even if we table the contested issue of global warming. Pioneering evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson even set aside his longstanding differences with fundamentalists over human origins to pen The Creation, a plea for conservative Christians to embrace their responsibilities as stewards of God's earth. Ironically, Wilson is preaching to the choir: a recent study by the Barna Group found that nine in ten American evangelicals would like Christians to care more actively for creation. We are turning green.
With the release of The Green Bible (Harper One, 2008), the Scriptures are turning green too—literally. This "green-letter edition," says its publisher, "is the definitive Bible for the growing creation care movement." Its green ink highlights more than 1,000 passages chosen by The Green Bible's editorial team to demonstrate God's involvement in creation, the interdependence of its elements, its response to God, and how we are called to care for it.
The Green Bible's packaging almost parodies itself: soy-based inks, recycled paper, and a stylish, earthy cotton/linen cover made through a process in which "all air is purified before exhausting into the atmosphere and all water is purified and recycled." Surely this was a marketing necessity; the publisher could not afford the charges of hypocrisy that would follow if it printed The Green Bible the way it prints … well, its other books. But The Green Bible is not a self-parody. It's offered as a serious Bible, with introductory essays by an ecumenical mix of voices such as N. T. Wright, Desmond Tutu, Pope John Paul II, Brian McLaren, and Barbara Brown Taylor, and an epilogue with topical studies and an environmental subject index. All these resources aim to orient readers to Scripture's concern for the natural world, along with its calls for social justice and poverty relief.
The real hook, of course, is the green-lettered biblical text. It mimics the wildly successful red-letter edition of the Bible that Louis Klopsch, the enterprising and philanthropic editor of the Christian Herald, invented just over a century ago. That edition's red ink symbolized "the new covenant in my blood" of Luke 22:20. How will swapping blood for chlorophyll color our reading?
Lest this sample seem unfair, let's start at the beginning, in one of the greenest books of all. The first chapters of Genesis feature a lot of green ink, including every word of chapter one and almost all of chapter two (though, oddly, only the first of Eden's four rivers, and not 2:24's concluding testimony to human family life). Yet the verdant primordial narratives of Genesis 1-11 blacken into the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-50, whose few green passages stand out peculiarly. They are 12:10 on famished Abram's journey to Egypt; 15:18-19 on God's covenant of land to Abram; reiterations of that promise in 26:3, 28:4, and 35:11-12; Jacob's confession that God is at Bethel in 28:16-17; and finally, Joseph's handling of prosperity and then famine in 41:47-49 and 41:53-57. These passages illustrate God's involvement and creation's interdependence, but not creation care as such. They show us that land in Genesis is basically a matter of tribal inheritance and wealth, neither for exploitation nor conservation, but residence and development. Countless other highlighting choices will mislead casual readers and confuse careful ones.
The two testaments' central concerns—covenanted Israel, anointed Jesus, and missional church—are pushed aside by the green passages that testify, or are made to testify, on environmentalism's behalf. Yet if the editors narrowed their criteria or applied them strictly, much less of The Green Bible would be in green, and that would give the false impression of biblical indifference. This double bind makes The Green Bible an awkward witness to the strong theological case that can actually be made for creation care. Despite the publisher's intent, spending time with The Green Bible makes me more aware than ever of the gulf separating ancient Israel from the Sierra Club, and warier of forcing environmentalism, anti-environmentalism, or any other contemporary agenda into passages of Scripture.
Ripening and Cultivation Needed
The strongest part of The Green Bible is the introductory essays. While their quality is uneven, some stand out as insightful theological affirmations of creation care—particularly those of John Paul II and N. T. Wright. These do the book's heavy lifting. Indeed, they bear nearly its entire intellectual burden.
This is a problem that disguises an opportunity. To advance a biblical case for creation care, proponents might look to an unlikely mentor: American fundamentalism. What powered fundamentalism's success was a four-volume collection of essays called The Fundamentals. Addressing a variety of related issues, written by leading pastors and scholars, published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, and underwritten by oil magnates Lyman and Milton Stewart, The Fundamentals did the intellectual hard work and won the visibility that established fundamentalism's size and self-respect.
Green Christianity's midwives will need to commit similarly massive resources to deliver a credible movement. A ready audience awaits such careful thinking. The same Barna Group study that found widespread environmental concern among Christians also found that only about a third of active churchgoers have heard churches teach or preach on environmental issues. They are "green" in another sense—they need experience and training. While The Green Bible demonstrates some of the same immaturity, its best essays show that excellent work is already being done that deserves further development and greater exposure.
Of course, fundamentalism would not have been what it was without the Scofield Reference Bible, whose marginal notes convinced millions of readers that dispensationalism was biblical, and whose phenomenal sales kept Oxford University Press solvent during the Great Depression. However, The Green Bible isn't even a reference Bible that trains readers to see its agenda in Scripture. It leaves readers on their own to figure out the relevance of passages both green and black. It offers no study notes beyond the New Revised Standard Version's critical notes, and its concluding "Green Bible Trail Guide" merely offers unremarkable thematic verse lists and questions for Bible study groups. This is not a study Bible, let alone a "definitive" one.
What is The Green Bible, then? Despite its worthwhile intentions, its packaging, assumptions, and interpretive shortcuts suggest it's not the rigorous guide to biblical creation care we need, but a hybrid of two things: an ideological fashion accessory, and a vehicle for promoting conventional progressive environmentalism.
This charge will seem unfair to some, if only because I seem to be pointing out the speck in my brother's eye. After all, the Bible is already a fashion accessory. It is available in every shape, size, and price range to suit a dizzying variety of target markets: Bibles for men, for women, for newlyweds, for parents, for children, for teens, for various ethnicities—and, of course, Bibles fashioned for us academics. In my circles, basic black is the rule, red letters gauche, and utility its own elegance. First-year students marvel at my bilingual Hebrew and Greek editions, and majors admire my voluminous Bible reference software. And I can't say I mind it when they do. Why should I begrudge Prius-driving disciples the same satisfaction?
Likewise, the Bible is a vehicle for many agendas. Gideon Bibles are made for personal salvation, and unashamedly so. Many confessional Bibles—the Scofield Reference Bible's publishing heirs—are designed to propagate their camps' theological stances. The Bible seems better suited to these ends than to single issues such as creation care. Confessional Bibles teach a whole tradition of biblical interpretation, and Gideon Bibles aim to make disciples who will be whole-Bible readers. Like tour buses, these vehicles orient readers to more and more of the Bible itself. But single-issue Bibles aren't even tour buses; they're express trains. They expose us only to what lies on the way to their terminal destination. They conform the Bible, and then readers, to their narrow agenda.
The Green Bible is hardly the first to do this; it is not even the first to do it in color. The Jesus Seminar both exploited and subverted the red-letter effect in its Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Polebridge, 1993), coloring Jesus' words from red to black according to how historical a group of biblical critics thought they were. The Promise Bible (Tyndale, 2001) highlights all of God's promises to us in the Psalms, Proverbs, and New Testament, conveniently ignoring our covenantal obligations in return. Robert H. Schuller even published a Possibility Thinkers Bible (Nelson, 1984), with "positive verses for possibility thinking highlighted in blue." (Resurrection passages: highlighted. Crucifixion passages: not highlighted.)
Vehicles like these disperse our fellowships into scattered interest groups who represent the various causes and subcultures that rise, clash, and fall in a democracy. The satires practically write themselves: a pink- and baby-blue-letter Pro-life Bible, an olive drab Soldier's Bible, a purple Swing States Bible. These are no longer the Word of God for the whole people of God, a whole congregation, or even a whole person. Are they even Bibles?
The Final Word
The Green Bible's destination, its rhetorical finale, is a section called "Where Do You Go from Here?" It includes action items for households and churches, tips for getting started in Christian environmentalism—which, it must be said, looks basically like secular environmentalism plus some prayer and Bible memorization—and a list of religious and secular organizations devoted to environmental advocacy and poverty relief. In the end, this project nurtures not disciples, souls, or even better readers, but devotees to a predictable set of causes, along with a hefty "green premium" for the publisher. For Scripture, this is too meager a harvest.
Nevertheless, The Green Bible is a Bible after all. Buried in its introductory material is this remark from Bruce M. Metzger's preface to the NRSV, which licensees are obligated to include:
The Bible carries its full message, not to those who regard it simply as a noble literary heritage of the past or who wish to use it to enhance political purposes and advance otherwise desirable goals, but to all persons and communities who read it so that they may discern and understand what God is saying to them.
In all of The Green Bible, these uncelebrated words encourage me most. Few will find them. Yet those who do might be moved, not away from environmentalism or any otherwise desirable goal, but toward the Bible's incomprehensible fullness. That fullness will finally put to shame all our commentaries, our forewords and afterwords, our footnotes and indexes, our trendsetting and target marketing, and yes, our colorizing.
Telford Work is associate professor of theology at Westmont College and author of The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Deuteronomy.
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