I am writing this in San Antonio, Texas, though by the time this edition of Talk is distributed, I shall be back in Adelaide. San Antonio is a pleasant city. There is a “Riverwalk” running alongside the convention centre and hotels, with a variety of shops. The river in questions is about 20m wide, shallow, and is completely lined on both sides – more like a small canal in a built up area. It’s a great place for tourists to relax, although someone told me that the locals do not come down here. The Alamo, the site of the rebellion against Mexican rule of Texas, is just around the corner. How much different would US history be, if Texas had remained part of Mexico?
I am here for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, the association to which almost all biblical scholars in North America belong, along with a significant number of Australians and Europeans. I have even met a biblical scholar from Russia here. The annual meeting is combined with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. To give you an idea of the size, at 1pm today, there were 95 different sessions to choose from, more than half on biblical topics, as well as the displays from the book sellers. The conference is a little smaller this year, down to about 9,500 participants. Surprisingly, I can notice the difference 1500 people less makes.
My main focus here is with the sessions on ecological hermeneutics, or interpreting the Bible with a sensitivity to ecology, the earth and other elements of nature. I help organise the sessions. This year, we have four 2 ½ hour sessions, covering Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), New Testament, a special section on a new commentary on Matthew and ecology, written by an Australian, and a special section on Poverty, Ecology and the Bible. (As someone observed, in cities, it is often the areas where the poor can afford to live that are also the places where the most polluting developments take place – Curtis Bay in Baltimore was cited as an example, an area which had recently fought off a proposal for a garbage incinerator that would put 1000tons of lead into the air each year.) What does the Bible say in such circumstances?
One of the features of our sessions is the linkage of scholarly biblical discussion with contemporary issues. Curtis Bay was one example. Another was provided by several papers on deforestation. One presenter linked passages in Revelation that talk about the destruction of vegetation on the earth with deforestation. Most people do not realise that ancient Rome consumed vast amounts of wood and would deforest conquered territories. Another presentation raised the question of loving the earth. The presenter suggested that as conditions on the planet deteriorate due to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, more people will be adversely affected by “natural” catastrophes which they may well blame on the earth rather than human factors. As the earth becomes less hospitable, it will be harder to convince people to care for it, to love it.
The outcome of the election hung in the air. Everybody was concerned about the consequences of the result, and some presenters expressed this at the start of their talks. Other topics included the earthquake in Oklahoma, said to be due to waste water from fracking, and the protests against a pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota.
At one point, I asked a group to suggest topics for next year. One suggestion was that we have a session that looks at the descriptions of the end of the world in the Bible (eschatology and apocalyptic) from an ecological point of view. The traditional Christian viewpoint is that Jesus will return at some point in the future, to wrap up the world, and as a consequence, believers will escape to the safety of heaven. This does not encourage care for the environment. Are there other ways to read these passages?
As Christmas approaches, we remember the first time that Jesus came to earth, as a baby born in Bethlehem. Contrary to those views that Christians will flee the world, Christmas presents God coming into the world, embracing and endorsing material existence. One part of the Christmas message is that if it is good enough for God to love the world, then it is certainly good enough for us to love it.
Another part is this: that despite all the issues and anxieties in the world, at Christmas we are reminded that God is with us. We are not alone. We are never alone. We can face the challenges of life, personal, social, environmental, confident that the love of God accompanies us.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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