Environmental Humanities and Theologies
Ecoculture, Literature, and the Bible
- ISBN: 9780815357643
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: June 2018
Rod Giblett’s Environmental Humanities and Theologies: Ecoculture, Literature and the Bible opens with a provocative rewriting of the opening passages of the book of Genesis from an ecologically friendly perspective. This point of view pushes back against pejorative views of swamps and wetlands as hellish places, which Giblett sees as a "persistent trope in western European thinking and writing about creation, water and wetlands"(5). Such theologies, he argues, needs sacral re-interpretation that values all landscapes and beings in the natural world.
To build this argument and offer a path towards such revisionist reading and writing, the book is structured in two parts. The first part consists of five chapters that analyze the theological connections between representations of wetlands—along with its monstrous inhabitants—in the Bible and those that permeate classic allegorical Christian literary works such as Beowulf and Pilgrim's Progress. The four chapters that make up the second part of the book then presents re-fashioned theologies that Giblett argues will enable us to live better in a more desirable era that he dubs as the "Symbiocene." Such an epoch - in contrast to religion in the human-centered "Anthropocene," - embodies and expresses sacrality on earth where all beings are treated with respect, including monsters such as the serpent representation of Satan.
The first part of the book is rather uneven. The persuasiveness of argument in each chapter is highly dependent on the selection of texts discussed and whether they were tightly connected. One of the strongest chapters, chapter 2, shows a clear lineage from scripture to literature, weaving together a critical reading of Genesis with the disparaging view of wetlands depicted by Beowulf and J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings. This was followed by one of the book's weakest: a psychoanalysis of the figures of dragons and serpents in classic literary works that argues that humans depict these figures as evil in order to displace on them man's own guilt in robbing minerals and metals from the earth. In this analysis, the engagement with Christian theology was minimal and reduced to sweeping statements such as "in biblical terms, they [dragons] are swarming creatures and an abomination" (56).
On the whole, this section of the book is most convincing when it identifies "placism," a term Giblett employs to denote discrimination against particular environments such as wetlands by imputing moral qualities in it (98). It is also effective in explaining how certain tropes in literature draws on anthropogenic readings of the Bible. It is less successful when it attempts to demonstrate that Christian attitudes towards the wetlands and the monsters of the natural world are largely responsible for the ongoing degradation of the environment. This line of argument requires more consistent engagement with Christian theology than provided by this book, which draws only on excerpts from the books of Genesis and Psalms to make points that are broader than imputed by the sources.
Moreover, evidence to prove causality between placist attitudes and the destruction of specific places is lacking, given that upland and wetland environments both face similar environmental pressures despite the former being privileged over the latter in theology. A re-evaluation of monstrosity to critique the notion of the autonomous, modern, human individual has been employed to greater effect in other recent works such as a 2017 volume Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (University of Minnesota Press) co-edited by Anna Tsing, Helen Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt where the contributions analyze representations of nature and the affect they generate in the light of material context and physical ecological constraints. Giblett's monograph, largely focused on ideology, leaves open the issue of materiality. Nonetheless, it provides useful provocations through which readers can begin to question the assumptions they hold about wetlands and why.
The second part of the book expands on the idea of alternative eco-friendly theologies. Here, Giblett draws on concepts pioneered by scholars such as Donna Haraway, whose notion of a "Chthulucene" presents a feminist reconnection with the natural world on the basis of kinship, not unlike Giblett's conception of the Symbiocene. One particularly illuminating chapter analyzes the writing of American conservationist John Muir from this perspective. Muir sees the natural world as a manifestation of God, Giblett argues, celebrating nature aestheticized as well as wilderness; a patriarchal God together with Mother Earth. Giblett, however, critiques Muir for his virtual erasure of indigenous peoples. In the final chapter of the book, he turns to the Rainbow Serpent in the mythology of Australian Aboriginals to demonstrate the possibility of a sacrality that is more at peace with the natural world.
The book ends on this pivot away from Christian theology and tradition, thus raising an implicit question: is it feasible to re-interpret theology from within the tradition to foreground an ethos of conservation? Environmental Humanities and Theologies is agnostic on this point, even as it provides rich examples of how religious derogation of places have permeated English literature. As such, students of literature might find it a more rewarding read than scholars of religion. At its core, the monograph is an urgent, passionate plea for attitudinal change towards the environment. The path towards such change and its possible endpoints, however, is still up for debate.
Faizah Zakaria is assistant professor in the Departments of Southeast Asian Studies and Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.Faizah ZakariaDate Of Review:April 27, 2023