Sacred Mountains

A Christian Ethical Approach to Mountaintop Removal

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Andrew R. H. Thompson
Place Matters: New Directions in Appalachian Studies
  • Lexington, KY: 
    University Press of Kentucky
    , December
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sacred Mountains: A Christian Ethical Approach to Mountaintop Removal opens with two religious scenes grounded in Appalachia. In the first, Christians reenact the Stations of the Cross at a mountaintop removal [MTR] site in Kentucky, carrying a cross with a piece of coal at its center and offering prayers for the health of the communities and ecosystems impacted by surface mining. In the second scene, the owner of a mining company in West Virginia leads a Bible study in a cabin overlooking a mining site.

The concurrent similarity and duality of these two images of prayer—one by Christian activists and the other by coal miners—reflect the complexity of religious responses to MTR. Author Andrew R. H. Thompson argues that a theocentric approach that places God at the center of interpretation can provide an appropriate lens for this Christian ethical analysis of a practice that has altered the landscape of Appalachia while providing electricity to many regions of the country. His analysis draws on H. Richard Niebuhr, positing that a theocentric view can be used to attend to the assumptions and binaries about Appalachia, especially those common in depictions in the popular media. The author does acknowledge possible critiques of this theocentric view and what he describes as his “moderate, nuanced approach” to MTR (147).

The strength of Sacred Mountains lies in the closing six practices recommended for theocentric moral action as they occur in relationship to others—especially relevant for the “church community” (133). These actions include repentance, conversation and listening, critical examination, responding to a particular situation, cultivation, and faith. When Thompson uses specific examples in his text, such as descriptions of the work of the Highlander Center and the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, the practices come to life, transforming the theoretical into the concrete.

Today’s political climate in the US gives new relevance to this approach to MTR, which might extend to broader themes of conservation, climate resilience, and climate justice. Thompson’s call for the actual practice of listening to those with views that differ from our own in order to discern God’s purpose, presents a challenge and perhaps an opportunity beyond the region of Appalachia. I wonder how these practices might translate if political leaders try to create the very dualities around renewable and nonrenewable energy sources that a theocentric approach aims to disarm.

While the book focuses solely on MTR, its principles could apply to the current context given the shifting dynamics of energy, with the rise of cheap natural gas and the attendant ecological and public health challenges posed by fracking, as well as the decreased cost of wind and solar energy nationwide. What is the future context of a theocentric approach when the place-based challenges in Appalachia and other regions of the country change over time?

While these questions may extend beyond the scope of the text, Sacred Mountains is a solid contribution to the “Place Matters: New Directions in Appalachian Studies” series published by the University Press of Kentucky, intended to examine Appalachia in the lens of global change. The book draws on Thompson’s dissertation in religious studies with a concentration in ethics from Yale University, completed in 2013. The text would be of interest to graduate students and faculty in fields such as religious studies, environmental ethics, and even community organizing. Sacred Mountains makes a strong addition to Christian environmental ethics with its examination of a God-centered path to protecting some of the oldest mountains in the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mallory McDuff is Professor at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Caroina.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew R. H. Thompson is assistant director of the Center for Religion and Environment and postdoctoral fellow in environmental ethics at Sewanee’s School of Theology. He has contributed chapters to The Changing World Religions Map: Sacred Places, Identities, Practices, and Politics; Life-Widening Mission: Global Anglican Perspectives; and Edinburgh 2010: Mission Today and Tomorrow.


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