Photo credit: Jeff Rogers Photography
SSA liaison Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, will preside over a session this Saturday afternoon at the AAR & SBL Annual Meeting in San Diego. This session is part of the Christian Spirituality Group and SBL Ecological Hermeneutics Group. The theme is, “The Bible and Climate Change: Twentieth Anniversary of Bill McKibben’s The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation.” The panelists at the session include SSA liaison Kathryn Schifferdecker (Associate Professor of Old Testament and Chair of the Bible Division at Luther Seminary), as well as Ched Byers (Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries) and Theodore Hiebert (McCormick Theological Seminary). Bill McKibben of 350.org will be responding to the panelists. The scholars and McKibben will reflect on the book’s significance, as well as explore possibilities for biblical scholarship on Job and other texts for addressing the global climate crisis.
Since both Dr. Rossing and Dr. Schifferdecker are SSA liaisons who represented their schools at this year’s conference in Winston-Salem, we wanted to ask them some questions about this panel. If you will be at the conference on Saturday, make sure to attend their session, which will be from 1-3:30 pm Saturday, November 22nd, in room 20D of the San Diego Convention Center.
What were some of your goals when proposing and designing this session?
Barbara: I am so excited about this session. Bill McKibben is not only an activist and journalist, but also a Methodist Sunday school teacher, deeply rooted in scripture. His insights on the book of Job, climate change, and faith broke new ground 1994. The intersection of scholarship and advocacy is vitally important today, especially at a time when the Bible is sometimes misused in politics and public discourse to deny climate change or to claim divine blessing for our fossil fuel-extractive economy. This session will expand the scholarship of the SBL Ecological Hermeneutics section into public engagement, and will also pay tribute to Bill for his amazing work.
What do you hope attendees will learn from this session?
Kathryn: I hope attendees will learn anew what rich resources we have in the Bible for thinking about creation care. I think many Christian scholars have contributed good thinking and writing about creation care from a theological and ethical standpoint. There have been far fewer scholars who have done so from a specifically biblical perspective. Ellen Davis and William Brown, among others, are major exceptions to this trend. I hope this session will contribute to a re-evaluation of Scripture as a resource for creation care from scholars who might not otherwise focus on Scripture.
What do you hope attendees learn from the panelists and Bill McKibben?
Barbara: I hope they learn how the Bible matters for our ecological work, and how biblical scholars’ work can make a difference for the climate. Ted Hiebert will share how important Bill’s book The Comforting Whirlwind has been to seminary students and future leaders, as well as to his own research on the Yahwist (“J”). Kathryn Schifferdecker will offer insights on Job for ecology and for churches. Ched Myers, a life-long social justice activist and organizer, will talk about the book’s contribution to watershed discipleship, making connections also to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament. Drawing on my own background in geology, I will offer reflections on science’s importance for biblical scholarship in an age geologists now call the “Anthropocene.” Bill McKibben’s own response will be the high point of the session. I’m confident Bill will set some important challenges for biblical scholars for the next 20 years and beyond.
If you had to pick two or three key creation care themes in Job, what would they be?
Kathryn: Bill McKibben talks about the two great lessons of the whirlwind speeches being humility and joy. I certainly concur with him.
First, humanity is not the center of creation. In the speeches from God at the end of the book, it is clear that God delights in creation, and particularly in wilderness and wild creatures, who are outside humanity’s control. The book of Job teaches us a radical humility in relation to the rest of creation.
Second, even though we’re not the center of creation, we do have a significant place in it. Job is the only passenger on God’s whirlwind tour. We are called to delight in creation as God does, in its beauty, its wildness, its order. We are called, in other words, to a sense of wonder and delight.
Have you seen Job scholars pay more attention to creation care in recent years?
Kathryn: Yes, somewhat. Of course, Job also has a lot to do with the question of suffering, so that continues to be a major focus of Job scholars, as it should be. But creation care is becoming more and more a theme in scholarship on Job. Bill McKibben’s book The Comforting Whirlwind (first published in 1994) was ahead of its time in that way.
How has Bill’s book influenced your thinking and research?
Barbara: Profoundly! I had the privilege to speak on a panel with Bill at Dartmouth College a few years ago, where his compelling urgency constituted a sort of conversion moment for me. His argument was that we have only a few years to turn our energy economy around, and that all of us, in whatever discipline, need to use our best gifts to work on the climate crisis. So most of my most recent articles and book chapters, as well as Bible studies, have made overt connections between the Bible and climate change. I also focused my work as chair of the Lutheran World Federation’s Theology and Studies department from 2003-2010 around climate and the environment, working with the poor and people from Africa and Asia who are first affected by climate disruption.
Kathryn: Bill’s book helped me see how to use the whirlwind speeches in Job to speak to a lay audience about creation care. He very engagingly weaves Job with personal stories and scientific research to make his case compelling. And his emphasis on the two lessons of Job– humility and joy — are right on target, I think.
What are you working on now?
Barbara: I am writing a commentary on Revelation that will draw on Ecological Hermeneutics. I am also working on a more popular book on the Bible and climate change. My chapter on Revelation just published in the Fortress Commentary on the New Testament (2014) makes the case that the tree of life for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2) is an ecological and eschatological vision that can heal our world. Written as a critique of Roman imperial injustice and a vision of hope for God’s future dwelling on earth, Revelation offers some surprising insights about ecological justice that can be of great importance today.
Kathryn: I’m working on a book on Job and creation care, actually. I have a book proposal and sample chapter done (supported by a seed grant from SSA) and hope to find a publisher soon. I appreciate Bill McKibben’s book very much, but I think more can be said on this topic. Bill understandably focuses on the scientific and environmental side of things. I’ll focus on the biblical text, and compare Job’s creation theology with other biblical creation accounts. I think Job and particularly the whirlwind speeches at the end of the book are particularly relevant for us now as we seek to live wisely and sustainably in this wild and beautiful creation of which we are a part.