Gift of Creation: Images From Scripture and Earth by Norman Wirzba & Thomas Barnes

It is late Friday night here in South Central Pennsylvania and the weather people are predicting a serious storm with deep snowfall. It is coming down brisk but soft even now.  As a struggling businessman, I am frustrated that this will surely kill holiday shopping on what, for us, needed to be the busiest day of the year.  As a Christian, I stand in awe at God’s power and the power of creation, wanting to praise Him in all things, and trust His providence.  And as a human being, as a busy and stressed person this crazy time of year, I’m actually looking forward to the reprieve that a heavy snowfall brings.  Ahh, yes, my bad back will hurt as we shovel out, but the stillness and beauty will be spectacular.  As I grow older I dislike the cold and hassle, but I still relish the sheer beauty of God’s changing seasons.  Snow really is an amazing thing, isn’t it?  A servant of God, Psalm 119:91 assures us.

So, a quiet night, tense with anticipation of the coming storm, and a time for reflecting on the importance of (again) a robust and serious doctrine of creation.  Obviously, this is why I wrote about Copenhagen earlier in the week, and reminded BookNotes readers of the call to stewardship of creation, and the duty to do justice to all creatures (not the least of which are the people in developing countries that feel the anguish of environmental disregard.)  The whole creation (as Romans 8 puts it) is really groaning.  Can we “read the signs of the times” and see judgment and mercy, and the need for response in this groaning?  Let us pray, in Jesus name, for eyes to see and ears to hear.  Despite controversies of fudged climate data and debates about proper policy and carbon offsets and such, we know God wants us to care for His beloved planet. 

Besides the dozens of great, theologically-sound and quite compelling Christian studies of the environment, creation-care and proper response to the environmental crisis that we stock (and that we hope your church library or fellowship group or parish reading group has a few of), we can—and I believe, we must—read books to remind us to enjoy the beauty of the Earth. Of course some of us may be able to do this without reading about it, but I am sure that some of us need a little help (or, at least, can use books as resources in this habit of heart.)  Of course we must protect her from the ideologies, systems and practices that assault her.  (We would not sit and gaze at the beauty of our lovely spouse or sister or mother if she were being mugged or raped, would we?)  Yes, we need analysis and action, theology and politics, research and guidebooks.  Yet, I am confident that sustained care for these things (from daily acts of recycling or buying more organic food to lobbying for wise public policy options) will not just come from a stewardship theology or duty.  It will come, also, from delight. (Maybe you know the Bruce Cockburn song from the CD You’ve Never Seen Everything reminding us “don’t forget about delight.”  Lovely, lovely quiet rock, with cool, jazzy fiddle and soothing harmonica, from a profound poet and prophet on these very matters!)

Here’s are three books to help us regain our focus, see the sensuous real-ness of things, train our hearts and eyes to enjoy and care.

remember creation.jpgRemember Creation: God’s World of Wonder and Delight Scott Hozee (Eerdmans) $15.00  Thank goodness that this previously out of print collection of essays and sermons is now back in print! It is one of my personal favorites for insight and sheer beautiful writing.  It is less about the science or economics of protecting the Earth or fighting for ecological sustainability but worshiping God by appreciating creation.  It is truly about the spirituality of seeing, of understanding the complexities of the Earth, of being doxological in our walking around on the Earth.  A lovely collection, wonderfully written, enjoyable and entertaining and, very profound. It, I think, would be pretty convicting for most of us.  Very highly recommended.

gift of creation 2.jpgThe Gift of Creation: Images From Scripture and Earth  edited by Norman Wirzba, photography by Thomas Barnes (Acclaim Press) $39.95  There are many books of nature photography, collections of stunning calendars and coffee table collections.  Some are by serious photographers, some are a bit cheesy. You can probably get ’em cheap at the bargin bin at the local big box store.  A few are breath-taking, but have stupid new age quotes over the pages (or Bible verses in ugly fonts, which, aesthetically speaking, isn’t much better.)

  It is hard to find a book that has top-notch photography, caringly produced by local folk with real integrity, and that isn’t marred by goofy or sappy/inspirational text.  We trust Norman Wirzba, who has written widely on a Christian philosophy of creation, directs a remarkable program at Duke U. researching a sense of place, and (for what it indicates) has written about, and is friends with, the poet-farmer-essayist Saint Wendell Berry Wirzba’s book on sabbath is radical and wise and grand; he is one to listen to.  When I heard that Wirzba had helped pull together this Kentucky photographers pictures, I knew we had to have it.  It is from a small regional indie press: of course.  We had to order it.

Little did I know that this heavy, well-produced hardback–big, but not too big– has over ten essays alongside this amazing, amazing photography. The photographer is well respected and teaches forestry at the University of Kentucky.  He’s worked in extension services as a wildlife expert and his photography skills have been widely used all over the country.  And, little did I know (ha!) that a few of the contributors to the text of this book are acquaintances, writers I deeply respect and appreciate.  Within this handsome full-color gift book you will also find
flower.jpg really important and wonderfully serious essays by the likes of Calvin DeWitt, Matthew Sleeth, and an essential, creative and exceptional piece by Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat (a New Testament scholar best known as co-author of Colossians Remixed.)  If this book just had the essays, it would be worth shelling out for.  That it is also a coffee table gift book full of rare and wondrous shots, meditation pieces about the gift of God’s wonderful world, the value far exceeds the cost. This book is a treasure, a delight, and I intend to spend time looking carefully at it tomorrow during the snowstorm.

Here are some of the authors and their topics found in The Gift of Creation: Ellen Davis from Duke (who has a brilliant book on agrarianism and the Bible, by the way) on Genesis 1; Norman Wirzba reflecting on “being a creature” in light of the Noah story; John Rausch (who directs the very important Catholic Committee on Appalachia) explains the relationship between “sabbath creation” and “sabbath economics.”  There is a piece on the Psalms, one by a Jewish scholar and activist on “nat
landscapes.jpg intelligence in the Song of Songs” and there is a very important one called “Nature’s Travail and Renewal in the Prophets” (written by Presbyterian Bible scholar and activist, William Brown.) I think the chapter on Jesus and the Earth (in Luke) looks very good and I have thoroughly enjoyed, and learned much, again, from the remarkable piece by Sylvia Keesmaat on Paul and the hope for creation.  It is so beautifully written (even as it is in formed by serious scholarship and profound Bible knowledge) that it nearly cries out to be read out loud.  Lastly, Barbara Rossing from the Lutheran School of Theology reflects passionately on themes of creation found in apocalyptic literature.  There is a helpful appendix offering various internet sites for creation care and a good and serious bibliography. Who knew a gift book could carry so much intellectual learnings and Biblical scholarship?

But, yet, again, it is the artwork here, the gloriously well-done photo shots that make the book.  It is a nicely made, handsomely arranged and nicely shown story of a man and his camera, the work that he does, and the fruit of his amazingly wise eye for the details of this world of wonder.  There are fairly standard pictures of winter churches and National Park vistas and delightful waterfalls and sunset lakes and grazing fawns–which could be cliched, I suppose, but are not in this arrangement.  And then there are the close up looks at the bright color of a spotted salamander or the dull grayness of a cliff or the brown, brown fur of a hare.  Yes, some of these look like Audubon calendars or Sierra Club appointment books (and, I hope you know, that is a great compliment, indicating the quality of the composition and the beauty of the work.) I admit that a few shots perhaps seem a tad plain, but perhaps this is good.  Not all of God’s good world is stunning.  There are rather ordinary looking animals, rather mundane fields, barns that are, well, just barns, and not striking in their cool paint-peeling hipness.  I sense that this Tom Barnes guy is (how do I say this nicely) not an elitist or at all pretentious.  He sees stuff that most of us see, and some of his shots are fairly ordinary–even the ones of moose or flowers.  They are accessible.  Yes, yes, there is stunning light and odd shadow and blasts of colors in autumn leaves and sheer mist over giant river.jpgwaterfalls.  Still, I think some of these shots are somehow more approachable than some in the calendars, showing us the subject–the ordinary life of the creation itself—and not drawing attention to the artfulness of the photographer.  That is, these are less about Barnes talent and more about the flora and fauna, the landscapes and locations. Even the graphics are under-whelming, nice little fonts that aren’t powerful; again, some designers these days are so absolutely fabulous that you end up looking at the sidebars and pull quotes and color and shades. This is not like that.  I think it works well.  It is, after all, produced by Norman Wirzba, a friend of Wendell Berry’s, and the photographer works in forestry.  This is a book for homes and outdoors-lovers and Sunday school classes, not the bohemian galleries.  

The subtitle is “images from Scripture and Earth” and indeed the Biblical study is serious, but often imagistic.  And they open up our minds to have hearts to see.  Conversely, these nice pictures open us up to hear the Word of God.  Excellent photography, wonderful creation, serious Bible study.  I don’t know of any book like it, I really don’t.  Thanks to Wirzba for pulling it off, and many, many thanks to Mr. Barnes for focusing our attention on the handiwork of a generous, involved Creator.  The Gift of Creation is a fine, fine book, a gift itself, in more ways than one.  Enjoy!

winter.jpgWinter: A Spiritual Geography Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch (Skylight Paths) $18.95  We have often promoted these four books (I’ve noted the Winter one, here, but there are three others, naturally entitled Spring, Summer and Autumn.)  These are a dream-come-true for literary-type nature lovers.  Edited by two fine writers from the English department of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, with a very broad spiritual eye, these include short pieces, poems, essays, excerpts of novels, and great literature from across the ages and faith perspectives.  From Annie Dillard to Henry David Thoreau, from Sanskrit to Hebrew Bible, from E.B. White to John Updike, these essayists and writers help us see the season as a metaphor, to enter into, to appreciate, to experience.  What a genius idea.  I know a few folks who have given all four as a handsome gift pack, wrapped together with rugged twine or seasonal yarn.

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