September 24, 2008
The Green-Letter Bible
Is a green-letter Bible the answer to our environmental crisis?
Late yesterday afternoon, I received a copy of The Green Bible (HarperOne), and I'm not sure what to make of it.
The Bible is "green" in composition, which I appreciate. Its pages are made of 10 percent post-consumer recycled paper, the words are printed with soy-based ink, and the binding is 100 percent cotton/linen. It is certainly a good-looking book (that marketing sleeve comes off). And it smells nice. I wouldn't mind if my bookshelves were lined with cotton covers.
But to put things in perspective, Thomas Nelson released a "green" Bible printed on recycled paper - the first of its kind - almost a year ago. So it's not the composition but the content of HarperOne's ecologically friendly canon that makes it unique.
Before they make it to Genesis, Green Bible readers encounter an impressive roll of contributors, each offering a sermon or article on some aspect of creation care: "Reading the Bible through a Green Lens" and "Knowing Our Place on Earth: Learning Environmental Responsibility from the Old Testament" for example. There's a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an introduction by Matthew Sleeth, poems by Francis of Assisi and Wendell Berry, and articles (mostly reprinted) by Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, N. T. Wright, and the late Pope John Paul II, among others.
But what truly sets The Green Bible apart is that it's a "green-letter edition." It's akin to the New Testaments in which the words of Jesus are printed in red. Except in this case, "over a thousand references to the earth and caring for creation" appear in green ink. While there are certainly more instances besides the highlighted ones that would have applied, the editors tell us in the prefatory material, they have chosen only those "speaking directly to the project's core mission."
To meet their criteria for what makes it in green, a given biblical text must address:
? how God and Jesus interact with, care for, and are intimately involved with all of creation.
? how all the elements of creation - land, water, air, plants, animals, humans - are interdependent.
? how nature responds to God.
? how we are called to care for creation.
These criteria yield some obvious results. All of Genesis 1 and most of Genesis 2 is green-lettered, as is Romans 8:22: "We know that the whole of creation has been groaning in labor pains until now?" But there are some puzzling passages that make the cut. There's the final sentence of Revelation 19:20, for example: "These two [beasts] were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur." And Jesus' cursing of the fig tree is not green, even though it seems to describe "how God and Jesus interact with?all of creation."
The selection of passages aside, I have two concerns with this method of highlighting biblical text. The first is this: the implicit argument in the green lettering is that by sheer bulk of words in green print, the editors prove that creation care is a central concern of the Bible. But what if we tried a different subject - say, violence. A faculty of editors color-codes a Bible so that every passage that references an act of violence is printed in purple ink. Would that, by sheer bulk, prove conclusively that violence is at the center of God's plan of redemption? Or what about gold-lettering all the instances of sexual perversion? What I mean is this: frequency is not a compelling argument without context.
Speaking of context, I'm afraid the letter coloring will distract, in many places, from the actual theological significance of a passage. Take Genesis 2, for example. The majority of the chapter appears in green, except - oddly - a brief reference to the second river in Eden, Gihon (but the bit about Pishon is in green). The Lord's proclamation that it is not good for the man to be alone is in black, as is the great crescendo of the chapter: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh?" I can understand why the institution of marriage is not "green." But the predominance of green ink in that chapter diverts attention from the real significance of the passage - the completion of the creation of humankind.
I respect what the editors are trying to do here. We frequently need to be reminded that the Bible speaks to issues that we completely overlook for one reason or another. And I believe the Bible does challenge us to be better stewards of the planet. But I wonder if color-coding certain biblical themes disintegrates - rather than integrates - the unity of the gospel message by dividing the text into specialized issues. Does it help me understand the Bible to think of a passage about judging my neighbor as a "green" concern (Matthew 7:1-2 is green-lettered)? Or does it simply confuse matters? Does this advance the cause, or set it back a step?
Well, I guess I do know how I feel about it. For now, The Green Bible will have a place of honor beside my "Itty Bitty Bible" (the entire Scripture reduced to microscopic proportions so it fits on a single slide) and my talking Jesus action figure on the shelf of things I'm glad to have but don't have much use for.