Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 6, no. 2 (August 2015)

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Lowell Bliss. Environmental Missions: Planting Churches and Trees. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2013. 346 pp. Paperback. $9.06.

In answer to the question, “Who created the world?” young children across Sunday school classes may joyfully exclaim, “God did!” Many Christian environmentalists affirm the same, and the creation mandate of stewardship compels their work. However, the gift of Lowell Bliss’s Environmental Missions is an expanded view of the work of Christ in the world and the good news for all creation. Bliss’s Environmental Missions elaborates on and popularizes the ongoing conversation of the Lausanne Movement around the scope of international evangelism.

Bliss’s biblical foundation is Jesus the Reconciler. Father and Son are co-creators of the world, Jesus is Lord of all the earth, and Christ works to sustain all life, including the natural processes upon which life depends. Jesus is active on behalf of his creation, which includes but is mercifully not limited to humans. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). Christians, therefore, may rejoice in the fact that, as Bliss concludes, “There is no greater environmentalist at work in the world today than Jesus Christ himself”(85). In this way, he offers a third option to Christian environmentalists who previously chose only between two secular environmental ethics: anthropocentric (i.e., a conservation or wise-use ethic) and bio-centric (i.e,. a preservation ethic, viewing nature as valuable in its own right). As a Christian environmentalist, I now have the language and theology to confidently claim a christocentric view. He similarly expands the understanding of the relationships Christ redeemed: through Christ, relationships are redeemed with God, with self, with other people, and with creation. His thoughtful narration of personal interactions with Christians in India illustrates this multidimensional redemption by vividly connecting environmental issues with human suffering.

Though complete with an extensive bibliography, this text is accessible to readers without a background in environmental science, theology, or missions. Chapters or excerpts from this text would be appropriate for missions classes, whether at the university or congregational level. In addition to the chapters that relate to the biblical basis for environmental missions, he addresses the urgency of the need for environmental missions. In particular, he clearly develops the opportunity to infuse evangelism with refugee populations with engagement around environmental issues.

The author’s concern is largely the popularization of environmental missions as an area of missional focus, building on the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization’s Cape Town Commitment, the Call to Action put forth at the 2012 Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel in Jamaica, and the ideas of Calvin DeWitt and Peter Harris of A Rocha. For missionaries, teachers of missions, or church members active in supporting missionaries, Bliss offers a well-developed understanding of the theology and missional implications and applications of environmental science and management. If you find yourself defending agriculture, forestry, or land management activities as appropriate for missions, Bliss offers strong biblical affirmation.

However, if you find yourself struggling to defend the species selection of your reforestation efforts, you will not find those answers here. In fact, Bliss misses a huge opportunity by failing to point readers to technical resources that are crucial for doing good environmental management and community development. He could have pointed readers first (and always) to the local communities of practice. Cooperative Extension (public and private), local environmental NGOs, and government environmental professionals are charged with providing research- and evidence-based information and technical assistance. Additionally, many well-funded organizations with long histories of environmental work around the globe offer their informational resources online for free. Consider the libraries of the United Nations Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the UK’s Department for International Development, the United States Agency for International Development, and Heifer International. For domestic environmental work, local Cooperative Extension offices and affiliated state land grant universities are important resources.

Furthermore, while Bliss focuses on evangelistic practice in environmental missions, and this certainly reflects his identity as a church planter who is interested in environmental missions, there were a few cases in which I was disappointed that he missed opportunities to use key environmental science concepts, which would have enhanced his credibility and the reader’s learning. For example, in chapter twelve, “Topics in Environmental Missions,” he dedicated pages to explaining his views of the roles of population growth and consumption of resources but neglected the canonical explanations. His argument would have been strengthened and this section condensed had he simply referenced and elaborated on the I=PAT formula, where environmental Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology.

Missiologists, those interested in the history of missions, and community developers alike will find engaging the chapters on the historical treatment of William Carey and on sin as unfaithful stewardship. Bliss also recounts the history of African missionaries Robert Moffat (“God’s Gardner”) and Dr. John Croumbie Brown, a missionary, botanist, university professor, state scientist, and conservationist (142). These missionaries linked the periodic droughts that plagued South Africa from the 1820s to the 1860s with environmental degradation, identifying sin as the common cause. “Drought (a judgment) is a natural result of cutting the forests and burning the veldt. By claiming that devegetation is a sin that contributes to judgment, Moffat introduces a middle term and embraces a theology of natural consequences” (145). With only a small nod to the colonialistic mentality evidenced in these missionaries’ writings, Bliss falls dangerously short of adequately addressing the paternalistic, colonial, and oppressive nature of these early environmental missionaries or, more importantly, the implications in theory and practice for environmental missions of today.

Two major blind spots in this work relate to the role of women in environmental management and postcolonial power dynamics as they relate to natural resources. Postcolonial and eco-feminist themes would be relevant and practical to this text. Wangari Maathai, nobel laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, encapsulates the interconnected goals of environmental conservation, democracy, peace, and women’s empowerment. Globally, women’s hands are in daily contact with the lion’s share of privately held soil and water resources; thus, they represent the bulk of local Christians or community members potentially involved in environmental missions. In many contexts, women environmental missionaries may be positioned to work productively alongside women of local churches with fewer cultural barriers than men may encounter. The other side of this arrangement is that women with environmental backgrounds may likely find roles as environmental missionaries, first, when their gifts align with environmental stewardship and, second, when their sending church traditions do not offer an opportunity to go as preaching missionaries, similar to the way that many young women find opportunities in roles as teachers or medical missionaries. Frustratingly, Bliss only mentions the role of women’s empowerment (e.g., health care and education for girls) in addressing environmental issues in an indirect way, when he is discussing the topic of population growth. This limits his view of the topics and people who are most crucial to the success of environmental missions and to whom environmental missions may be most relevant.

Since gender, race, and class are intertwined, it is unsurprising that the second blind spot I note relates to another power dimension. The history of colonialism is one of natural resource extraction and environmental degradation. The question of how to do environmental missions in a way that acknowledges past power abuses and, by the power of God and the work of his people, works to reconcile indigenous people to their homelands deserves to be both a common thread throughout an environmental missions text and a well-researched chapter. Bliss sadly neglects to address how environmental missions offers white, Christian, Western men another banner under which to tell brown, pagan, non-Western women what to do with their land.

Emily Stutzman Jones

Institute for Sustainable Practice

Lipscomb University

Nashville, Tennessee, USA