Ecotheology: Beyond Stewardship

Within Christianity, there is no shortage of disagreements. But there’s one thing that nearly every Christian will agree upon: that God created the earth. Whether taken literally or figuratively, all can read Genesis and understand that each plant and animal was created with care by God. He spoke and there was light. There was water. Plants and vegetables sprouted from the earth, growing seeds and fruit. The waters swarmed with living creatures. Birds flew across the sky. Beasts and livestock walked the earth.

“And God saw that it was good.”

He revelled in the beauty of his creation. After every perfect addition to this wondrous new world, he said that it was “good”.

And then, his final creation, made in the image of God himself.

Formed from dust and breathed to life, man and woman were created to “work the ground”. They were given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” He gave them “every plant yielding seed”, “every tree with seed in its fruit” for food. He brought them to the Garden of Eden, housing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” for them to “work it and keep it.”

It was there that they walked in the garden with God, naming each animal, living in harmony with creation and each other “naked and unashamed.” They had every tree to eat from except one. It was literal Paradise.

Throughout history, humanity has taken this divinely ordained dominion and lordship over creation as license to do whatever we want with it. Simple “dominion” was given priority over cultivation and care. The earth was thought of as something to be “subdued” – to abuse and control instead of to help flourish and bring life. But if we look closer at God’s order for Adam and Eve to work and keep the garden, we see a much deeper command than simple ownership. The words “work” and “keep” from Genesis 2:15 are translated from the Hebrew words avad and shamar. Both are used extensively in the Old Testament – avad referring to servanthood and serving and shamar to guarding and protecting, namely in relation to God and Israel.

With this understanding, it’s clear that God put us in the Garden to “serve and protect” it, not merely to work it and keep it. The dominion we were given over creation is similar to the dominion that God has over us, a loving cultivation like a gardener overseeing his garden.

It’s also worth noting that Adam and Eve were created after the rest of creation. In Genesis 2:5 God laments that “there was no man to work the ground.” Instead of this humbling perspective, modern Christianity places man at the very top of creation, the image-bearing pinnacle of God’s work. Those same Christians also speak of “stewardship” to communicate our role in the environment. It’s a fine word and a noble aim, but what is modern western Christianity doing to “serve and protect” creation? Just as Adam and Eve broke God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we have been continually disobeying his order to care for creation. The earth and its resources have become something to control and exploit instead of to serve. Animals are abused instead of cared for and protected. The impact humanity has had on the environment can no longer be ignored. Through fossil fuel emissions, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change, we are causing irreparable harm to the land we were created to serve and protect.

Our current, comfortable way of life cannot be sustained without a theology that recognizes our place in God’s creation. And that place is that of Servant and Protector.

A key facet of Christianity is the anticipation of Jesus’ return and the “new heaven and new earth.” This notion of a “new earth” sits well with those who view “dominion” as free reign to abuse the earth. It can be easy to question why this world matters at all when God is making a new one. But like the parable of the talents, what will Jesus say to us after seeing what we’ve done with what he’s given us?

If we truly love God and care for his creation, he will say the same thing he said to the servants who invested their talents:

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Avalanche

Some things end gradually. They fade away slowly, often slow enough that you aren’t even aware it’s over until much later. But other times it’s more sudden. It’s an intense and heartbreaking end, violent in its abruptness.

Tusks’ 2017 album Dissolve showed the slow dissolution of a relationship. Singer/songwriter Emily Underhill created sparse and haunting atmospheric soundscapes juxtaposed with harsh, wailing post-rock climaxes where her vocal lines faded away into the ether. Two years later, she’s refined everything that made Dissolve my 2017 album of the year – the quiet moments are even more chilling and tender while the louder moments are absolutely crushing. She’s sadder, angrier, and has only improved lyrically, compositionally and musically (despite suffering a broken elbow between albums).

Like the unforgiving force of nature that an avalanche is, this album is dark, deep and crushing. It’s ferocious. Intense. Every second demands your full emotional investment. At times I close my eyes and see shattering ice sheets, water eroding rock, glaciers melting and forests burning. I don’t think this is an accident – the visuals of manmade environmental destruction relates perfectly to the lyrical content of manmade relational destruction.

This is especially potent in the lead single Peachy Keen, which is a sarcastic takedown of patriarchal sexism, perhaps the most scathing since Braids’ Miniskirt. The climax in the title track sounds like a literal avalanche, with Tusks’ buried voice crying beneath a cacophonous wall of sound, “Bury me like an avalanche.” Listening to Bleach feels like a cleansing, a brief respite in the storm, with the repeated phrase, “I’ll bleach my soul” whispering through beeps and glitches. In Foreign, Tusks’s voice is distant in the mix, lamenting, “I don’t see you like I used to / I can’t feel you like I sued to.” And Salt is a perfect closer, with the chorus’s line “Does it end with you?” able to be taken several different ways, any one of which magically ties the entire album together.

Does it all end buried alone beneath this manmade avalanche? Or buried together in the avalanche they’d both created – thus ending the search for someone to “Be Mine”?

Dominion II

A series of collages inspired by naturism and ecotheology.

The Anteroom

More than should probably be normal, I think about a scenario when humans are long gone and AIs are roaming the earth (in whatever form “AI” as a very general term will inevitably take), scouring our wreckage and analyzing all the art us humans made. I wonder what they’ll discard or keep, what will interest them (inasmuch as they could be interested in anything at all) and what single musical album or film or painting perfectly encapsulated humanity’s fateful last moments.

I have a very visceral memory listening to How to Dress Well’s album The Anteroom for the first time. And before I even got to the track Vacant Boat, I was thinking about that AI scenario, convinced that this was the album for the AIs to try to understand humanity. So it was an eerie and somewhat transcendent moment when I got to this line from Vacant Boat:

Bury me in a quiet place where no one else can see
What my rotting flesh might accomplish once it’s released its energy
Or mount me in the middle of the living room entombed in a glass case
So the AIs that outlive us will look on puzzled and dismayed

The album has been out since October of last year and I’m still not over it (if you missed my Top 10 Albums of 2018, this was #1). So many lines have stuck with me since then but this AI line, to me, sums up what makes this album special – that is, the way Tom Krell has captured the anxiety brought on by progressing technology and all its social, mental and ecological ramifications. The song title itself is a punch to the gut of modern living – comparing the earth to a vacant boat, then wondering who will “index the reeking foam”. And the verse above perfectly describes the two sides (at least that I’ve experienced) of social media – either feeling buried and unseen or naked on display in a glass case. The interlude track False Skull 7 feels like a tweet sent unliked, unretweeted and unseen into the void – a single line saying “Today was awful” lost within a crackling, distressed atmosphere of sound.

The entire album sounds like the soundtrack to a philosophical sci-fi novel. It’s intricate, textural, at times either icy or scalding, and sometimes tender, often abrasive. The ambient soundscapes and distant, weeping vocals illustrate a modern, social isolation, making me feel like I’m drowning in cyberspace, wondering if everyone or no one can see me. The sporadic and fragmented cuts and glitches unnerve me in the way articles about the future of bio- and nanotechnology do. And the lyrics (it feels wrong to say “lyrics” because this album feels more like one cohesive poem set to music) are visceral, unsettling, stunning and compelling in the same way the pure potential of humanity and technology is – and vague enough that the future, although bleak, is still hopeful. Taking this album in feels like I’m staring down from some cosmic perspective watching earth slowly spin towards its annihilation or some corrupted stage of evolution, praying that someone down below can either stop this inevitability or artistically capture all that’s beautiful about humanity before everything is lost.

If that’s what Tom Krell was going for here, he may just be the one of the greatest artists of our time. Or maybe I’m just reaching.

But lines like “Nothing on this side was built for you” have so many angles I can’t help but see one of them being directed to the AIs in their post-apocalyptic society while they look on puzzled and dismayed. And “Like jumping off a cliff, but never falling” describes the unsettling stasis of modern technology – the sense of humanity collectively taking a breath during the calm before a storm. And then there’s one of the less subtle lines from Nonkilling 3 | The Anteroom | False Skull 1, “What we used to call a job is now handled by machines, you can die in peace,” which is a very OK Computer way to illustrate automated anxiety.

Annihilation as an inevitability, or desecration, are common themes throughout. Taken on a literal level, there’s a desecration of sound through warped vocals, glitches and uneasy ambience. There are lyrics about broken skulls, suffocation, oceans of blood, rotting and decay, bones bleached by light, and even the recurring phrase, “Nothing left to desecrate.” Is this end of desecration a victory or a failure? In the ecological and technological sense, what could possibly constitute an eventual victory? (Or, as Krell asks, “What altar could we possibly heal upon?“)

This sense of uneasy finality is echoed in the final – and hardest hitting – line from the album: “I could see you there like the child wishing the ambulance was for them.” And of course in the album’s title, The Anteroom – a small room, usually a sitting or waiting room that leads to another, larger, much more important room.

Will another ambulance come to take us to the next room? If we die here, will we be buried or put on display in a glass case? Is the next room the side that was built for us or for the AIs? How much will be desecrated?

Or is there even a next room at all?

Top 10 Albums of 2018

10. Daytona - Pusha T

Listen to: If You Know You Know

9. Mulberry Violence - Trevor Powers

Listen to: Playwright

8. Isolation - Kali Uchis

Listen to: After the Storm

7. Am I a Girl? - Poppy

Listen to: X

6. There is a Presence Here - Many Rooms

Listen to: Which is to Say, Everything

5. The Louder I Call the Faster it Runs - Wye Oak

Listen to: It Was Not Natural

4. When the End Began - Silent Planet

Listen to: Visible Unseen

3. Kids See Ghosts - Kids See Ghosts

Listen to: Reborn

2. Nearer My God - Foxing

Listen to: Heartbeats

1. The Anteroom - How to Dress Well

Listen to: Nonkilling 6 | Hunger

Forge of Darkness

While working my way through Steven Erikson’s ten-book fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, I’d heard that he was also writing a prequel trilogy. I remember wondering how much more of this world Erikson possibly had to explore that ten books didn’t already cover.

Well, it turns out there’s a lot more.

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After I finished the tenth and final book of the main series, I immediately began reading the first of the prequels, Forge of Darkness, which takes place several hundred thousand years before the events of The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Prequels by their very nature are tricky beasts. We already know how the story ends, so what’s the point in telling it? If we’ve seen where these characters end up, then the journey to get there must either be entertaining enough on its own, or there must be new information revealed that changes our perspective on the original story. And Forge of Darkness does exactly that. Since the events of this novel have become myths and legends by the time the main series takes place, we’re given a new perspective on characters who appear later on as well as learning what really happened with certain storylines. One of the major themes in Erikson’s work is how history changes over time and that’s certainly played with here. In fact, the structure of the novel is set up as one poet telling a story to another poet, who in the prologue wonders at the natures of truth and stories.

This structure allows Erikson not only to experiment with themes of storytelling and history, but to write some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Characters speak as if reciting Shakespeare, battles are described with the epic, larger-than-life feeling found in classics like The Iliad. Every word carries weight, the kind of writing that you can’t rush through.

“We are all interludes in history, a drawn breath to make pause in the rush, and when we are gone, those breaths join the chorus of the wind. But who listens to the wind?”

This also leads to a much darker tone. In Malazan, we meet the Tiste Andii, an ancient and powerful race (Erikson’s twisted take on elves) whose home has been destroyed and whose goddess has abandoned them. We know this story ends in tragedy and Erikson revels in every ounce of it. The entire book is shrouded in gloom and an uneasy sense of foreboding as their civilization heads to civil war. And although this is trademark Erikson, in Malazan there were enough breaks of humour that he allowed us to smile and laugh in between breaking our hearts, but that’s hardly the case here. This is a Shakespearean tragedy written with the grittiness of A Song of Ice and Fire and the grandeur and myth of The Silmarillion.

And it’s beyond brilliant.

“There is but one god, and its name is beauty. There is but one kind of worship, and that is love. There is for us but one world, and we have scarred it beyond recognition.”

It was incredible seeing the forging of swords we see in later novels and meeting characters we only know as myths and legends being shown as moody, immature teenagers. And as always, Erikson balances intricate and expansive worldbuilding with intimate character development.

However, I can’t recommend this book to everyone. I’ve written before about why Erikson’s style isn’t for everyone on The 400 Project and the same applies to this novel. And I’m not even sure this novel would have the same impact being read before the main series, so if I were to recommend Forge of Darkness to casual fantasy readers, they’d have to read ten books first.

But in my opinion, it’s worth it. No other author is writing like Steven Erikson and no other fantasy series compares to the scope and intensity of his world. If you’ve already read The Malazan Book of the Fallen, don’t discount this prequel trilogy like I almost did.

Dominion I

A series of collages inspired by naturism and ecotheology.

Birds in Aquariums

As friendships and relationships both blossom and wilt, as the roots of belief begin to strain, as the storms of mental illness threaten to drown your garden. While you feel as out of place in your own skin as a bird trapped in an aquarium. When you need to be reminded that storms will pass, that roots can be re-planted, and that new seeds will grow. And that the glass you’re looking through may not be a cage, but a door. To keep reminding myself, I wrote Birds in Aquariums, a poetry collection available today on Amazon. Arranged in a series of typographic expressions, this collection of poems explores themes of love, friendship, faith and mental health. Some pieces were written eight years ago and some eight weeks ago.

A portion of the sale of each book will be donated to Shalem Mental Health Network, an Ontario-wide network that provides responsive and preventive mental health support to individuals, families and communities.

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Top 10 Albums of 2017

10. Rabbit in the Snare – The Lulls in Traffic

Being a huge fan of Copeland, I was really excited to hear vocalist Aaron Marsh’s side project. The Lulls in Traffic features Marsh on vocals and production and lyricist/spoken-word artist Ivan Ives, and a really creative mix of hip-hop/spoken-word and indie.

9. Phantom Anthem – August Burns Red

August Burns Red has refined their craft to near perfection on Phantom Anthem. There’s really not much more to say.

8. Sleep Well Beast – The National

Like August Burns Red, The National have created a formula that works great and have been refining it over their past few albums. It seems to have come fully to fruition on Sleep Well Beast.

7. Turn Out the Lights – Julien Baker

I didn’t really listen to Julien Baker until this year so I got to enjoy both her new album and 2015’s Sprained Ankle. Both feature fairly simple songs instrumentally that put Julien’s voice front and centre – along with her lyrics. And it’s the lyrics that are the high point of these records, as she lays bare her struggles with depression, addiction and faith.

6. Die With Your Tongue Out – Tigerwine

Tigerwine’s debut album is another emotionally heavy-hitting album from this year. I found myself continually coming back to this album when sitting in traffic or needing to vent – finding comfort in the heavy, soaring guitars, dual screaming/shouting vocals and sing-along-able melodies.

5. After Laughter – Paramore

I’ll admit I sort of lost interest in Paramore in recent years, despite having been a huge fan during their Riot! days – which set me up to go into After Laughter with little to no expectations. I wasn’t expecting an album full of such catchy, 80s-influenced tracks that there were days I literally couldn’t stop listening to it. It’s nice to have Paramore back in my recently played and I hope they continue this new sound for their next album.

4. All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell – Pvris

This one definitely grew on me. Pvris has been one of those bands that’s always been on my radar but never in my recently played – but they were there for most of the summer and fall. The band’s second full-length has a consistent vibe that balances heavy vs. calm and brooding vs. hopeful, with really impressive vocals from frontwoman Lynn Gunn.

3. Life After Youth – Land of Talk

Earlier this year I saw an article on CBC Music about indie band Land of Talk’s vocalist and songwriter, Elizabeth Powell, talking about writing her new album in my hometown of Orillia. This immediately caught my attention and I gave the album a shot – and have been listening to it weekly ever since. Her mesmerizing vocals soar over punchy rhythms throughout this short-but-sweet album, and, in the track Inner Lover, repeat possibly my favourite lyric of the year: “You light it slowly / Your light is lonely.”

2. Waiting for Morning to Come – Being as an Ocean

It’s always cool to see bands who’ve found success in the metalcore/hardcore scenes experiment with new (and usually slower) sounds. Sometimes it’s hit or miss, as they risk both losing fans and losing the emotion found in their heavier music. But this new experimental album by Being as an Ocean is definitely a hit – and despite an overall slowler sound, it’s an even more emotional album than their previous work.

1. Dissolve – Tusks

If you missed my review of this album, let me sum it up for you: London singer/songwriter/producer Emily Underhill (aka Tusks) has put together a cinematic and chilling album, with simply beautiful vocals, creative instrumentation/production and my most listened-to tracks of 2017.

Honorable mentions: A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs, Truth is a Beautiful Thing – London Grammar, Fool’s Paradise – Cold Specks, Young Mopes – Louise Burns, The Love You Let Too Close – Thousand Below