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?