Book review published: Watershed Discipleship

I reviewed Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice (ed. Ched Myers, Wipf & Stock, 2016) for Sojourners, and it’s in the April 2017 issue. This is an excellent book of edited chapters from individuals around the USA and Canada who are working to put environmental care into action within a Christian framework. You should all read it! I’m excited about watershed discipleship as a way of looking at environmental care, which has great potential for moving Christians from paralysis into action on their beliefs in the need to care for creation. Perhaps we think of the immensity of the environmental problem and we feel we can’t do much about it, but if we think of ourselves as members of a particular watershed, and we concentrate on caring for that space, it feels more doable. Wendell Berry rewords the Golden Rule to explain how this is an act of care for the entire planet: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you” (quoted in Myers, ed., 2016, 60).

Caring for our watersheds can be an act of discipleship that moves us out of a deer-in-the-headlights response to the enormity of the environmental problems we face because we can see ourselves taking small actions to care for God’s creation directly around us. As Sojourners readers learned in the May 2014 issue, Ched Myers and Todd Wynward define watershed discipleship as a triple entendre:

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places;
  2. It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local church take place inescapably in a watershed context;
  3. And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (Myers, ed., 2016, 2)

In this first book-length treatment of the subject of watershed discipleship, Ched Myers explains the concept, and a collection of authors under age 40 share their stories intermingled with scripture, theology, and historical reinterpretation. Placing themselves in context in the Midwest, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and California, these authors explore ecotheology in place. They tell the stories of their actions within particular watersheds, recount the history and current setting of their regions, explore information about the local flora and fauna, and point out deeply relevant passages of scripture in which the unaccustomed Bible reader might not even notice an ecological implication. After reading this book, it is impossible to read scripture without noticing how connected to the Jordan River watershed Jesus’ life and parables are, in addition to the prophets and the Hebrew people throughout much of their recorded biblical history.

“Water is life,” as Native Americans have recently reminded us in protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The authors of Watershed Discipleship connect the sacred symbolism of water throughout the Christian Scriptures with struggles for environmental justice today. Drawing on biblical imagery such as water baptism, various passages involving the Jordan River, and eschatological images of the River of Life in Revelation, the authors skillfully connect these themes to modern conflicts over access to clean water in regions across the country and around the world.

Baptism is connected with repentance, and the pieces in this volume call us as American Christians to radical repentance for our part in creating the current situation of environmental degradation. Through retelling our history of colonialism, linking our overuse of resources to the culture of systemic oppression experienced by marginalized human populations, and lifting up the biblical focus on the health of the land as a measure of whether or not the Israelites were following God faithfully, these authors show clearly that our disconnection from the land is a spiritual issue. By telling their stories of awakening to the intersectional justice issues faced by the land and marginalized people groups, and their stories regarding how they are going about reconciling relationships with land and people, they offer hope: hope that our small actions of care make a difference, and give us a literal place to start.

I highly recommend this book to any who recognize that caring for creation is something related to their faith, but they don’t know exactly how to go about it. I also highly recommend it for courses in ecotheology, creation care, and other environmentally related religion courses at the college and seminary levels. There is excellent theology in evidence here, interpreting scripture in light of modern issues, while grounding it in actual places and historical reality. You will be challenged to take a step, build a network, get to know the place in which you live, and seek for and find God there.