A Book Review John Gatta, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation. Wipf & Stock, 2011.

John Gatta, Dean of the College, University of the South, is one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Transfiguration Retreat at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN May 4-6, 2012. His recent book, The Transfiguration of Christ and Creation will serve as a major source of content for this retreat, co-sponsored by the Center for Religion and the Environment and the Province IV Environmental Ministry Network. I would like to share some things about this book that apply keenly to environmental ministry and will fuel the conversations at the retreat.

The problem addressed in the book (and which so concerns environmental ministry in churches) is this:

Clearly, there is a pressing need to identify new biblical points of reference for a contemporary spirituality and theology of creation. The Transfiguration offers just such a model. (p. xix)

This is the case Dr. Gatta makes for the role such biblical stories as the Transfiguration could play. A key, I think, lies in how the transfiguration could enhance environmental ministry:

The transfiguration points symbolically toward a doxological. . .rather than a resource-management model of apprehending our relationship to the natural world. (p. xx)

Here lies a door to a deep and important conversation sorely needed in the church. Despite decades of hard work, stacks of data and mounting evidence, the church remains barely moved by the injustices and spiritual disconnects that the environmental crisis brings to our altars. For most churches, environmental issues remain a single line-item on a long list of social issues that a few members advocate for in their corner of ministry. At most they are given a small budget line and a Sunday service each year to make their case.

To those working in environmental ministry, this feels like a real disconnect between the magnitude of the issue and the paucity of the response. To many church leaders, on the other hand, there is little connection between the environmental movement as they have experienced it and the life of the church. To them, environmental issues belong to politicians and environmental groups.

What needs to happen to help connect the environmental crisis and the life of the church? A real key is put forth in Gatta’s book, where he submits that integrating the transfiguration into the theological and liturgical life of the church would serve to:

Expand the ecological vision beyond the stewardship focus that has thus claimed almost exclusive attention among mainline churches . . . and enable her to respond in more integrally liturgical, contemplative and doxological terms, befitting her authentic charism as the church. For unless the church develops these latter gifts, she risks becoming, in her environmental witness, little more than a technically incompetent adjunct of the Sierra Club. (p. 73)

I think this strikes at the heart of the matter. Many leaders in environmental ministry learned their craft from the Sierra Club and similar groups, and naturally bring those ways and means to the churches in hopes of rallying the faithful to behavior change and social action. But at the same time, clergy and other church leaders do not recognize the activity of the environmental movement as something “befitting the authentic charism [giftedness] of the church.” And so the two sides talk past one another and the disconnect remains.

What is needed are authentic liturgical, contemplative and doxological connections between the day’s environmental realities and the life of the church. To fire the bones of the church, the realm of ecological wellbeing must be expanded beyond committee actions, practical behaviors and life adjustments to include worship, spirituality and transformation. Core Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, need to be revisited and reclaimed for their power to mediate such transformation:

Participation in the interactive mystery of divine life points toward a model of earth ethics more profound than the “stewardship” ideal now favored in religious circles, which suffers the liability of suggesting a commodity-based rather than a communitarian outlook. (p. 117)

These connections and movements are what Dr. Gatta’s book seek to make, and unpacking the Transfiguration is a central text for this work. To truly capture its imagination and soul , however, the church will need to incorporate the Transfiguration into its hymnody, liturgical calendar, art and language. In these ways, love for God’s creation can move from the fringes to the center of church life.

His book is not simply a bible study, since he is generous in looking beyond scripture to the arts, literature and history for insight and inspiration as well. But this is the range of conversation that is necessary to capture the fullness of our faith. And bringing the fullness of our faith to the present environmental crisis is what must be done.

The Rev. Jerry Cappel is the Environmental Network Coordinator for Province IV of the Episcopal Church. Learn more about Jerry at his website and blog.

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