Landscapes of Renewal: How to Read and “See” the Bible
Landscapes are important, particularly when they are identified with “home.”
Indeed, there is a newly coined clinical term shared by both psychologists and ecologists called “solastalgia,” a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain).
Coined by Glenn Albrecht, “solastalgia” is defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”
Case in point: my childhood home.
I consider myself a “desert rat,” a designation that I regard as tantamount to my ethnic classification.
I was raised outside of Tucson, Arizona.
My backyard was adjacent to miles of nearly undisturbed desert.
I once experienced a theophany in the desert.
One of my earliest memories is being carried aloft on the shoulders of my dad walking around in the desert.
Throughout adolescence, I enjoyed hours of riding my bike through the desert, encountering the occasional coyote, rattlesnake, and even javelina.
You see, the Southwest desert is nothing like the Sahara; it is filled with vegetation, from the towering saguaros and blooming Palo Verdes, to prickly pears and Teddy Bear cholla.
Now, however, most of that landscape has been developed into cookie-cutter subdivisions; what I consider sacred ground is now paved over. Yes, I suffer from solastalgia, and I know I’m not alone.
Nevertheless, my sacred landscape, or better “home-scape,” remains alive in memory, which I thank God.
And because of it, one of my favorite biblical passages comes from Job.
Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
Here, God is showing off the desert to Job, literally a “no-man’s” land, to demonstrate that life has a foothold even here, that God is at work renewing and sustaining life in the desert beyond human reach.
Landscapes in the Bible are much more than stage settings for the unfolding drama of human redemption.
They are part of the drama since they take on a life of their own in the narrative. Call them “living landscapes.”
In his classic work, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane explores the spiritual import of the wilderness, particularly of deserts and mountains.
The “indifference” of such landscapes, he observes, proves ultimately healing for the soul.
We are both drawn to those inhospitable places and haunted by them, even transformed by them.
But there is one important feature of the wilderness landscape that is missing in Lane’s discussion: the river.
It is no coincidence that the Bible is filled with vivid images drawn from deserts, mountains, and rivers.
Scholars have only recently appreciated how the natural landscape of ancient Palestine helped to shape the stories and poetic images found in Scripture.
The diversity of biblical tradition reflects the diversity of the land.
Ancient Israel lived and thrived in a geographically diverse setting: from high forests to fertile valleys to bone-dry deserts.
And there is one river, the Jordan, that wends its way through each varied landscape, from the thundering cataracts of its headwaters in the foothills of Mt. Hermon (cf. Psalm 42:7), through the most fertile of valleys, and eventually into the inhospitable desert of the salty Dead Sea.
Shepherds, farmers, nomads, urban dwellers, and desert dwellers: all had their place in the Israelite community, and all made their mark on Scripture.
As biblical scholar Jon Levenson claims about biblical tradition, “Geography is simply a visible form of theology.” And how diverse that geography is!
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William P. Brown is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Bill has also taught at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond and at Emory University. He is the author of several books and numerous essays on biblical interpretation and theology, including Sacred Sense (Eerdmans), Wisdom’s Wonder (Eerdmans), The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University), Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (WJK), as well as editor of Engaging Biblical Authority (WJK). Bill was recently a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton (www.ctinquiry.org), where he worked collaboratively with scientists, philosophers, and ethicists exploring the “societal implications of astrobiology.” He is currently working on a major commentary on the Psalms. Bill is an avid Sunday School teacher and was a founding member of Earth Covenant Ministry, an organization of Presbyterian churches in the Atlanta area dedicated to creation care now part of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light (GIPL). Gail and Bill have two grown daughters, Ella and Hannah.