A June 2021 headline in Atlas Obscura proclaims: “Tom Brown’s retirement hobby is a godsend for chefs, conservationists, and cider.” I’d add “for the church” too.
Brown, a retired chemical engineer, has spent his waning years searching for lost varieties of apples. At the turn of the 20th century, there were about 14,000 varieties of apples in the United States. But as Eric J. Wallace reports in Atlas Obscura, “by the late 1990s, U.S. commercial orchards grew fewer than 100 apple varieties.”
Over the past 25 years, Brown “has reclaimed about 1,200 varieties, and his two-acre orchard … contains 700 of the rarest”—dappled yellows, reds, and greens, with monikers like Carolina Beauty and Sheepnose. Still, Wallace continues, “experts estimated about 11,000 heirloom varieties had gone extinct.” Those subtle multiplicities of sweetness, tartness, color, and texture. Those glorious horticultural stories and names. Gone. Replaced with engineered homogeneity.
Environmental debates can trade in abstractions. The scale of environmental catastrophe can leave one mind-boggled into apathy. The problem is too big, too hard to understand. But it is in the particulars of backyard birds, earthworms, and apple orchards that concerns about creation become comprehensible to me.
As creation care advocate Matthew Sleeth points out, whether one understands or even affirms anthropogenic climate change, we can intuitively understand that the world is dying. And we as a church must mourn how the emptying of our skies and seas damages not only the earth but also our faith. The destruction of creation inevitably alters our ethics and our worship.
Every disappearance of plant and animal species is a loss of something made with infinite love and creativity. Nature is an icon—a window into heaven. When we destroy the icon, we can no longer hear its call to worship.
In his book Against Nature, Steven Vogel writes that when nature is objectified, we see creation merely as that “to be overcome and mastered for human purposes.” The result is a “fundamental separation of humans from nature.”
The created world ceases to be a place of glory and wonder and becomes instead the inert stuff of commercial exploitation and personal consumption. A deracinated world is a godless world.
Moreover, our view of nature has a far-reaching impact on our theology, beliefs, and ethics. If creation is devalued, we as embodied creatures forget our own telos and meaning. If it doesn’t matter that we lose 11,000 apple varieties, then why does it matter how I use my body? And why do bodies matter at all?
In his CT editorial on Christian sexual ethics, Andy Crouch writes that a key part of a Christian theology of sex is “that matter matters. For behind the dismissal of bodies is ultimately a gnostic distaste for embodiment in general.”
Although I talk a lot about the holiness of embodiment, in practice I’m a borderline gnostic. I spend my days talking to colleagues on screens. I eat food that appears magically on my table with hands never dirtied in planting or harvesting. My writing and preaching keep me in a heady world of ideas.
For many of us, bodies seem hardly necessary. With our cultural disconnection from the tangibility, limits, and rhythms of the natural world, we cannot sustain a theology of the body that seems any more than arbitrary and abstract.
Part of the call and the gift of the church is to show people how to live as creatures again. For many, the way back to belief will not be found in better arguments—although those are important—but in a deeper connection to the earthy, dirty, glorious world around us. Preserving created beauty preserves worship.
So Tom Brown is a hero. He reclaimed 1,200 samples of God’s delightful wisdom—1,200 witnesses that this stuff of earth, including our bodies, matters. He rescued a trove of icons no less sacred than a vault of treasures in the Vatican.
I hope to be more like him. I hope to get my hands dirty today, go on a walk, learn another variety of tree in my backyard, eat from my husband’s recently planted garden, and recall that the Creator made me too. He made me part of this world, where rocks and robins and even apples call out his name.
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