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PC(USA) pastor and professor describes ways to read the Bible from the Earth’s perspective


The Rev. Dr. Paul Galbreath offers up a thoughtful biblical approach during a Presbyterians for Earth Care webinar

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by NASA via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Speaking to a Presbyterians for Earth Care audience during a webinar last week, the Rev. Dr. Paul Galbreath was able to help viewers read biblical texts — especially those describing the events of Holy Week — from the perspective of the Earth.

Galbreath, Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus, wrote the 2022 book “Elemental: A Journey through Lent with the Earth.” His hour-long talk to PEC can be viewed here. Download Presbyterians for Earth Care’s Lenten Weekly Devotional here.

Most of the Bible, as anyone who has ever read The Green Bible can attest, has something to say about the Earth, according to Galbreath. “It’s a radical jolt to remind us of the central place of Creation through the sacred texts that we hold at the center of our assemblies,” Galbreath said. Because the Christian faith is incarnational, “to do the work of theology is to take seriously the role of Creation in all that we do.” The problem is that we quickly encounter the gulf between materiality and spirituality. It’s our job, Galbreath said, “to find ways that reconnect spirituality and materiality.”

To do this means returning often to scripture, “asking ourselves questions about what people in biblical times saw,” Galbreath said.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Galbreath

“I’m not trying to read 21st century perspectives back into biblical texts. The world has changed,” Galbreath said. “But I am trying to be sensitive of the ways people in biblical texts related to Creation and the Earth around them. It’s clear to me that people in biblical times carried with them a great deal of awareness of the Earth, more than we cultivate in our lives. They were aware they were at the mercy of the elements in nature. What you had to eat was dependent on what was in the market, not what was flown in from Peru.”

As a result, religious celebrations in ancient Judaism and early Christianity were usually associated with harvest festivals, “something we don’t think about often,” Galbreath said. “My point here is to note the importance of Earth and sky to ancient people who attended closely to these. It informed they way they lived and worshiped.”

In the book, Galbreath associates certain elements with different days of Holy Week. For Maundy Thursday, it’s water, remembering Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. On Good Friday, it’s trees to remember the cross of Jesus. Saturday’s elements are stone and rocks, the building blocks of Jesus’ grave. On Easter Sunday, Galbreath uses grain and bread to recall how the disciples’ eyes were opened when they broke bread with the risen Lord.

This is the associative way of reading the Bible, “looking at a text for the role of Creation in hopes that it prompts us to see the presence of God in the world around us in a different way,” Galbreath said.

On Palm Sunday, it’s the response of the crowds. Preachers can talk about the role trees play providing parade-watchers with palm fronds to spread ahead of Jesus. “It makes the case that the Earth as a participant is a teacher of us in terms of what it means to praise God,” Galbreath said. “Scripture offers models of ways Creation anticipates and is already involved in giving thanks to God for the gift of life.”

But in many churches, Palm Sunday is punctuated with “sword fights between third-grade boys who have been handed palm fronds and are going to battle it out before, during and after the service,” Galbreath said. “It’s one of the few Sundays we bring something from outside into the sanctuary for worship. Our attempts to involve ourselves in this praising have not always been the most beneficial to the Earth.” He wondered out loud: “Might we learn something different by using local foliage?”

Turning to the passion reading for Palm Sunday, “it’s important to note the arrest of Jesus happens in a garden. … What does it mean in a text about Jesus’ arrest and pending death that it happens in a garden, a place of life?” The 30 pieces of silver Judas is paid to betray Jesus goes to purchase a field in which to bury those from a foreign land. “What does it mean for us to read that text today?” Galbreath asked. “For those of us finally paying attention to the Doctrine of Discovery … what does it mean to read a text that pays attention to the role of the purchase of land by the betrayal of Jesus as a place to bury foreigners?”

On Maundy Thursday, preachers can look at the role of water in the text that describes Jesus washing the grimy feet of the disciples. “Even though it seems like a foreign, antiquated practice, none of us wants to use dirty water,” Galbreath said. “There is an assumption here that water is cleansing and life-giving” and that “access to clean water is basic.”

For Good Friday and the central idea that the cross was made from a tree, Galbreath read from his book: “Here the Earth weeps and mourns with the death of this innocent man. The cross is made from the death of a tree, and Jesus’ blood pours out into the soil beneath the cross. The horrible death comes with the scarring of the Earth.”

“To think about the events of Good Friday,” Galbreath said, “is also to remember the sacrifice of the Earth.”

On Holy Saturday, Jesus’ body is in a cave with a heavy stone rolled across the opening. On Sunday, the women pay a visit. An earthquake as reported in Matthew’s gospel “is a way of Earth participating in the event,” Galbreath said. Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for a gardener, “one who cares for the Earth,” Galbreath said. Jesus and the disciples share a meal, and their eyes are opened as to who he really is.

“These are preliminary ways I think about associating the elements of the Earth with the text and the world around us,” Galbreath said. “The goal is that we become aware of God’s presence in our lives and in the world.”

Watch a video of Galbreath going on a “Water Walk” with members and friends of First Presbyterian Church of Newport, Oregon, by going here.

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