Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Ecocriticism and Christian Literary Scholarship

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Ecocriticism and Christian Literary Scholarship

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay presents a case for ecocriticism as a viable critical method for Christian scholars. It begins with an historical overview of the method, then examines common ground shared by ecocriticism and Christianity, including what amounts to a kind of critical realism, and the belief in the inherent goodness of creation. Two potential obstacles are then addressed by way of Lynn White, Jr.'s famous essay, "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis." These include the relationship of the Bible and the environment, and the charge of anthropocentrism. I believe White is partly right, but contend that neither objection is fatal for Christian scholars who wish to employ ecocriticism.


Since the 1970s Christianity and Literature has periodically featured articles that attempt to integrate Christianity and literary criticism. The latest installment, the Winter 2009 issue of C&L, published papers that were first delivered at a 2007 C&L colloquium entitled "A Seminar on Christian Scholarship and the Turn to Religion in Literary Studies." In these essays, scholars offer appraisals of Marxism, post-secularism, African-American studies, and queer theory, among others. Earlier issues of C&L feature discussions of neo-humanism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction, as well as several incisive articles focusing on literature and the environment. (1) The Christian Scholar's Review has also published essays that consider the relationship of Christianity and environmentalism. (2) And a number of scholarly monographs focusing on the intersection of Christianity, ecology, and literature have appeared in the past decade. (3) However, a sustained consideration of ecocriticism as a viable theory for Christian scholars has not yet been offered. Such is my aim here.

I shall argue that ecocriticism is, in general, quite compatible with Christian premises. It offers an ethical mode of criticism that can appeal to our colleagues and students, and constitutes one of the most comprehensive of critical methods. As Ross Murfin and Supryia Ray point out, "Unlike other approaches to literary criticism, ecocriticism addresses the relationship between writers, texts, and the world from a truly global perspective--one in which 'the world' is the entire ecosphere, not just human society" (125). And it may be that Christian literary scholars can play a part in combating environmental problems, given our interest in the role of religion and narrative, for as eco-philosopher Max Oelschlaeger argues, "there are no solutions for the systemic causes of ecocrisis ... apart from religious narrative" (qtd. in Merritt, xiv). (4) In my conclusion, I shall offer several ways in which Christian scholarship can enrich ecocriticism.

Ecocriticism: An Overview

While many C&L readers probably have a sense of the basic tenets of ecocriticism, a few brief remarks on its history and dominant concerns may be helpful. I begin by offering some, along with a disclaimer from Ursula Heise, one of the method's most influential practitioners, who notes that the field is so complex, it deserves nothing short of a book-length introduction to do it justice. (She recommends Greg Garrard's 2004 book Ecocriticism and Lawrence Buell's 2005 study The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination.) (5)

Officially, ecocriticism has been a presence on the interpretive scene for about 20 years, yet it has important antecedents. Buell, for example, opens The Future of Environmental Criticism by noting an ancient one:

   Creative art and critical reflection have always taken a keen
   interest in how the material world is engaged, absorbed, and
   reshaped by theory, imagination, and techne. [For instance], the
   opening chapters of Genesis ... have been blamed as the root cause
   of western technodominationism ... My point in mentioning this
   debate is not to arbitrate it but merely to call attention to the
   antiquity and durability of environmental discourse. … 
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