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Stranger in a Strange Land: Jeffrey Bilbro

From Nature to Creation

Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Jeffrey Bilbro, assistant professor of English at Spring Arbor University. His book Loving God's Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature was published in 2015 by University of Alabama Press.

Over the last several centuries, developments in philosophy, science, and technology have gradually conditioned us to perceive the world as "nature" rather than "creation." This shift in how we name where we are, Norman Wirzba argues in From Nature to Creation, has far-reaching consequences for how we inhabit the world—and he proposes a reversal. Drawing on the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wirzba claims that calling the world "nature" renders the modern self "'asleep'" or even "'dead'" "because it is not alive and responsive to another in its singularity and transcendence." As an alternative, Wirzba urges his readers to dwell within a creation that continually summons its inhabitants to attention, gratitude, and care.

One of Wendell Berry's Sabbath poems demonstrates how such a transformation can occur and what its effects might be. Berry wrote this ekphrastic poem in response to The Resurrection, a fresco by Piero della Francesca; in it he describes Christ standing "awake" above the sleeping soldiers. The poet struggles to find words adequate to Christ's iconic gaze, a gaze felt to be "powerful beyond life / and death, seeing beyond sight or light." Seen by Christ's piercing eyes, Berry realizes he has been radically changed:

And we who were sleeping, seeking the dead
among the dead, dare to be awake. We who see
see we are forever seen, by sight have been
forever changed. The morning at last
has come. The trees, once bare, are green.

Found in the gaze of the resurrected Creator, we are awakened to a green, living world. Piero represents this transformation by painting the trees to the left of Christ as barren and dead, while those on the right side burst forth in spring's new green. ...

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