Earth is in trouble. Can hymns help?


In 2020, Taylor Swift released the albums folklore and still. Both albums were replete with forest imagery, so much so that Jeff Opperman, a conservation scientist, wrote optimistically of the value of Swift’s nature references in his music.

“Ms. Swift’s songs aren’t going to reverse climate change or wildlife decline,” Opperman wrote for The New York Times. “But they are a step toward reversing nature’s decline in pop culture. , and that is important.”

In 2022, however, a report by The Yard, considered Swift the worst climate “offender” when it comes to her private jet use. While Swift’s team claimed her private jet was loaned out to others, rendering her not responsible for many trips, the internet believed otherwise.

The backlash to Swift’s jet begs the question: Can nature songs contribute to climate activism? And Christians across the country are asking a similar question: How can hymns and worship songs respond to the climate crisis?

Hymns to Inspire Orthopathy

Debra Rienstra, professor of English at Calvin University and author of Refugia Faith: In Search of Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and Earth Healing, said hymns and other worship music can play a role in shaping and deepening our feelings toward God’s natural world.

Rienstra, who hosts a podcast that explores places of renewal spiritually, biologically and otherwise, told Sojourners that spiritual formation includes orthodoxy (right thinking), orthopraxy (right action), but also orthopathy (feeling just). Getting people to care about creation could be part of orthopathy, she said. “Can we shape this pathos towards a renewed love for creation? I hope the answer is yes.

It’s a delicate hope, but it’s a rising hope.

In a 2021 podcast episode of How to save a planethosts Alex Blumberg and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson discussed the lack of a climate anthem, despite journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis’ findings that climate change was increasingly mentioned in songs on Billboard’s national charts in 2021. They opened the discussion by praising “We Shall Overcome,” a song that has become a mainstay of the civil rights struggle. But the anthem of the civil rights movement was first sung in churches: the Philadelphia’s black minister Charles Albert Tindley wrote the words to a hymn in 1901. Black civil rights leaders, many of whom grew up in churches, drew from their worship hymns to bolster their activism.

Now, there’s a similar climate movement happening in worship music. The June release of a Climate Vigil The Porter’s Gate Worship Project aims to push Christians toward climate action, but he’s not alone among contenders to inspire the climate movement. For more than 20 years, Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a Presbyterian minister from New York, has written hymns for the times, including one for the 2021 United Nations climate talks held in Scotland and several to recognize the increase in natural disasters such as forest fires, hurricanes and floods. Fossil Free PCUSA, a campaign within the Presbyterian Church (USA) used hymns at protests, including songs by Christian artist Matthew Black.

Australian Bible professor John Griffiths has seen a significant increase in creation imagery in Hillsong Worship songs since 2016, after rare mentions in the 1990s through the mid-2010s. He notes that the ecological message is sometimes mixed. Yet the creation theology in “Thus Shall I (100 Billion X)” speaks of God’s creative power in giving birth to galaxies, commanding science, and giving life to creatures. The song ultimately sees creation as a partner in the worship of God. “If the stars were made to worship, so do I. / If the mountains bow in reverence, so do I.”

Before climate activists celebrate any new momentum, it’s important to recognize that growth is starting from a pretty low point. Indeed, this deficit is a cultural problem that dates back decades: a 2017 scientific study found a decline in references to nature in fiction books, songs and films since 1950.

Richard Lindroth, a University of Wisconsin-Madison forest ecologist and professor of Christian environmental ethics, has written that inaction in Christian churches is the result of a “long-term estrangement from the natural world.” Similarly, Debra’s diagnosis is a “disconnection from place,” which she sees as fundamental to colonialism.

“The Bible speaks primarily of indigenous peoples. So what we need to receive from indigenous people is a connection to place,” she said.

Localization of environmentalism

Ron Rienstra, a worship pastor, Debra’s husband and co-author of the book, words of worshipstated that music as a commodity has tended to appeal to a broad audience, choosing metaphors, but not making them particular to any location.

In the current top 10 worship songs listed by Christian Copyright Licensing International, which provides churches with access to a repository of copyrighted music, three songs mention nature, but the references could be metaphors rather than ecological thoughts. “Graves Into Gardens” by Elevation Worship is a reference: Because the God of the mountain / Is the God of the valley.

“When we sing, speak or argue theologically in abstract ways trying to articulate truths forever, we drift away from the time and place where we are,” Ron said. “We are clearly in a special time that calls us to sing, preach and pray about what is happening in the world with regards to climate change.”

Many Gillette hymns respond to contemporary events. “God cares about our joys and needs as we live in a world facing climate change, issues of gun violence, hunger and famine and war…We are called to pray and sing, then working for a better world,” said Gillette.

Ron noted that in scripture the vocabulary of nature is located in the environment. Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon in the construction of the temple. Naaman is told to wash in the Jordan. Worship music can follow these examples to locate our lyrics.

“Which trees will clap their hands? Eastern white pines? What rivers sing? He asked. Speaking from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ron added, “I should expect songs about the Great Lakes.”

Gillette writes exactly this way:

O God, you made the trees! oak and douglas,
maple, beech and liquidambar reach their branches to the sky.
The willow, growing wider – the redwood, tall and strong –
and cedars! Yes, all sing the song of creation.

Sung to the tune of “This is my father’s world”, the lyrics emanate from a love for trees. “Trees can make such a big difference globally, but also in very local ways,” she said. “A tree planted on a city street can lower the temperature in a neighborhood.”

In comparison, the album Climate Vigil offers relatively general terms about nature but speaks with admiration or lament of the degradation of nature. Plus, the Worship Guide includes reflections for each song, filled with scientific musings on cells, soil, and species diversity – even tardigrades, the squishy “water bears” visible only under a microscope, are worthy of the praise of God.

Lindroth’s solution to nature deficit disorder is to practice “earth liturgies”, which he describes as engaging the “Book of Nature”, as creation is called by Augustine, to discover God through activities like bird walks or stargazing. Ron suggests that creation can be included in formal worship services by adding plants or water features to the church building. Griffith simply encourages outside services.

Combined with praise music that offers artistry and the inclusion of the beauty of creation, this could foster an emotion that feeds love: awe.

“Beauty is one of the main focuses of what we’re trying to do with worship — beauty trying to map people’s fear of God,” Ron said.

Admiration and activism

Researchers have studied how fear facilitates a connection to nature, which can motivate ecological behavior. In a 2018 study, Chinese adults reported higher environmental intentions after watching a video clip of a childbirth or the BBC. Earth series. In another 2018 study, Chinese college students reported a greater willingness to recycle or take shorter showers after watching a five-minute panoramic nature video. The same thing happened when students wrote reflections on an experience of wonder.

“We instinctively care about the things we love, and we love the things we are intimately connected to,” Lindroth wrote. “… [C]The connection of creation is a fundamental and necessary antecedent to the care of creation.

In spiritual formation, love encompasses right thinking, feeling and doing. While Christian environmental ethicists in the past focused on “stewardship” or “care of creation” – a theology of right thinking – Debra noted in her writings that this did not motivate the church to do much. Ron thinks it’s because “the whole conversation is going on under the umbrella of duty or obligation. This is a very short-term motivation for most people.

“Connecting to creation and loving it is the key to empowering people to actually do things,” Ron said.

Climate Vigil’s new album aims to evoke emotion when it encompasses a range from lamentation to All creatures that fly through the air / Scream the failures of our care. — to a determination of steel:The kingdom is coming! / We are working on it. / The kingdom is coming! / All creation moans!

“We wanted to help people do something with these beliefs, so we wrote songs for action and mobilization – music for movement – where we say ‘yes’ to the work we are called to do” said Isaac Wardell, creative director of The Porter’s Gate Worship Project. “God is restoring all things, and he is giving us hands and feet to help build his kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Peter Fargo, co-founder of the Climate Vigil movement, added: “Ideally the experience of worship will also lead us to do the work of worship – to love God and neighbor as Jesus commands.”

The songs may not end up being sung on a climate march, but the climate cult writers hope their songs will spark a growing sense that all is not as it should be with the home we love. and that God calls us to action. And whether it’s led by a band while gathering on the benches or transmitted through headphones while reverently watching migrating birds in a local wetland, there’s a growing playlist of music for the spiritual march of climate work. .


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