Christianity, Wilderness and Wildlife

Susan Bratton “Christianity, Wilderness and Wildlife: The Original Desert Solitaire” [University of Scranton Press, 2002]
“Bratton’s book is a ground breaking analysis of the Christian roots of the modern environmental movement. She shows that far from being antagonistic to nature, Christian environmentalism emphasizes the goodness, even glory of God’s earthly creation. She illustrates this in a variety of settings and through many individuals, including St Francis of Assisi.”

“Bratton recounts stories from the book of Genesis to the Reformation movement of beneficent encounters with the wilderness or with wild animals in Christian tradition. She finds that important events frequently occur in the wilderness and that biblical writers believed that wild nature “informed humankind about the person of God, a Creator who takes a joy in all creation.” After analyzing the traditional stories, Bratton addresses the questions of when, where, and how contemporary Christians should seek wilderness for divine encounter.”
“Writing as a scholar, hiker, and evangelical Christian, University of North Texas Professor of Environmental Ethics Susan Power Bratton at various times informs, challenges, and inspires her readers to view favorably both biblical and the best of traditional Christian attitudes toward nature. Contrary to some contemporary writers, she is convinced that Christianity has been neither indifferent nor hostile to the environment.
Bratton’s work is suitable for general as well as scholarly audiences. Although she provides the basic story line of bible narratives for readers who may be unfamiliar with the texts, her explanations are not tedious for those who are acquainted with the literature. Bratton offers critical insights available to an undergraduate audience but worthy of more sophisticated readers. At the outset Bratton announces that her intention is “to analyze wilderness as a setting for spiritual events and to determine if isolated wilderness sojourns or contact with wild nature can be beneficial to Christian spirituality” (16). Her overwhelming conclusion is that not only is the wilderness helpful to spirituality, but it is also a necessity. Some significant moments of isolation are crucial for the development of the spiritual life for all peoples.
Bratton begins her examination of the place of the wilderness in Christian spirituality with an assessment of several relevant biblical passages beginning with Genesis. She very ably demonstrates how the wilderness participates positively in the spiritual lives of the people of God as they make their biblical journeys. The author does the same for both desert and Celtic monasticism as well as St. Francis of Assist and the Reformation. Her plan is clear, logical, and well executed. She does well what she sets out to do.
The sixteen chapters are well designed and most often begin with a brief personal journey narrative which is followed by an exposition of the relevant historical and biblical material for the topic under consideration. Terms are defined adequately. Bratton concludes major sections with summary points and analysis. Although she repeats several important points, her comments are presented in helpful and insightful ways. Bratton sometimes goes beyond theology to provide points for reflection and occasionally inserts a clearly evangelical sermon which some readers may find irritating.
The author highlights various biblical stories to demonstrate the preference of the divine for wilderness locations. The experiences recounted include visions, special divine calls, rescue from foes, and deep conversion experiences. Among the characters chosen are Hagar and the angel who meet at a desert spring, Moses with the Israelite elders who perceive God through a sapphire floor, David and Jonathan who meet their enemies after various wilderness experiences, and Elijah who retreats to a cave at Horeb.
The wilderness offers both John the Baptist and Jesus a place to prepare for their very important life missions. Bratton also points out that uninhabited areas are places of rest for Jesus and some of his followers. When ministry demands get too pressing, Jesus finds renewal in his withdrawal from the crowds. He also is victorious in his encounter with the devil in the desert. Throughout scripture, isolated regions are active players in the discernment of God’s will. They function as a “safe location for religious activity” (156) including repentance and forgiveness of sin, theophanies, and instruction in the ways of God.
Bratton depicts three schools of monasticism that follow the biblical period: the desert dwellers, the Celts, and the Franciscans. She does not discuss the lives of women; rather, she focuses almost exclusively on the activities of men. Consequently, ecofeminists, among others, may be disappointed in her work, but Bratton never intends to address their specific concerns. The earliest form of monasticism included persons who chose to live in the wilderness and relate to the wildlife in a reciprocal manner. Bratton describes how the animals were treated as “junior monks” (180) and took on the values of their masters. The vowed monks practiced extreme asceticism in their attempt to overcome sin, which appears to be a greater concern than encountering God directly.”
From Moni McIntyre “Christianity, Wilderness, and Wildlife: The Original Desert Solitaire” (review) “Journal of Early Christian Studies” Volume 2, Number 4, Winter 1994 pp. 475-477
1. Introduction
2. She Went and Wandered in the Wilderness (Genesis)
3. The Water Became Sweet (The Exodus)
4. The Paw of the Bear, the Paw of the Lion (David and Jonathon)
5. The Mountain Haunts of the Leopards (Writings)
6. Fed by Ravens (The Former Prophets, Elijah and Jonah)
7. Jackals in Her Palaces (Later Prophets)
8. And He withdrew to an Isolated Place (Intertestamental Times, Christ, and John the Baptist)
9. The Desert Road (Acts and Revelations)
10. The Original Desert Solitaire (Desert Monasticism)
11. Oaks, Wolves, and Love (Celtic Monasticism)
12. The Cave Outside the City (St. Francis)
13. The Limits of Western Wilderness (The Reformation)
14. Spiritual Journeys — On-and Off-Trail (Contemporary Questions)
15. Mountain Crests, Desert Canyons (Contemporary Questions)
16. The Wild and the Kingdom (Protecting the Wild)

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