Book Review: Saying Yes to Life

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book (2020)

Written by Ruth Valerio

Review by Susan Geddes

As Ruth Valerio states in the introduction to this book, we live in an “amazing, but troubled world”.  The book appealed to me for several reasons – I had already read and reviewed “L is for Lifestyle” by the same author; also, I was intrigued by a title which calls Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing to mind.   Most of all, these issues of stewardship and environment – being “green” – are ones which I’ve thought about a lot throughout my life.  I’ve often wondered why we as Christians are so diligent about our spiritual witness, yet not as engaged in the care of our environment.  At the same time, there are one or two aspects of environmentalism that I’m sceptical about.

“Saying Yes to Life” was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book two years ago – it’s intended as a study book for Lent, drawing on the days of Creation in Genesis 1, one for each week throughout Lent.  During Lent, we focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection and the events leading up to Easter.  This is the salvation upon which our lives are built.  Through Lent we anticipate redemption that “does not take us away from creation but will root us more deeply in it.” (p.5) Ruth takes the themes of light, water, land, the seasons, other creatures, humankind, Sabbath rest and resurrection hope and relates them to the matters of ethical, social and environmental concern which she is so passionate about and which are at the forefront of our minds today.  Each chapter focuses on a day of Creation and finishes with Biblical reflection, questions for discussion and ideas for practical application, as well as a prayer written by young people from each of the six inhabited continents of the world.

Ruth is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a vast range of topics.  She sees the bigger picture but can readily cite examples of projects where ordinary people and churches are making a difference.  

She knows her Bible and theology and is also well versed in other ancient texts; she knows her facts and figures, always humbly acknowledging her sources and where others have helped, for example with details about the natural world; she is interesting and engaging and has her finger on the pulse of modern life; and she is honest and real with a healthy sense of humour.

She is motivated by the sheer beauty of the world around us and by her love for God.  Her writing can have something of a whirlwind quality, taking us through Scripture, history, legend, culture, and personal story at sometimes breath-taking speed, but always coming back to the Gospel.

There are many issues in the world calling for our attention – huge problems of justice, poverty, and inequality.   In order to best care for people, we have to consider and care for their environment.  It is impossible in such an interconnected world, to separate environmental matters from the problems of pollution and lack of clean water damaging the health of poor people, the empowerment of women, land use, to name a few.  

For example, people need clean, affordable energy in order to get out of poverty – electricity transforms clinics and hospitals, enables young people to study in the evenings and helps farmers with irrigation pumps which increase yields.  Overfishing and deforestation by large companies hurt poor people the most.  People and planet have to be held together.   We struggle with this; we “have developed an understanding of salvation that does not hold salvation and creation together.” (p.4).

Yes, God is in control: we do not have to panic, as we see others around us doing.  We worry about the danger of worshipping the creation rather than the Creator.  We are afraid of being distracted from our commission to preach the Gospel.  And yet, this is a call and a responsibility which we cannot ignore.

Perhaps, Ruth suggests, our dilemma is a symptom of the sacred/secular dualism to which we are prone, that affects so many aspects of our lives.  We have a negative view of the world which causes us conflict in many areas, for example when we separate evangelism and social care, or when we fail to see our employment as a calling and consider it inferior to full-time Christian ministry.  The world has suffered for this viewpoint as we have seen the world as something to be used as a resource, rather than as something precious to God, and its people suffer too.

One thing concerned me a little: towards the end of the book, Ruth writes of her own and her daughter’s involvement with the Extinction Rebellion movement.  It seems that there is a Christian group within that movement, Christian Climate Action, but I do struggle with XR’s methods of civil disturbance and use of children in their activities.

There are profound challenges here too regarding how we see our ultimate redemption.  As evangelical Christians, we have tended to view this world as a sinking vessel which will be destroyed.  Ruth offers a fresh perspective.  This world is far from perfect, but God made it, loves it and has plans for it which are beyond our imagining. 

Deeply sceptical of any argument which suggests that we may not have had quite the right understanding of original language in Scripture, I have read quite extensively around Ruth’s discussion of what Scripture means when it says that the world will be “burned up” (an expression used widely) – that perhaps what is being referred to is more a refining process or total transformation.  This seems to be a view that has some backing and justification.  For example, Ian K. Smith writes in an article on, “The Bible does not begin with the problem of sin, it begins with the beauty of the earth.  Through all the twists and turns of the biblical story, God remains committed to His creation.  In the light of this, it is surprising that so many Christians view the earth as transient at best and something to be forsaken at worst” (10 Things you should know series, August 2019). 

Ruth states that she has explored “a theology of the future that anticipates God transforming this present reality” (p.104).  These Scriptures relating to eschatology are notoriously difficult and tricky to interpret and can be contentious; but surely our call to care for God’s creation and all its creatures does not ultimately rest on any particular eschatological view.  There will be a time when the children of God will be revealed, and creation set free, with “our proper status and function in creation” restored (quoting Chris Wright, p.104) and every action we take that honours our call and responsibility shows our wish to live in anticipation of the glorious future that Christ has brought about through His death and resurrection.

If you are anxious about the issues facing the world today, here is hope that we can have a cleaner, more just world.  If we perhaps haven’t really considered these matters, here is the challenge to fully live out our faith as we explore the themes of interconnectedness, justice and kingdom.  I have been again convinced of the need for Fairtrade; there are many areas where I could be doing more.  

On Ruth’s blog, she encourages taking many small steps which might seem insignificant, but all add up.  The foreword to the book states that “God is beside us, working with us in our communities and our churches, in our politics and our governments and He will not leave us to face our fears alone.”  I’m especially encouraged by the growth in community gardens as spaces which bring people together and benefit them in practical and therapeutic ways.

It is not only about our actions, though; at Tearfund, Ruth says, they talk about Pray. Act. Give.  Prayer connects us with people and situations.  God will guide us where to act, and where to give.  As we look at all God has made and live out our lives and faith in this world, we “say yes to life.”

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash