What follows is something a bit different from a standard review of the book, Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church, edited by Hannah Malcolm (London: SCM Press, 2020; pp. xxxv + 212; ISBN: 978-0-334-05986-8). This is both a book review and an invitation to let the stories lead you—should you decide to pick up the book for yourself, dear reader—into places of grief shared by others in the hope that you might see something new in the world directly around you. The world feels especially chaotic and strange some days. Ongoing news of the global pandemic capped with anxieties of a war at Europe’s doorstep has, for a time, drowned out (or maybe compounded) the ecological crises of pollution, de-forestation, climate change, and mass extinction. The “slow violence” of ecological crises, according to Rob Nixon, is often difficult to narrate, and a challenge to turn into a compelling storyline. (Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 2011) Amidst all this, it is refreshing to find in this collection, Words for a Dying World, works that give voice to existential feelings of sadness, disillusionment, yearning, and even hope.
Hannah Malcom sets the stage for the pieces that follow by first acknowledging the many and varied “end of the world events” that have been occurring and continue to play out daily. On the one hand, there has been a flood of new language, new reports, new conclusions about the dire straights of the planet. Climate grief and ecological anxiety has become a presence in classrooms and therapy sessions. “We” (according to much mainstream media) are only now becoming fully aware of the extent to which our planet is on fire. On the other hand, 500 years of colonialism, incentivizing effective management of “Nature” for an industrializing and modernizing world, and varying levels of displacement from the environment have brought us exactly to this point. So, here we are. And now it is time to consider what the end of our world means to us. Malcom notes, “This is a book about our relationships to these endings: what they signify and how we talk about them.” (xxx)
Grief is most acutely experienced in the loss of specific people, places, and things known or near to oneself. The threat of extinction of a species I have never seen, or the abstraction of de-forestation happening on another continent is virtually incomprehensible. Yet I can feel my heart jump at the news of a neighbor’s cat gone missing, or when witnessing a stand of trees felled just around the corner. Malcom coaxes out a bond between that which I myself can grieve at a familiar level, and the losses that others experience elsewhere. In the introduction, she describes how creatureliness and locality are fully entangled, which means that to mourn the death of the world is to mourn particular death(s) that can only be grieved in place and in time. And while we in a global community of faith might not share exactly the same (particular) griefs, we can share the experience of grief (universal) as we listen to others.
Some essays in the collection read like stories, others like sermons or lessons, while still others ramble as though wandering through a field in contemplation of the earth below and the life surrounding. There are poems and laments, even a (micro) story of the earth as she lays dying, suckled dry by a greedy child. Each piece is under ten pages—long enough to describe the particularity of place and contour the stories shared; brief enough to invite the reader to simply sit with the words and give them space.
The authors and contributors speak for and from places across the earth—Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Peru, Northern Europe, and North America. Yet, with the diversity, as Malcolm notes at the beginning of her preface, “There are many places, peoples and griefs that are not recorded here, and the balance of contributors is not reflective of either global populations or where this grief falls hardest.” This is an important starting point, and one that bears repeating for publications limited to the English language. It points directly to all that which is unseen, unheard, by persons sheltered from grief by location, wealth, power, or indifference. And so the voices that do make it into this collection carry a weightier burden on behalf of the communities they represent and for many others related by situation or ecosystem.
Below are samples from each of the three sections. Malcolm states at the beginning that, while they are not intended to be three discrete demarcations, “they do represent a rough flow: from the places and people we’ve been, to the groaning of the world around us, to the futures—longed for or imagined with dread—that await us” (xxxii).
Part one, “As it was then,” includes reflections from the perspective of looking through history using different filters and lenses of interpretation. We read here in the beginning “Eve as Everywoman: climate grief as global solidarity” by Grace Thomas, where Eve, in solidarity, is re-placed alongside women who suffer under the weight of climate breakdown. From the book of Genesis next we hear Christopher Doublas-Huriwai describe creation narratives of a particular Māori people and their entwinement with their place of origin. This entanglement of people and place means that the stresses of climate change impact communal identities with the force of a flood that rips through a clearcut hillside. On the North American continent, artist Jon Seals describes how he uses site-specific elements in his artistic process to reveal moments of the earth as it witnesses anthropogenic change. A poem, “Endings,” by Azariah France-Williams, closes part one, patterned so as to hear faintly the biblical laments from Jeremiah.
Part two, “As it is now” explores time through soil, the pain of present passings, liturgies for lament and loss, and questions of, “how did we get here?” In “The Hills are Alight” by Dianne Rayson we can almost smell the choking smoke from Austrailian fires. We pray for a deeper, truer metanoia with Seoyoung Kim in “Water of Life in South Korea.” We recognize the bite of guilt—here oriented toward the rest of creation—with Hugh Jones in “Climate Grief – Climate Guilt.” Scientists share the emotional toll they experience from their research. Others writing far from their childhood homes wonder and worry about how neighbors and once-familiar environments are faring these days. Where the opening set of essays invite the reader to look back with sober reflection, this middle section compels us to stay with the trouble (to borrow from Donna Haraway).
Finally, part three, “As it will be,” encompasses not only relatively current actions that folk have taken in response to ecological grief, anxiety, and the loss of spaces or species, but also orients readers toward future hope. Writers included in this section remind the reader that there are constructive actions, liturgies and rituals that may be taken to respond to a given moment, and help communities imagine possible futures.
There is a certain kind of bravery required even to pick up a book titled Words for a Dying World, and a significant amount of courage needed to write for such a book. Each Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report brings news worse than before making the situation of life on this planet seem hopeless. And yet Christian faith teaches us to “fear not,” to follow after hope amidst dire circumstances, or even when God’s anointed one has been crucified. Just as we are called in our journey of faith to discern the spirits and learn to recognize the Spirit of God, so, too, we must seek out a genuine hope of resurrection during this time. Perhaps the greatest challenge of the current ecological crises engulfing the planet is simply this: not to settle for cheap hope.
Pope Francis states in his encyclical, Laudato Sí, “The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion.” (Laudato Sí, 160) Not only are personal consumer choices insufficient for making substantive change to toxic systems, but ecological conversion and the actions it inspires is most impactful in community. Similarly, the work shared in this collection is not a text to skim or rush through on one’s own, but is best experienced with others.
Perhaps the best way to read through the book is simply to read no more than a few essays at a time, allowing time for the stories and words to rise within your own imagination. Following a lectio divina style reading, notice what phrases or images stand out in a given piece. Note which writers resonate most with you and your context. One approach could be to select pieces written from a given geographic region, listening as much for the unfamiliar as for that with which you can easily relate. Observe which authors elicit an affective response from within you. After all, this collection of words and stories is all about surfacing an emotional response to multiple endings of worlds.
Within the first week of Eastertide we encounter Earth Day, 22 April, allowing the tide of Good Friday grief and Easter morning awe at the resurrection of Jesus Christ to carry us to contemplation of the earth and all God’s creation, including sober reflection on this time of the sixth mass extinction. For Orthodox Christians, Earth Day coincides with Good Friday (which is perhaps a more evocative juxtaposition). With Spring in the northern hemisphere and Autumn in the southern hemisphere playing out the cycle of life and death, now is a good time to pause and reflect on what life we see emerging out of darkness, and what lights seem to be fading from view, soon to be extinguished. Words for a Dying World is an excellent accompaniment to this contemplative movement.