Interview: It was good
Ruth Valerio of Tearfund talks to Stephen Tomkins
The climate crisis is about as contemporary as anything can be, and an issue for far into the future, but Ruth Valerio’s response is to take us right back to the beginning. Her new book, Saying Yes to Life, takes us through the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, to set out God’s intention for creation and for our relationship with it.
Ruth has worked for the Christian charities A Rocha and Tearfund. At A Rocha, she developed the Eco Church award scheme. At Tearfund, she mobilises churches around the world to tackle poverty and injustice.
Saying Yes to Life (SPCK, 2019) is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for this year. It is reviewed here.
You start your book by putting the Genesis creation story beside a Babylonian creation myth. What’s distinctive about the Judeo-Christian version?
Setting the Genesis narrative in its context is something that has fascinated me for a long time and I think we don’t really understand what Genesis 1 is saying until we understand the context that it’s speaking into. Enuma Elish, the dominant creation myth at the time when the Genesis story was probably finding its final form, has some really strong things to say about the gods and why this world was created and the place of humans in that world. In the biblical creation narrative we see something very different.
There’s a clear difference in their picture of God/gods. In the Babylonian story you’ve got lots of gods all warring against each other; in our Genesis story you have the one supreme God. There’s no battle, he doesn’t need to fight others, he just speaks and it is so. You get this picture of supremacy and majesty and might.
And why is the world created? In the Babylonian narrative, the world is created from the vanquished evil goddess and so the world is inherently evil. People would have believed they were living on an evil world. The Genesis story tells us clearly that God made this world and said it’s very good. And it comes from God. As Christians we get a clear sense that the world is a wonderful, amazing thing.
If we don’t understand that we really miss what Genesis 1 is saying and we get into evolution, creationism and so on. That really misses the point of Genesis.
Fast forward 4,000 years to today – not from creation, from the writing of Genesis! – is the Christian understanding of creation still distinct from the way the world around us sees it?
Yes, I think so, because one thing is our connectedness to the wider natural world. Our society sees the rest of the natural world as ‘the environment’, it’s this separate thing like a platform or a stage. What we see in the Bible is that we are a part of creation. We don’t have our own day. We’re created on day six along with all other land animals. I think Christians have lost that sense of connectedness, but a thorough reading of the Bible can help us recover that. We know from all sorts of research coming through, just how important our relationship to the wider world is to our sense of wellbeing and our mental health, so, if we can recover what we’ve lost, we will have a lot to offer.
That’s interesting. I tend to think more of Genesis 2 setting humanity apart from other animals, breathing the breath of life into it.
Yes, we need to be careful how we read God breathing into ’ādām. It has been read as God setting us apart, giving us a soul, but in Genesis other creatures are described as having the breath of God too…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the March 2020 edition of Reform