That’s a lot of categories for a book just 95 pages long. Crisply written, provocatively presented, and compellingly argued, The Comforting Whirlwind by Bill McKibben offers an analogy between Job facing down the religious orthodoxy of his day, and modern-day western culture’s need to confront a similarly bankrupt orthodoxy.
For Job, the status quo is that “God is just, and therefore Job suffers because he is guilty.” The only problem with this simple calculus is that Job isn’t guilty. Yet “this pious orthodoxy is the baseline for the entire story,” writes McKibben. “It is the seemingly sturdy and immense castle that Job and God will totally demolish with the explosive force of their encounter at the end of the book.”
So what’s the orthodoxy McKibben is concerned about in the present-day? An orientation based on two assumptions: more is better, and growth is good. In the same way the formula of Job’s friends is inadequate to explain the facts of his situation, these modern tenets are called into question by the facts of our growing impact on nature. Structured simply in three chapters, The Comforting Whirlwind explicates both orthodoxies, then discusses their human-centeredness, then details the ways in which our impact on the planet might put us in a position to make different answers to some of God’s questions to Job — to our detriment.
Though Christianity has been accused by some (notably Lynn White) of encouraging environmental exploitation, McKibben emphasizes the biblical theme of God’s pleasure and love for all of his creation. (This reminded me of another more pointed discussion, Wendell Berry’s”Christianity and the Survival of the Creation.” It’s one of the essays in this book.) A main thrust of God’s response to Job is that the earth was not made for man. Most of the natural wonders he calls to Job’s attention have nothing to do with human life. Rather than answering Job’s questions, he calls him into a larger view of the world, one in which creation doesn’t exist for man’s pleasure or use, but for its own, and its creator’s, delight. This is a far cry from the anthropocentrism and conquesting attitude the Bible has been accused of having.
At its heart, though, this book is neither a theology book nor a defense of Christianity. It’s a celebration of the vision of the earth God puts forth from the whirlwind when he speaks to Job. McKibben suggests that this new paradigm is not just for Job and his friends, but for us. Central to God’s view, he writes, are two callings: a call to humility, and a call to delight. The book spells out ways we can fulfill both of these callings.
One of my favorite parts was McKibben’s description of an experiment he conducted for his book The Age of Missing Information. He recorded 100 channels-worth of television for 24 hours, then spent a year watching it. His questions and conclusions about American culture are fascinating, and helped me to think more carefully about my own life. Do our technological advances make us more, or less, happy? At what cost do these things come? Have our so-called advances made any truly significant improvements in quality of life over the last 30 years?
I also liked the book’s ongoing emphasis on the importance of wildness, of having aspects of the world that are not humanly controlled. One of the most important ways we’re made in the image of God, he contends, is that we have the power of restraint. Though at times I wasn’t ready to plunge quite as far as McKibben in his speculations about the future, his urgency about our increasing ability to alter our environment, and about what we lose if we replace all aspects of wildness and mystery with humanly-engineered “nature,” certainly resonated with me.
I’ve read McKibben’s The End of Nature, and this book shares its strengths. Reading it recalled to mind other fine nature writers as well, some of whom he mentions: John Muir, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry. His factual support is varied and interesting, his analysis is incisive, and his exact and loving description of nature makes me homesick for the hill behind the house I grew up in. This book raises awareness and introduces some ongoing questions sure to be beneficial to any of us who care about our own, or our children’s, quality of life in a consumer age.
I’ll conclude with McKibben’s own words. He’s usually identified as an environmentalist. But like other nature writers I admire, McKibben argues not for “environmentalism,” which implies an artificial separation between human life and the world we live in, but for at-one-ness with
something much larger. A planet, filled with the vast order of creation. It is a buzzing, weird, stoic, abundant, reckless, haunting, painful, perfect planet. All of it matters, all of it is glorious. And all of it can speak to us in the deepest and most satisfying ways, if only we will let it.