Mary, Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa … these are the names that come to mind when we think of the women who have played an important role in Christianity. Betsy Ross and Emily Dickinson? Not so much. But a new book co-written by Randy Petersen and environmentalist and food blogger, Robin Shreeves, shows us that faith and inspiration can come in many guises.
We talked to Shreeves about "The One Year Women in Christian History Devotional," which upon first glance seems like a fairly radical departure for a woman who generally writes about everything from weekend libations to food politics and healthy eating. How did this green foodie end up writing about Christian history? In our interview she reveals that and more, including the relationship between the church and the environment as well as reconciling Christianity with feminism.
MNN: How did you go from writing about the environment and food to writing a Christian devotional?
Robin Shreeves: It’s more the other way around really. I started writing on Christian topics before I started writing about the environment and food. I have a bachelor of science in Bible and a K-12 English teaching certification. I taught high school English before I had my boys and decided that I wanted to stay home with them and work at home as a writer. Some of my first jobs were writing devotionals and curriculum to be used in churches. Then, I started to go green, and a friend suggested I start a blog that chronicled what I learned along the way. My first blog, A Little Greener Every Day, was born, and that led me to writing for some environmental sites and eventually to Mother Nature Network. My environmental writing took me out of the Christian realm for a while, but my friend Randy Petersen, who I co-wrote this book with, wanted to do a project with me. When an opportunity came up to write about Christian women, it became the ideal work for us to collaborate on.
What’s the relationship between Christianity and environmental stewardship like?
So much better than it used to be. I grew up hearing about humans having dominion over the Earth. There was this crazy idea that we could use all its resources because one day Jesus would come back and God would create a new Earth, so it was fine to trash this one. It’s an idea that some Christians cobbled together from passages in Genesis and Revelation, taken out of context. Now, the majority of Christians, at least the ones I know, recognize that the Earth is ours to care for, not to dominate and use up. There’s also an understanding that environmental damage done to the Earth also harms people, and that’s not very Jesus-like.
My personal relationship between Christianity and environmentalism stems from the fact that I have never been able to be in nature — to look at the stars, to be knocked over by a huge wave in the ocean, to smell a honeysuckle blossom — and not be totally aware that there is a God who put those things there for me to be awed by and to enjoy. And it doesn’t take much to make the connection between the fact that they are there to be enjoyed not just by me, but by everyone, and to destroy them is not what I was placed here for.
Two books that I can recommend for anyone who wants a better understanding of the connection between Christianity and environmentalism are “How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshipping Nature” by Tony Campolo and “Serve God, Save the Planet” by J. Matthew Sleeth, MD. In fact, Sleeth’s daughter, Emma, wrote a book for teenagers about the subject called “It’s Easy Being Green,” and I wrote about her in this book.
In the book, each day offers a page that is part women’s history lesson, part life lesson. Does this set your book apart from other devotionals?
“The One Year Women in Christian History Devotional” is part of a “One Year” series that Tyndale House has, and many of them are history-based, so there are other devotionals out there that are also focused on history. What sets this apart from some of the devotionals about women that I’ve read (but not all of them) is that none of the women in the book are set up as bad examples. We may point out mistakes they made, but we don’t let those mistakes define them. I’ve been in Bible studies where the study guide or devotional that was used talked about women who have gone through incredible circumstances and made a misstep or two, and those missteps are magnified and become how those women are identified. Of course, the lesson ends up being “don’t ever be like those women.” I didn’t want this book to be like that at all, and I don’t think it is.
How did you pick the women? What was the criteria?
Randy is one of the smartest people I know. He's very well-educated in the Bible and history, and he seems to remember everything he’s ever learned. When we sat down at a coffee house to begin writing the list of women we would pitch, he rattled off women’s names from the earliest centuries on. I just sat there, wrote names down and nodded, hoping to convey an air of “Oh sure, I remember learning about that woman who might have been given a passing mention in some class at Bible college 20 years ago.” After that original brainstorming session, we got to work doing research finding additional names, scouring through books and online resources. Coming up with that many names wasn’t very easy because there are large chunks of recorded history where women and their accomplishments weren’t considered important to document. Our criteria was fairly simple. The women had to be Christians who left some sort of mark on others, even if it was to just one person.
Which woman was the most daring choice to include?
I don’t know if I’d say any of them were daring to include. I know somewhere down the line I’m going to have someone ask, “How could you include her? She wasn’t a good example of a Christian. I don’t think she was a Christian at all,” because sometimes people of the Christian faith have difficulty accepting others who don’t believe exactly what they believe. But, as we wrote in the introduction, we tried to identify women who have been significant in Christian history, not necessarily women who were perfect or exemplary. It would have been a very short book if we only included perfect women — non-existent, actually.
What woman in the group really stands out for you?
I was introduced to so many amazing, strong, independent, feminist, faithful women while writing this book. If I had to pick out just one who stands out the most, it would have to be Dorothy Sayers. I was familiar with Sayers’ fiction work before writing about her, but not her non-fiction. While researching her, I read her essay, “Are Women Human?” and it blew me away. While reading this short essay, I lost any residual traces of my very conservative upbringing that taught that women were meant for certain things and men for certain other things. That essay helped me to reconcile my Christianity with my feminism.
What’s one of your favorite lessons from the book?
While I was writing this book, I was going through some very painful, personal problems, ones that sometimes made me think that I wasn’t in any position to be writing a book that was meant to encourage others. Everyone told me I was wrong about that, and I kept going. The very last entry I wrote was for Jessie Penn-Lewis (the devotional for Dec. 6), a central figure in the Welsh revival of the early 1900s. She was someone who struggled to believe she was qualified for what she was doing. She came to understand that God gave her the job she had and he was the only judge of her qualifications. Each entry ends with a little takeaway, and I wrote that what Jessie learned was important for us all to embrace. It didn’t dawn on me until several hours after I hit send on that final entry that I had to embrace that lesson personally. I had to let go of my worries that my problems made me unqualified. And, I know it was no coincidence that she was the last person I wrote about and that lesson was the one I chose to pull out of her life.
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