Shelly Dennison reviews “Words for a Dying World” edited by Hannah Malcolm

Shelly Dennison

Words for a Dying World. Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church. (ed. Hannah Malcolm)

Words for a Dying World brings together voices from around the world to consider how we talk about and deal with, climate grief. It is broken down into three sections – As It Was Then, As It Is Now, and As It Will Be, so there is a rough past, present, future arc to the book. We are taken on a global journey from Alaska to New Zealand via places as diverse as Iran and Lincolnshire. Contributions take a variety of forms and we hear from a wide range of perspectives. There is also a helpful section of author biographies for context.

This is a collection that demands slow reading. I read one of the 35 chapters a day through Advent and Christmas. At the beginning, I did wonder if the themes of the book would mean it would be better suited to Lent as a season of repentance. However, Advent’s note of expectant waiting finds an echo in Romans 8:19 where creation ‘waits in eager expectation’ (NIV), and grief and hope are intertwined for many of the contributors. As Kyle Lambelet puts it in his chapter, “lament nurtures a hope for something that I cannot yet see, but I can actively wait and work for.”

Despite the academic backgrounds of many of the writers, this is an accessible collection, helped by the fact that in many cases the authors are sharing their own stories and histories through their discussions of particular places or approaches to climate grief. There is an engaging immediacy which means the volume sits happily between direct testimonies of the impact of climate change as mediated through NGOs and charities and more theoretical academic approaches. I was also struck by the attentiveness to language, there is a precision to many of the discussions of hope, lament, grief, loss, and reconciliation which helps the reader to explore new ways of thinking about these things and what they might mean in a variety of local and Christian contexts.

One of the key strengths of the collection is that it is about relationships – between people and land, their histories, families, and cultures. Stories are told that are about individuals, communities, and places. To give an example, in one of the early chapters Christopher Douglas-Huriwai writes about New Zealand and explores the ways in which land, ancestry, and God are linked. Land loss, racism, injustice, and the obliteration of local culture have gone hand in hand. The impact of colonialism on both people and land is a theme that comes up regularly in the book. In the case of New Zealand, the full impact of climate change is yet to be felt but the impending threat is enough to cause anxiety in a place where rootedness in the land means that creation tells people who they are and how they are related to God.

A criticism sometimes levelled at the recent wave of books that might be defined as ‘new nature writing’  is that there is an overemphasis on individual experience, and often that experience comes from a position of privilege. By contrast, many of the writers here are focussed on a collective response to climate grief, acknowledging the power of grieving and listening done in community. Writing about Tamil Dalit culture, Anderson Jeremiah says “hope is essentially communal in nature” as it is grounded in community and relationships. A community that grieves together is also one from which action can spring. Panu Pihkala gives the example of a public lament for a cleared ancient forest in Finland which led to discussions on actions to prevent similar events. The importance of grieving, hoping, and acting collectively is made clear through many of the stories and provides a counterpoint to contemporary narratives focused on individual responses to climate change or landscapes.

Perhaps the overriding thing that I am taking away is a new and deeper understanding that our global is someone else’s local. This shouldn’t be terribly revelatory but there was something about the experience of careful reading of this range of different, and yet in many ways similar, stories that really brought this home to me. It is all too easy to think of the global as somewhere else, not here, but this collection, through both its specificity in each chapter and its overarching wide scope, brings home the idea that everyone stands somewhere and that all those places matter – not in some abstract way – but as real and tangible places where climate change is being felt and people are grieving.

Words for a Dying World is not always an easy read, but it is an important one. It ends with a benediction written by Maggi Dawn which powerfully brings together grief, hope, and blessing.

Shelly Dennison

Shelly is Digital Engagement Officer for CPRE Bedfordshire. She attends St Mary the Virgin, Goldington and Putnoe Heights Methodist Church (which has just received its bronze Eco Church award), Shelly is a second year CRES student.

Words for a Dying World was published on 7th December 2020 by SCM Press and costs £15.99