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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 67, 2019

ELAINE M. WAINWRIGHT, Habitat, Human and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew (The Earth Bible Commentary Series 6; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2016). Pp. xv+250. H’back £50/p’back £20.

Habitat, Human and Holy, The Earth Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, consolidates Elaine Wainwright’s scholarly engagements, locally and internationally, in ecological, feminist, postcolonial, Australian and oceanic biblical scholarship. An introduction by Norman Habel sets out key aspects of the Earth Bible commentary series. Whilst in dialogue with the Earth Bible approach, Wainwright’s commentary brings something new to ecological biblical scholarship. Two features in particular are significant: the notion of habitat; and the way her ecological hermeneutics is informed by a robust socio-rhetorical methodology.

Habitats, for Wainwright, are physical places of human sociality where knowing is situated, where more-than-human agencies and human exercises of power intersect, often in complex ways, as we see in the reading of the Magi and Herod in 2:1–12 (49). Ecological thinking resists a social imaginary of mastery and offers a shift toward “in-habitat-ion,” of human living in located more-than-human contexts. Wainwright coins the term inter-context-uality, for the ways multiple habitats can inform the reading of a text. “Habitat” allows for readings attentive to the ecological contexts described or evoked by a text at the levels of: the narrative; the text’s writers and early readers; contemporary readers; and reading communities throughout the history of a text’s reception. “Human action,” writes Wainwright, “is not separate from but intimately connected to location” (131). Not only are habitats places, where humans and other beings are situated and interconnected in both life-affirming and life-denying entanglements, but they are also the situation for human engagement with the holy, where an ecological right ordering of relationships is imagined, enabled and enacted, “so that we, as a human community, may not hasten the ‘close of the present age’” (218).

Emmanuel, the “with-us-G*d” of Matthew, brings together the human and the holy in the Matthean Jesus. Materially, Matthew’s Jesus is embedded in the ecological life cycle (165) and “the human and the holy inter-sect in the materiality of the body of Jesus.” The human and the holy, even the materiality of the body, do not exist in isolation from Earth, and in Matthew the reign (basileia) of the heavens/skies (ouranõn) evokes the materiality of the cosmos.

Habitat, Human and Holy offers biblical scholars, a robust methodology. Wainwright works with and moves beyond Vernon Robbins’ socio-rhetorical methodology with her attention to the textures of a text: inner, inter and ecological. Woven with this attention to the way the textures of a text work on its readers is attention to time and place, and the different ways in which space is encoded in the text: first (physical), second (symbolic) and third (ecological) spaces. Third space breaks down the false binary of physical (perceived) space and symbolic (conceived) space. Many commentary sections stand out for me. In “Matthew 8.5–13 Words Heal Embodied Distress,” Wainwright remarks that “Jesus [is] an indigenous healer” (98). Identified as Sophia, Jesus is justified by the deeds not only of his healing work but of Divine Wisdom’s co-creativity. Crossing boundaries, physical and conceptual, is a frequent keynote (99–100). In “Matthew 10: Does Co-missioning obscure Earth?” Wainwright evokes an intersection of respect and artistry, when other beings are used as symbols in a text. She describes the “carnal intertwining of sheep and people” (119). Weeds and wheat evoke ecological rupture and big business (133). Reading the story of the Canaanite woman, Wainwright argues: “Here, both Jesus and the woman have voice, bread links Tyrian and Jew and comes to represent the power to heal and dogs, in their leaning toward their own materiality, can enable Jesus to negotiate his own internal struggle to determine what is “word of God” and what is “human tradition” (15.6–9)” (162). With “the potential for reading beyond anthropocentrism” (200), Wainwright’s interpretation of the anointing highlights materiality and material agency, with a focus on the alabaster jar and myron. Wainwright evokes carnivale and chaos in her comments on the entry to Jerusalem and the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple, underlining the more-than-human interplay of presences and agencies, the absurd (Jesus astride two animals), and the disruption and re-ordering of unjust economic and power relations. More than once, Wainwright reads Jesus seated in a boat or on the ground as authorised by habitat. Radically identifying with matter through bread and wine, broken and poured out, Matthew’s Jesus is enmeshed with violence to more-than-human others, suffering the same “life destroying processes” as they. Throughout the book, the senses open characters and ecological readers to their embodied engagement with habitat; hearing opens to biophony (123)—the multiple voices of a more-than-human world. Earth speaks in Jesus’ death (212).

The problematics of end-time thinking, especially as drawn in the often violent symbolism of apocalyptic eschatology, reflect a “future imaginary” that calls forth ethical action in the present (189, 190, 195). One aspect of the ethical action which Habitat, Human and Holy proposes is to become “ecological readers” of the gospel, to be discipled (143), perhaps as co-scribes with Earth: alert to false narratives (215); suspicious of colonising readings (216); working with the models and subtle readings Wainwright has provided, to make new readings, “to challenge one’s thinking and practice” (141). Along the way, Wainwright offers inter-texts set out in text boxes to point her reader to some of the many scholars, for example, Donna Haraway, Catherine Keller, Anne Primavesi, Edward Soja, and ideas, such as material agency, that have influenced her work.

Habitat, Human and Holy also points to the way ecological hermeneutics embraces creative writing, exemplified here in Wainwright’s piece on Matthew 18, which highlights the potential of reconciliation ecology (169–70). Reconciliation ecology recognises the damage humans have done to their own and the habitats of other than human creatures, and offers a way of working with human-impacted habitats to give back to many species their ecological ranges. The commentary prompts the question: how might ecological readers be disciples in a context where habitat, human and the holy are intertwined? This commentary proposes an innovative eco-rhetorical methodology and, through careful and creative herme-neutic practice, provides models for further ecological biblical readings.

Review by
Monash University and Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity