The Dirty God: Christ, Soil, and the Sacred Garden (Part 1)


Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month A.J. Swoboda will be discussing the deep connections between Christian faith and environmental stewardship.

*Also, as part of this series we are giving away three copies of Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology. The winners will be announced at the end of the month, and you can enter here.*


Jesus talked dirt.

As the gospels illustrate, Jesus Christ masterfully evoked a felt sense of God’s nearness by using parables. A parable is an interesting device—it utilizes a familiar concept to drive home an unfamiliar point. Old Testament scholar Ian Duguind aptly describes its usefulness: “Parables characteristically pull the rug out from underneath us, sweeping away our comfortable certainties and showing us an unexpectedly unfamiliar landscape where a moment earlier we thought we found ourselves at home.”

JCover Artesus, it turns out, was particularly adept at this whole “rug-out-from-underneath-us” move—the texture of Jesus’ teaching ministry reveals a steady stream of stories about coins, vineyards, fishing, and birds. Whisking people, as it were, through a torrent of familiar, everyday images, Jesus opened people’s eyes to the fact that standing there, right in front of them, was the living God Himself.

Often, one must travel the whole world to see what’s been in front of them all along.

The best preachers are masters of the parable—for, we will learn, sometimes the best way to talk about God is to talk about anything else. Sometimes we must help people get to God in a ‘round about sort of way. Particularly in church culture; Christians can become dangerously familiar with profound ideas such as the gospel, the Trinity, or any other of a number of mysterious realities. Parables make the familiar shocking all over again. They surprise us.

I recall that Washington Irving once described how difficult it was for an Englishman to write accurately about America because America was too similar to the Englishman’s homeland. In a short essay entitled “English Writers in America,” Irving writes that “…their [the Englishman’s] travels are more honest and accurate the more remote the country described.” That is, the further from home one traveled, the clearer their observations became. When things are too familiar, we easily miss the point. Which is why sometimes we have to talk about other things than God in order to finally get around to God.

Which is why Jesus talked about things like dirt.

Green is all the rage these days. Incidentally, researching the ecological world has provided for me a deep well of images to discuss freshly Jesus and his Kingdom; in ‘round about ways, of course. The modern green movement, however, was not my inspiration for such an approach to teaching—Jesus was my inspiration. Far before the environmental movement came to the fore, Jesus discussed God and the natural world with great consistency. Jesus taught ad nauseum about the natural order and its signs that bear images of God’s Kingdom. Such agrarian, outdoorsy pedagogy included, among other things, dialogue about birds, wind, water, farms, and fish.

Indeed, dirt as well.


A. J. SwobodaA. J. Swoboda (PhD, University of Birmingham) teaches biblical studies, theology, and church history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and Fuller Seminary, among others. He pastors Theophilus church in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of A Glorious Dark and coauthor of Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology