Creation Photography: A call to glorify God through the study and creative interaction with nature
My footsteps fall with a crunch, as I tramp through the nearly silent, predawn forest. The only sounds that float on the air are those of my gingerly obnoxious footfalls and the call of a single songbird as it preemptively declares the dawning of a new day. My pant legs already hang wet from the morning’s dew as I quicken my footsteps through the undergrowth on my way to witness one of nature’s finest spectacles. As I round the bend, my heart leaps along with a deer and her fawns that I have alarmed as they graze in the peace of the early morning; startled at my bold intrusion. They bound off in haste, leaping over obstacles on legs like pogo sticks. Continuing on, I begin to hear the subtle, distant roll of falling water. A few minutes walk and the forest ends abruptly; opening up to a mountain stream. The water falls endlessly, tumbling down this boulder-strewn stream. Hopping from rock to moss covered rock. There is a mist in the air; the result of water smashing into rock.
I have just enough time to set up my camera gear and prepare to capture the sun breaking across the horizon; spilling light onto the forest and this mountain streambed that it holds. The mist that hangs in the air beneath the waterfall is suddenly illuminated orange. The trees of the forest reflect auburn in the stream as they are bathed in the warm light of the rising sun. I hustle from rock to water in a frantic effort to capture this splendorous demonstration of the beauty of God’s creation. As the sun rises higher and loses the intensity of it’s warm color, I look downward, and begin to photograph the early spring flowers that line this mountain stream. I focus on a patch of painted trillium. They point up cheerfully with their three white petals, and fuchsia center, as though to invite the attention of my camera, and any pollinators that happen to buzz along. Next is the wild geranium; with its purple petals forming a satellite dish. Upon further inspection I see a crab spider making its home in this flower’s center. This tiny spider, with web woven of the finest strands. Were it not for the morning dew hanging in the web, its existence would not even be known. It is at this moment that I am once again struck by the incredible wonder of God’s creation. I am amazed at His creativity in forming our natural world. From the granite mountain peaks that reach towards the heavens, to the microscopic dew laden web of the crab spider that makes its home in the wild geranium; God’s fingerprint is on each.
All of nature declares the Glory of God, and as a nature photographer I feel privileged to witness it regularly. These moments spent in the solitude of creation, exploring its intricate and grand design, awaken something within my heart. God has created the natural world in such a way that it inspires the peruser to see His creativity and praise Him for it. Nature photography is the ideal medium for encouraging the viewer to get out and spend time exploring God’s creation; to engage in this same type of curiosity and thankfulness for the beauty, detail, and interconnectedness that God has blessed us with, through the natural world. Furthermore, nature photography bears the potential to inspire the viewer not only to first hand nature experience, but also to a celebration of the God-designed creativity of humanity. God’s creation universally declares His glory and reveals His divine power, and thus, as Christians we should be better leveraging the art of nature photography to inspire others to interact with God’s creation and praise Him for it.
In beginning to explore the topic of why Christians should engage in the art of nature photography, it is first necessary to reflect upon what the Bible has to say about creation and our interaction with it. There is a strong biblical directive to care for God’s creation, and to witness God’s glory through it. The appropriate place to start would be the very beginning. God created the earth and everything in it. This alone imbues nature with value. The fact that the almighty God authored it should make us think twice about failing to enjoy it, protect it, and learn from it. In fact from the beginning of the creation account, in Genesis 2:15, we are called to interact with nature. The Hebrew words “’abad” and “shamar”, which are used to describe our role in the garden, are a call to serve and to keep it (DeWitt 100). This is a far cry from, what seems to be, our track record of abusing and ignoring it. This biblical mandate for creation stewardship is quite clear, and it sets the basis for the posture that we should take towards the natural world.
Moving forward in search of a biblically informed understanding of creation, we find one of the most clear teachings about a theology of nature in Romans 1:19-20.
That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (NASB).
This passage demonstrates that God has made himself evident to us through His creation, and that, because of this fact we are without excuse if we choose to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness”. Reading this chapter in its entirety leads to an even more robust understanding of what is conveyed through creation, and what we are then accountable for. This passage should be seen as both a revelation into the powerful story that creation tells about the creator, and a warning to those who would distort that story. If God is so clearly seen through nature, to the point that it is enough to hold every individual accountable, then it is a source that we should be using to learn about God ourselves, and to share with others. Notice that our passage in Romans is not speaking of Christians only when it says that “His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse”, but rather, it is a universal statement that deals with every individual that sees His creation. This is what theologians would refer to as general revelation. God’s work of creation that displays His “eternal power” and “divine nature” is commonly available to all humans. This general revelation, that is available for all who look, is only one way that God reveals Himself, however. The other way is through “special revelation”, which is the inspired Word of God. God speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures that have been given to us for instruction, correction, and edification. Thus God reveals Himself through, what the church has historically confessed to be, the “two books”. This terminology conveys the importance of neglecting neither of God’s modes of self-revelation (DeWitt 94). Martin Luther put it well when he stated that, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars” (The Green Bible I-103).
One final cog in the underpinnings of a biblically informed understanding of creation, is the way that the Bible’s countless appeals to nature speak to its exemplary power and representational capabilities. The Bible contains countless examples of using nature to teach us about God; directly, metaphorically, and in representational art. In Job chapter 40, God challenges Job’s sense of self-righteousness by appealing to nature. He challenges Job to “Behold Behemoth”; to look upon the power and majesty of the created beast, and to ask himself if he was able to design such a creature. In the book of Job, God repeatedly challenges Job to behold creation and see his own helplessness. Does Job have the ability to tell every lightning bolt where to strike(Job 38:35)? Can Job cause snow or rain, or can he guide the mother bear with her cubs (Job 38:22-32)? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. The book of Job demonstrates God’s use of creation to teach. Matthew 10:29-30 is another example of God’s sovereign orchestration of nature. It teaches us about His care for it when Jesus says that not a single lowly sparrow “falls to the ground apart from the Father”. Through this He teaches us that we should not worry, because we are valued even higher than these sparrows that He provides for.
Furthermore, God reveals truths about Himself and the Christian faith through scriptures that use nature metaphorically. Psalm 1 describes the righteous man as being like a “tree planted by streams of water” which is fruitful and steady, while it portrays a wicked man as being like chaff that is blown in the wind. In John 15, Jesus describes Himself as being like a vine, and us the branches, in order to portray our connection with Him, and our reliance on His life giving sustenance. There are a plethora of examples such as these in the scriptures. They assume our understanding of, and connectedness to nature in order for us to comprehend their breadth.
Lastly, we see a license for the use of the representational use of nature in artwork in the scriptures. As Francis Schaeffer explains in Art and the Bible, God not only condoned the use of representational art of natural elements in the tabernacle and temple, but commanded them (Schaeffer 21). In Exodus chapters 25-28 there is an explanation of the God-ordained blueprints for the Tabernacle. Included in these blueprints are the command for light stands in the shape of branches and in the form of almond blossoms. The description also calls for pomegranates made in various colors, both natural, and un-natural. Understanding this will help us get beyond the point of needing to justify the use of nature in arts like photography. Now that we have an understanding of nature in the Bible, let us shift gears into a discussion on the human interaction with nature.
As we have seen through the scriptures, God’s creation tells of His divine power, not only to Christians or particular people groups, but to all people. This universality of God’s general revelation is evident in the human response to creation across cultural borders. There is something innately spiritual to the human interaction with nature. Creation’s spiritual nature is seen, although often misplaced, in the way that the entire spectrum of people groups have affirmed its spiritual nature. It is important that we approach nature through a scriptural lens, so that we do not fall prey to “worshipping the creation rather than the creator” as it says in Romans 1:24. This worshipping of the creation is exactly what we find in the worst cases of humans’ spiritual interactions with nature. This type of relationship to nature is obviously not what we are after, but a quick look into human tendencies to spiritualize nature will be helpful in showing that we are created with a desire to read from God’s book of nature.
Throughout the ages, all types of people have seen the natural world through a spiritualized lens. From unreached groups of rainforest dwellers that worship the puma, to Christians that stray from orthodoxy into pantheistic views that God is actually the creation; nature spirituality takes on many appearances. This penchant for seeing nature as a spiritual entity may be misplaced, but it flows from the way that God created us to stand in awe of His divine power that is evident in creation. We cannot get to know God through His creation, but rather, we learn about God’s attributes through what He has made. When we fail to live by this biblical mandate, it is a quick and slippery slope of falling into pantheism and creation worship.
Additionally, we can learn from the anthropological interaction with creation, that God created us so that human interaction with nature leads to refreshment and reflection. Spending time in nature is therapeutic. The famous and intrepid naturalist, John Muir, has some of the most insightful writings on the subject of man’s interaction and enjoyment of nature. He once said that “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” You can read more quotes that are pulled from his writings Here. John Muir’s childlike curiosity for exploring God’s creation and standing in awe of its grandeur, beauty, and detail, is very inspiring indeed. When we approach the reading of God’s “book” of creation, we would be well served to do so with this childlike curiosity.
We have seen that there is a strong biblical mandate for caring for God’s creation, and we have seen that God has made Himself evident through what He created. Additionally, we see that God created us in a way that nature is refreshing to our souls. If this is really the case, then choosing to forsake the reading of God’s book of creation by neglecting to studying it would be akin to forsaking fellowship with God through the reading of the scriptures. It would be ignoring a method by which God intends to reveal Himself to us. God has chosen to communicate to us through the written word and through His creation. Spending time perusing God’s creation should, in no way, replace our time devoted to communing with God through the scriptures or prayer. Spending time in nature should inspire us to prayer and the reading of God’s Word. This has proven itself true through my experiences in God’s creation. The more that we study the splendor and intricacy of what God has made, the more that we are motivated to praise Him. All creation declares the glory of God, and thus, time spent in that creation is worship inspiring. All of nature is partaking in the doxology of creation. The trees of the forest clap their hands, and we should join in the praise of our creator. However, there seems to be a disconnect. The church of Christ does not seem to be partaking in the doxology of creation. Many go for months, and even years without taking the time to stop and study what God has made evident to us through His creation. The people of God seem to have neglected the reading of God’s book of creation. We must change this.
As Christians, we must get out and from the musty buildings that we spend so much time in, and interact with God’s creation. We have already seen that God makes Himself evident to all through His creation, not merely Christians, and not only certain people groups. His general revelation transcends cultures and borders. We, as Christ’s church, should be about the business of both partaking in God’s revelation through nature for ourselves, and encouraging others to do likewise. Nature photography lends itself ideally to promoting interaction with nature, in that, much like nature itself, it speaks cross-culturally, and is not dependent on language. We live in a day and age where the primary means of communication is visual. We have gone from being a dialogue and reading based society, to being an image based society. As Neil Postman argues in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, we live under a new visual epistemology (Postman 26). This new way of communicating and understanding, further makes photography the perfect catalytic tool for motivation.
We are also living in a society that is becoming more and more urban. People are flocking to cities in record numbers. As of 2010, the CIA’s World Factbook shows that 82% of the United States population now live in cities. This trend of urbanization has only fueled our society’s disconnect with creation. Many people rarely get away from the urban sprawl to enjoy the serenity and refreshment of God’s creation. This disconnect only appears to be getting worse. When we take a look at the next generation of urban youth, this lack of interaction with nature is even more of an evident issue. With the explosion of technology, both in the classroom and at home, in addition to the urbanization of populations, we see a new generation of youth that are nature illiterate. In a study done by Nicole L. Migliarese, she speaks of a “nature deficit” that is prevalent, and problematic to the health of our nation’s youth and adults alike. Lowell Monke sheds further light on the negative effects of children’s new use of technology in place of time spent outdoors in nature, in an article titled Charlotte’s Webpage. These developments are concerning, to say the least, but we must not give in to the hopelessness of this situation. One tool that is perfectly suited to bridge the gap between the new technological and visual epistemology of our culture and the appreciation of God’s creation is nature photography. Nature photography is able to take advantage of modern technologies, while presenting nature in a visually stunning manner that can be used as a catalyst to encourage the viewers personal interaction with nature. Nature photography, in this case, is not to be viewed as the ultimate ends, but as the means by which to re-engage the urbanized and technologically sheltered with the wildness and beauty of God’s creation. We ultimately must encourage the viewer to get out and explore God’s creation for themselves, and nature photography is the ideal tool for that end.
Since its advent, photography has been an agent for change, and has been a powerful tool for influence. Take Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” for example. It is an iconic image that portrays the plights of a single mother during the great depression. This image was used in media outlets throughout the country and sparked a public outcry that was responsible for the government sending aid and supplies to dust bowl refugees (Rosenblum 368). It would not be an overstatement to say that photography made the world a smaller place. As soon as photography came on the scene, there was a clambering for images from far off lands, of exotic locals, and of current events from around the world. What used to require weeks and months of travel, was now able to be seen in the comfort of one’s own home. Photographs of wars drove home the somber realities of death and violence. Photographs of the battle for civil rights aided in depicting the offenses of those whom downplayed the plights of African Americans. Photographs of the American west inspired the adventurous to travel to the bountiful land by the western sea. And photographs of our natural wonders by photographers such as Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter have been influential in inspiring the viewer to appreciate our natural treasures, and protect them for future generations. Ansel Adams is a poster child for the potential power and reach of nature photography. His images moved governments to make conservation policy changes, and establish national parks (Adams 146). His images were on display from California Art Galleries to coffee cans in New York. He quickly became a household name, and was able to inspire generations to an appreciation for the natural world. If Ansel Adams was able to lobby for the enjoyment of nature, as he did in fact do, then we as Christians, should be striving to advocate for God’s creation through the art of nature photography. If God’s creation truly does proclaim His Glory, eternal power, and divine attributes, like the Bible says it does, then we should be the loudest voice in advocating for people to get out and spend time in nature.
Beyond nature photography’s purpose as a catalyst for experiencing nature, it is a creative art form that taps into our creative abilities that are God-endowed. There is something powerful about the fact that, through nature photography, the photographer is highlighting God’s creative act both of His creation of nature, and of His creation of man’s creativity. This is a beautiful reality.
All of this leads to the conclusion that Christians should be the foremost proclaimers of God’s creation through the medium of nature photography. There are several ways that this can be done. Christians should support arts within the church, as well as out from the church and to the rest of the world. There is a place for nature photography within the physical church building. Whether it be accompanied by music arts and displayed on powerpoint slides, or hanging in frames on the wall, the church should create an environment where artists can express their God-given creativity, especially when those creative passions directly Glorify God, as is the case with nature photography. However, there are very few examples of nature photography being used well within the church or outside of it. Most of the few examples that are available, are poorly done. Whether it be framed artwork of nature photographs that are for sale in the Christian bookstore, with poorly designed, cliche scriptures overlaid, or powerpoint slides accompanying sunday morning worship that still have the “Shutterstock” watermarks imbedded; showing that they have been illegally downloaded from the internet. The church does not seem have caught the vision for glorifying God through an artistic presentation of His creation. One glowing exception to this generalization is the Seeing Creation Blog. It is run by Chuck Summers & Rob Sheppard. Both are very good nature photographers that have a passion for glorifying God through their work. These two do an excellent job of marrying their photographs to text that aids in teaching the reader about nature, photography, and theology. The body of Christ needs to get behind artists like these, who are using their creative gifts, to not only glorify God through creativity, but who also encourage individuals towards a greater connectedness to God’s creation
We have learned through a study of God’s Word that His creation is a powerful testimony to His divine nature and creativity, and we have also seen that the Bible encourages us take part in the doxology of creation by caring for it, studying it, and praising Him for what He has done. Further discussion showed us that God created man in a way that we garner refreshment from time spent in nature. We have also seen, through looking into history, that photography is the perfect tool for telling a story and inspiring the viewer to action. More specifically we have seen that when photography is applied to nature it can reap great results. Since God’s creation universally declares His glory and reveals His divine power, let us, as Christians, harness the creative potential of photography to take part in the declaration of God’s glory for his work of Creation. Let us encourage the body of Christ to spend time reading from His “book” of creation. Furthermore, let us create an environment where arts like nature photography can flourish within the community of the Church.