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Baptized into Wilderness: A Christian Perspective on John Muir

A review by Dennis Williams

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 2, No.2, Spring 1992)

[Editor's note: We will now review books and other materials of interest to readers of this Newsletter, including older books of significance as well as newly published books, articles and videos. If you are interested in reviewing for us, please contact the editor.]

Baptized into Wilderness: A Christian Perspective on John Muir
by Richard Cartwright Austin.
Atlanta: John Knox Press.
103 pages. notes, index.
ISBN 0-8042-0869-7.

Reviewed by Dennis Williams
Texas Tech University

Since Lynn White, Jr. published his seminal paper on the roots of the environmental crisis in 1967, Christianity has taken a number of blows meted out by academics and environmentalists who blame Christian theology and philosophy for ecological disaster. As the patron saint of the environmental preservation movement, John Muir has undergone radical reinterpretation since Frederick Badè assumed Muir's orthodoxy. Recent students of Muir, accepting Lynn White's thesis, have removed Muir from the context of Christianity and have placed him within religions of the Far East, which are perceived to be more environmentally responsible -- a perception not wholly supported by the facts.

More recently Ronald Limbaugh and others have suggested that interpreting John Muir as a Taoist, Buddhist, or adherent of some other Far Eastern philosophy enhances the myth-making about John Muir for modern activists, but does not accurately contribute to our understanding of his life and work. In Baptized into Wilderness , Richard Austin attempts to establish a dialogue with Muir that would suggest ways in which Christians could become more ecologically responsible.

Austin depicts Muir as a prophet in the stripe of Isaiah or John the Baptist. Muir's divinely ordained duty was to call late nineteenth-century American society into a correct relationship with God and the environment. Austin suggests that Muir's message -- "that God wants humans to care for nature and not destroy the systems of life" (86) -- is just as applicable today as it was a century ago, perhaps more so. Throughout the book, Austin attempts to make John Muir's environmental ethics germane to modern Christians.

That is perhaps the most significant weakness of the work. By emphasizing Muir's relevance to the modern world, Austin fails to concentrate enough on how Muir's philosophy fits into the historical context of the late nineteenth century. John Muir is easily made to be relevant. His writings, like Christian sculpture, can be made to prove almost anything. More important than relevance is whether or not the individual portrayed by Austin or any other biographer is the real John Muir or a mythical imposter--a caricature made to speak lines removed from the context of his time and constructed to fit the author's notion of environmental ethics. A survey of writings about Muir would testify that such ahistorical methods have often been used on John Muir. Even so, Austin's portrayal of Muir is fairly accurate, and the dialogue he establishes with Muir is within the tradition from which Muir's ethics emerged. However, since Austin emphasizes modern relevance so much, a reader unfamiliar with Muir's life would need to read Linnie Marsh Wolfe's Son of the Wilderness or Frederick Turner's Rediscovering America to fill in the detail of Muir's life and provide the internal context necessary to understand Muir the man. All in all, Austin's exploration of Muir's contribution to environmental theology is a necessary contribution to Muir scholarship and should not be overlooked.

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