Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. The whole concoction is hilariously fun. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

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‘Our Modern Ailment’

For over a hundred years, Western writers have bemoaned a condition they have called various things, perhaps most often ‘our modern ailment.’ As we export modern, Western life to the rest of the world,  people working in international development have been wrestling with this for the last 50 years, as well. Simply put, ‘our modern ailment’ is the idea that alongside the good things that technology and the modern life have brought us, we have lost something of our humanity, community and soul. Important parts of our former ways of life have faded away, and people are the worse for it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of serious writers and thinkers have looked at society and remarked about this in the last 100-150 years.

The last couple of years reading agrarian philosophers Henry Beston and Wendell Berry have stirred up my thoughts on this issue, although I always noticed it. My shorthand definition of agrarianism is the idea that people are better off more in touch with the earth in small farming communities where human relationships are close and there is a connection to the rhythms of life connected to the land. An addendum would include saying that many modern conveniences have stolen away the formative benefits of many tasks, including the relational and creational aspects of them.

Example: Four people raking leaves together talking, is better than one person alone with a leafblower and earbuds. Five people in a kitchen canning peaches, laughing and enjoying one another is better than one person buying a can of peaches at a store. The growing interest I have observed among 20 and 30-something year olds today in doing things the old way, from making apple cider together to gardening antique varieties of produce to cooking parties or learning to woodwork, blacksmith, hunt, raise chickens, you name it – all indicate people are yearning for a more tactile and Creation-connected life than the hyper-modern world has delivered. Mother Earth News and its ilk remain for a reason.

There are a variety of ways in which “modern conveniences” have backfired sociologically and  in the human psyche. Can we learn to live a life of joy, connectedness, and wholeness? Can we recover some of the things our great-grandparents knew brought meaning to life? And does Christian faith have a valuable contribution to bring to the table in being connected to one another and the natural world God made? If it does, we will have to rediscover the broader world of the Bible in place of the narrow, modern consumer version of  evangelicalism so common in the West.

Wendell Berry

In our increasingly ecologically-aware age, more and more people are asking themselves How can we live well, and sustainably, on this planet in the long haul? How can we feed billions of people and maintain the health of our planet’s ecosystem, our own well-being societally and physiologically, and the fertility and usability of our farmlands? These kinds of questions are dovetailed into many things, including our increasing awareness that the health of our bodies is directly impacted by the healthiness of our foods, which are in turn directly impacted by the health of the soil in which they are grown – and our mental and emotional well-being is likewise impacted by the health of our bodies, the health of our society and world all around us.

Growing numbers of Christians are coming to believe these questions are an express interest of Christian theology as well. Since the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, and mankind’s first and explicit vocation in the story of Scripture is to tend the natural world and be its steward, more and more of us are talking about the state and health of our world – and what we do to impact and shape that – as a high importance Christian concern.

For people like that, Wendell Berry is a rich, vibrant resource. Berry is a Christian, a poet (Kentucky’s laureate), a prolific author, an agrarian philosopher, and a farmer. He has farmed the same 200 acres in Kentucky for the last 50 years. As a social commentator reflecting on the natural world he reminds me at times of John Burroughs, Annie Dillard, Henry Beston, Muir, Thoreau, and others of America’s great nature writers. For people thinking about health, food, how we produce food, and the world’s future, Berry’s agrarian essays are a must read. They are profound, full of wit and humor and an artist’s sense of pacing, tone and detail.

And we need to think about them. Berry contends that approaching the natural/biological world of farming and food with the industrial, mechanical mindset of the Industrial Revolution has created industrial-scale agri-business that is increasingly and alarmingly less and less healthy for the soil itself, the land, the nutritional value of our food, the ecosystems of our planet, and the wholeness and health of our own bodies and communities. Yes, we have produced more quantities of food. But the long-term effects on our soil, communities, farmers, ecosystems and bodies are, he contends, not worth it. He is calling for a re-think and re-set in the way we farm and live. And he believes we can farm in ways that are healthy, diverse, enriching the land, soil, people – and even good for the farmers themselves – and the multitude of businesses which we have lost in uber-scale food production. I highly recommend his book Bringing It To The Table: On Farming and Food. It is only one of many, but he pulls a lot of things together there.