For Example (Wendell Berry on our economy’s effect in human communities)

Last time I remarked that Wendell Berry’s agrarian philosophy is congruent with the Trump administration’s re-focus of economy here in America. For example –

“…The attitudes of the industrial economy…” writes Wendell Berry, “have taken their toll…. the news from everywhere in rural America… bankruptcy, foreclosure, depression, suicide, the departure of the young, the loneliness of the old, soil loss, soil degradation, chemical pollution, the loss of genetic and specific diversity, the extinction or threatened extinction of species, the depletion of aquifers, stream degradation, the loss of wilderness, strip mining, clear-cutting, population loss, the loss of supporting economies, the death of towns. Rural American communities, economies, and ways of life that in 1945 were thriving and, though imperfect, full of promise for an authentic human settlement of our land are now as effectively destroyed as the Jewish communities of Poland….

The news of rural decline and devastation has been accompanied, to be sure, by a chorus of professional, institutional, and governmental optimists, who continue to insist that all is well, that we are making things worse only as a way of making things better, that farmers who failed are merely ‘inefficient producers’ for whose failure the country is better off, that money and technology will fill the gaps, that government will fill the gaps, that science will soon free us from our regrettable dependence on the soil.  ….We have heard that the rural economy can be repaired by moving the urban economy out into the country and by replacing rural work with work in factories and offices. And all the while the real conditions of the rural land and rural people have been getting worse.

Port Royal, Kentucky… (was once) held together by a complex local economy…. sixteen businesses and professional enterprises… all serving the town and the surrounding farms. …Now, counting the post office, the town has five enterprises, one of which does not serve the local economy. There is now no market for farm produce in the town or within forty miles. We no longer have a garage or repair shop of any kind.  We have had no doctor for forty years and no school for thirty.

What does the death of a community, a local community, cost its members? And what does it cost the country? So far as I know, we have no economists interested in such matters. ….as the urban-industrial economy more and more usurps the local economy…. my part of rural America is, in short, a colony…. in the power of an absentee economy, once national and now increasingly international, that is without limit in its greed and without mercy in its exploitation of land and people.” (‘Conservation and Local Economy’ (1992) in The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.)

Donald Trump, Wendel Berry, and International Development theory all in agreement

One of the ironies of the present moment (and there are many) is that while the media pundits declare that President Trump’s ‘isolationism’ (in prioritizing the American economy and withdrawing from international trading not to America’s advantage), is economic suicide, bad global citizenship, and regressive… he actually advocates what both current international development theory recommends to developing nations, and what agrarian philosopher/farmer/poet/economic thinker Wendell Berry advocates for rural American towns.

International development theory currently contends, due to decades of observation, that the promise of benefits from hooking up to the global economy are not panning out for developing nations. Relatively few people are benefiting, and most of them are banks and corporations in the developed world. Instead, development theorists contend, developing nations should look inward, develop a diversified economy that meets the needs of their own populations. In other words, don’t base your economy on Americans buying bananas or T-shirts (while you have to import everything else) – the price of bananas in the U.S. may drop five cents per pound and wipe out your economy, or Vietnam may start making T-shirts cheaper than you, equally wiping out all the eggs you placed in one basket. Make things in your own country that people in your own country need, thus creating jobs and economic linkages both vertically and horizontally along the economic spectrum. This has been a radical re-think in the development industry, a painful moment of repentance. What Trump is advocating for the U.S. is exactly what development theorists advise developing nations to do. Don’t expect many people in our megalopolis or Ivy League schools to admit this though.

Wendell Berry, as well, advocates the same thing for small rural American towns. Throughout his writings he bemoans the loss of local economies and economic linkages to transnational, absentee corporations who rape local economies in all the ways we learned during the era of colonialism against the indigenous peoples of the world. Berry points out that small towns used to be loci of production, horizontal linkages (blacksmiths, tack shops farmers needed, etc) and now there are neither jobs nor those horizontal-linkage businesses. These absentee corporations care neither for the people nor the place where their goods are made or bought, and local conditions testify to the fact – including the contrast to what these places used to be like. The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry is rife with this thought. Though the Trump administration’s policies on international trade are demonized as throw-back, ignorant hyper-nationalism, he is actually doing what both the international development industry is telling developing economies to do, as well as being congruent with the avant garde thought of our most famous agrarian philosopher alive.

‘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.

Friday November 13: One of the best nights I have ever lived

This past Friday was one of the greatest nights of my life. I married my oldest daughter to her hometown sweetheart, a noble and heroic young man in the best and oldest senses of the words. The celebration afterwards, full of family and dear friends and dancing and a beautiful venue, was perfect, and I will forever treasure the conversation I had as I danced the father-daughter dance with my daughter, including when she asked me ‘do you remember when I was 8 years old and you told me we should dance to this song at my wedding?’ and I was able to know the very moment, and say ‘yes, I was kneeling at your bed at bedtime, praying and kissing you goodnight.’ As I danced with my wife afterwards, our hearts and conversation were full of contented joy at how happy our daughter is and what a wonderful experience our life with her has been. Speaking of dancing, my 72 year old mother, with purse on wrist and clasping two applesauce cups balanced on a small box between fingers, came out and danced a variety of the Twist with me (which she loved as a girl) and never lost the applesauce cups! She was beaming. (I come from a tradition that frowned pretty comprehensively on dancing in the past; though today I don’t know any Nazarene pastors who would refuse to dance with their daughter at her wedding; how dear it was to see couples married 25, 35 and 50 years, clasp one another tightly, her head on his chest, and dance slowly  and tenderly together during the ‘anniversary’ dance).

Only three months before, we had the same kind of day when our oldest son married his college sweetheart. Like our daughter and son-in-law, they are perfect for each other, it was a  joy-filled, incredible day, and we are delighted for them. In both cases, the families are huge, the all-inclusive family photos are fabulous, something a tenth century BC Jewish family could resonate with. (Later, we learned of the deep sorrow and suffering that had descended on many other families, in the events that unfolded in Paris during those very moments we were celebrating our daughter’s marriage.)

In the Scriptures, family is one of the central blessings of Yahweh on his people. What we call the Old Testament is full of reflection on what shalom means on a family. The New Testament picks up this construct and takes it in new directions with the new family now formed around Jesus (‘who are my mother and brothers?’/ ‘you are grafted in’ / 12 disciples; 12 tribes/ etc) and what God’s Kingdom looks like in terms of the family now breaking out of Jewish lineage, and embracing the nations.

In fact, because what God is doing in the world came through a family – Abraham’s – in the Bible, family is a central theological subject. Our dispersed family arrangements in the Western world (a family where one son lives in Indianapolis, one in Seattle, a daughter in Florida, etc), have caused us to largely forget how to think theologically about family, pared it down to mere reproductive biology, and to a significant extent we’ve dropped the subject from our theological imaginations, now only discussed in the realm of family dynamics, a la James Dobson, et al. I cannot think of a single serious theological work written on the subject in my tradition during my adult lifetime. We could use someone to do for the subject ‘family’ what Wendell Berry has done for the subjects ‘farming’ and ‘food’ theologically and culturally. Or what Anne Dillard did theologically with ‘nature’ back in her first foray Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

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.

 

 

Evangelicals resisting environmental concern

In Genesis, man’s first vocation and directive is to be a steward of the Earth. It’s his job description – tend the garden and take care of it. Manage God’s creatures. It seems ironic that evangelicals, a group with a large number of people clamoring to take the whole Bible literally, (and especially Genesis 1 & 2), have a vocal and popular set of leaders who distance themselves from, and denigrate the idea, of deep concern for climate change or the environment. This is likely in part due to the fact that American evangelicals (and especially their leaders) wedded themselves to the Republican Party machine, and that platform is concerned that overly restrictive environmental regulations would crush American businesses and the economy, jobs, etc.

Genesis tells us humankind was made from the dirt of the ground. Science agrees. My Huron friend has said to me, ‘Calling the Earth our Mother, as my people do, is biblically sound.’ But modern American Christianity seems to have lost our sense of connectedness to the Earth, and acts as if, aside from utilitarian value, Earth is a place that doesn’t matter overmuch because our goal is to leave. (When actually the story that the Bible tells ends here on earth – with God living here with us – not us leaving to live somewhere else with God. Pay attention.)

Today I find it very common among evangelicals to downplay concern over the planet as a waste of time, since our main job should be converting people to Christianity. Considering this is the same group of people who often clamor for us to take Genesis 1 and 2 literally, I find it ironic that they don’t have much to say about  –literally – the only job description for humanity found in those two chapters: caring for the Earth, tending the garden. How in the world did we get to this point?

More, modern evangelicalism has actually spoken quite directly against environmental activism, calling it nature worship. I recently read a comment on a website where someone said ‘I will never send my kid to that Nazarene college because they have embraced environmentalism.’ Fascinating.  Being evangelical has been correlating to thinking human-caused Global Warming is a hoax – which I suspect means a healthy dose of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  Evangelicals, of course, are people who often appreciate and enjoy the natural world in various ways, but have lost the sense that there is something theological and central regarding humanity and earth. They need to read the Christian farmer-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to help them regain the Biblical sense of living in Creation. Thankfully, the tide seems to be turning.  I don’t doubt that a few generations from now, Christians will look back on evangelicalism’s distancing itself from concern for the planet and view us as something strange and immoral like Holocaust deniers or Southern slave owners.

In 1928 Henry Beston spent a year living in solitude in a small one room cottage on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. Reflecting on his experience, he said this:

“It is the meditative perception of the relation of ‘Nature’ (and I include the whole cosmic picture in this term) to the human spirit. Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. As I once said elsewhere, Man can either be less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last the more dread” (The Outermost House, 1928; pg. x).