Getting back to the land

kentucky farmHOW DO WE CARE FOR God’s creation? Christians have answered this question in various ways throughout church history. You’ll read about many of them in the coming pages.

One contemporary Christian response to this question comes from what has been called the “new agrarian movement,” largely based in the writings of Wendell Berry. Berry defined it as follows: “It is not so much a philosophy as a practice, an attitude, a loyalty and a passion—all based in close connection with the land. It results in a sound local economy in which producers and consumers are neighbors and in which nature herself becomes the standard for work and production.”

 Christian History spoke to Old Testament scholar Ellen F. Davis, who is active in writing and speaking about creation care from a new agrarian perspective. We asked her what she sees the Bible saying on these things and how we can respond. Even when you disagree, keep in mind the questions raised here as you read this issue and consider your own attitude toward creation.  

Christian History: What does the Bible have to say about how we treat the land? 

Ellen F. Davis: The Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, is overwhelmingly land-centered. By “land” I mean not just the soil itself, but all of the natural world (Gen. 1–2). It assumes that human existence is bound up with the natural world and that we will be judged on how we treat the earth (Hos. 4). 

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CH: Why do you think some modern Christians avoid these issues of judgment?

EFD: Modern Christianity tends to be extremely optimistic; it doesn’t like to talk about judgment. But I don’t think in general it’s just Christians who have trouble hearing; it’s urbanites, people in cities and suburbia, who have trouble hearing the message of the Bible on this. 

CH: But does being rural mean you automatically have a healthy relationship with the land? What about modern rural agricultural practices of factory farming? 

EFD: I’m aware that a lot of damage has been done in rural areas; when I was writing Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture (2008), I spoke to a lot of farmers. There are certainly tensions in rural communities about this. Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow (2000) explores that. 

CH: Some people have said that the root cause of this attitude is the language in Genesis 1:28 about dominion. Do you put any stock in that idea?

EFD: It’s a frequently used excuse. Is it the root cause? No. If you read Genesis 1 in the context of ancient Israelite life, you will see that it isn’t saying that Israelites could do whatever they pleased with the land; rather, the next chapter emphasizes human responsibility to care for the land (Gen. 2:27). However, in the seventeenth century, you do begin to hear this biblical language employed to defend exploitation. But that’s not what it means in context.

CH: Is the setting of the New Testament different? There seem to be a lot more cities and a lot more urban people in the New Testament.

EFD: There’s no question that many early Christians were not landowners and not small farmers. They were urbanites, living in cities; and in contrast to cities of the ancient Near East that we read about in the Old Testament, New Testament cities were no longer small areas where one walked outside the city wall to farm on a daily basis. This is unlike the polarization in the Old Testament between the tiny percentage of people connected with the royal palace and the rest of the people, whether they lived in cities or not. 

CH: What about the passage in Paul about muzzling the ox that treads the grain, I Timothy 5:18, referencing Deuteronomy 25:4? Is Paul interpreting it to mean that we should honor those who preach the Gospel, so that it’s no longer primarily about caring for oxen?

EFD: Paul sincerely expects that things are going to be wrapped up fairly quickly in terms of Jesus coming back, so he’s not thinking from generation to generation in the same way as does most of the Old Testament. But if you read the New Testament as I think it’s meant to be read, in dialogue with the Old Testament, then you see that the connection between human faithfulness and the flourishing of the land is referenced and maintained in the new creation. 

CH: The image of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:2 is of a very rural sort of city.

EFD: Yes—it’s a garden city.

CH: Is there a point at which you think that people stopped hearing all the language of land in the Bible?

EFD: The crucial historical moment depends on what culture you’re talking about. In England the enclosure of common lands is a key moment. Some of the seventeenth-century preachers I’ve looked at are profoundly concerned with the changes in English life as a result of enclosure. One was Joseph Hall (1574–1656). He was a writer and a bishop, and he wasn’t anti-urban, but he was against the destruction of villages as a result of privatization of the common land. In Scotland you see this in the Highland clearances and crofters’ movement of the nineteenth century; in the United States, in the “old agrarian” movement several generations after the Civil War. In most Western cultures, there is a point at which some people—a minority—have mounted a critique of massive changes in the economy that are dismantling a viable rural life.

CH: How have you yourself been involved in modern movements to care for creation?

EFD: The most significant thing I’ve done is to devote a fair amount of writing and teaching to the issue professionally.

CH: What practical advice do you have for Christians who want to think more deeply about our relationship with the land?

EFD: I think it would be a better world if fewer people drove and got on airplanes; we should not do that thoughtlessly. Everyone has to think in terms of their own vocation and its ramifications for the earth. For instance Wendell Berry drives a car, but reluctantly; his rural life requires it. I don’t drive a car, but I do fly: I’ve decided it’s a necessity for my professional and family life.

CH: Ironically if you live out in the country like I do and Berry does, then you find that you have to drive a car to get into town.

EFD: Yes—and ironically because I live in a city I can make the choice not to drive.

Besides the issue of transportation, in our personal life we should think about how we are using money and time. People like me who can make choices about money and time should think less about convenience and spend more money and more time on food and food preparation. We should invest more in farmers than we do in restaurants. I don’t want to be seen as closing down restaurants, but we have the balance wrong; today’s foodie culture focuses on restaurants, not farms. 

CH: What about people who don’t have money and time? How can those with fewer resources also have agency in caring for creation?

EFD: Some CSAs [organizations enabling people to collaborate to share garden produce], both urban and rural, have members who pay for their food by labor/”sweat equity” rather than money. One such organization near my home is Anathoth Gardens, and it has been very empowering and creative of community. Another near me is SEEDS, which focuses on getting kids in the inner city of Durham, North Carolina, growing things and selling at the farmer’s market. 

The question about the relatively poor makes evident what is true for all of us: nothing effective can be done outside of community. We each need to think about vocation and decide where we can make a witness. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #119 The Wonder of Creation. Read it in context here!

By Ellen F. Davis

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #119 in 2016]

Ellen F. Davis is Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School and the author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.
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