Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Review of Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen F. Davis: Part 1

I’m a couple chapters into Ellen F. Davis’s work Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible. I fully expect the book to satisfy its claim to examine the “theology and ethics of land use, especially the practices of modern industrial agriculture, in light of critical biblical exegesis.” Christians believe that the Bible is the infallible standard by which our faith and practice are to be guided. Yet Christians of the modern industrial era too often neglect our duties (as outlined in Scripture) in regard to land use and agriculture. For most of us, I guess, this is mainly because we fail to draw the lines between what we eat and where that food comes from and how it came to our plate. We need to be reminded that each of us is intimately and daily involved in the agricultural cycle. In “The Pleasures of Eating” Wendell Berry famously wrote that “eating is an agricultural act.” We need to be reminded that there are biblical guidelines on how land is to be responsibly used. We also need to be reminded that there are consequences if we fail to do so.

Wendell Berry wrote the foreword to Davis’s book. Berry wrote that the Israelites “were given, not a land, but the use of a land, along precise instructions for its good care. They could keep the land only upon the condition of their obedience. By their disobedience they were estranged from the land and the covenant by which they received it, and were removed into exile. . . . the Israelites [were] entrusted with what we would call ecological responsibilities. . .” Berry then reminds us of our tremendous failure as a culture:

“We Americans readily saw the parallel between the Israelites’ entrance into the land of Canaan and our own westward expansion. We adopted the simple nationalism of the old story along with its ‘promised land’ idea of ownership prior to settlement – we called it ‘manifest destiny.’ But we conveniently ignored the elaborate agrarianism and ecological stewardship implicit in that story’s insistence upon the land’s sanctity. The result, still continuing, has been desecration and destruction of the land . . . the dominant theme of our history so far has been opposite to beneficent settlement or responsible stewardship. It has been a thoughtless, heartless, greedy plunge into what apparently is still considered an inexhaustible plenty. The irony and absurdity are not fully apparent except in the context of our claim to be a ‘Christian nation.’”

We all, I think, would like to ignore the reality that we have destroyed the land that God has entrusted to our stewardship. What is more disturbing is that we continue to do so, sometimes even using Scripture in an attempt to justify our actions (and often, also, our inaction). Yet, clearly, Scripture tells us that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:9,10). In reference to these verses, Charles Hodge in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans wrote, “Love includes all our social duties. . . love delights in the happiness of its object, it effectually prevents us from injuring those we love. . .” Can we love our neighbors, or even our families, while actively destroying our means to live? “It is a contradiction to love your neighbor and despise the great inheritance on which his life depends,” wrote Berry in “The Gift of Good Land.”

In Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology, Francis Schaeffer wrote that Christians must “refuse men the right to ravish our land, just as we refuse them the right to ravish our women. . . . and the first step is exhibiting the fact that as individual Christians and as Christian communities we ourselves do not ravish our fair sister. . . . [we must] treat with integrity the things which God has made, and treat them this way lovingly, because they are His . . . If I love the Lover, I love what the Lover has made.” The Westminster Larger Catechism informs us that the “Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” It is from Scripture only that we learn “what duty God requires” of us. Principles of ecological responsibility are interwoven throughout the beautiful fabric of Scripture. If we were to apply the principles of love and stewardship to our own lives -- if we were to set the example of a holy and healthy life -- then our communities would be more fertile ground for the sowing of the gospel seed.


Wit's End said...

This looks like a really good read. I am going to have to find a copy!

Joey Wahoo said...

Great post. Just as there is much we can learn from Scripture, there is much we can learn from Wendell Berry.