Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture; An Agrarian Reading of the Bible

A perfect storm of global events has arisen, requiring Christians to come to the Scriptures with new eyes and ears. Global warming and the ecological crisis threaten our planet and human existence upon it.

In Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen Davis gives us a remarkable gift for understanding our situation. Her extensive reading of agrarian writers, poets, scientists, and educators unearths the vast ecological resources of the Hebrew Scriptures. The foreword to the book is written by farmer and agrarian writer Wendell Berry, whose own work is utilized throughout much of the book. Davis defines agrarianism with these words:

Agrarianism is more than a set of farming practices, more than an attitude toward food production and consumption, although both of these are central to it. Agrarianism is nothing less than a comprehensive philosophy and practice – that is, a culture – of preservation. Agrarians are committed to preserving both communities and the material means of life, to cultivating practices that ensure that the essential means of life suffice for all members of the present generation and are not diminished for those who come after (p. 66).

Her convincing argument begins with the assertion that the present ecological crisis is at its heart a moral crisis. This is a challenging assertion in a culture that on one hand views the dilemma as simply a scientific problem to be solved, or on the other hand wants to pretend that there is no problem at all. Calling upon the prophetic tradition, Davis helps us to see that we, as human beings, have caused the crisis in which we live. Changing the course of the future requires rethinking our relationship to the land, recognizing the limits of human understanding, and adopting an appropriate materialism that values the quality not the quantity of the everyday material goods of life.

Davis exegetes several central texts to her topic, including Genesis 1, and helps the reader rethink what is often used as a license for “dominion” over the earth. She asks critical questions about the covenant relationship between God, Israel, and the land. In this reading Israel was given the responsibility of caring for the land, not owning the land. So the reader does not mistake agrarian insight as something only for those who live in rural settings, the final chapter is “The Faithful City.” She examines the interrelationship between Jerusalem (the metropolis – “mother city”) and the countryside.

I know how motivating agrarian writing is for the folks where I serve in rural eastern Washington. One of my recent sermons from Psalm 24 quoted from the writings of Wendell Berry. After worship, a parishioner told me that he had read Berry’s work off and on for more than 25 years. We talked about his upcoming trip with the local Rotary Club to a village in Kenya. It is good to have small global developments to celebrate.

Many thanks to Ellen Davis for her work helping us to read the Bible with agrarian eyes.

STEVE WILLIS, a Presbyterian minister, serves as pastor of Newport United Church of Christ, Newport, Wash.

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