Rev. Sarah’s ruminations on
Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible
by Ellen F. Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School
We are lost. Most of us who have food on our tables don’t know where that food comes from. Even fewer know the conditions which were required to get it to our plates. These conditions include but are not limited to any impacts to the soil. Were the growing conditions for this harvest depleting and degenerative to the health of the soil? Did they neither deplete nor improve the soil health, i.e. sustainable? Or was the growing/raising of this food done in such a way that it actually improved or regenerated soil health?
What about the health of the adjacent waterways and wildlife? What about the farmworkers? Did they benefit from satisfying my appetite or did they suffer? We do not know these answers if we are to be asked. More than that, we are not even curious enough to find out. But, worst of all, we do not care. We are lost and we do not even know that we are lost. Our food system which should lead us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” has become broken to an extent that it appears to be beyond repair. What do we do?
The good news is that we have not been lost very long. According to Ellen Davis, “ours is the first society that has presumed to style itself as ‘post agricultural.’” (p 23) Our amnesia has (so far) been short lived which should make it easier to recover. And the recent apocalyptic experience of a global pandemic has revealed the fragility of our food system to a public who might never have known until it was too late. Until people died which of course too many already have – up to 6,955,497 deaths so far according to the World Health Organization. This is a crisis of biblical proportions which will require a new imagination. Fortunately, the prophets and poets of Scripture are still speaking to us – if we can just hear.
Amos and Hosea may not have known they were prophets in 8th BCE. They certainly could not have imagined their words would reverberate through the centuries in a collection that would later be known as the Bible. They would be good conversation partners though with current seers like Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry who both seem to resist the title of “prophet.” In the film about Berry called “Look and See,” he somehow even avoids the camera. Perhaps it is the case that from every generation there are born those who are haunted by the shortsightedness of their peers. These can be weeping prophets and they can be visionaries. Many are both. Their clarion call is always for us to open our eyes and wake up. Unfortunately, those who profess to be the keepers of our most ancient prophetic texts are the ones who keep hitting the snooze button – namely, the Church.
There is no guarantee that religious leaders will ever wake up to the degree necessary. And yet, they have the keys to the institutions which are most uniquely equipped and positioned to not only make a difference but to lead the way. What is needed is a Revival – not under a tent over a weekend but a movement that is fully present in every sector over the span of a lifetime. What is needed in the community at large is education – raising awareness of what is; inspiration – painting a picture in our imaginations of what could be; and encouragement – a blessed assurance that we are not alone in the work of dismantling and reconstructing ahead.
The church is the obvious home base for such a movement. But just as food systems need to be dismantled, so does bad theology and our assumptions (even in Sunday School!) of what the Bible says without having even read the Bible. We have to start at the very beginning – “a very good place to start” – and there are scholars like Ellen Davis who can light the way along our path. As we read together through an agrarian lens, perhaps we should discuss together how our theological understandings can affect policy. For instance, radah in Genesis 1:28 is translated in English as “dominion.” When this is understood as domination given to humankind over everything else on and including the planet, how might we see this implied in public policy? But if we understand radah properly as active management like that of a shepherd caring for his flock, how does that change the policies and practices of a society? Or in the very next chapter there is avad in Genesis 2:15, which is often translated as God’s expectation for us to “till” the soil. John Deere with the help of the USDA has honored this interpretation to the extent that we have pulverized the soil. But what if a more accurate understanding for avad is for us to “serve” the soil? We might then pay attention to what the soil needs in order for this rich substance (which is the source of all life) to continue in feeding and sustaining us.
As Davis states in her introduction, an agrarian reading of the Bible is not an exercise in nostalgia. We have never been called by God to dial back the clock and return to the good old days. That is a futile and senseless exercise in denial (which we do so well). Instead, it is time for us to “return to the fertile land since…(you) we are soil.” (Genesis 3:19) This return will not necessarily limit us to the wide-open spaces of rural America. We need a new imagination, and we can see this with the increase in urban farming that is occurring now. One of many examples is Paul Quinn College in south Dallas that converted its football field into a small farm since they are located in a food desert. Davis mentions the radical transformation seen in Detroit, the former Motor City, where “the countryside is gradually returning to the city.” (p 176)
These stories are inspiring. Not all of them are connected with a church, nor should they necessarily be. The Spirit cannot be contained in the Church. But the Church should know about these projects, humble itself enough to learn from them, support them, offer assistance, and encourage other community collaborations around the possibility of a resilient local food system. This would be a good way for the Church to embody radah and avad in a tangible way.
May it be so.