Ellen Davis – Scripture, Culture and Agriculture – Chapter 1 [Theo-Agrarian Book Discussion]

Our friends in the New Agrarianism Facebook Group have decided to start a Theo-Agrarian Book Discussion group. Everyone is welcome to join in this conversation. Our plan is to progress through the book in about 2 months, at a pace of a chapter per week. Each chapter will have its own discussion page but the pages will be linked together.

Ellen DavisThe first book that we will be discussing is Scripture, Culture and Agriculture by Duke Divinity School professor Ellen Davis.

Publisher’s Description: This book examines the theology and ethics of land use, especially the practices of modern industrialized agriculture, in light of critical biblical exegesis. Nine interrelated essays explore the biblical writers’ pervasive concern for the care of arable land against the background of the geography, social structures, and religious thought of ancient Israel. This approach consistently brings out neglected aspects of texts, both poetry and prose, that are central to Jewish and Christian traditions. Rather than seeking solutions from the past, Davis creates a conversation between ancient texts and contemporary agrarian writers; thus she provides a fresh perspective from which to view the destructive practices and assumptions that now dominate the global food economy.

[ Read our review by Stan Wilson… ]

If you don’t have a copy of the book, buy one now: [ Amazon]  [ Kindle ]

We will use the DISQUS comment system (below) to facilitate our discussion, as it allows threading of conversations. 

  • If you have a new question/comment, please post it as a new thread,
  • However, if you are replying to a question/comment, click the reply link for that question.
  • If you have several unrelated questions that you want to post at once, please post them as separate comments/threads.

If you have any suggestions for how to make this conversation flow more smoothly, drop us an email

Thanks to David Johnston, for providing several questions to get our conversation rolling!

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture – Ellen Davis
Foreword, Intro, Chapter 1

Next Conversation: Chapter 2 (Will Start on Monday Nov. 12)

  • Though not directly related to chapter 1, a preliminary point of discussion for us as we work through Ellen Davis’ Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture is “What relationship do you have with the Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament?” Is it an authoritative religious text (if so, in what ways is it authoritative)? An interesting cultural artifact? No prior relationship? Or something else? (via David Johnston)

  • Drawing on Abraham Heschel, Davis brings up the concept of insight as “an experience of vision that is always accompanied by surprise” (14-15). Describe a time (or the time) when you gained “insight” into particular problems, tragedies, or environmental degradation. Has the Bible (or some other religious text) helped you gain insight? (via David Johnston)

  • “Authoritative” is a word that I don’t use much because of the baggage it carries. The Hebrew scriptures are an essential part of the biblical narrative into which I have been immersed. Their significance is the story of God’s preference to pursue the divine mission by abiding with a people, even when that people are more interested in doing their own thing.

  • One quick example here…

    I love the internet/television/listening to music as much as anyone, but with the realization that the electricity that these media require comes at a steep ecological cost (coal-fired power plants here in Indiana) I am constantly challenged through my Christian faith to consider why and how much I am using these technologies. Am I selfishly indulging myself, or using the technologies to benefit others? I’m not a legalist, saying that these things are evil or that we should always avoid them, but my faith rooted in Christ’s reconciliation of all creation and in the call to deny selfishness, does give regularly give me pause to think about how and why I use electric technologies.

  • David Scott

    As I have been reading this week, I’ve been motivated to go back and re-listen to the “On Being” interview with Ellen. If you’ve never heard it, you can catch it here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/poetry-creatures/117

  • Heading into seminary, I was pretty sure the Old Testament was basically a nationalistic history unfit for Christian use. In other words, I was a Marcionite in a way. Thankfully, I was blessed to have been a student of Ellen Davis’ for full academic year of journeying through the Old Testament and now I absolutely love it (though I wish I had a pocket Ellen Davis to say brilliant and inspiring things about it all the time). For me, the Old Testament is authoritative scripture in the sense that it is an indispensable part of God’s revelation of God’s self to us. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is God’s revelation of God’s very self to us, but that Jesus is intelligible only in the context of Israel. As a Gentile, I have been graciously welcomed in to share in the story of Israel, though mindful that I am a guest. The Old Testament, as the story of God with God’s people Israel, is useful and authoritative today for me and the Christian community to which I belong as we struggle together as God’s people.

    Dr. Davis has a helpful point in another book entitled, Getting Involved with God: Redisovering the Old Testament, about the use of the Old Testament as Christians. It’s helpful especially for the “Well Jesus never said anything about caring for the environment” line you may get. “The reason Christians need to find the Good News in the Old Testament is that the new Testament writers always presuppose the Old Testament–and not only in the places where they specifically cite it for support. Much more often, they assume that their audience is already familiar with and benefits from its instruction. Where the Old Testament treats an aspect of the spiritual life to their satisfaction, then the New Testament writes rely upon that older and still-authoritative treatment, as did Jesus himself. In other words, the Old Testament is their theological base, ‘not authoritative only where it is referred to in the New, but also where it is differed to'” (2, Davis’ quote coming from Christopher Seitz).

  • In retrospect, I sometimes wonder what degree of influence Captain Planet had on me. It sounds silly, but I loved that cartoon. As far as realizing the magnitude of our “rupture” with creation, that came in 8th grade when I did a project researching mountaintop removal mining (MTR). I lived in Charleston, WV at the time. My house, like many houses there, was on the side of a mountain, and I spent a lot of time tromping around the woods. I did not got to a site, but the pictures I found were ugly and mildly shocking. I say mildly because a lot of big box stores did a lot of cutting/removal of parts of mountains to have a big enough plot and parking lot. Nevertheless, I remember coming to the conclusion at age 14 that the devastation wrought by MTR was not worth any amount of coal, jobs, or wealth.

  • Olivia

    It is excellent!

  • Anonymous

    It’s hard to point to any one “ah ha” moment for me, but I definitely hit an “ah ha” year, probably. Shane Claiborne, Matthew Sleeth, Heschel, and finally “The Unsettling of America” all almost back to back led us – my wife and I – to make some major shifts in our lifestyle and community choices. Now when I read scripture, especially passages like Genesis 1, Romans 8, and Isaiah, I understand things much differently. Even though they were always there, my hermeneutical lens just filtered out their importance.

  • Anonymous

    I like the way you’ve put this, David. I honestly have trouble finding language to express what you’ve described. These days I tend to start with Jesus and work my way back. The NT, especially the Gospels, are so infused with OT, and seem to me to presuppose that the audience knows the scriptures and will catch the many references, as veiled and alluding as they might be. I think Richard Hays does a wonderful job at showing how the two weave so closely together.

    I’m like Chris, though – I shy away from using the term “authoritative” only because of that infers in some circles.

  • I was blessed to sit at Dr. Davis’ feet for two semester in her Introduction to Old Testament. She is a wonderful saint, exegete, and teacher. Yes, for the NT to yield its full fruit it takes a high degree of familiarity with the OT. I’m glad Dr. Davis modeled both patience and passion for the OT. I think if Christianity is going to have a voice about how we treat creation, that voice will be shaped by the OT for certain. Unfortunately, we have to undo a lot of wrong ways of using and reading the OT.

  • Trevor Thompson

    Much like Ellen Davis herself narrates, I cannot help but think of the impact of W. Berry’s notion of “membership” as a pivotal “insight” that resonated with my experience and opened up windows into what I saw/heard/felt going forward. Good ol’ Burley Coulter and the witness of Port William. The beauty of this work by Davis is that she openly admits that her hermeneutic is agrarian in this book, and that the words and practices of Berry et al opened up insights that she never had about the OT. To say that a farmer opened her scholarly eyes is a downright beautiful (and scholarly-risky) thing to say and then do.

  • len hjalmarson

    David, I have been doing research for a theology of place. One of my recent discoveries is the context of the great commandment, Jesus answer to the question posed to him in Mark 12. The context of his quotation is Deut. 6, where “land” is prominent. God’s covenant with Israel involved the land as a partner. Jesus knew the context, as did the gospel writers. We can’t simply assume that “land” drops out of the picture in favor of a “spiritual” salvation. Rather, the Incarnation tells us that the physical world – our bodies, land – remain in the locus of God’s saving work.