“Moving Us Toward Better Possibilities.”
A Review of
The Essential Agrarian Reader,
edited by Norman Wirzba.
By Chris Smith.
[ The Essential Agrarian Reader is one of the recommended preparatory books for our upcoming conference on the Church and agriculture. Registration for the conference is now open at: http://www.englewoodcc.com
The New Agrarian Reader:
The Future of Culture, Community and Land.
Norman Wirzba, editor.
Hardcover. Univ. Press of KY. 2003.
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Over the last 30 years, momentum has been gathering around a set of specific ideas and practices related to land, food and community that has been called the “new agrarianism.” (I hesitate to refer to this trend as a movement, since Wendell Berry – perhaps the most well-known voice of the new agrarianism – has pointedly detailed his “distrust” of movements). This new agrarianism is summarized well in Norman Wirzba’s introduction to The Essential Agrarian Reader: “As we begin to understand that food is not simply fuel, but is in fact a natural, social, cultural and spiritual product, we will also make the effort to foster the practical conditions necessary to protect and preserve ecological and social health” (16). Of course, we, as communities of Christ’s disciples, are interested in the spiritual aspects of food, but to the extent that we trust that God is redeeming a fallen creation, we are also committed to bearing witness to that redemptive work by discerning a way of life together that promotes increasing degrees of “ecological and social health.”
The literature of the new agrarianism is compromised of two rhetorical streams: the first is the critique of the industrial, or to borrow a term from Ragan Sutterfield, the immanent economy that rapes the earth and tends toward the destruction of humanity and all creation; the second stream is the recommendation of a way of life that fosters the health of humanity and all creation. In the writings of those associated with new agrarianism, these two streams are often tightly inter-woven with one another; however, it will be useful for us to split them apart for the purpose of understanding the dual mission of the new agrarians.For the Church, one of the most relevant pieces of critique in this volume is Norman Wirzba’s essay “Placing the Soul.” Wirzba vehemently rejects the philosophical and theological dualism that splits body and spirit, or similarly the here-and-now from the eternal. Wirzba’s makes a strong case that this dualism “violates what is essential about the Christian faith and life” (85). Our churches, Wirzba contends, cannot be content to bide our time until Jesus’ return. We are called to be more than mere consumers; indeed we are called to active participation in discerning that which is virtuous, and out of that discernment, embodying a life that – I would maintain – points to the eschatological event of Christ’s reconciliation of all creation. Another excellent piece in the “critique” stream of this book is David Orr’s essay that uses the image of the prophet to describe the critical work of Wendell Berry and other new agrarians. Drawing on the Hebrew tradition of scriptural prophets, Orr reminds us again of the dual function of the new agrarianism: “[P]rophets do not just condemn, they intend to move us toward better possibilities” (176). Those of us who believe that the church serves a prophetic role in the world, would do well to reflect seriously on both Orr’s essay and more generally, the body of new agrarian literature that he is summarizing for us here. There are several other essays in the critique mode, including Vandana Shiva’s excellent piece “Globalization and the War against Farmers and the Land” and Hank Graddy’s piece “The Legal and Legislative Front: The Fight Against Industrial Agriculture,” which reminds us that there are other struggles against industrialism that are going on beyond the local embodiment of new agrarian ideals.
There are, of course, also a number of essays in this reader that point us in the direction of “better possibilities.” The general tone of this type of essays is narrative, offering us the stories of people who have found innovative ways of embodying new agrarian ideals. Gene Logsdon, with his typical earthy eloquence (e.g., he launches into the piece by developing the ways in which the new agrarianism is like a pair of bib overalls), recommends the pasture farming of livestock, using a number of stories from his own experience and that of others. Brian Donahue, in his essay “The Resettling of America” proposes ways in which land could be preserved by communities for the promotion of small, sustainable farm operations. Likewise, Susan Witt’s essay “The New Agrarians: Local Innovators” lays out the stories of a number of communities who are embodying facets of the new agrarianism in their local environments.
One of the questions that we occasionally get at Englewood, as an urban congregation, is why we are so excited by the ideas of the new agrarianism? In his introductory essay to this volume, Norman Wirzba makes the case that the new agrarianism is relevant to all people regardless of locale. He emphasizes that eating and drinking are agricultural acts pertinent to all people in cities or rural areas. The new agrarians remind us at every turn, that even if we live in cities, we must seriously consider the sources of our food and the justice, or lack thereof, of the production of our food. Additionally, as followers of Jesus, we share with the new agrarians the prophetic hope that another world is possible. Northrup and Lipscomb’s essay “City and Country,” by comparing and contrasting the new agrarianism with the new urbanism, starts to give some form to the hope that the city might be transformed.
If our churches are unable to reflect upon something as basic as the food we eat on a daily basis, then I believe that we have little hope of fulfilling our call as ambassadors of God’s reconciliation. Toward this end, The Essential Agrarian Reader is a book that deserves the reflection and the discussion of our church communities. And furthermore, we hope that you will be able to join us here in November to talk about the Church, land and Agriculture!
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com