Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible - Paying Attention to the Land

Steptoe5
I'm reading Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis. In the book she argues that agrarian perspectives offer a helpful lens through which to understand the Bible, especially the Old Testament. She writes; "agrarianism is the way of thinking predominant among the biblical writers, who very often do not represent the interests of the powerful." (page 1)

I plan on writing several posts on the book but I wanted to highlight the theme that struck me from the first couple of chapters. In the foreword Wendell Berry lifts up the importance of local engagement in agrarian thought. He writes:

...this is one of the indispensable gifts of her book - she sees the similarity between this modern corporate colonialism and that of the ancient empires. She sees as well, and even more indispensably, the necessity and possibility of local resistance by means of local religion, local knowledge, and local language.

An agrarian reading of the Bible thus forces the de-specialization of one's thoughts about agriculture. With equal force it de-specializes one's thoughts about religion. It does this simply by seeing that the Bible is not a book only about "spirituality" or getting to Heaven, but is also a practical book about the good use of land and creatures as a religious practice, and about the abuse of land and creatures as a kind of blasphemy. (page x)

Davis picks up on this theme of local engagement and de-specialization in the opening chapter and argues that it's important for a Biblical scholar like herself venture beyond her specialty to explore agrarian perspectives that, it turns out, are helpful in understanding the Bible. It's a move away from de-contextualized specialization to locally-informed, locally adapted practices and thought.

The more I read Berry and understand agrarian perspectives, the more I see how a primary impulse of the movement is to re-integrate human thought and action that has been partitioned by the modern industrial project. For those of us who have been specialized away from land and agriculture we are invited to re-engage, to venture out as amateurs. Davis writes:

For me as a biblical scholar, engaging questions of contemporary social analysis means consciously working as an amateur, going outside my area of professional expertise for the sake of love. Augustine's famous interpretive principle of caritas may provide a theological warrant for such a move: reading the biblical text in a way that conduces to knowledge and love of God and neighbor is the touchstone for accurate interpretation.'

In our present intellectual environment, Wendell Berry advocates amateurism as a corrective to the tendency toward overspecialization and abstraction that afflicts all disciplines. He suggests widening the context of all intellectual work and of teaching - perhaps to the width of the local landscape....

To bring local landscapes within what Wes Jackson calls "the boundary of consideration," professional people of all sorts will have to feel the emotions and take the risks of amateurism. They will have to get out of their "fields," so to speak, and into the watershed, the ecosystem, and the community; and they will have to be actuated by affection. (pp. 3-4).

For Berry and other agrarians the starting place for this kind of integrative work is simply paying attention to one's "local landscape," and while I'm no farmer or soil scientist, I CAN open my eyes and pay attention to the land and agriculture that surrounds me. I can go to Steptoe Butte, like I did last night (see picture), and take some photos. And I can dwell on the abundance of our region and also wonder with concern about how this land came to be understood as "industrial." And I can reflect on the ways this land shapes my faith and practice, and how my faith compels me to advocate for its care.