This is one of the most helpful books in thinking about how we read the Bible and offers a way of reading the Bible that is much more in line with what we are describing here as Slow Church.
(This review originally appeared in The Englewood Review of Books, 9 October 2009)
“Of Mules and Mission”
A Review of
Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture:
An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.
by Ellen F. Davis.
Paperback: Cambridge UP, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Stan Wilson.
I am a Mississippi Baptist pastor who has begun to see the world differently because of the work of agrarians like Wendell Berry, Norman Wirzba, Barbara Kingsolver and Wes Jackson. Thanks to them our family has changed the way we eat and obtain food. A few years back we started to garden, and now we are enjoying fresh eggs from our own backyard hens. We are coming to see connections between the care of the land, our health and the wholeness of our community. When we say grace at each meal, our prayers now include people, animals and soil that we know.
So, when I was given a sabbatical this past summer, I chose to focus it on sustainable agriculture and the Church. In addition to working our garden, I traveled to a few small, organic farms and most memorably, graduated from “Mule School,” which is what I called my three days learning the basics of farming with horses and mules at Russell’s Workhorse Farm in Poplarville, MS.
After a summer of travel and study I can report that there is officially a movement. Everywhere you look CSAs are emerging, farmers’ markets are sprouting, community gardens are blossoming, and young people are flocking to summer internships on small, organic farms. I was not the only student at Mule School.
As a pastor, I am wondering what this movement means for the Church. Are there agricultural dimensions to the Church’s calling to serve and celebrate the kingdom of God? I wonder if this surprising movement of young people into farming could be a movement of the Spirit. Do these fields, white with harvest, have anything to do with the mission field?
For all these reasons and more, Ellen Davis’ extraordinary book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible has been a timely and important study.
Davis is Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School, and she has long been interested in the ecological vision of the Bible. If you want to know Davis’ work, and you should, the best place to start is Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, which includes two concluding chapters on ecological matters. Her very fine commentary, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs also turns frequently to agrarian writers. More recently she has contributed “Knowing Our Place on Earth: Learning Environmental Responsibility from the Old Testament” to the introductory essays in The Green Bible.
Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture is her first attempt to focus exclusively on the ecological vision within the Bible, and as far as I know it is the only such book anywhere to do that in conversation with new agrarian writers.
Davis claims modestly that she merely wants to introduce interpreters of the Old Testament to contemporary agrarians, but this is much more than an introduction. This is a collection of agrarian readings from all across the Old Testament, including Psalms, Prophecy, Torah, Wisdom Literature and historical writings. I am not an Old Testament scholar, but many of her findings seem original and innovative to me.
For instance, Davis finds an agrarian ethos in the Yahwist account of creation in Genesis 2, and this ground has been well plowed. After all, the Lord God plants a garden, and puts Adam there and charges him to till it and keep it. The agrarian implications are fairly easy to make. Even so Davis turns this fertile soil slowly, and the result is a rich, earthy exposition of our kinship with all creation.
Davis is a master at “close readings” of familiar texts. In the introduction to Getting Involved with God she writes that the riches of scripture are often “perceptible only to those who move slowly, like mushroom hunters, peering closely where at first there appears to be nothing at all to see.” (3) Here again she turns scriptural passages over and over and brings forth treasures old and new.
What seems original, at least to me, is that Davis also finds an agrarian ethos in the Priestly account of creation in Genesis 1, and this is much harder plowing. This is the passage that makes environmentalists squirm, in which God gives humankind dominion over plants and animals, telling us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and we have been all to eager to obey.
But Davis is convincing. She sees Genesis 1 as a liturgical poem which seeks to form our imagination. Through it we are invited to see creation anew in all its goodness. She goes on to offer a fascinating introduction to the problem of mono-culture planting in industrial scale agriculture as it relates to the poem’s emphasis on plant yielding seed.
Among Davis’ more courageous suggestions is that we should translate 1:18 as “fill the earth and conquer it.” (59-63) She thinks the poet, writing after the exile, was intentionally evoking the image of the conquest of Canaan, which Davis reminds us is always pictured as an especially fruitful land (Num.13:23). Davis goes so far as to suggest that extending and nurturing the productivity of the land through obedient, watchful care was the point of God’s gift of the land in the first place. (60) She wonders if this poem could be a rhetorical sting, a reminder that disobedience to God is the primary reason Israel lost the gift of such fruitful land.
This is all brand new to me. The conquest of Canaan is one of those embarrassing episodes in the Bible which we prefer not to mention, but Davis offers us some hope of reading it humbly, even as a judgment on our subsequent abuse of creation.
Davis’ book opens the eyes. It is one of those rare readings that enlighten. Difficult ideas, like the whole issue of land possession, are broadened and put in a new context when we read them through agrarian eyes. Leviticus becomes a lens through which to see the holiness and wholeness of material goods. Her readings of Jeremiah 4 and Isaiah 24 are stunning indictments of our destructive abuse of the soil. Her reading of Psalm 37 is alone worth buying this book, but there is so much more.
If we were once encouraged to preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in another, we will now need to substitute the local Market Bulletin. Davis shows how the land ethic of the Bible comes alive when read in conversation with the new agrarians.
So, what is the connection between the work of the church and agriculture? Does the Church’s calling to serve the kingdom of God have agricultural dimensions? Davis might say that the answer to this is as close as the covenant. Remember Abraham, who stands at a crucial turn in the biblical narrative, between God’s establishment and covenant with all creation and the calling of the people of Israel. Remember God’s promises never to abandon this people, but to give them land and make them a blessing to all the world. This is an agonizingly slow and patient way to go about healing a wounded creation, but this is God’s will and way. (See Kelly Johnson’s “God Does not Hurry” in God Does Not … D. Brent Laytham, ed. 70.) Our salvation depends on God’s steadfast determination to heal a wounded creation through this people on this particular land.
Davis boldly claims at the very beginning that “the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth, or more particularly the land of Israel, is the best index of the health of the covenant relationship.” (8)
This is a rather large claim that goes straight to the jugular vein of Christian proclamation. If we take her seriously, and she is a serious scholar who loves the church, there is a connection between careful, wise, and “kindly” land use and our mission to go into all the earth proclaiming the gospel. There is no gospel we can proclaim that does not speak to the healing of particular pieces of land.
This is not easy work. Although the book is accessible to non-scholars like me, it is not easy to explain or envision the connections between Christian ministry and agriculture, between mules and mission.
But God’s decision to love and heal the world through one particular people on one especially fragile piece of land will require a lot of time. It will be slow and patient work. God’s decision to save us through the crucifixion of Jesus seems about as laughable as farming with a mule.
I am thankful for this substantial, instructive, and visionary book.
Stan Wilson has been pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, MS since 2002. He is married to Jennifer, and they are the parents of Jane (7) and Kate (4). They live on a small farm where they are learning how to grow vegetables, raise chickens, and share with neighbors.