Saturday, February 20, 2010

Scripture, Culture, Agriculture

Ellen F. Davis's recent book, Scripture, Culture, Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible is a fascinating wedding of two genres: agrarian writing and Old Testament exegesis. Agrarianism as a literary movement had its most formative moment with the Southern Agrarians of the 1920-30s. Their Statement of Principles gives a good overview of the philosophy.

Many academics, pastors, and lay readers likely engage agrarianism through the very popular work of Wendell Berry. If you click on his name highlighted in the previous sentence, you can visit a site that introduces his work. It highlights a video of him speaking here in Madison, WI. Amanda and I are sitting up in the front right of the audience. You can periodically see the back of our heads. He reads a short story out loud as his speech. It's 45 minutes long. Watch it. It's amazing.

Ellen Davis has been influenced by Wendell Berry. Berry even writes a forward to her book, something he does quite rarely. She has also been influenced by other agrarians, like Norman Wirzba, David Orr, This means that in this book, she focuses on land care as it is portrayed in Scripture. She does a spectacular job of avoiding nostalgia or romanticism, something many readers of Berry and the agrarians are guilty of. Nevertheless, she finds that the Scripture has a ton to say about how land care is connected to God's covenant with Israel. She believes, and I agree with her, that "reading the work of the contemporary agrarians can make use better readers of Scripture" (22).

After two introductory essays on her hermeneutical approach bringing agrarianism and biblical exegesis into conversation, Davis reads specific texts with agrarian eyes. She begins, appropriate, with Genesis 1, what she calls a poem of creation.

Second, she reads the Exodus as leaving Egypt behind and embracing the wilderness economy. It's really amazing how, when you read the exodus account with Davis with agrarian eyes, all kinds of vistas open up in terms of ethical commentary on land care, storing up of grain, abuse of the land, reliance on God to provide, etc.

I am still working my way through the remaining essays, but they include work on Leviticus and the ethic of wholeness, an essay on the biblical understanding of local economies, a piece on the prophets, another piece on wisdom literature (especially Proverbs), and finally, an essay on the biblical vision of the city in relation to agrarianism.

Not only does Davis make the case that reading the agrarians can make use better readers of Scripture. She also makes an equally convincing case that reading the Bible will make us better agrarians, and will enrich the agrarian conversation. In this way, Davis has accomplished and deepened a wonderful interdisciplinary conversation.

Cambridge Press offers an excellent mini-review:

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. The biblical exegesis is wide-ranging and sophisticated; the language is literate and accessible to a broad audience

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