Food and Faith Explored at J.J. Thiessen Lectures
Health of the Land an Index of Our Relationship
to God, Ellen Davis Says
By Jonathan Dyck
If people knew how to value the land, how hard it is to grow food on it,
farming would not be the most fragile sector of today’s economy.
|Dr. Ellen Davis
That was one of the messages shared by Ellen Davis, Professor of Bible and
Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School, at the annual J.J. Thiessen Lectures
at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU).
Speaking to the theme, “Live Long on the Land: Food and Farming in Biblical
Perspective,” Davis stated that “from an Old Testament perspective, the health
of the land is the best index of the health or sickness of our covenant
relationship with God.” Looking at our culture’s violent relationship to the
earth, she suggested, we are failing to take this covenant seriously.
By focusing particularly on agricultural practices in North America, Davis
revealed the diseased state of the environment through a Biblical lens. She
compared the laments of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah to the writings of
contemporary environmentalists like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, people who
are working at “meeting the expectations of the land.” All of the writers, she
said, believe that the way people treat the land have global, even cosmic
The Old Testament writers, she said, speak to the ingrained, immoral, habits
of society both then and now. In North America, people have access to “the
cheapest food in human history,” she noted. But, she asked, at what cost?
Among the costs she listed was the decline of traditional family farms, which
have been taken over by agribusinesses all over North America. As Davis
poignantly reflected, modern farmers now find themselves in a similar position
to Jeremiah and his fellow exiles: they are strangers in their own land.
But, she said, the Old Testament offers a solution—if people realize that the
mutual destruction between creatures and the environment is a product of a
severed relationship with God.
From an Agrarian perspective, the land people inhabit is not “real estate,
but a fellow creature that should expect something from us,” she said. Quoting
Wendell Berry, Davis said that “economies begin to lie when they assign a fixed
value to the land.”
Davis noted that the temptation to take ownership of creation begins in
Genesis, where Eve’s first sin was “an eating violation.” Internal to Eve’s
thinking, she said, was the idea that “consumption leads to enlightenment.” In
eating from the forbidden tree, Eve “took” food and ate without “tending” the
ground or “remembering” that God’s gifts carry with them a special obligation.
In her closing Lecture, Davis traced the relationship between a modern
understanding of work and the current state of the earth’s environment. The
agricultural industry “has convinced many that food production is a simple
matter,” she said, noting that Genesis says that eating adequately and
responsibly outside of Eden will be hard work. Drawing on the image of the
“valorous woman” from Proverbs 31:10-31, Davis explained that Biblical wisdom is
never abstract from practice. Rooted in physical work, wisdom looks to the
future, seeking to establish “an economics of permanence,” she said, adding
that, for the writer of Proverbs, godly wisdom and sound economics go hand in
hand—something that today’s North American culture sees as separate categories.
For Davis, the danger of this separation is evident all over the world. Only
through hard work and ongoing interaction with creation will people begin to see
the world properly, she said.
She added that people could address issues related to the land by building up
local communities and home-based economies, and by “learning from the land in
all our particular places.” Those who work at a university, or who are students,
can keep this in mind by refusing the tendency to reduce and remove theology
from the sciences or separate ecology from agriculture. By tending to the needs
of the land, she said, people can begin to see how everything we receive from
God is interconnected.
For Davis, the Bible has much to say about the way humans relate to the
environment, and Bible study can be compared to the proper tending of land.
“Scripture is like the soil,” she said, a rich deposit that, “tended with proper
care, will yield much riches.”
Jonathan Dyck is a student at CMU.
Posted October 22, 2007.
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