This review was originally published in The Sword: A Journal of Historical, Spiritual and Contemporary Carmelite Issues (Volume 72, Number 1, 2013).
Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation
Written by Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba
IVP Books, 2012
Paperback, 178 pages
Reviewed by Br. Tom Murphy, O. Carm.
The reconciliation of only human souls with each other, however commendable and beautiful, would be an impoverished reconciliation if such souls were consigned to bodies that must eat, drink and breathe their way through a poisoned and degraded creation. Norman Wirzba
Our aim, then, is to point our attention back to the land, to say what a faithful life on it might look like, and to show that the land–indeed, the entire cosmos–is inextricably bound up in God's salvation through Jesus Christ. Fred Bahnson
When I get hungry, I look for something to eat—and it's almost always there. When I need light, my computer, or some pleasant entertainment, the power switch almost always works. When I need gas for my car, I know where to find it. In fact, in my world these things work so dependably that I am able to consume food and power without considering what those simple acts really involve. A soft inattention, a blissful mindlessness, settles down around my actions. I take the most astonishing things for granted.
And this taking for granted is symptom and cause, part of a cycle of disconnection or disaffection that infects our relationship to the earth. We move farther away from an awareness of our God-given dependence upon the earth beneath our feet, and we suffer a wide range of consequences for our personal, communal and global health. As one title in the Intervarsity Press series called "Resources for Reconciliation," Making Peace with the Land holds out a clear vision of our present dysfunction, acknowledges it as a radically spiritual problem within our cultures, and offers some direction toward healing and away from further disintegration.
As writers such as Wendell Berry have done elsewhere, Bahnson and Wirzba assert here that this abstracted, inattentive relationship with our earth corresponds too well with the marketing plans of Industrial Agriculture and Big Energy. We risk becoming docile consumers, self-contained bundles of desire for the apparently endless products of these vast corporations—products which can only come to us through a toxic exploitation of the created earth. Bahnson calls this unsustainable process "the abundant mirage," in contrast to "the abundant kingdom" of God-created nature. This book explores the moral and spiritual implications of how, over just the past two centuries, we have become perhaps fatally dependent on the burning of fossil fuel to meet our needs and fulfill out desires. The authors demonstrate how theological reflection can help us to climb out from under these cultural and agricultural delusions.
This brief yet rich book moves forward in a kind of dialogue, alternating chapters between the two authors. Wirzba's exceptionally readable contributions are thought-provoking reflections on the themes of reconciliation with the Land (in Sabbath), through Christ (as Divine Incarnation), and through Eating (in Eucharist). Bahnson complements these with well-grounded chapters on recovering our cultural sight, exploring models of agriculture that honor the earth, and educating for growing food in difficult places.
In the face of such immense problems as the approaching end of "cheap" fossil fuels, climate change, the ongoing disregard of Big Agriculture for the created complexity and mystery of soil, and so on, Wirzba and Bahnson describe several organizations that are engaged in preparing a hopeful future for food. One of these is The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, where perennial polyculture is seen as the necessary response to the violent use of land found in Big Ag's chemical-based annual monoculture. Founded in 1976, the institute aims to develop economically feasible and ecologically responsible alternatives to industrial agriculture.
As if to make the point that the authors' concern for agriculture is not simply an offshoot of currently trending "foodie" fascination, the book ends with Bahnson's report on a visit to ECHO Global Farm in Fort Myers, Florida, where creative methods of sustainable farming are developed for poor farmers in challenging growing conditions such as tropical highlands and urban rooftops. Bahnson quotes ECHO founder Martin Price on his hope, "I'd like to see small rural farms become so productive that people leave the slums and return to the countryside. Eliminating hunger and malnutrition is just the first step. There is just so much more to life than not being hungry."
Ultimately Bahnson and Wirzba affirm our need to reconnect with earth and the land beneath our feet on both an individual and a communal scale. Our present and future problems with Food and Energy are not, at their core, technological or political; they are spiritual, flowing from some deep misunderstandings of who we are in relation to the created world. A spiritual problem requires a spiritual solution that Wirzba finds in the Christology of St. Paul,
To be in Christ means that we can no longer look at any creature in terms of political maneuvering, economic profitability or self-enhancement. If everything has become new because we now behold and engage it through him, then literally everything is wrapped within God’s creating, healing, feeding and reconciling ways.
And Bahnson sees a need to revisit our liturgical practices, "Our table fellowship needs to be extended to include the fields and how our food is grown, and it needs to be extended to include those who hunger."
We are invited to learn of (and begin turning away from) the land abuses of industrial farming and literally to take the earth back into our own hands—not unlike God's own action in Genesis 2. It's a primal act that has served humanity well for maybe 10,000 years. The book calls us outside—to pick up our shovels, rakes and seed; plant gardens (or support those who do); recognize our dependence upon this earth and each other; and thank God by reviving grace at meals.
Key issues are kept front and center. In an almost seamless fashion, the book blends the theological and practical aspects of our challenging relationships with Creation. It shows that the distance from reflection to action is not so great as we may have thought. The style of both writers is welcoming to the common reader, clearly expressed ideas in language that is a pleasure to read—even when the subject under discussion is troubling.
If you don't yet see how your food and energy needs are implicated in your Christian faith, then this book will have much to say to you. If you are a person of faith who is concerned about these matters—if you are troubled by Industrial Agriculture's grip on food production and by Big Energy's willingness to destroy whole ecosystems in order to feed our endless appetite for power—you will want to explore in more detail how it all relates to the scriptural traditions of our faith and how it might play out in our worship and spirituality. Making Peace with the Land is an excellent starting point.
The book ends with a guide to further reading, including such key resources as a collection of essays by Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, and Ellen Davis' fertile study, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. There is also a study guide with questions that could provide excellent focus for a group reading of the book.
What could it mean to be "reconciled with the land"? What would that look like in action in your life or mine?
It could mean that each of our understandings, decisions and actions will be grounded in a deep awareness of and affection for the created world. We are all part of it, members of this Creation. And this knowledge carries with it a certain responsibility to cherish the land from which all good things flow and to discover or re-discover ways to live well from it without exploiting or wounding it beyond repair.