As I’ve mentioned in previous posts here on the blogazine, I had the privilege of spending a week with Norman Wirzba and Fred Bahnson at the Duke Divinity Summer Institute hosted by the Center for Reconciliation. Norman and Fred, who recently wrote a book entitled ‘Making Peace with the Land‘ also taught a seminar of the same name at the Summer Institute. It was an honor to learn from them and to be in conversation with them.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Fred he writes and speaks full time on the intersection of food, faith and agriculture. He was the co-founder and director (from 2005 to 2009) of the Anathoth Community Garden, a church-supported agriculture ministry in Cedar Grove, North Carolina and is the Director of the Food and Faith Initiative at Wake Forest School of Divinity. It was an honor to connect with Fred and I hope to continue in conversation with him in the coming days.
ST: I really am enjoying reading the new book you wrote with Norman Wirzba. I think Making Peace with the Land is a timely book for the Church at large. I’ve read other books on Creation Care and deeper Christian discipleship but this book seems to have a different voice – almost more of an agrarian perspective – in the vein of Wendell Berry. What do you feel Making Peace with the Land offers to the broader conversation on Creation Care and holistic Christian faith?
Fred: Norman and I do both write from an agrarian perspective, but I think what we’re trying to do with this book is move beyond categories like “agrarian” or “creation care” and simply talk about Christ’s work of reconciliation and redemption. That redemptive work encompasses not just individuals, but all of creation. In Colossians we read that through Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (1:20). As Norman writes in the book, that has profound implications for how we treat the world around us.
ST: How did you and Norman come to write the book together? You both seem to share a common vision throughout the book.
Fred: This book is part of a larger series with InterVarsity Press on the theme of reconciliation. It’s the seventh and final book, in fact. Norman was asked to write the book and to find a co-author and he was gracious enough to ask me. We sort of batted around ideas over beers on the porch one afternoon. He then wrote the first chapter, I wrote my first chapter trying to riff on some of his themes, then wrote the next two and I wrote my next two. It was helpful having Norman provide the theological framework onto which I could add stories.
One thing I like about how the book turned out is that we’re both following the same thread, the same subject, but the way we each approach it is very different. Norman has all this theological and philosophical knowledge, and he uses it to great effect, I think. His chapters are lucid and orderly, and provide a solid scriptural and theological foundation for our argument. I’m more of an essayist and a narrative writer, and so my chapters are more exploratory—I was working out my ideas about this stuff as I wrote—and connected to story. Hopefully that gives the reader a nice balance between two styles of thinking and writing, both pursuing the same end.
ST: I love books and I believe they are critical for helping to renew our thinking and our theological imagination but I know a true shift towards a more embodied Christian faith is going to involve more than reading. What kind of spiritual and everyday practices must the Church engage in to be agents of GOD’s shalom in this age?
Fred: That’s certainly a worthwhile question. For most of this book we are focusing on helping spark people’s imaginations so that they can live into Christ’s redemption of the cosmos in their own time and place, and that will look different in each locale. But different as each community is, there are common practices we share, and they’re the ones we already know: keeping Sabbath, practicing a healthy kind of asceticism, offering hospitality, loving our neighbors, our enemies. But each of those, I hope, should be practiced with an expanded view of who our neighbors are, for example. In terms of specific agrarian practices I hope the church will adopt, I ask in the book:
“What if our homes and churches went from being primarily sites of consumption to places of production, as the scholar and priest Ivan Illich suggested? What if we planted church-supported community gardens, permaculture parishes, Transition churches, and apostolic farms that fed entire neighborhoods?…What if we created infrastructures of holiness, where God’s kingdom of shalom could flourish on earth as in heaven?”
ST: In the book you ask: “…how much shalom can we expect to see this side of the eschaton?” Do you think we could see a whole lot more of GOD’s shalom in our communities than we are currently seeing? And how can ‘being reconciled to Creation’ help us be faithful witnesses of GOD’s shalom in our communities?
Fred: I do. I think we’ve settled for a pretty anemic version of the Gospel, whereby we’ve focused on souls and heaven and pretty much turned every other area of our lives over to professionals, politicians, the market, celebrities—whoever. We’ve been missing out on the possibility of God transforming not only our hearts, but our communities and neighborhoods, our watersheds and fields, too. The fact that one in three Americans are obese is just one indicator of how far we’ve slid. We’ve pretty much abandoned the care of our bodies and the care of the land, and of course the two are directly related. Cheap calories follows cheap theology.
Part of what gets me up in the morning is that at different points in my life, I’ve seen God’s shalom made visible. We all have, if we’ve been paying attention. I think given our current position as residents in a late-capitalistic empire that’s crumbling before our eyes is that with the kind of vision the Gospel gives us, we can look behind the façade. We can see that it’s all an abundant mirage, as I call it in our book. And once we see the mirage for what it is, we can then turn our sights toward those hidden places where God’s shalom becomes visible, places where both land and people are encouraged to flourish together. Like community gardens.
We’ve created all these different silos to contain these different parts of our lives—work, home, church, recreation—and that’s created a good bit of the anxiety we carry. The beauty of the Gospel, as I see it, however, is that Christ is at work redeeming every area of our lives. We just have to give in to it and allow him to knit those separate pieces into a coherent whole. That kind of coherence and unity is what I think of as shalom, and it’s not a distant reality. It’s something that through the mediation of the Holy Spirit we can experience now. For too long in American Christian experience, though, we’ve left both land and bodies out of that experience. In the first chapter of Acts, right after Jesus’ ascension, the two angels ask the disciples, ‘why do you stand looking up to heaven’? In other words, look around you. That’s where God is at work. In this world, in these bodies, in these creatures right before your eyes. It’s a lesson I keep failing at learning, but one I want to learn.
ST: You are currently working on a new book titled Soil and Sacrament. Can you tell us anything about this new work and why you feel it is important?
Fred: Well, I’ve actually just turned in the manuscript a week ago. It’s been a long journey, this book, and I’m glad to finally be on the other side of it. I’m excited about it if anything because it allowed me to profile some amazing people doing some very inspiring work. I visited a Trappist monastery, a Pentecostal farm, a community garden called The Lord’s Acre, and a Jewish farm. It was a profound experience, visiting these different places of shalom, and I hope the reader feels some of the same awe I felt, some of the same hope. The book is also a journey into memory as I describe my spiritual journey through the lens of the soil. I won’t say more about it just yet, because it won’t be out until next summer (2013, with Free Press), but maybe that will be a good excuse to come back and have another conversation.
ST: Thanks for taking time to talk with us Fred. We look forward to talking again!