Of Gardens and Cities Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 18 December 2009 10:47

Wendell Berry and his brand of agrarianism are having a growing impact within evangelicalism.  Elder statesmen Eugene Peterson has commended Wendell Berry’s “prophetic bite and Christian winsomeness,” and a 2006 Christianity Today piece described Berry’s influence on younger evangelicals, pushing questions about place, land use, capitalism, localism, and urbanism to the forefront of evangelical consciousness.  That article quoted Wheaton professor Ashley Woodiwiss’s comment that students remain attached to Berry’s ideas and vision long after college.  Berry appeals to evangelicals partly because he gives voice to discomfort about the displacements of modernity, and partly because he seems to provide resources for working out the elusive “third way” between conservatism and liberalism. One measure of the evangelical enthusiasm is an endorsement of a recent Brazos Press book on Berry that asks “What Would Wendell Berry Do?”  So far as I know, no WWWBD bracelets have yet appeared.

I value Berry’s emphasis on community, his writings on marriage and sex, and his penetrating attacks on scientific hubris, idolatry, and the destructive dualisms of modern culture.  Against the industrialization of food production and farming, he offers an attractive agrarianism defined as “good farming,” that “complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense, and fundamental decency” that results in “the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.”  His insight that religion, culture, and land use are bound together is entirely correct.  Agrarians are surely right to protest that contemporary urban life is often inhuman.

Still, I find aspects of agrarianism unsettling, and not just because they make me feel guilty for killing more tomatoes than I have ever harvested or because I never figured out how to handle the chickens that used to roam my yard.  My protests are theological.

Berry lays enormous emphasis on the humble respect human beings should show for the structures and contours of nature.  Conversion amounts to gaining a new sense of our littleness in the vast world. “By understanding accurately his proper place in Creation, a man may be made whole,” and that proper place is a small one: “creation is bounteous and mysterious, and humanity is only a part of it—not its equal, much less its master.”  Our place is set by our origins.  Humans come from the humus, as Adam came from the adamah (ground), and we are made to stay close to our original home. “Most of our modern troubles,” Berry says, “come from our misunderstanding and misevaluation” of the dust from which we are made.

Warnings such as this are no doubt salutary after several centuries of Baconian rape of helpless Natura, but it is hard to see how Berry’s exhortations square with the Christian insistence that man is created to be the crown of creation and to share in the Creator’s rule over it.  Jesus died, Revelation tells us, to make us kings and priests (Revelation 1:6), new Adams to take dominion over creation.  Dominion is not brutal domination, and many of the specifics Berry advocates under the heading of “good farming” might fit into a Christian understanding of stewardship.   Yet, if we are made for rule, we are not made to cringe before the cosmos.  Berry seems to leave no room for the last Adam, the heavenly Adam who is not “of the earth, earthy,” the Adam into whose image Paul says we are being formed (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).  Marginalizing the resurrection in his anthropology creates a fairly sizable lacuna.

I also object to the way agrarians scour the Bible for endorsement of ruralism.  This mode of reading is not confined to self-described agrarians.  In fact, in twenty-first century America being rural and being Christian seem sociologically synonymous.  Few pre-judgments are as deeply rooted in American politics as the linkage of agrarian-conservative-bumpkin-fundamentalist on the one hand and urban-liberal-cultivated-agnostic on the other.  And it’s not only those godless urban elites who believe it.  We bumpkins believe it too.  During the 2008 Presidential campaign, McCain advisors defended the surprise selection of Sara Palin by pointing to her star quality in “real,” small-town, conservative, Christian America.  Berry thinks this identification of Christianity with the countryside is rooted in the fact that the Christian Bible is an agrarian manifesto: “I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is….  It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.”  Elsewhere, Berry writes that “The great visionary encounters [in the Bible] did not take place in temples, but in sheep pastures, in the desert, in the wilderness, on mountains, by rivers and on beaches, in the middle of the sea.”  More sharply, “What the Bible might mean, or how it could mean anything, in a closed, air-conditioned building, I do not know.”

I confess that there is some plausibility in this reading of Scripture.  The Bible seems to endorse gardens over cities.  Adam began in a garden, called to horticulture, and things have only gotten worse since we left.  With its stories of shepherds and farmers, it seems to call us back to the innocence, peace, rootedness of the garden.  Noah had it right: He didn’t plow the furrow for city walls after he unpacked the ark.  He planted a vineyard and had himself some homemade wine, and all through her history Israel is at her best when everyone has his own vine and fig tree.

City life, on the other hand, is for rootless wanderers and murderers.  Cain was both.  Condemned to wander, he settled down to build the first city over the blood of his brother.  Later, the flood waters have barely subsided before Babel looms up, a defiant civic fist shaken at heaven.  Jesus is harassed in Galilee, but He gets killed once He arrives in Jerusalem.  It’s a city that drinks the blood of prophets, and it’s a city that sinks into the sea (Revelation 17-18).  To its agrarianism, the Bible seems to add a principled anti-urbanism.

It seems plausible to read the Bible as, at least, a brief for a “tactical agrarianism.”  At various stages in biblical history, the people of God retreat from a corrupted city into a garden and start over.  After the fall of Babel, Yahweh calls Abram, and leads him out of a city into a life of wandering and worship.  Israel crosses the sea out of a land of Pharaohs and storage cities into the wilderness, and when later the prophets warn about the fall of Babylon, they urge Israelites to flee from the city.   Most contemporary agrarianism will, in the end, be tactical anyway.  Today, the family flees the urban jungle into the quiet countryside, but two or three generations down the road economic and social pressures – not to mention the lights and sounds and thrills – will force and lure their kids back to cities.

Neither principled nor tactical agrarianism, however, can be sustained from the Bible.  If anything, the biblical story is an anti-agrarian story rather than the opposite.  The huge bulk of Old Testament history focuses not on shepherds and farmers but on kings, city-dwellers by definition, and the mostly urban prophets who preach righteousness and doom.  Moreover, the overarching trajectory of the Bible moves from the garden to the city.  Humanity’s final state is not Adam naked in a garden but the saints clothed in glory in a city that descends from heaven (Revelation 19-21).  As Augustine recognized, the story of Scripture is the city of the civitas Dei.

That trajectory is evident much from the beginning.  Eden’s garden is not “nature,” at least not in the raw, since Genesis tells us that the “Lord God planted” the garden.  Nor is the garden the same as the land, field, or wilderness.  The Lord planted the garden “to the east, in Eden.”  Within the larger land of Eden Yahweh places the cultivated, artificial environment of the garden.  As the Bible progresses, it becomes clear that the garden is something else as well.  The features of the garden – trees, water, animals, man, and, especially, cherubim – become the iconic features of the biblical sanctuaries.  Just as the cherubim guarded against Adam’s return to the garden, so cherubim figures woven into curtains guard the most holy place and form the holy throne of Yahweh.  Adam didn’t begin his life on a farm; he was born in a temple.

The beginnings of Israel have the same focus.  The patriarchs look like simple shepherds, wandering through the land with their flocks and herds and worshiping at any oasis they find.  But the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t think Abram was looking for a homestead.  Instead, he was “looking for a city, whose builder and maker is God” (11:10).  Abram was no more an agrarian than Adam.  He wandered and built altars, but in his heart he longed for God’s civic order.

Jacques Ellul is no bumpkin, but by his lights the Bible doesn’t have much good to say about cities.  The city embodies human rebellion and lack of faith.  Cities don’t bristle with creativity, but represent a “counter-creation,” humanity’s rebellious answer to God’s creation, an expression of the Adamic desire to be as gods.  Yet, Ellul gets the overall story right.  As the Bible progresses, God paradoxically chooses an existing city, Jerusalem, and begins to mold her into the shape of peace and righteousness.  More than once, He razes and empties her, but always builds her again.  Ultimately, He aims to not to start anew but to heal the city.  Nor is this mere allegory or typology.  It is the history of Christianity.  As Rodney Stark has shown in several remarkable books, the church burst into the world as an “urban renewal movement,” providing social networks, nursing services, instruction, spiritual guidance, welfare to widows and orphans in the crowded eroding cities of the Roman empire. As Ellul saw, urban renewal is the story of the gospel.  The Son took dilapidated flesh from the Virgin Mary, and His church are called to the ruined city to make it new.

Even the Bible’s “tactical agrarians” are not what they first appear to be.  They withdraw from the corrupt city into the garden-sanctuary, which, as a friend, an urban missionary, put it, is not “country” but “proto-city,” the original form of civilized space.  Anthony retreats to the wilderness, and soon is surrounded by disciples.  Benedict goes to the frontier, and establishes cities of monks governed by his Rule – not each monk in his own cloister but monks gathered in community.  Benedictines bring agricultural innovations with them, and they work the soil, but they also bring civilization, and over the centuries they become instruments for civic renewal.

Berry is right that the Bible contains no “contempt or hatred for nature,” and he is right that the Bible instructs us to care for a world that is a gift.  Contact with untouched creation is a good as well, but in the biblical story it is not the ultimate good.  There are trees and rivers – clean ones – in the new heavens and new earth, but there are also gates of pearl and streets of gold.  It is, after all, a city.  As our life is in the Last Adam not the first, so our hopes are directed toward the descent of a new Jerusalem not toward a return to old Eden.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 19 December 2009 13:37