Old Literature: Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

Flourish Online Magazine has been running a feature celebrating the 30th anniversary of the publication of Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Gift of Good Land”.  This essay draws lessons on “ecological and agricultural responsibility” not from Genesis 1 or 2 or even Romans 8, but from the Old Testament story of God’s gift of the Promised Land to Abraham and his descendants:  “a divine gift to a fallen people.”  And that certainly applies to us, doesn’t it?

Read the essay here, and comments from many leaders in the field of creation care here.  Below is my contribution to this collection…

On being introduced to the world of Christian environmental stewardship about ten years ago,  I found early on that I had a lot of catching up to do.  Wendell Berry was one of the authors I was directed to  who has taught and continues to teach me.  Evidently, this is true of many of my colleagues as well.  It is a privilege to be counted among those who have sat at Wendell’s feet and learned from him, and I am sure I am not the only one who wishes that that learning could have been in person rather than through the pages of his books.

“The Gift of Good Land” appeals to me not only for what it says, but for the method that Berry uses to discover the truths he wants to share.  This is not so much an essay as a sermon, in the very best sense of the word.  His purpose is twofold: “I want to attempt a biblical argument for ecological and agricultural responsibility” and “to examine the practical implications of such an argument.”  I’m not sure how Berry would feel about this analysis, but really, what he’s giving us is an old-fashioned expository message from scripture, complete with exegesis and application.  I know more than a few pastors who could learn from this essay.

This explains to some degree the timelessness of Berry’s message.  He has built his argument directly on the timeless truths of scripture, and he has done so carefully and, look – without using Genesis 1 or 2.  Not that there’s anything wrong with those two chapters, but they are used a lot in building the case for Christian environmental stewardship.  To the contrary, Berry leads us into one of the most important parts of the entire story of redemption, the gift of the Promised Land to Abraham and his descendants and thereby shows us how the principles of stewardship and ecological responsibility can be found on almost every page of the Bible.

The lessons Berry draws from his exposition call us to gratitude, neighborliness and good husbandry.  He reminds us, in one of my favorite lines, that “it might be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for fifty years.”  These admonitions are useful and balanced because they are biblical.  One of the biggest challenges the environmental movement faces is to figure out what to do with people.  We are, without question, a blight on the landscape, but that is because we’ve lived and used creation selfishly and arrogantly – sinfully, as it were.  Berry gives us permission and shows us how to live in creation:  Not carelessly, nor greedily, but with thankfulness, wonder and awe:   “When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament.”

Learning to do this in the present is our task.  With new technologies appearing every hour, we could do much worse than to follow Berry’s example in returning to the Book itself for guidance.

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