Book Review: Agrarian Spirit by Norman Wirzba

By Sarah Macias

Agrarian Spirit by Norman Wirzba comes out in August. You need to pre-order it and our Sunday School classes need to talk about it—perhaps the book in one  hand and the Covenant of the Alliance of Baptists in the other. They could actually  be great conversation partners. What Wirzba offers is an invitation for us, as  followers of Jesus, to regain our “incarnational nerve” as he calls it—to pay attention,  connect, and belong to our places, neighborhoods, and communities which is where  God dwells. The social, practical, and theological significance of such a reorientation  cannot be overestimated. 

This book is a primer in agrarian fundamentals, yet it is not a book about being  a farmer. Nor is it a romantic, nostalgic lament of how things once were. It is rather a  wake-up call to the dishonesty and dangers of the soul/body dualisms and gnostic  theologies that are so pervasive in our tradition—and always have been. These are  the familiar philosophies that elevate soul over body and mind over living flesh.  They are not biblical, and they are not true—but they have a hold on us. They have  caused us to look up, up, and away toward a separate and other-worldly heaven instead of “on earth,” where Jesus places us in the Lord’s Prayer. Rather than flying  away and fleeing, we are called to touch and connect, in tangible and covenantal  ways to our neighborhood and our neighbors. 

I am not sure that a life of Christian discipleship can be expressed in any more  basic terms. Attending to our places (including our watersheds, as the 2018 Alliance  Gathering reminded us) brings us into better relationship with the embodied  expressions of God’s love in our midst. This translates into a better understanding of  ourselves as participants in the interwoven “meshwork” (a term Wirzba borrows from  anthropologist Tim Ingold) of relationality which is undeniably made manifest in our  shared lives. Until then we are oblivious to not only where we are but who we are  with and, consequently, who we are. 

We have fooled ourselves for too long into thinking that we are independent  beings at the center of the universe. This inward focus is dangerous and contrary to any agrarian or indigenous wisdom, scriptural or otherwise. From such dis orientated and distorted thinking we can never cultivate community but instead will  continue to perpetuate a “slow violence” that undermines the health of all life. Fed  by the falsehoods of scarcity and competition rather than kinship and generosity, we  are agents of fear rather than communion. As a result, we objectify, commodify, and  dispose of people and places. This stems simply from what Wirzba suggests is “a  crisis of seeing.” 

Could it be that the agrarian God of Scripture offers the reorienting lens that is  needed, even and maybe especially to an urban world? Perhaps no institution is  more uniquely positioned than our local church to bring us into a posture of  affection for the local places in which we live. What if Christians were to take  seriously the incarnation of God in Jesus as an agrarian—one who works for the  well-being of their places and communities—one who understands that a human  life cannot flourish apart from “fertile soil, clean water, abundant green spaces,  nutritious food, genuine health care, safe neighborhoods, beautiful homes, child and  family support, youth empowerment, inclusion and honoring of the elderly,  worthwhile work, and strong traditions of memory.” 

We might add our own distinctively local descriptors to this agrarian definition  offered by Wirzba. They will only come from paying attention to what is under our  feet and all around us. This attentiveness to place will lead us down (not up!) what  Wirzba calls a “path of transformation.” To be clear, he advises that this is a path  which requires more patience and humility than a road. A road transports us as  quickly as possible—away—to another place—and then to another. A path causes us  to slow down as we meander around and alongside rocks and rivers as well as local  homes, businesses, and schools. On a road, these either would be unnoticed by us  or they would have been removed as an obstacle in our way. The slower path offers  us fresh eyes then to see both human and more-than-human neighbors in new and  meaningful ways. 

This shift from an I-It (object) to an I-Thou (subject) relationship is not a new  one, but Wirzba cautions that even when viewing others as subjects, it is possible to  think of ourselves as “sovereign, self-enclosed, (and) self-standing.” This is where I  find the concept he is using of a “meshwork” to describe our place in the world as  super helpful. It moves us beyond the over-used descriptions of the world as an  interconnected network (which I have used many times) or as a collection of unique  and distinctive bodies (a helpful metaphor but also limited). Meshwork thinking  undoes any argument of things being connected but separate and self-contained.  Instead, it suggests that things are their relations, an inter-weaving of stories, a  wondrous and wounded entanglement of people, places, and processes. As such,  we are “enmeshed, needy dynamic conduits or vessels through which God’s life creating love can (my emphasis) freely move.” 

In contrast to other creatures who instinctively live, become, and belong  where they are, we can only choose this posture. It is time that we do so—in  intentional and thoughtful ways—and there is a lot at stake if we do not. With the  ancient but fresh wisdom of Genesis to Revelation and Maximus the Confessor to Wendell Berry, Agrarian Spirit offers us some basic steps towards a heavenly (on  earth) agrarian city. It is a place where we open ourselves to the pains and  possibilities of our communities—where we become citizens who are committed,  along with a God who becomes flesh, to the flourishing of all people, fellow  creatures, and the land upon which we all live. Let us walk on this path together.

The book is available at Notre Dame Press and there is a discount if you order the book this summer from the publisher.

Rev. Sarah Macias is pastoralist/theologian at Sister Grove Farm and is enrolled in the Land, Food, and Faith track of the Doctor of Ministry program at Memphis Theological  Seminary. She and her husband Rodney are members of Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas, Tex.

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