Q & A: Faith Through Food

Writer: 
June 1, 2008
Ancient lessons for modern times: Davis, left, uses biblical text to consider today's agricultural economies.

Ancient lessons for modern times: Davis, left, uses biblical text to consider today's agricultural economies. Les Todd

Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, has turned her attention, in recent years, to the Old Testament's seemingly anachronistic discussion of land use. She has found that the biblical writers have a lot to say about ecological issues. She has written a book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, due from Cambridge University Press later this year, and has toured the country and the world, lecturing on industrialized agriculture and food production, and what the Bible says about them.

You teach a course in "biblical ecology." What is biblical ecology?

It's actually always difficult for me to find a name for that course, because I don't love the name biblical ecology. The Bible is not an ecological tract. But what I'm doing in the course, and in the book that I've written, is look at how biblical writers think about land, specifically land that can be used for food production. I look at the Old Testament in conversation with the contemporary agrarian writers. People like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Norman Wirzba.

What do the biblical writers say?

The Bible really is exceptional in the literature of the ancient world in its attention to issues of land care. That's because 90, 95 percent of Israelites were farmers, but they occupied a land that was very fragile for farming. The best index of the health of the relationship between God and Israel, or God and humanity, was the health of the land. And that's pretty consistently the way the land functions [in the Bible].

Beginning already in Genesis, [chapter] 1, where you might say the classic perspective is set out, there's a tremendous emphasis on biodiversity in terms of plants bearing seed: "The Earth brought forth vegetation, seed-bearing plants of every kind." Immediately after the humans are created and given power with respect to the other creatures, then there's a reiteration of God saying, "Look, I've given you all this for food." In modern terms, what is being set forth there is the food chain, and humans' dominion, presumably, has some relation to maintaining the integrity of the food chain.

When I first heard about your research, which I'd heard described as sort of a religious environmentalism, I assumed you'd be talking about issues like global warming. But your book is all about agriculture.

Agriculture is what I'm focused on, but agriculture is very much connected to global warming and those other issues. The 2005 U.N.-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report identifies agriculture as perhaps the greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide. Half of the world's forests are gone. A third-a third-of the forests have been removed for agriculture. Seventy-five percent of our water-pollution problems come from agricultural runoff. And air problems, a lot of them, come from our meat production. So it's kind of all over the place.

In The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Gidon Eschel, a geophysicist at Bard College, was quoted as saying that almost all the ecological problems in North America have been linked to food production.

But how does this relate to biblical times?

In the ancient world, the tension was between subsistence farmers on the one hand and kings, queens, and empires on the other. There's quite good evidence that the prophetic movement arose in Israel in the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E. in response to the significant transformation of the agricultural economy in Israel, the consolidation of the agricultural economy under state control.

When you read the prophets with that in mind, then you see they're talking about farmers. So the notion of centralized agriculture as being a danger to the well-being of both land and people is deeply embedded in the Bible. Now, we have centralized agriculture in terms of multinational corporations. But there is a drastic difference because of the modern technologies used in agriculture, especially since the advent of petroleum- and chemical-based agriculture since World War II. The issue now is not only social dynamics and where power is located, but also the technological onset on natural systems.

Our job as the church is to get church people thinking more carefully about where their food comes from and what they eat. Some of the challenges that we face in terms of, say, genetic modification, would be addressed by Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy-books that present a vision for holiness, for the wholeness of life in Israel, and present that vision in terms of ordering our lives in accordance with what you might call the design of creation. In Leviticus, God says to Moses, "You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material."

I understand that there's a danger of sounding naïve. The Bible is not a scientific treatise. It offers us some principles. But it's not a manual by any means.

Of course, the other side-the industrial side-would argue that technology and industrial agriculture allow us to get more out of the land. How do you respond to that?

It's obviously the crucial question. Right now, it's true. We are producing a huge amount of food. But the cost to our natural systems is completely unsustainable. There's no question that we will not be farming the way we do now fifty or 100 years from now. The question is then, when we stop, what will be left for the coming generations to produce food with?

I'd imagine that depending on whom you talk to, you might hear that either technology will improve and continue to provide, or that God will.

Those are two really common answers. Both of which seem to me to be basically magical thinking.

How does your book fit in with other recent texts' take on the themes of what and how we eat-Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life?

I think it's a convergence. I think that the acuteness of the situation is prompting a widespread response. My text is Hebrew scripture, the Old Testament. I'm trying to suggest that for people who are disposed to take the Bible seriously-that's a lot of folks in this country, including a lot of folks involved in our food production system-if the Bible gives us a basis for providing critiques of the present industrial agriculture system, my argument might filter through to them.

How are farmers dealing with these problems now? Are they looking to the Bible or to religious leaders?

I have been lecturing for the last two years in rural areas, and I have been struck by people expressing surprise on two counts. One, that an urbanite would know anything about what was going on in rural communities. And two, that the Bible has anything to say about the situation. In general, this is not how people who are trained to be pastors have been trained to read the Bible. We're now at a time when religious leaders are just beginning to address some of these issues.

In our partisan political system, social conservatism and environmental activism often find themselves in opposition. How does an Evangelical Christian who supports socially conservative causes reconcile that split?

I don't want to comment too much upon something that is not my primary area of expertise, or about constituencies to which I don't really belong. [But] I can answer this way: A lot of my students come from relatively conservative backgrounds and are going to be serving relatively conservative constituencies. A few years ago, students would come into my class on this issue really thinking that there wasn't a religious problem here, or a theological problem here. I think that has changed in the last few years. Most of them now come into the class well aware that there is a problem. I think they quickly find that the Bible is pervasively concerned with what we would call ecological issues. And they put that up against the daily news. Also, many of my students work as rural pastors where they live in rural areas, so I don't have to tell them what's happening with the rural economy in this country. They can tell me.