Denis Haack on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

December 28, 2009


The Gift of Good Land

The Gift of Good Land

Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Denis Haack, the co-founder and co-director of Ransom Fellowship. “The Gift of Good Land,” was published thirty years ago, and we reprinted it in the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine to celebrate Mr. Berry’s work, but also to provoke some questions: How has the natural world, and efforts to steward it, changed in these 30 years? How has Christianity changed? What is still relevant about Mr. Berry’s words today? What have been our successes and failures as creation’s stewards in these three decades? Where do we go from here?

We’ve asked a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders to respond to Mr. Berry’s essay, taking into consideration these questions and their own relevant experiences. Here is Denis Haack’s reflection.

Loving a Planet Destined for Fire
By Denis Haack

My first introduction to our divine calling as stewards of the earth came not from Wendell Berry but from Francis Schaeffer. The fundamentalism of my youth insisted the earth would be annihilated in a burning cataclysm, of no use to a God whose interest was spiritual not physical. In the meantime our job was to rescue souls from a planet doomed to destruction.

Schaeffer would have none of it. The creation, he insisted, is loved by its Creator, is destined for renewal, and will be our home forever. In ideas later distilled in Pollution and the Death of Man, Schaeffer argued that our care for the earth is a calling that must be assumed with passion, that the tree and ant are fellow creatures, not disposable items in a quest to carve out a lifestyle of personal peace and affluence.

Wendell Berry came later. His voice was like rich Kentucky bourbon, earthy, bracing, best embraced slowly and straight. Somehow the dirt from his farming found its way onto the page, his love for not just all land but this land on which he lived and worked informing his ideas and shaping his conclusions. Like the wise man of Scripture, Berry “passed by a field… saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction” (Proverbs 24:30-34). He is informed by giving the gift of unhurried time, of listening to people, yes, but also to the quiet whisper of God’s glory in creation.
Both mentors spoke with power because their words were rooted deeply in the Scriptures, not merely informed by the latest crisis in the environment. Schaeffer reoriented my worldview so that I could embrace the creation for what it is, Berry nurtured my soul with a love for it so that I could see past the narrow ideologies that jockey for advantage in our politicized society.

I have no memory of when I first read “The Gift of Good Land.” Reading him has always been that way for me, less like discreet events alone with a book than a leisurely walk on the back 40 acres listening to reflections shaped by hard work and uncompromised love. Even when I disagree with something Berry writes—finding his exegesis of a text strained or discovering an assumption I cannot share or hearing some theology I think flawed—I am still always deeply grateful for the encounter. Even if some detail can be improved upon Berry’s primary argument is unassailable.

Rereading “The Gift of Good Land” now reminds me of how great writing stands the test of time. Distinctly relevant to the moment the author is unmoved by passing concerns and instead digs deeply to mine the truth which the headlines fail to touch. The recorder of the ancient Hebrew Chronicles noted that the exile was, in part at least, a judgment for the people of God’s misuse of the land (2 Chronicles 36:21). A historical reminder of how wealth can be accumulated by a people whose souls remain poverty-stricken. May Berry’s wise voice be heard, and heeded, today.

Denis Haack is co-founder and co-director, with his wife and best friend Margie, of Ransom Fellowship. Their passion is to help Christians learn to be discerning rather than defensive in our increasingly pluralistic world, applying the truth of the gospel to all of life and culture.

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