Steven Bouma-Prediger on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

December 21, 2009


The Gift of Good Land

The Gift of Good Land

Thirty years ago, Wendell Berry’s pivotal essay on environmental stewardship, “The Gift of Good Land,” was published. In the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine, we reprinted the essay 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. We will be posting several of these responses each week. Our first response comes from Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, whose book For the Beauty of the Earth is itself critically important to creation care.

Living as Holy Creatures in a Holy World
By Steven Bouma-Prediger

Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” remains, after 30 years, as timely and wise as when it was first written. Like everything Berry writes, this essay displays extraordinary insight, poses difficult questions, and ultimately invites us to consider changing the way we live.

Berry is absolutely right to claim that “Christianity, as usually presented by its organizations, is not earthly enough.” We Christians have for two millennia labored under the influence of world-negating dualisms—ways of carving up the world into the material and the spiritual, body and soul. It is high time we understood that such a way of construing the world is not biblical. When in John’s gospel Jesus says not to be of this world, he means not to conform to the ways of the culture. He does not mean we should wish to escape the earth. What would it mean to embrace a more earthly or creation-loving way of life?

Berry is absolutely right to argue that “the correct understanding of dominance [in Gen. 1:28] is given in Gen. 2:15, which says that Adam and Eve were put into the Garden ‘to dress it and to keep it.’” In these texts dominion does not mean domination. Our human “superiority” over other of God’s creatures does not imply privilege but service. What would it mean for how we live to understand dominion as service?

Berry is absolutely right to emphasize that the land, the earth, is a gift—something we do not and cannot own but, rather, are called to steward. So we must be “faithful, grateful, and humble.” We must be “neighborly,” especially to strangers. And we must “practice good husbandry.” What would it mean to live out these virtues and practices in our own neighborhoods, towns, and cities?

Reading Berry is a bracing exercise in understanding how the “this–worldly aspect of Biblical thought” calls us to “right livelihood.” If we are God’s stewards, he properly concludes, then some livelihoods are right and some are not. So there can be no such thing as a “Christian strip mine” or “Christian atomic bomb” or “Christian radioactive waste dump.” Christians ought not profit from violence. Christians ought to stand against a destructive economy. Berry forces us to face such claims and consider what accepting them would look like in our daily lives. Reading Berry helps me remember that, as he says elsewhere, “we are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.” For both the challenge and the comfort of that knowledge, I am very grateful.

Steven Bouma-Prediger is Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. His most recent books include For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, revised second edition, and Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in an Age of Displacement, co-authored with Brian Walsh.

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