James Merritt on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

January 22, 2010


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 Dr. James Merritt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of today’s leading preachers and teachers.

“The Gift of Good Land,” was published 30 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 James Merritt’s reflection:

What Is “Right Livelihood” In a Good, but Broken, Land?
By James Merritt
I find Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” both informative and stimulating. For the most part, I find his emphasis on humanity’s place as stewards of God’s creation to be eminently biblical and solidly rooted in the creation account found in Genesis. For too long there has indeed been an “other worldly” mindset concerning the world itself. There is simply no moral, much less biblical, justification for a cavalier approach to the way we relate to this God-created, God-owned, and God-given world in which we live.

All of creation, including all of life, is a possession of the Creator. We, the created, are simply tenants and managers of Someone else’s property. In a sense all of this world is to be treated along the “Promised Land” paradigm that Berry so eloquently describes. The principles of good husbandry, neighborly concern for those who will follow us on this earth (as long as it is here), and ecological and agricultural discipline as practiced by those divinely guided inhabitants are universal virtues to be exhibited across space and time. This was the greatest strength of this writing to me from an ecological perspective.

I am not so sure that Berry is on as solid a ground when he ventures into what he calls “right livelihood.” He questions the existence of a “Christian atomic bomb or a Christian nuclear power plant.” Yet one could logically ask about the Godly merchants and manufacturers in the Old Testament who fashioned bows and arrows, chariots, spears, and swords. There is plenty of violence found throughout those 39 books, and much of it is sanctioned and even commanded by the Creator of the environment in which we live.

I realize there is a mass destructiveness inherent in the munitions of today that is not found in ancient warfare weaponry. But advancement in weaponry, war, and the unfortunate killing of the innocent is both a price we pay for human freedom, and the cost of living in a sinful world. Furthermore, as we know even from an environmental standpoint, there is much good that comes from the proper use of nuclear power that is far cleaner in many ways ecologically than coal and oil (our main modern fuels), or from wood, charcoal, and dung (standards in biblical days). My point is that when we stray from principles rooted squarely in Scripture to making moral judgments and pronouncements in other areas more subjective in nature, the footing becomes less stable and the points less sustainable, at least from my viewpoint.

In sum, Berry’s thought-provoking piece calls for serious reflection and perhaps in some ways repentance from a benign, if not willing, neglect of the stewardship responsibility we have for the “gift of good land” we inhabit. The application of the principles laid out by Berry will prove to be a more difficult task, and one that will not always find universal acceptance.

James Merritt is a speaker, author, and Bible teacher; pastor of Cross Pointe Church; and host of Touching Lives. A respected Christian voice with a Ph.D. in Evangelism, he has been featured in media outlets such as Hannity and Colmes, 60 Minutes, and TIME. From 2000-2002, he served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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