John Murdock on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

January 8, 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 John Murdock, a natural resources attorney in Washington, DC and a friend of Flourish to whom we owe a lot: it was John’s idea to recognize the 30th anniversary of “The Gift of Good Land” with an anniversary reprint, and he made the necessary arrangements that allowed us to do so. Thank you, John!

“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 John Murdock’s reflection.

A Call to Wise and Humble Rule
By John Murdock
In 1977 Wendell Berry turned the output of a great mind and a 1956 Royal typewriter into his first collection of essays, The Unsettling of America. He’s been unsettling us ever since. 

A prophet of prudence and propriety, Berry seeks not what we can do with technology but what we should do as humans in relationship with God, each other, and creation. Berry rightly calls hubris the great ecological sin and reminds us that the temporary use of the Lord’s creation is a gift, not an excuse for exploitation. As the physical exhaust of humanity’s industrial hubris now threatens the air we breathe and the climate we live under, Berry’s call to a biblical recognition of limits is as timely as ever.

I first encountered “The Gift of Good Land” as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University, at about the same time that I first encountered Lynn White’s essay, which Berry responds to and then transcends. Upon meeting the author some 15 years later, I realized that the integrity and bold humility of his pen proved to accurately reflect the man behind it. Wendell Berry stands his ground firmly without putting his finger to the wind. That his feet have landed at the intersection of Christianity, environmentalism, agricultural husbandry, progressivism, traditional conservatism, and democracy is a boon to all these movements.

Wendell Berry’s life and work provide a bridge between church and culture that may prove vital to the flourishing of both. All of us can too often say, “The might of mine hand hath gotten me this.” To evangelical Christians in America, perhaps tainted by a history that equates royalty with despotism, Berry reminds us that dominion is best expressed through wise and humble rule, not a backbreaking oppression of the earth that seems to descend more from Pharaoh than the God of Israel. To secular environmentalists, Berry implies that determining the proper use of the land ultimately requires looking to the Creator of the land.

Faced with many great challenges today, let us pray that humanity will respond rightly to this gift of good land and work together with our Creator to produce a sacrament, and not a desecration.

John Murdock works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C. and is a member of The Falls Church.

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