Land on Loan: Understanding and Keeping the Earth with Ellen Davis

A few years ago a friend and I were discussing the ethics of the coffee we were drinking and where it came from. As we walked out of the coffee shop, she mentioned that she was reading a book for her Christian ethics class at Fuller Theological Seminary.  The book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, describes the connection between biblical text and the land that was created. The author, Dr. Ellen Davis, is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. Over the past twenty years Ellen has become a leading voice in the food and faith movement.

As we end this month of discussing the land and powerful women in history, I want to introduce you to one of the most incredible women I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

MLK: Your book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian reading of the Bible, has been an inspiration to me.  When did you first see the connection between scripture and land? 

ED: 1992. I was teaching an introductory divinity class at Yale Divinity and my teaching assistant told me I needed to ask a question about land on the final exam. I asked why and he said because I had talked about it in every lecture. Once he highlighted that, I began paying attention to what I was saying in the course about when the bible was referencing the land.

MLK: Who has influenced you in your thoughts on the land? 

ED: Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry. It would probably be impossible to do the work that I have done without the work that they had begun 50 years ago.

MLK: What are practical ways that you connect the land and scripture? 

ED: Try to bear in mind (in teaching and writing) where it [the Bible] was written and what are the particularities of the land of Israel. Most of the scripture was written in the land of Israel, certainly all of it being referenced to that land.  It is a fragile, ecological niche. Very marginal topography for farming.

MLK: You are first and foremost an Old Testament scholar. I have met many Christians who want to find New Testament (NT) biblical text that encourages a relationship between us and the land. Are there any NT texts that speak of the land? 

ED: Yes, there are. You have to change the categories a little bit in terms of what you are searching for in the text because in the NT period it was not so much a land of farmers living in villages—it was more urbanized—and more people were slaves, not land owners.  The world, as we know it, was going to change drastically.  New Creation is very important. New heavens and a New Earth. The whole book of revelation is presented as a prophecy and is looking back at Ezekiel’s vision of a land, Isaiah’s vision of New Heavens and a New Earth, of water being available without price, the NT writers expected that the world as they knew it would change drastically.

I do think there are New Testament texts, but you do not see the continual reference to soil and to farming that you do in the Old Testament. If you become attuned to the phenomenon in the variety of ways that the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is talking about land then especially in those NT texts that are continually making references to the Hebrew Scriptures, you can see how they are picking up those themes.  Jesus is using the theme of farming frequently as the basis of his imagery, which points to social reality. Metaphors only make sense in a certain social context.

MLK: Gardening is something that my husband and I love to do. To you, is gardening a spiritual discipline or a sacrament?

 ED: I think caring for any creature of God’s is a spiritual discipline. Caring for a child, an old person, one’s own ailing body, one’s mortal flesh, all these things are a discipline. Caring for the good, but demanding things that God has given. Something that God has made in love and entrusted us to care for. So how could that not be a discipline? One can only observe so many spiritual disciplines intensely. I think we all have to be very mindful which responsibilities we can take on directly. Not everyone has to spend a lot of time in the kitchen or in the garden (I love both of those spaces, but I spend more time in the kitchen).  One has to make some spiritual discernments.

MLK: In the conference last year, where we met, you said, “hope is our job.”  Could you unpack that for me? 

ED: I was stating hope as a Christian responsibility. Jews regard it as a responsibility—so it’s not just Christian. I was distinguishing hope from optimism or cheerfulness as feelings. Optimism is sometimes a fantasy. Not always, but sometimes a fantasy that is not always based in reality.

I’m generally hopeful for the future. I think that there is a realistic basis found in people’s understanding of these issues and concern for these issues. When I began thinking about this topic in a concentrated way around 1992, we were in a drastically different place. Now we have young people claiming vocations that bear on the problem of how we eat. I would identify the work that Mary Lee Kitchen is doing as one of those acts of claiming a realistic vocation that illumines some aspect of the problem, and moves forward in a hopeful way that is also instructive for others. There is a lot of that happening, so that makes me hopeful. The problems are very grave and I think we increasingly realize how deep the problems are.

I am not optimistic about things like climate change and the effects of toxicity (on the body or the land). I suspect that there are things whose dimensions we do not grasp at all, or are only beginning to grasp. The colony collapse of bees is one of those things. I am not optimistic in the sense that ‘Every day and in every way, things are getting better and better.’ However,  you can now talk about these things widely in our society and in the church without people looking at you like you have taken leave of your senses. That’s not where we were when I first began looking into this.

MLK: It has been said that food was made into a convenience item to allow women to work industrial jobs during WWII. This convenience allowed women to have the ability to hold down a 9-5 job, a family, and have a warm dinner (even if it started frozen) to serve. Because of this, some women have argue that “going back to the kitchen or gardening” is regressing. What do you say to this? 

ED: I don’t hear this objection from North American students now in the same way that I did in the Northeast, in a very urbanized context, over 20 years ago. I would also say that teaching that same idea in Africa, where women are the primary preparers and producers of food, does change your way of hearing that text.

Once you recognize that food has to be the basis of every real economy, the key issue is an economic issue. The central economic questions are, “Who is going to eat? How are we going to eat without destroying the base of our economy?” Then you realize that the people who are procuring the food, producing the food, and preparing the food for the homes are central economic figures. That’s how women in the bible are represented (when preparing or offering food). They are seen in the context of a land based and food based economy. That is a concern and responsibility for both men and women. Also, what are our homes for? Are our homes bases out of which we are rocketed out into the world to do our real work? If that is the case, then our homes are purely places of consumption. Or are homes also places of creativity, including material creativity? Gardening. Cooking. Teaching. Showing people how to think about food. These are crucial issues.

I have some students who are suffering from under nutrition or malnutrition. That is not because there isn’t the money for them to eat. It’s because they don’t have the knowledge of how to eat or how to prepare nutritional food for themselves. In some cases that is actually jeopardizing their health. These are young people, who are well educated. I think of it as a key issue.

MLK: When you encourage your students to go out and change the world, how do you also encourage them to do it slowly?

ED: A lot of what I talk about has to do with recognizing limits. Wes Jackson talks a great deal about this, “what will the land allow us to do?” It is asking about the limits of our situation. It is recognizing the limits of our own personal abilities, physical energy, and time. When I am talking to people who trust me enough to listen, I talk about burnout. There are probably a few people who are possibly called to work beyond the limits of what is reasonable. But, if you do that, you have to count the cost in advance. You don’t build a tower without counting the cost.

This is a question of spiritual discernment. What are you called to do? Certainly you’re not called to [exert] yourself to no purpose. Nobody is called to [exert] themselves to no purpose. Scripture, Culture, Agriculture has a chapter on “good work”—which encourages one to think about Sabbath. I don’t think we all have to interpret the symbol of Sabbath in the same way, but we do have to interpret it and live it out in some way! We have to find ways of stopping and giving time to God. And giving time to those with whom we are privileged to share life.

MLK: How do you encourage people to come back to the table, no matter where they are at religiously, with dietary restrictions, racially, sexually, politically? Both personally and professionally?

ED: Personally, I do this, and have for most of my life, by cooking and asking people into my home. That has been the most significant way that I have done it through the years.

Professionally, I do this through speaking very widely and writing for a broad audience. There was a reason that Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture wasn’t published by a church related press or denominationally related press as most of my books are. That’s because most of my books are asking questions that are meaningful to a religiously/church based audience. I wanted to be sure that this book was not only heard as a homiletical statement, but that it was heard by people in the academy. I wanted to be sure that it was a book that would work for both Jews and Christians.  To my surprise, it has reached a broad audience who don’t necessarily take the Bible seriously, but take agrarianism seriously. I speak as a biblical scholar, but I don’t presume either knowledge of the Bible or commitment to the Bible in my audience.

MLK: Many of the major cities in the Unites States now have diverse restaurants for every diet (seasonal, vegan, localvore, etc.). These inclusive restaurants unfortunately seem to create a separation between people believing certain diets are better than others. Do you think that gathering together can actually happen publicly? 

ED: I do. I think that restaurants, and in some cases the cookbooks that they have produced, have been tremendously important in making these concerns “cool” and in educating  people so they know how to cook healthy food that actually tastes good and to cook in new ways. I’ve been cooking my whole life, but I’ve had to learn a new way to cook that pays more attention to fresh vegetables, because that was not how my mother cooked. My parents had a very meat based diet, whereas I tend to use meat in a secondary way rather than a primary way. I learned how to do that. I don’t eat out very much because it’s more relaxing for me to cook a meal than to go out for a meal. Eating out is not significant to me, but I have benefitted from this movement by cookbooks that have taught me how to eat in interesting ways. So I think that it is very important and that there is a continual interaction between restaurants and homes.  For some people, inviting people into your homes to cook a meal is not realistic or enjoyable.

For more of Ellen’s teachings, check out her books by clicking here.

By | 2015-08-04T22:00:02+00:00 March 26th, 2015|Categories: Blog, Food and Faith, Food Education, Table Conversation|Tags: , , , |2 Comments

About the Author:

A native Texan who, after being diagnosed with food allergies and Celiac Disease in her mid-twenties, wanted to help others who drastically had to change their diets later in life. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, where she operates Mary Lee Kitchen.

2 Comments

  1. Lindsey July 2, 2015 at 10:01 am - Reply

    LOVED this interview, Elizabeth! Ellen is one of those women whom I so admire and would love to just sit and listen to. I’m kind of jealous you got to interview her. 🙂 But this was really well done, with thoughtful questions. Thanks for doing this!

    • maryleekitchen July 3, 2015 at 1:37 pm - Reply

      Lindsey,

      Thank you! Ellen is such an inspiration to me and I loved getting to spend time with her and really soak in the wisdom that she has. Her reminder that, “it is our job to have hope” keeps me optimistic for the future.

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