It is almost the time of year when people begin to fish out an old notebook to jot down a bulleted list of New Year’s resolutions. I’m a sucker for it, too, so do not mistake this as a critique. There is something about a blank canvas that seems so appealing, is there not? All of our bad habits — we can throw them out! All of the things we never have time for — let’s find some minutes for them! All of our dreams — let’s chase them!
I took a class on the infancy narratives this semester and thus have spent a great deal of time studying the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke over the past few months. It wasn’t until after my final assignment was due that I flipped the page in my Bible to Luke 4 where Jesus is now grown up. It’s one of my favorite passages, and I couldn’t help but think how it can serve as a measuring stick for our 2020 and beyond goals as Christians.
In this passage, Jesus stands up in the Synagogue, picks up the reading for the day — Isaiah 61 — and reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolls it up, sits back down, feels all of the eyes on him, and proclaims — “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Promptly, he is thrown out of the synagogue and the people attempt to throw him off the cliff.
The first real message that Jesus delivers in the Gospel of Luke explains that Jesus came to
bring good news to the poor
proclaim release to the captives
recover sight to the blind
let the oppressed go free
proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
When we make our New Year’s resolutions as individuals and churches, what if we compared them to this list?
Are our actions bringing good news to the poor or spreading the gap of inequality?
Are we proclaiming freedom or confinement to the captives? Are we putting people in cages or are we breaking chains?
Are we agents of healing in our places or are we powers that bring devastating pain?
Are we oppressing others? Are we indifferent to oppression? Or are we working to fight against those who wield power and harm others? Are we holding swords or plowshares in our hands?
When we think about what our goals are for this new year, I hope we take a sobering look at the words of Jesus. Instead of looking to find a comforting word, we ought to see a lifestyle that pushes and challenges our deeply seated comforts and convictions.
In anticipation of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s return to the Koka Booth Amphitheater in late June, here is my review from last fall’s set, with an added emphasis on Isbell and practical theology.
Switching back-and-forth between his favorite Telecaster and Gibson guitars on a buggy Friday evening in Cary, North Carolina, Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit band delivered a performance nothing short of revelatory. In-between the 100 decibel alluring guitar licks and Isbell’s Muscle Shoals, Alabama southern drawl blaring over the speakers, rapturous applause was all that could be heard from the Koka Booth Amphitheater crowd.
Isbell and the 400
Unit Band took the stage after the Milk Carton Kids’ opened with a quiet,
acoustic 45-minute set. Isbell and the 400 Unit, often labeled as members of
the Americana genre, are a five-piece band which leans on the slide guitar of
Sadler Vaden. Smoke machines and overbearing light shows may be typical of the
21st century rock concerts, but Isbell’s 400 Unit does not follow
suit. The only decoration on the stage is the band’s logo – an anchor and
sparrow, in part inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” – in stain
glass form on the backdrop. The typical rock-and-roll conventions may be
absent, but the deafening sound is still there. Isbell, as he noted throughout
the concert, loves to rock.
Even the slow ballads that Isbell and the 400 Unit performed – like “Cover Me Up” and “Flagship” – become something of a spectacle in concert. Isbell’s lyrics are littered with references that have never been more personal until his voice ripped through the amphitheater. He sung about the desire for unending love in “If We Were Vampires,” of leaving home in “Speed Trap Town,” and of the fragility of life in “Elephant.” When Isbell sings about county fairs, high school football games, and endless highways he imagines the images are as clear in your mind as they are in his. His voice – which elicits the same sensation one gets when watching a purplish sunset or eating cookies fresh out of the oven – may be what the fans come for, but it is the lyrics that have the ability to move anyone to tears. Much like his lyrics, Isbell’s voice is unassuming and honest. It is practical and piercing. It is his vehicle for telling stories.
The divine was mentioned in passing throughout the concert. Isbell sings in “24 Frames”, “You thought God was an architect, now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow. And everything you built was all for show and goes up in flames.” Later, during “Something More Than Free” Isbell sings the refrain, “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” And in his latest tune “Maybe It’s Time” – performed by Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” – Isbell writes, “Nobody speaks to God these days. I’d like to think he’s looking down, laughing at our ways.” Passingly throughout the rest of his catalogue Isbell touches on his thoughts about God, however a constant theme does not occur.
Isbell does have a
practical theology, though, which focuses on loving others as yourself and
seeing potential in the world. After finishing “If We Were Vampires” on Friday
evening – an award winning, gripping, tear-jerking love song – Isbell stripped
his guitar, stepped to the microphone, and spoke, “Y’all take care of each
other, you hear? Be good to one another.” Isbell preaches loving others – and
his sermons are his songs.
This was evident when halfway through the concert Isbell and the band played “White Man’s World” which challenges the racial and gender inequalities built into the American psyche. Isbell sings, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war. Your creature comforts aren’t the only thing worth fighting for. If you’re still breathing it’s not too late. We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.” “White Man’s World” elicited one of the strongest reactions from the crowd all night – a standing ovation from most.
The band followed it up with “Relatively Easy” off of Isbell’s solo record Southeastern. It seems the song is about people living a much more comfortable life than many around the world and not understanding their privilege. The chorus repeats, “Still compared to those a stone’s throw away from you, our lives have been relatively easy.” Isbell also performed “Cumberland Gap” which touches on the effect of strip mining and “Dress Blues” which challenges the purpose of war.
Isbell and his 400
Unit are extremely conscious of the world around them and the way the songs can
enforce change. In an interview with NPR last year Isbell noted, “If we’re not
talking about the things that we believe, then we’re not really using our voice
to their full potential, and we’re not really making art.”
When Isbell was asked what influence he would like to have as a musician, he
said he wants people to “see(ing) that something is possible” and that
something is different for everyone.
Many of the tunes
Isbell and the 400 Unit played were peppered with a longing for change, and a
wistful yearn for comfort in a world of pain. These lyrics about longing and
searching for this time when what we yearn for becomes possible – perhaps a
world full of justice and mercy and truth and love – may be what draws
listeners the most. Isbell taps into the part of humanity that is always hoping
and searching. That piece inside of every human that recognizes fallenness and
dreams of change. The hope for Christians – the coming kingdom – is never
specifically mentioned by Isbell. He never sings of “thy kingdom come” or the
time when “every knee will bow,” but his lyrics express the longing that
everyone faces and the brokenness that everyone feels all too well. And that is
a sermon that everyone needs to hear.
Convenience is king. It may not be initially apparent, but that is because the art of convenience – being able to get what you want, when you want it, and as quickly as possible – has become so deeply embedded into the American psyche that it is hardly noticeable. With the rise of technology, the average American can now get their groceries and household necessities without ever stepping foot into a grocery store, much less coming within a thousand miles of where the food was physically grown. A few clicks, taps, and of course a Credit Card number, and “fresh” fruits and vegetables are brought out to your car at the local grocer or even delivered to your doorstop next to the morning paper. It’s in with the new – convenience, ease, and expediency – and out with the old – namely, any type of connectivity with the land. With this loss of connectivity to the land has gone any semblance of a genuine food culture. In turn, we have lost what Jennifer Ayers calls the process of “thoughtful eating.” Ayers defines thoughtful eating as the understanding that there is “no human fellowship without a table, no table without a kitchen, no kitchen without a garden, no garden without a viable ecosystem, no ecosystems without the forces productive of life, and no life without its sources to God” (Ayers, p. 59). Essentially, thoughtful eating is understanding that food does not just drop onto your plate out of thin air and instead arises from a complex web of occurrences from planting to transportation and many steps in-between (Ayers takes it all the way back to God). In this essay I will argue that the lack of connectivity to the land has directly led to a loss of thoughtful eating. First, I will examine Americans continued distancing from the land and how it has in turn created a lack of thoughtful eating, then move to the role education has played in creating this phenomenon, and conclude with theological emphases that can help reinvigorate a culture of thoughtful eating.
Americans are more distanced from their food than ever before both figuratively and literally. This, I argue, is the fundamental reason why thoughtful eating has gone to the wayside. In her chapter, “Called Home” in Animals, Vegetables, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver lays out the hard facts: in the modern U.S. city “virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away,” the average food item on a grocery shelf “has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacation,” and the water is “pumped from a non-renewable source – a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles” (Kingsolver, pp. 3-5). Two of the most basic ingredients of sustaining human life – food and water – are increasingly being imported from afar rather than being grown or obtained locally. And although this process is often labeled as convenient, it cannot be deemed healthy for humans, animals, or the environment. Food insecurity and food deserts are rampant, workers of the land are treated poorly in their labor conditions and in their pay, the earth is given no time to rest, and animals are treated with no dignity. Michael Northcutt sums it up best when he says that this distancing from the land along with the increase of the global and industrial food economy has had direct effects on the way people eat and think about how they eat (Northcutt, p. 214).
With Northcutt’s statement in mind, I
will now turn to how this distancing from the land has changed the way
Americans eat. Food, which at its best can “provide powerful pathways for
sharing and sustaining beliefs, and for passing on and retelling memories,
narratives, and traditions” has been individualized to a great degree
(Northcutt, pp. 214-215). A once communal, deeply involved act of growing,
preparing, and eating has now been relegated to “pre-prepared and pre-packaged
food from a factory or fast food outlet,” consumed often times alone
(Northcutt, p. 223). Northcutt argues that this individualized eating is
indicative of the growing global, industrial food economy. The process of
making food has become delegated to professionals and more and more people have
detached the process of making food from their daily routines. The question
becomes apparent: how can someone develop a genuine love for food, its origins,
and its effects on the land and animals, when they have no attachment to it
whatsoever? Further, if thoughtful eating is the process of understanding where
food comes from – starting with the table and going all the way back to God –
how is it possible to retain this in a day-and-age dominated by pre-packaged,
ready-made, fast food? The lack of connectivity to the land has created a food
culture that does not think about the consequences of eating and instead
Before any answers, we must quickly turn to the ways that education has enhanced this issue. Education, both secular and theological, is undoubtedly partially to blame for this problem. Education has moved from the realm of practicality to the realm of theory in most modern universities, in turn emphasizing the “presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt” (Kingsolver, p. 9). Kingsolver notes that as more Americans walked away from the land (a product of the educational systems), our understanding of food production went with it (Kingsolver, p. 12). When defining the land and the jobs which are associated with it as lower and less important, food culture (in particular what Ayers calls “thoughtful eating”) disappears as well. This is because food culture arises “out of a place, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging” and cannot be sold to people (Kingsolver, 17). If a love for the land dies, so too, will a desire to understand the processes in which the land produces. Theologically, there has been a lack of emphasis of humans as members of creation and on the Eucharist meal in many traditions (Ayers, pp. 71-72). Instead of membership, we have settled for dominion. Instead of meaningful Eucharist meals, we have turned to a superficial, ambiguous understanding of Eucharist as a token event done once in a while during Sunday services. As we turn to what ought to be happening, I argue that it must start with understanding humanity as a member in creation and Eucharist as “faithful feasting” (Northcutt, p. 266).
Moving to the normative task, I argue that a reinvigoration of humans as members of creation is the one way to regain thoughtful eating. Ayers and Wendell Berry are both extremely important in developing this concept of membership. Ayers emphasizes that through Christ God has gifted us with a “radical gift of membership” that gives humans the “sacred obligation to continually seek, tend, and nurture the bonds of connectedness in God’s whole creation (Ayers, p. 71). Berry states that in order to live “we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation,” and when we do so with care, “it is a sacrament” (Ayers, pp. 69-70). On the other hand, when done out of ignorance and greed, “it is a desecration” (Ayers, 69-70). To build off Ayers and Berry, if humanity sees itself as members of creation, the land and animals become brothers and sisters to us. The desire to take better care of the environment, to fight for animals’ rights, and to re-connect with the processes of food making will be invigorated. When properly oriented as a member (and not dominator) of creation, thoughtful eating becomes second nature (or perhaps it was natural all along).
Another way that theological education can help create thoughtful eating is through the sacrament of Eucharist. Although every scholar that I read on this topic approaches food culture in different ways, they each presented a renewed understanding of Eucharist as part of the solution. Fred Edie suggests that Eucharist is a key component in developing an ecological catechesis for Christians. Edie develops the idea of Eucharist as a “regular and discernibly robust ritual meal shared in community” but additionally a way to explore a “care for the land, sustainable agriculture, just practices of food distribution, and limited economies of sufficiency (Edie, pp. 10-11). Similarly, Northcutt suggests that there is “an urgent need to recover the full agrarian and social significance of Eucharist in Christian worship” (Northcutt, 224). Northcutt believes that if Christians come to understand Eucharist as a truly holy meal of “faithful feasting” then all meals will become holy. If so, “all meals should be accompanied by prayerful recognition of the gifts of creation,” which, I argue, Ayers would understand as thoughtful eating (Northcutt, 266).
Christians should take seriously these recommendations for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps none more poignant than out of an understanding of the sovereignty of God. If Christians take seriously God as creator of the Heavens and the Earth and Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor (who can be seen as both the ground being tilled and the tiller), the desire to eat thoughtfully and live in membership with creation is a natural extension of those principles. As Edie points out, Christians have not done very well at this historically – specifically the ‘Christianized West’ which has “proven to be the most rapacious and least earth-friendly on the planet” (Edie, p. 1). Living sustainably does not mean living conveniently. Living sustainably does not mean living short-sightedly. Living sustainably means being thoughtful, humble, and aware of our effects on the world, and I argue that regaining a food culture of thoughtful eating is a great place to start. Theologically, through a better understanding of humans as members of creation and the Eucharist as a robust, communal, and fundamentally ecological meal, there will be a natural growing into a re-connection with the land and a more productive way of eating thoughtfully.
Sources (and for further reading)
Ayers, “Making Room at the Table” in Good Food
“Ecological Catechesis for Holy Things” in Call
“Called Home” in Animal, Vegetable,
“Faithful Feasting” in A Moral Climate:
The Ethics of Global Warming
When it is cold out – particularly on a morning where laziness is not just OK but expected – I often wake up and am unable to understand where I begin and my bed ends. In the moment when the mind stirs from slumber there is a certain comfort that envelops and inundates to the point that movement of the smallest degree becomes the utmost of adversaries. The ephemeral – yet desirably eternal – feeling of lying half-awake under the covers on a chilly morning, basking in the warmth of the moment, and hoping to never move a muscle, is the only way I know to describe my relationship to the writings of Wendell Berry.
Habitually when I am reading Berry’s words I wonder if the 84-year-old Kentuckian has been inside of my mind and put poetic language to my deepest convictions or instead if I have been inside of his so much that I cannot begin to separate the way I think, identify, and act without using his very language.
The comfort and contentment sprawled in bed on a chilly morning is truly the only way I find that I am able to communicate what certain pieces of art or their creators mean to me. The peace and interconnectedness between the spiritual and the physical that art can bring is so cavernous that words, images, or musical notes seem to lose all meaning and context and instead turn into an energy beaming from the soul.
Wendell Berry, and especially his writings on the necessity of a certain healthy criticalness and skepticism, has been the warm blanket that swathes me as I wake and pray to God.
As a boy I was always inquisitive – some would say to a fault. I wanted to know about the presidents, so I memorized them in order in first grade and recited it whenever mom and dad wanted to show me off. I loved Atlanta Braves baseball, so I watched them every night and threw a ball against the garage wall every day until someone corralled me in. I went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, so I read my Bible, prayed, and most importantly, wanted to know more.
For me, part of wanting to learn was asking questions. If I got to ask what John Quincy Adams did as president or question whether or not Bobby Cox should go to the bullpen in the eighth inning, I surely was going to wonder about things like heaven, hell, and everything in between.
It wouldn’t be much later that I would stumble across a poem – Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front – that would become the chorus of my intellectual (and thus theological) life. Nestled amongst a couple dozen get-off-my-lawn type poems in one of Berry’s many books of poetry was a page of writing that would not just change my life because of its words, but more importantly push me headfirst into a love for Berry’s writings. In this poem I read lines that made me feel alive intellectually like never before:
Every day do something that won’t compute…Praise ignorance. For what man has not encountered he has not destroyed…Ask the questions that have no answer…Be joyful though you have considered all of the facts…Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.
After picking up my jaw, I read it over, then again, and once more for good measure. Then I flipped a few pages and found The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer and discovered lines such as
‘Dance,’ they told me, and I stood still, and while they stood quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced. ‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan. When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’ I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me ‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
Berry spoke to the contrarian within me. The child who asked when he was told to listen. The teenager who poured over books that congregations would prefer be banned. The young man who dreamed of a church that questions instead of nods.
The central tenant of my epistemology, which in turn reflects the way I form my theology, is the idea that critical thought and questioning is not just a part of but central to the Christian life. Nothing is off the table. When the father of the child Jesus heals cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief,” I take that verse to heart. Some days my unbelief may deal with scripture, other days it could be metaphysical, and often it may be scientific – but my refrain that I pray is always that of the man crying out to Jesus. I find that when I come through bouts of unbelief, my belief in turn becomes stronger. Learning, for me, has always been about not just discovering information but processing how I felt about it, if it was applicable, and asking questions.
I find that what many people see as the solid ground that Jesus talks about in Matthew 27 – built on words like fundamental, inerrant, infallible – is often a sandy foundation that floats away when the slightest push or prod comes. Rather the bedrock of a solid foundation is built upon not just a healthy skepticism, but perhaps more clearly as Berry says, a willingness to “praise ignorance” and “be joyful though you have considered all of the facts.”
In an essay entitled Poetry and Marriage Berry eloquently says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” This became a mantra of sort for the way I formed my theology. When I read the Bible, look at the world, and dream of a better future, I ask myself: Am I becoming complacent in the way I think and am I allowing myself to be influenced by people that are different than me? Am I allowing my stream – my way of life – to become disrupted? Because it is in those moments that beauty (singing) comes.
Berry solved two major problems in my early intellectual life and these poems happen to highlight them most prominently. First, I wanted to think, but felt like I couldn’t. Or wasn’t allowed within Christianity. Berry says that thinking should never be spurned. In fact, it is the mind that is “baffled” that is truly thriving.
In the Mad Farmer Manifesto he praises the idea of “ask(ing) the questions that have no answers,” as well. This was the biggest problem for me once I adopted a mindset that was centered around critical thought. How can I ever find peace amidst a mind that is constantly criticizing, questioning, and burdened? How can I find a healthy balance between skepticism and incomprehension? Further, is there ever contentment there, or is it a life muddled with a sense of uncertainty?
Berry answers, “praise ignorance” and to “give your approval to all you cannot understand.” He backs up his idea that “the impeded stream is the one that sings” by also noting that there is a type of ignorance that should be praised – it’s not born from a failure to think, but a willingness to let go at times. Further, Berry argues that it is in the moment when we “no longer know which way to go, [then] we have begun our real journey.”
As I made my way through the scores of Berry’s writings what stuck out to me more than any of his breathtaking fiction or thought-provoking poetry was a tiny book both in size and length. The book – Blessed Are the Peacemakers – was what initially consoled me after the depressing response by many Americans to the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. I wondered to myself how anyone could call themselves a Christian and not stand up for change? It was the first time in my life that I can remember wanting to draw a line between myself and “the other” within Christianity. On the first page of Blessed are the Peacemakers Berry writes,
Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian.’
But instead of Berry continuing his essay by bashing people who adhere to this process, he turns to the text. He goes on to list every place in the Gospels that Jesus speaks about strife, compassion, peacemaking, and forgiveness. He does not add any commentary. He just lists them. Berry allows the reader to look at the words and decide on their own what Jesus is advocating for. Berry calls for a renewed emphasis on re-reading the words of Jesus. He asks for the reader to think about how the words of Jesus affect the way we live. He is not afraid to look at the world around him and wonder if it couldn’t be a little better.
After going through the list of verses, Berry tackles what he calls “the burden of the gospel.” For every verse that makes perfect sense, there are also those that “sometimes raise the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands. This is the confession of an unconfident reader.” And he ends his beautiful book by asking a question instead of answering it: “It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.”
It is for these reasons exactly – asking questions, being content in not knowing the answer, and shunning those who say they know it all – that Berry most readily affected my theology.
The best type of art, in my opinion, is that which reminds us of the fragility of life and inspires us to live more passionately in its stead. In Berry’s writings I find myself constantly broken yet immediately uplifted. I am reminded of my smallness, my incompleteness, and my inability to understand God’s ways. And then told that I am not alone. In Berry’s words I find pain and peace, ignorance and clarity, and doubt and trust. I find struggles and praises, sorrows and worship, and fear and hope.