Land, Family, Failure, Prayer: Reflecting on Wendell Berry’s Farmers’ Manifesto

Essay by Cassandra Farrin on 15 June 2017 5 Comments

June is planting season in Idaho. One can drive along rural highways past fields of corn shoots followed by the satisfyingly dark green foliage of mounded potato starts, fresh mint, and sugar beets. Small-scale and industrial farmers alike rush against the short growing season of the high desert to get plants into the ground after the last frost but before the July heat can kill the tender seedlings. This is the time of year I can’t help but recall Wendell Berry’s wonderful poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Now, I could have long conversations with Berry about some of his less appealing notions, but this poem speaks in a wonderfully anti-imperial, Christian voice that I can embrace. Here is how it begins, in an ironic tone:

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What are your thoughts about where progressive Christianity is going from here? In some groups I find it barely different than other evangelical sects, and other expressions seem to feel completely new-age without hardly a remnant of Christianity.


Dear John,

I very much understand that perspective John. Over my time in progressive Christianity, especially over the past decade, I have seen it trend from a more mature and academically advanced group of people, into a much broader type of “Evangelical Lite,” where the defining tenets are to lean Democrat, sympathize with gay rights, and reject the idea of an eternal hell. But if you suggest something like the resurrection of Jesus as non-historical, some people still tend struggle with that and want you to leave Christianity all together.

As progressive Christianity has absorbed the Emergent label it has inherited a tension between those two macro factions. Mainly, those who still see Jesus as ontologically unique in comparison to every other human ever to live --  and those who don't. Those who lean very progressive are sometimes feeling pushed out and unwelcome within the big tent they founded as their sanctuary from closed-mindedness. And those who are less progressive are wanting to draw some lines within that sanctuary and ensure that other progressives don’t dismantle Christianity to a point that is unrecognizable to them.

I think that path of evolution will continue to take its course. Only time will tell whether we tend toward a huge tent that meets the needs of most left-leaning Jesus followers, or whether progressive Christianity stays true to its roots as a very theologically progressive bastion that explores beyond the boundaries of mainstream Christianity. My bet is that the big tent will prevail and that those who originally labeled as progressive Christians will become so uncomfortable that they will explore the next things (as I have begun to do with Jesism). My hope however is that as the new breed of progressives come into the fold they become humbled enough to learn from the veterans who have spent years studying and wrestling with this stuff.

~ Eric Alexander


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Terrible Texts: The Attitude of the Bible Toward Women – Part III


"Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." (Gen. 2:7)

"Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.' So out of the ground, the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name." (Gen. 2: 18,19)

"But for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept, took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said ------ 'she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man'." (Gen. 2: 20b-23)

These are all words from the oldest creation story in the Bible. It is dated around 1000 B.C.E. and thus is some 400 years earlier than the familiar six-day creation narrative with which the book of Genesis opens. It presents a far more primitive view of God and a much more negative view of a woman than is found in other places in the Bible. What makes it particularly important for our purposes, and what gives it most of its destructive power, is that Paul leaned on this more ancient tradition to justify his own prejudices against women. Paul thus lifted this negativity into prominence and incorporated into the Christian Faith an attitude toward women that has been the source of much pain. To understand the essential impact of this Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden tale, it must be heard as the ancient Hebrew myth that it is. Too often we have listened to it through the stained glass accents and pious sounds of Holy Scripture. So gather with me around the campfire where the wisdom of the past was regularly recited to educate each generation, and embrace the origin of one of our major cultural definitions of women.

Once upon a time, before people were on this planet, the Lord God decided to make a man, and to place him in God's beautiful world to tend this world as God's steward. So it was that God came down from the sky and began to shape the dust of the earth into a human form, like a child might make a mud pie. When this human creature was fully formed, however, he was still inert. So the Lord God swooped down upon this lifeless dirt form to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, except that God breathed the divine breath into this man's nostrils.

When the breath of God entered this creature, the man came alive and God called his name Adam, which means humankind. The fact that God named Adam meant in the Hebrew world that Adam was known by God and was subservient to God. God then set Adam to work in a place called the Garden of Eden where plants, vegetables, fruit trees and shade trees were plentiful. Adam accepted this God-given vocation and tended this garden and so time went by. After some days or even months or years, Adam became dissatisfied. Perhaps he was lonely and so the Lord God, perceiving this need in the first human being for companionship, decided to make a friend for Adam, for as God said, "It is not good for the man to dwell alone." So the Lord God got busy and made the first polar bear. Bringing this gift with some pride of creation, God presented the bear to Adam. "It is a very nice polar bear," said Adam, "But it is not the kind of friend that I seek." Adam, however, demonstrated his superiority over this animal by the act of giving it a name.

So God tried again. In turn God made the cat, the horse, the camel, the cow, the pig and even the kangaroo and God brought each animal in turn before Adam. Adam did not want to discourage God's efforts. These creatures were lovely and unique and Adam dutifully named each one, securing his position as the crown jewel of God's creation and dominant over all other forms of life. But none satisfied Adam and God became a bit distraught.

"Adam, you are very hard to please," God said. "I have now created all the animals of the world looking for a helpmeet for you and none of them satisfies you!" It was a marvelous picture of a trial and error deity who was clearly not omniscient or omnipotent but was rather actively engaged in the world reacting anew to that world's response. God had shaped each of these creatures a bit differently from the others. Some had horns and some had long trunks. Some had tails that were curly and others had tails that were straight. Some produced milk and others had humps on their backs that enabled them to go for days without water. Some were mammoth in size and some were tiny. Some loved the arctic regions while others called the hot equatorial forest their home. Some could fly, some could climb trees and some could sit on top of the water for hours barely paddling their web-like feet. It was a marvelously diverse world but no matter how hard God tried, nothing, absolutely nothing, seemed to satisfy Adam. Since God appears not to have known any better than Adam just what it was that God was seeking to make, God said to Adam in great frustration, "Adam, I do not know what else to do!" In this day of intimate conversation between God and the first man, Adam simply pleaded ignorance, "I would like to help you out God," said Adam, "but how can I describe to you what I have never seen! It is one of those intuitive things, God. I think I'll know it the first time I see it but not before."

So God decided to try a new approach. This time God put Adam to sleep (God must have used an anesthesia that was not yet commonly known). God then opened Adam's chest and removed a rib from Adam's side. Then God closed Adam up again. From that rib, God fashioned a new creature - like Adam but not quite in God's image. It was a strange birth process. This creature was more human than the animals but not quite as human as the man.

Then with this creature shaped as only God can shape a creature, with curves and lines that Adam had never seen before, God stood this creature before Adam and gently wakened him from sleep. Having opened his eyes, and feeling no pain from the divine surgical procedure, the impression one gets as one reads the text is that Adam's eyes bulged out of his sockets about three inches as if they were on coiled springs. Then Adam said, according to the King James' translators, "Behold, Lord, this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, she will be called women because she was taken out of man." When one reads the original Hebrew of this verse, however, it is a bit more effusive. Adam actually uses a slang expression, which might be translated thus, "Hot diggity Lord you finally did it!"

So the first woman was born or made. She, like the animals, was God's creation but she, like the animals, was also subject to the man. The man named her like he named all of the animals. She did not share his status, his glory or his divine image. He was made in God's image; she was taken out of the man. She was kin to the man in a way that the animals were not but she was to be subservient, obedient and aware of her second-class status. Her chief role in life was to be the male's helpmeet, to bring him pleasure, to relieve his need for sex and companionship. Sex incidentally was originally meant for recreation not procreation. The story hints that childbirth, with its resultant pain, was punishment handed out after the fall not something that was part of the original intention in creation.

So in this way the sexes, male and female, came into being, says the Bible. Theirs was to be the relationship of the superior to the inferior, of the master to the servant, of the lordly male to the submissive female. No one could argue with this order since it was written into creation as the very purpose of God. To do so was to subvert God's plan. One's sacred duty was to relate to this ultimate truth not to try to change it. So it was that the religious system called Christianity that grew out of this Jewish womb, carried with it this God-given definition of female inferiority and installed it in our civilization as one of its unchallenged presuppositions. Women were taught that they fulfilled their purpose by accepting this God-given definition. If they rebelled, the superior men in their lives could beat them, divorce them and even kill them without any fear of retribution. Women were defined as less intelligent than men and therefore incapable of being educated, entering the professions or voting. Long after this story was abandoned as literal history, the implications in this narrative would still hold sway. It was regularly reinforced by "holy men" who quoted these terrible texts from the Bible to justify keeping the oppression of women as an operating principle of both church and society. In the name of God, women were told that their sole purpose in life was to satisfy the man, and to obey their husbands in all things.

Since the scriptures were believed to be the "revealed will of God" and since the Church presented itself as the sole authority that could properly interpret the scriptures, Christianity grew more patriarchal and inevitably more misogynist. That behavior can be tolerated no longer. Terrible texts that destroy life need to be exposed, their power broken and the kind of Christianity that is based on that premise needs to be overthrown. My desire in this series is not to destroy the Holy Scriptures. It is rather to assert that nothing can ever be properly called 'holy' if it suggests that any person can be subjugated to another in the name of God.

So the Bible opens by defining the woman as a dependent second class citizen. Not content with that rough beginning, it then moves to blame her for the presence of evil in the world. To that part of the biblical story I will turn next week.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published January 2004




5 thoughts on “Land, Family, Failure, Prayer: Reflecting on Wendell Berry’s Farmers’ Manifesto

  1. Pingback: Land, Family, Failure, Prayer – Ginger & Sage

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