Category Archive: Farm and Garden
In a recent blog post entitled “Free Range, Gluten-Free Yoga vs. Jesus,” my friend Toby Sumpter raised some concerns — one could even say: leveled some charges — with regard to the widespread interest in things organic, gluten-free, and so on, touching along the way on yoga, cross fit, and essential oils. His primary charges are that all of this interest and discussion is evidence of an idolatry problem, including the worship of Health and of Peers, and that it is a waste of time compared with what is really important (fleeing fornication, loving your family, etc.).
Consider this a friendly push-back.
While I certainly agree that Health is one of the major American gods today and that what Toby says is more important than discussions of organic food really is more important — that is, it’s more important, for instance, to love your wife than to eat free range chicken — I don’t find the essay helpful.
First, I wonder about the charge of idolatry. It certainly seems to be the case that there is a lot of talk about organic, gluten-free, non-GMO food today. But does that necessarily imply that there is idolatry going on? I can imagine a church community where the people talk a lot about hospitality and feasting and good food and drink and living the good life and experiencing joy around the dinner table. They’re starting gift stores to promote celebration, coffee shops and pubs and restaurants to share good food and joy with people. They’re having people over, sharing articles about food on Facebook, crafting cookbooks. They’re really into this stuff. Would that necessarily imply that there was Bacchus-worship going on here? There might be, but surely the answer is: Not necessarily.
Besides, in such a community, even if someone in that church community was involved in a sort of Bacchus-worship connected with the love of good food and fellowship around the table — and even if you could say that the existence of so much discussion about this stuff was evidence of some sort of idolatry (!) — that still would not mean that Mrs. Smith who posts a new recipe on Facebook and Mr. Thompson who talks about what a great time he had at a new restaurant in town are somehow involved in idolatry. So, too, even if there is some Health-worship going on in the world, it doesn’t mean that when a particular person posts something on Facebook about gluten-free flour, she’s participating somehow in that idolatry.
Second, Toby spends some time on “science” or, more precisely, on “science says….” I certainly agree with him that people have justified lots of strange things in the past by saying “science says.” But it seems to me that while, on the one hand, Toby goes after this easy appeal to what “science says…,” on the other hand, he criticizes homeopathic medicine or the interest in organic food because it isn’t backed up by science, real science, he says, with “proof” — as if that kind of science isn’t precisely the sort of thing that is manipulated all the time (e.g,. the tobacco company that funds research that proves that tobacco, additives and all, isn’t bad for you; the cancer society that funds research that proves that tobacco is bad for you).
Meanwhile, what’s wrong with sticking a piece of garlic in your child’s ear to heal an ear infection because you heard a couple friends say it worked for them? Do you need to wait for guys in white lab coats to tell you that that’s okay? Do you have to trust those labcoat guys when they say not to use garlic but to use their antibiotics instead, the sale of which is paying their wages so that they have a strong motive to promote their product? Or is it the case that we’re free, as Christians, to use the antibiotics or not, to use the garlic or not — and to post about it on Facebook if we feel like it, and to love each other regardless?
Third, it’s certainly true that it’s more important to flee fornication than to flee GMOs and that it’s more important to love our spouses than to love free-range chicken. But can’t one do both? Can one not believe that fornication is sin and believe that cramming a thousand chickens into a space smaller than my office and feeding them junk isn’t likely to produce eggs you’d want to eat (and isn’t kind to the chickens either)?
Sure, some people who discover that when they eat bread they bloat up and feel terribly uncomfortable and when they drop gluten they feel better may talk about gluten-free stuff a lot. Does that mean they have warped priorities? Does a Christian guy who loves Tolkien and wants to talk your ear off about The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s abominable take on The Hobbit have warped priorities? Does he not know that it’s worse to commit fornication than to mess with Tolkien’s story? Doesn’t he know that it’s better to love your wife than to love reading?
Well, maybe he doesn’t. But you have no reason to think so, just because of what he loves to talk about. In fact, it would be a little condescending — a little unfriendly — to bring these things up unless you had good reason to do so. If you knew that he was committing adultery but when you got together with him, he wanted to talk about Christian symbolism in The Hobbit, you might well ask how he can enjoy that symbolism while rejecting Christ and His commandments. But if you knew nothing of the sort but just thought his frequent talk about Tolkien was evidence of some sort of a moral problem, that wouldn’t come across well.
Which brings me to my fourth area of concern, which is the tone of the whole essay. It often comes across (at least to me) as condescending, sarcastic, and just plain unfriendly. In the opening paragraph, we already have the word “weirder,” which suggests that Toby thinks all the things he’s just been mentioning — “gluten-free” foods among them — are weird. Which suggests that if you’re interested in these things, you’re weird. But if you are gluten-intolerant, there’s nothing weird about it, anymore than it’s weird to want nut-free food if you’re allergic to peanuts.
Midway through the article, he talks about “magic beads” for teething children. At least one school of thought thinks the beads aren’t magic but that the amber somehow helps with teething pains. But suppose that’s not the case. Even if the beads are “magic,” aren’t they magia bona, something Reformed ethicists have given their approval to in the past (see here). Why should it be a problem if someone wants to try them because he’s heard they might work?
Then we get that bit about kissing icons of Darwin and Freud. Please. And people who are into organic food don’t have laughter in their eyes and joy in their hearts? Gimmeabreak. Sure, I grant that some don’t. And some who are opposed to organic food don’t either. But some in both camps do.
By the end, the implication seems to be that if organic food does give you joy and make your heart sing, then you have a false gospel, because you’re trusting in something other than Christ. (Ditto, I suppose, for Guinness, Tolkien, baseball, duck hunting, or anything else you might enjoy.) Again, is someone out there idolizing organic food? Maybe so. Stop it. Do some people push organic food as if it was sin to eat anything that isn’t organic? That’s sin, too. Stop it.
But does Mrs. Johnson love to find gluten-free recipes that don’t result in breads that are like dense sawdust and to share those recipes on Facebook? Does Mr. Jones love to be able to get freshly-picked organic apples delivered to his town or to be able to go to a farmer’s market and get to know some of the farmers and buy some of their fresh produce that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals he’d rather not ingest? Does that make his heart happy? Then let them enjoy God’s bounty in this way. There’s no need to think it’s idolatry or a false gospel or even a warped priority.
From a 1930 letter to Arthur Greeves, in which Lewis is speaking about his friend Alan Griffiths (later known as Dom Bede Griffiths), who lived in a commune with two friends:
There is certainly something attractive about the idea of living as far as may be on the produce of the land about you: to see in every walk the pasture where your mutton grazed when it was sheep, the gardens where your vegetables grew, the mill where your flour was ground, and the workshop where your chairs were sawn â€”Â and to feel that bit of country actually and literally in your veins.
Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood â€”Â they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside.Â What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them.Â We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth.Â We are synthetic men, uprooted.Â The strength of the hills is not ours. â€”Â Collected Letters 1:908-909.
Never mind the stuff about nymphs and dryads.Â I’m not entirely sure I understand Tolkien’s argument, for that matter.Â And what Lewis says at the end seems exaggerated to me, too.Â Still, I understand the attraction of the life he depicts and I appreciate what he says about a long connection between people and place.Â Shades of Wendell Berry!
By the way, one of the surprises, for me, of Lewis’s letters (and also of his diary, which overlaps with some of the years in this first volume of letters) was the discovery that Lewis, bookish as he certainly was, was not exclusively bookish.Â Again and again, you find him washing dishes, cleaning out the hen run, digging out stumps around his house, cutting wood, and, in short, engaging in manual labor with great vigor and enjoyment.Â Furthermore, far from being the sort of bachelor who has little familiarity with the life of a bustling household, Lewis was thoroughly acquainted with domestic life and spent a fair bit of time helping Mrs. Moore, the lady he lived with,Â clean the house and do other chores, including teaching and, to a large degree, raising her daughter through her teens.
In short, Lewis has turned out to be much more well-rounded than I had previously thought.
The relationship between the farm and the city, the rural and the urban, is more complex than I had supposed.Â Contrary farmer Gene Logdson points out one aspect of that relationship that often goes overlooked:
… the proving ground for real change in farming has almost always been the garden.Â Commercial farmers are good at improving their existing technologies, but rarely do they initiate pivotal new practices because they are financially strapped to the mass market and can’t afford to risk the possible profit loss of changing horses in mid-field.Â New agricultural ideas come from gardens where financial profit is not a necessary goal; generally these gardens are city gardens.Â Fresh new ideas in any institutionalized activity (and nothing is more institutionalized than agriculture except religion and education) almost always come from the outside.Â Writes Jane Jacobs in her provocative 1969 book, The Economy of Citites: “Modern productive agriculture has been reinvented by grace of hundreds of innovations that were exported from the cities to the countryside, transplanted to the countryside, or imitated in the countryside.”Â
For example, alfalfa was a medicinal plant in Paris a century before it became a farm cropÂ throughout Europe.Â Edward Faulkner wrote his revolutionary best-seller, Plowman’s Folly, based on experimentation he did in a garden near Elyria, Ohio, not on a farm.Â It was city gardeners, not farmers, who, with ample supplies of manure from livery stables and street sweepings, brought real sophistication and efficiency to the use of animal manures for food production, as is amply clear from books like Benjamin Albaugh’s The Gardenette or City Back Yard Gardening, published in 1915.Â It was urban influences, following the work of chemist Justus von Leibig in nineteenth-century Germany, that introduced to resisting farmers an agronomy based on chemicals.Â Today it is city gardeners, following scientists like Sir Albert Howard and Dr. Selman Waksman, who have introduced, again to resisting farmers, the notion of an agriculture based intentionally on biology.Â Leibig disproved the prevalent nineteenth-century notion that plants got all their food from humus.Â But in proving that plants “eat” minerals, not humus, Leibig went to the opposite extreme and demeaned the practical necessity of humus, and humus-derived nutrients, for a sustainable and efficient agriculture.
The whole organic farming movement, which now extends even to cotton, a crop once thought impossible to grow without toxic chemicals, was of course inspired by city gardeners. â€”Â Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, pp. 40-41.
Logsdon goes on, giving more examples.Â You will have noticed, of course, that his list of examples includes some things that haven’t been great developments.Â But good or bad, Logsdon says, many of the important developments in farming have been developed in and tested on gardens, urban gardens.Â