Cultivating Reality by Ragan Sutterfield
From the subtitle of this book, “How the Soil Might Save Us,” one might think this is a book about soil ecology and biology told from a Christian perspective. It is not. Rather, it is an apologetic for agrarianism as a biblically based response to environmental degradation, cultural ills, and the unraveling of our social fabric.
Ragan Sutterfield is a prophet in the tradition of Wendell Berry, whom Sutterfield cites more frequently than any other writer. One sixth of the entries in the bibliography are works by Wendell Berry. The other sources listed in the bibliography range from Bernard of Clairvaux to Richard Dawkins to Melissa Block of NPR to Bill McKibben to Michael Pollan to Jack Kerouac to Dallas Willard, to name a few. I was also expecting to see Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible in the list but it is absent.
One of the foundation stones of Sutterfield’s agrarianism is commonwealth. Others include humility, the sacredness of our physical beings, and a sense of place. Regarding commonwealth, or community, Sutterfield starts by introducing John Locke and his concept of property. Locke maintained that our bodies are property that can be rented or sold as we labor to accumulate more property, some of it in the form of consumer goods. In contrast Sutterfield argues that “The agrarian response is that we are members. . . . [W]e are part of a larger whole and it is through working well within that whole that we attain our own good, which is always in harmony with the good of the whole.” I was recalling Ephesians 4:15 & 16 as I was reading the chapter on commonwealth: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
Reading this book, and reading Wendell Berry, I am tempted to dismiss their prophecies as arising out of an agrarian elitism. Wendell Berry lives on a farm in Kentucky. Ragan Sutterfield lives in Arkansas and his writing suggests that he has acreage at his disposal where he can practice his agrarianism. How is someone living in a suburban subdivision, or in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, or in New Delhi or Kampala supposed to practice agrarian living? But to make that argument is to miss the point. Sutterfield is calling us to cultivate a different reality regardless of our personal circumstances, a reality in which we live humbly in community, giving ourselves as a gift to others, regarding the physical creation as something that has been made sacred by God’s choosing to inhabit it with us.
Thanks as always for stopping by.