Every Loaf: How the Church Can Change the Way the World Eats :An Interview with Norman Wirzba
By Jeannie Babb
Duke Divinity Professor Norman Wirzba says our culture has ecological amnesia. We have forgotten our connection to the land, and our responsibility to care for it.
“We’re in the beginning of an experiment,” he told an auditorium packed with seminarians, faculty, clergy, and Sewanee community members last November. “Since the year 2000, and for the first time in human history, we have more people living in cities than on the land.” Wirzba came to The School of Theology to expound on the spiritual implications of this shift and to suggest solutions in both a public lecture and a workshop.
Wirzba is the professor of theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School and research professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He has authored several books, most recently Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, and (with Fred Bahnson) Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation. Wirzba lectures extensively across the United States and Canada, and in May 2014, was named the first Wendell Berry Scholar at Rivendell Writers’ Colony in Sewanee.
Wirzba’s lecture titled “Salvation With the Stomach in Mind: Why Food and Farming Matter for the Church” was the opening event for the second Faith, Farm, and Food workshop sponsored by The Beecken Center. In addition to the lecture, the event included a day-long workshop focused on the tenets of farming and food production with a special focus on Episcopal agriculture, specifically, fostering a more organized support network for Episcopal agricultural ministries. Dr. Andrew Thompson, postdoctoral fellow in environmental ethics at The School of Theology, moderated a panel discussion on “Sowing, Growing, Feeding & Composting.” Participants toured the University of the South farm that produces vegetables and eggs for the college’s dining services.
Prior to his lecture, From the Mountain met Wirzba for an interview at the newly renovated Sewanee Inn. In the upstairs atrium he shared his background, his concerns, and his vision for a future in which the Church leads the way to economic and ecological revolution.
Wirzba was raised on a 400-acre farm in Southern Alberta in western Canada, growing wheat, barley, and oats. “We had chickens and pigs, and we had a small cattle operation of about 1,500 head in our corrals. We had a big garden and grew a lot of our own food: a lot of potatoes, a lot of vegetables.”
He grew up thinking he, too, would be a farmer, but says the shift in the today’s agricultural economics leans more toward bigger and more industrialized operations. He decided instead to become a teacher. He studied history as an undergrad at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, obtained a master’s degree in religion from Yale, and a master’s and Ph.D. in philosophy from Loyola. Ultimately, these pursuits brought him back to farming.
Wirzba says, “The major turning event was getting to know Wendell Berry and becoming his friend. I had been studying a lot of French and German philosophy and modern contemporary religious thought, and Wendell gave me a way to think about philosophy and theology in a new way, which was really an old way—the agrarian way. He helped me see how agrarian traditions are behind so much of Hebrew scripture. My colleague, Ellen Davis, has written beautifully about that in her book, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture.”
He wanted to see how an agrarian way of thinking and living in the world could allow for reimagining life on this planet in a more beautiful and healthy way. “My main concern is that right now we’ve got a culture and an economy that is determined to destroy the world. What we need is a way to talk about the healing of the world. In my view, agrarian traditions are one very powerful way to effect that healing, but also a really powerful lens by which to look at what we’ve been doing in our world and see how we have come to be this sort of culture that is so destructive.”
Food and Faith: the Theology of Eating, Wirzba’s newest book, opens with a discussion of perichoresis in the Trinity. He explains that one way to translate perichoresis is “making room for each other.” It could also be called hospitality.
“One of the great images of the Trinity historically has been Rublev’s icon. It’s a fabulous icon. What he chose to use as the setting for the Trinity is a story about hospitality, specifically the story of Abraham, who opens his home to two unknown travelers. What we see here is genuine openness and a desire to welcome and nurture others. That is what God does with creatures all the time: welcome and nurture them into the fullness of their lives. The early church theologian John of Damascus once said that you can understand the whole of creation as an act of hospitality, because what God does is make room for what is not God, to be, and to flourish.”
The goal of Wirzba’s writing and teaching is to help church people understand that eating can be a work of hospitality. “God is very upset when there are people who are starving, because when you’re starving you are clearly not in a position to realize your own life. And so, hospitality, while it has this really ‘highfalutin’ theological reference in the Trinity, is also something so practical, so mundane. It’s the act of welcoming someone into your home and offering them a meal.”
In Food and Faith, Wirzba writes, “Every loaf presupposes decisions that have to be made about how to configure the social and ecological relationships that make the bread possible.” Expounding on this idea he says, “When you practice the Eucharist, you lift up the bread. Is there any education happening about that bread? Do we ask what kind of bread it is, and what’s the story behind the bread? Are you lifting a loaf that behind it has stories of abuse? It would be like if a priest were to lift up a garment made by a child in slave conditions somewhere in Bangladesh and we would say, ‘Here! We honor you God by giving you this.’ If we’re going to lift it up to God, it ought to be something that God would say amen to.”
He describes a semi-monastic community in Sweden where the bread liturgy is central to shared life. On Sunday morning, several of them will rise and start by reading a Psalm together while they kneed the flour into dough. They worship together while the bread bakes in a wood-fired oven, and allow the smell of fresh-baked bread to circulate through the whole worship space.
“Think about how this is an experience that connects people who come to the altar to receive the bread of life, how that experience is not an abstract experience: it is fully sensory. And because the people are involved in the baking of the bread, they understand how the bread connects them now to the farmer and to the soil. My worry is that in so many churches, people think about their Christian life in really abstract terms. They don’t understand that their life is an embodied life, and their faith is an embodied faith. One of the best ways to see how your faith joins you to the world is to think about your eating. So the Eucharist is an ideal place where people can learn and be asked to reflect upon their embodiment and also their dependence upon these other entities that make up the created world.”
Wirzba envisions the Eucharist table extending to kitchen tables at home, “so that through all of our eating we can somehow be a witness to what we’ve seen at the Eucharistic table.” He sees the parish as the place to inspire the on-the-ground action that will take place everywhere else.
“Wouldn’t it be great if churches all across the country, all across the world, were to say: it’s time for us to have an agriculture that honors God? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if congregations were mobilized to support good farming? We would have a different agriculture. We would have an agriculture that promotes soil fertility, that supports the humane treatment of animals, and that provides living wages for farmers and farm workers. It would truly be a revolution. As the national body of the Church takes this stand, we’d have very different conversations about something like the Farm Bill which subsidizes agricultural practices that are destructive.”
Wirzba also notes that churches sit on a lot of land. “Churches talk about the need to address hunger, well, why don’t they grow food? Rather than just putting canned food in a food pantry, what if they involved the community in growing real food and forming relationships with people outside the congregation by enlisting their help and their expertise and also their muscle power, to grow the food? Jesus was clearly in the food business.”
Interest in agrarian Christian thought is growing worldwide. Ellen Davis, featured speaker at the 2013 Dubose Lectures at The School of Theology, teaches in Africa. “Ellen Davis says the churches in Africa want instruction in the Biblical languages, instruction in sustainable agriculture, and instruction in health. Now imagine if our seminaries had that as part of their curriculum—biblical languages, agriculture, and health.”
In his travels around the United States and Canada, Wirzba sees numerous churches starting gardens. He calls agriculture one of the fastest growing types of ministry in The Episcopal Church. “Some of them are significant in size, trying to do major food production; others are very small. Some are connected with a church-run school. We’re at the beginning of something that I think is big and is going to get bigger. We’re moving into a world where more and more people, especially young people, know there is something really wrong with our food system and they want alternatives. If the Church doesn’t become part of this consciousness, it will miss a huge opportunity. It’s not a gimmick. It gets to the core of what it is to be a member in the body of Christ and a member of creation. If churches can seize this opportunity, they will have a whole new way of engaging with the world around them.”
Wirzba’s lecture may be viewed on the School’s website at theology.sewanee.edu/news/page/lectures-sermons
About the Author
Jeannie Babb, T’12/13, followed her love of sacred literature to Sewanee. After earning an M.A. in theology (church history) and writing an S.T.M. thesis on violence against women in ancient Christian literature, she stayed on the Mountain for the fellowship and the fog.
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