Norman Wirzba is one of the leading voices in the agrarian movement. As the research professor of ecology, theology and rural life at Duke Divinity School, Wirzba has set about on a massive project to integrate holistic thinking about food and the environment into Christian theology. He is the author of The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating and co-author of Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation. He has also edited The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land and The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.
Thomas: There has been a substantive body of work published recently on Christianity and food, including your books Food & Faith and Making Peace with the Land. Now that there is a foundation for Christian thought on eating in our current world, what is the next step for Christians who know but now want to put these ideas into practice?
Norman: I think the time is right for churches to start putting some energy and resources behind good food economies. What I mean is that congregations can become practical hubs that grow and distribute food by a) starting or supporting community gardens (on church land), b) starting or supporting farmer’s markets, c) advocating for “church supported agriculture” (by forming partnerships with farmers and gardeners in their area or, even more boldly, investing in young farmers who want to grow food but don’t have the money to buy land and equipment), d) getting behind policy and legislative efforts that create a healthy and just agriculture and food system. Jesus was clearly in the food business. Churches should be too.
Thomas: If a typical family is ready to change their eating and cooking habits, where would you suggest they start?
Norman: It is important to start small. Eating habits change slowly. Start by learning about where some of your food comes from and how our food system works. Then make gradual changes to start making good food purchases. It is very important to move with humility and an attitude of mercy toward each other. No one becomes a good and responsible eater overnight. I still have lots to work on myself.
Thomas: How can local churches encourage their congregations to eat and cook in a faithful way?
Norman: Don’t come in with guns blazing, making all kinds of judgments and critiques. Start the education process slowly. Then give people real options for better ways of eating that are also manageable. Try to make this transformation as much a communal and fun process as possible. Doing the occasional workshop, on food preparation for instance, that ends in a festive meal is a great way to start.
Thomas: So much of Christian thought is produced for congregations in cities and suburbs. As a professor in the area of theology, ecology and rural life, why do you think the American church neglects rural life? How can the urban and suburban church learn from the rural church?
I think there is a long-standing prejudice against country people and country ways (TV commercials and children’s books notwithstanding). Christians need to come to terms with this by acknowledging that the people of scripture lived in an agricultural world and spoke for agricultural health (my colleague Ellen F. Davis has a superb book [Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible] on this topic). There are lots of stereotypes on all sides that need overcoming. The best way for that to happen is for rural and urban/suburban congregations to get to know each other, perhaps even eat together, so they can learn to be a help to each other.