God created nature so that it has integrity. Different pieces of creation have purpose according to the way God designed them. These differences are part of God’s design. There is a moral order in the created order that should be honored.
When humans distort the moral order of the created order, it results in evil, suffering, and sin. This is true whether it is the distortion of human reproduction, relational development, or farming practices.
I share this understanding of the moral order of the created order with Joel Salatin, who recently wrote The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs.
Salatin is a libertarian farmer. He runs Polyface farm, practicing what he calls forgiveness farming. His method of farming entails stewarding his farm, with both crops and animals, in a way that mimics natures patterns and harnesses the processes of nature. Therefore, he eschews monoculture, but instead rotates crops and animals on a regular basis.
Farming for Salatin is about feeding his family while making the world a better place. He is careful to emphasize that maximizing profit by outpacing the ability of his land to replenish itself is not a goal. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Salatin works to prevent.
Salatin is a somewhat more modernized version of Wendell Berry and Gene Logsdon. He recognizes that the farm should only produce at nature’s pace and that farmers need to take the long view of economic stewardship. At the same time, both Berry and Logsdon are strong proponents of more rustic farming methods. In particular, they both advocate horse farming.
In contrast to Berry and Logsdon, Salatin does not eschew innovation, but he still keeps a close eye on the patterns in nature. Find what makes a pig healthy and allow it those conditions. In this manner, Salatin's perspective on farming is much less romantic and much more realistic than that of Logsdon and Berry. As a result, his vision of farming has a better chance of implementation.
Preaching to the Choir
For those already questioning the factory farm methods, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs. Even for those who are just skeptical and wondering if there is another way, Salatin presents a case that will seem like common sense.
This volume, however, offers more eloquent argument than compelling data. Those committed to agribusiness will not find The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs very convincing. This is a nice book full of anecdotes, not a scientific argument.
Though Salatin is a farmer, the subtitle of the book seems to indicate the topic of the book includes a broader environmental ethic. It’s certainly present in Salatin’s writing for those equipped to find it. Respecting the integrity of creation is the beginning of a robust Christian environmental ethics. However, the focus of the book quickly slips into Salatin’s wheelhouse: the evils of the factory farm, the benefits of his methods of farming, and the importance of good quality food.
Some Points of Weakness
Overall, the book is an engaging read. Salatin is nothing if not an interesting writer. There is a theological point in the book that is well worth listening to.
At the same time, this volume falls short of excellence on several important levels. First, Salatin’s writing style is raw. In trying to make the book entertaining he significantly overwrites in places. There are exaggerations, sandbags, and linguistic flourishes that would have made good blog posts, but make reading several hundred pages tedious. Good editors should have assisted Salatin in writing better. Toward the end of the book, Salatin repeats himself a lot. Statistically speaking, most people don’t finish books. However, those of us who do finish books like to find original content at the end, too.
Second, the book is theologically anemic. There is no doubt Salatin is an engaged and faithful Christian. However, the book lacks awareness of basic doctrinal teaching. Salatin has familiarity with Scripture, but his repeated misuse of texts to make points is grating. In many cases Salatin makes a sound, biblical point, but uses an unrelated proof text to support it. Additionally, the translation of Bible quotes seems to have been selected for words that match his point, rather than faithfulness to the text and context of Scripture. These are the sorts of weaknesses I expect to find in independent blogs on the internet or self-published e-books, not in books from established publishing houses.
Third, the thesis of the book undermines a holistic environmental ethics. According to Salatin, “The thesis of this book is simple: all of God’s creation, the physical world, is an object lesson of spiritual truth.” (pg. xiv) This sort of matter-spirit dualism is the cause of much of the heartbreaking failure of many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to engage in environmental ethics. The physical world is not merely an object lesson for spiritual truth. It is not even mainly an object lesson for spiritual truth. The basis for a Christian environmental ethics must include the inherent value of the present creation. Minimizing that value by describing God’s creation as a mere object lesson does not provide the best or most biblically faithful foundation for Christian environmentalism.
Some Points of Strength
Despite these critiques, Salatin should be applauded for engaging in a discussion of environmental ethics from a conservative Christian perspective. As my own doctoral research has shown, there is too little positive engagement by conservative Christians on the topic. As a Bob Jones University graduate (and previous alumni of the year), Salatin may help some Christians who have written off environmental concern as “earth worship” see that there is value in caring for the environment.
I also celebrate Salatin’s continued efforts to recognize the unnecessary suffering of animals that occurs in some modern factory farms. In particular, Salatin’s call to utilize the market to entice meat producers to change their methods is a healthy approach. If people begin to demand meat from animals whose God-given value is recognized during their lives and in their deaths, then some unjust practices can be eliminated without the inevitable secondary consequences of additional governmental regulations.
There is much to be praised in this book. Salatin does well to show that one can be an orthodox Christian, committed to the fundamentals of the faith, and still be concerned with proper, loving stewardship of creation. However, there were significant opportunities for a more theologically robust case for creation care in this text. Salatin failed to take them. The book is only moderately successful as a result.
Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.