The Gardeners' Dirty Hands - A Review

Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations, as well as Director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has previously studied theology academically. His book, The Garderners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, is more political science of environmental concerns than theology, but it written from a distinct theological perspective that sits well within the bounds of orthodoxy. The book seeks to offer an approach to environmental policy that is more helpful than more idealistic perspectives.

The weakness in many approaches to economics and environment is the failure to recognize the need for tradeoffs. Solutions must be either black or white. Businesses must be either evil monstrosities or saviors of society. Either you are for certain environmental policies or you want to pillage the created order.

These sorts of positions on political problems are rewarded by society today. However, they are rarely honest representations of reality. There are always tradeoffs. When we close coal power plants, a number of people lose their jobs, are dislocated from their neighborhoods, and have their lives disrupted. When a new wind farm is put in place, there are going to be birds killed and people unhappy about the noise and sight of the turbines. The funding for the cleanup project may take money from another socially beneficial plan. We can’t have everything.

Most activists and theoreticians retreat from these prickly realities into vague generalities. The easy part of politics is coming up with a goal that sounds good to enough people that you can get elected. The hard part is wrestling with the realistic impact of the steps necessary to achieve that goal.

The chief triumph of The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands is that helps explain there are no perfect solutions and provide some ideas on how to approach the real implications of environmental governance.


The book is brief. It contains only five chapters after a brief preface. In Chapter One, Toly introduces the concept of the tragic, which frames the argument of the book. The tragic is the idea that there is no solution that provides only benefits. Chapter Two builds on the concept of tragedy and adds scarcity and risk as additional forms of the tragic for environmental decisions. In the third chapter Toly provides some examples of the tragic in environmental ethics in the real world, discussing limitations, harm, and the prevalence of economic analysis to ignore instances of abuse and oppression. Chapter Four provides some handholds intended to assist the reader in using the Christian tradition to respond to environmental tradeoffs. In the fifth chapter Toly argues that the ability of humans to impact the global environment is more significant than ever and likely to stay that way. It is imperative that we begin to wrestle with the tradeoffs and not to ignore them for the benefit of or to the detriment of the environment.

The crux of the book, I think, can be summed up by quoting the first sentence of Chapter Four:

“The burden of environmental governance is to weigh competing claims, measuring risk against risk, right against right, confronting moral dilemmas of extraordinary scale and scope in the context of increasing power to shape the future of the planet.” (p. 79)

If this volume begins to shift the balance of arguments about environmental policy toward actually doing these things, it will have accomplished a great deal. This is a worthwhile volume.

The argument made in this volume is limited the repeated reliance on Bonhoeffer’s ethics to show how we should reason through difficult moral decisions. Bonhoeffer is helpful in many regards, but his basic ethical methodology is one of conflicting absolutes. That is, God’s moral law can conflict with itself leaving humans in a situation where all options lead to sin. That position is problematic on several fronts, not least because it raises Christological concerns.

Conflicting absolutes feels right for environmental ethics, but its problems remain. In reality, the majority of the conflicts can be solved by properly defining the summum bonum and what, scripturally speaking, defines sin in a particular instance. This is, of course, much more difficult to do than to say, particularly on a societal level.

Additionally, part of the dirt on the gardeners’ hands is there because many penultimate goods are treated like ultimate things. And proverbial dirt is also generated by the simple inability to know what will come from a given action or even what the real impact a particular environmental policy will have. We are beset by complications on all sides, but we automatically fail by ignoring obvious problems because of complexity.

The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands requires readers to wrestle with the hard questions of environmental policy. Serious thinkers about the relationship between politics and ecology––particularly those working from a Christian worldview––would do well to read this book and begin to recognize both the importance of the questions and their complexity.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Making of Christian Morality - A Review

There is a common approach to Christian ethics, especially among revisionists, that views the development of Christian thought as a synthetic process rather than an organic one. That view is on display in David Horrell’s recent book, The Making of Christian Morality: Reading Paul in Ancient and Modern Contexts.

Horrell is professor of New Testament studies at the University of Exeter. I was introduced to him through his work in ecotheology, particularly in his attempt to re-read Paul’s letter through an environmentally friendly lens in Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, and his plea for revising Christian hermeneutics in light of environmental concerns in The Bible and the Environment.

Although Horrell’s title includes the entire New Testament, the bulk of his career has been invested in Pauline studies. For Horrell, the study of Paul is distinct from the study of Christian thought, since he views Paul’s writings and those he believes to be incorrectly attributed to Paul to be radically different from the rest of the Christian tradition. This sort of approach, which is fairly typical in critical approaches to Christian scholarship, makes reshaping Scripture for his desired purposes much easier.

The Making of Christian Morality is a collection of essays, all of which were published elsewhere and/or delivered as conference papers. The result is a somewhat loose connection of individual entries in topics that interest Horrell rather than a cogent argument about a particular topic.

The book contains three parts, with each section focusing on a particular subject of concern. Part One deals with Horrell’s interest in the sociohistorical context of Paul’s writings. His first essay begins by ignoring the possibility of continuity between the authors of Scripture, but goes on to argue against distinct “Pauline” churches, which are a central plank in the arguments of some revisionists. In Chapter Two, Horrell debunks some popular constructs about early church architecture largely by revealing the slim evidence that some conclusions (which have and will likely make their way into commentaries and sermons) were based on. This is the most useful essay in the volume and relies on interdisciplinary research that basically calls for Christian scholars to hold their opinions until further evidence can be uncovered. The third essay largely argues from silence and conjecture that Philemon may have been a middle-class Christian instead of a major patron of the church. This apparently is a significant topic of concern in Pauline studies. The most significant contribution of this essay is Horrell’s astute observation that the supposed household baptism that forms the strongest biblical evidence for paedobaptism was not evidenced in Philemon’s household, where Onesimus was converted well after his master. Chapter Four explores the way the language of family was used in the Pauline corpus. The argument of this chapter functions best alongside Horrell’s assumptions about what is authentic and inauthentic, which, to little surprise is partially a function of the conclusions he and others draw about the use of language in the letters attributed to Paul.


Part Two shifts to the topic of Pauline ethics. The fifth essay begins with the assertion that “in the study of Pauline ethics the contours of current debate are still shaped by the early contributions of Rudolf Bultmann.” This helps explain the limited value of Horrell’s work and other works on “Pauline ethics” for Christians and those who study Christian ethics. This essay emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection in Pauline ethics, but resolves with a whimper as Horrell considers how that vision can help lead toward a Rawlsian consensus ethics, which is an essential part of the liberal order as Horrell sees it. In Chapter Six, Horrell uses Pauline ethics to argue that ethics ought to be culturally determined. That is, that a Pauline ethics is best evidenced by agreement with and enforcement of norms that are generally socially acceptable. To oversimplify the case (but still to give a sense of the argument), a Pauline ethics is one that rejects Christians as a contrast community and develops a community of people that affirm the values of the culture better than the culture. The seventh chapter explores the concept of humility as a central part of a Pauline ethics (though largely consistent with and perhaps drawn from other non-Christian sources.).

In Part Three Horrell shifts to a discussion of contemporary application of Pauline ethics. The first essay, which deals with various models of ethics, is largely a call to see Scripture as an insufficient basis for ethics. Horrell writes, “So, while reading Paul in the context of our contemporary debates can be suggestive and fruitful, using Paul’s texts to ‘think with’ does not by any means suffice for the task of thinking about adequate models for Christian ethics, but only marks the beginning of the work.” In a different context that statement could be taken as hopeful, but Horrell’s intent is to reject the sufficiency and authority of Scripture and encourage his readers to rely on other (and perhaps contradictory) sources for moral authority. Chapter Nine is something of an abbreviated version of Horrell’s book, Greening Paul, and is another entry into the genre of revisionist scholarship that tries to recover themes from Scripture that reinforce a particular desired outcome. This essay highlights the central emphasis of Horrell’s project as he writes, “reconfiguring our religious and cultural traditions in light of the new challenges that face us is a crucial task.” Pauline studies are useful inasmuch as they power activism in that matches societies demands on the topics of particular concern. The book concludes with the tenth essay, which outlines some contributions that Horrell feels Paul can make to ecojustice, but ends with a fizzle when Horrell can be helpful to “reconfigure our vision of the world around us, and to ground a revised theology that (re)integrates humanity into solidarity with the whole community of creation––critical tasks indeed––but neither he nor any of the biblical writers can give us substantive answer to the question as to what, in concrete terms, we then should do.” According to Horrell’s own writing, then, the best thing for people to do may be to put the Bible down and start looking for answers in the ever-evolving pool of scientific research shaped by a never-static summum bonum.

Horrell’s work is excellent by the measures of critical biblical scholarship. His writing is lucid and clear. Those that accept his assumptions will likely find this book illuminating and thought provoking. Christian scholars that accept the integrity of Scripture will continually find themselves started by the overwhelming number of basic assumptions that rest on “scholarly consensus,” which in turn is often founded on wishful thinking and obtuse readings of Scripture.

This book illustrates the need for Christian ethicists to continue thinking about Scripture, orthodox Christian theology, and how to apply the vision inspired by those sources to contemporary issues like creation care. When the standard of scholarly excellence is supposedly set by those that deny the basic character and sufficiency of Scripture, there is a need for resources that interact with those sources and aid authentic, well-reasoned faith to the discussion.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.


In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

A Community Environmental Project

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing with my son, thigh deep in the River Raisin. I had given up keeping my feet dry when the water had gushed over the top of my rubber boot during my struggle to get the used tire out of the muck of the river bed. I held my phone and wallet above my head to ensure a sudden dip beneath my feet did not entail a premature replacement of my iPhone 5. It was a fun day, a productive day, and a day that is symbolically more significant than the moderate sized pile of trash the group piled onto the bank.

The River Raisin runs through the small city of Monroe, MI, where I live. In the mania of damming during the Works Progress Administration’s existence, a number of small dams were put up across it. Throughout the years of growth of population and industry along the river’s banks, the waterway has been polluted by PCBs and other harmful chemicals. In human memory, the pristine, healthy condition of this river is a vague memory.

As prosperity increases, though, people begin to pay more attention to the flourishing of the world around them. Residents whose property borders the river become more vocal about the woeful condition of the natural resource we all share. This has led to the River Raisin Legacy Project and an annual cleanup day.

Environmentalism and Localism

At its worst, environmentalism leads to the centralization of government authority. To solve localized problems, sweeping national regulations are enforced that can unnecessarily harm property owners and even lead to environmentally negative outcomes. Some level of regulation is necessary so that polluting corporations cannot raise to the poorest locality, desperate to have any industry, to spew poison into the water and air. The destruction of acid rain and its eventual abatement in the past century is a test case for the benefits and necessity of regulation. In some cases, that success and the simplicity of imposing regulations at the highest level, have led to attempts to nationalize more environmental rule making.

At its best, environmentalism is a local endeavor. Cities with polluted waterways work to eliminate the hazards. Zoning ordinances require that corporations replace wetlands they pave over. Communities gather on a Saturday morning to fish tires, cups, and chunks of metal out of the river.

The River Raisin Cleanup Project is just that sort of local effort. Though it boasted a relatively small contingent––just 60 people from a population of over 20,000––it is the sort of project that is necessary if we are to see real change in our communities and the environment.

Community Catechesis

Several hours into picking up other people’s trash, one begins to wonder what sort of person throws a Styrofoam cup out their car window. This is the first step in teaching our children that the world is not simply a giant landfill ready to receive their waste.

The reporter from the local newspaper chats with people, joking about the various items recovered from the shallow river bed. She congratulates me on winning my battle with the truck tire, which left me wet and muddy, but triumphant.

People from around the community gather together to hear the instructions about what to pick up and where to put it. We divide into groups with complete strangers, transient teams thrown together with a common purpose. A local man––a stranger––asks about my shirt, which bears the word “Shawnee.” A city of my former residence was named after a tribe of Native Americans. They were residents of this region of the world until they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. These conversations chisel away at the barriers we build between ourselves and the community.

After a few hours of wading in the water, a delightful way to spend a warm, cloudy morning, we gather again to share pizza under a picnic shelter. Eating together is a humanizing activity.

With a common focus, there are no arguments about red or blue politics. Unlike the awkward avoidance of a large family gathering there were no sidelong glances or barbered side comments. Instead, since everyone had the common goal of doing discernible good in our community, we were able to do a great deal in a short time and make a visible, positive impact.

Localism Against Tribalism

National political debates have consequences, but they are not everything. By allowing the vitriol of the life and death struggle for power in Washington, DC to take over our lives, we have abandoned the real power of American society.

Over pizza from a local restaurant, we are unlikely to solve the opioid crisis in West Virginia, but a handful of teens that wandered in from the rundown neighborhood next to the park, looking for something to do on a Saturday morning, may make a connection that provides a future opportunity. In a smallish city, it is likely the people gathered on the river bank will see one another at the YMCA, in the store, or at a local festival. Even small connections increase the humanization of the world.

Getting wet and dirty for the local river is much more powerful in teaching the importance of recycling and reducing consumption than a thousand public service commercials. It also costs a whole lot less.


Although some problems require national solutions, much of what ails our nation will not be solved by a federal election. The ability to live and let live, or, better yet, to live and help flourish, can only be nourished through close personal contact. This is the very sort of contact that my introversion, contemporary media, and our community planning are designed to eliminate.

The River Raisin cleanup project happened. It will likely happen again next year. It alone won’t solve the larger problems of climate destabilization or world hunger, but it points us in the right direction and helps to strengthen the fabric of community needed for authentic human flourishing.

Letter to a Young Farmer - A Review

I was first exposed to Gene Logsdon in the 1990s when my father brought home a book from the library. It was recommended, I believe, by a columnist in the Buffalo News. In At Nature’s Pace, Logsdon presents his idea for the small family farm as a lifestyle and not merely a career choice. That book talks about the economic viability of small farms—particularly horse farms—arguing that success is, perhaps, more likely on a small scale.


In his recent, and final, book, Letter to a Young Farmer: How to Live Richly without Wealth on the New Garden Farm, Logsdon further develops some of his elegiac essays on the life of a rural farmer with something like an epistolary exhortation to someone who feels irrepressibly drawn to cultivate the earth. This is a collection of essays, with a conversational tone. Just the sort of tone you would expect if you stopped by to visit your aging curmudgeonly neighbor for a few minutes while leaning on his split rail fence. It is, in fact, the sort of book you would expect someone who claims to be a “contrary farmer” to write as a swan song. Logsdon has recently died and this book represents something of a last will and testament for the folks he’s been writing for during the past half century.

Logsdon’s writing style is comfortable and enjoyable to read. He adds a good dose of facts and figures, with a dash of common sense, and a large dollop of opinions. The mixture that results enables the reader to politely disagree at points while still enjoying the experience and getting some helpful information along the way.

Letter to a Young Farmer is not an extended argument, but a series of discussions that surround a cogent theme. This makes the book an easy one to read piecemeal over the course of several weeks or even months. There are essays about managing the politics and economics of a farmer’s market, about the uses and failures of big data, and about the joy of living in one local area for most of one’s life.

The central topic in all of the essays is how to make a go of it as a small farmer. Thus, the subtitle is more descriptive of the content than the title. Logsdon is not writing to the person who inherited a vast tract of land and is putting thousands of acres under plow. Neither is he writing to someone who is necessarily chronologically young. Instead, Logsdon is writing to someone who has decided to engage in agriculture on a small scale—often for the fulfillment of the act itself—who lacks the benefit of his decades of contrarian experience.

Some of Logsdon’s earlier books make is sound like the small farm is the only way to go. This book, however, is more balanced. Logsdon acknowledges that there are many ways to farm and many reasons to farm. Though he still acts as an apologist for the small, “garden” farm, he does not come of a polemical in this book as before. Just persistently contrarian.

Most of the wisdom in Letters to a Young Farmer represents the sort of common sense that seems so uncommon today. He argues that young farmers should avoid debt, diversify assets and income sources, save for the future, avoid social vices like smoking and drinking (they are exorbitantly expensive), minimize eating out and the purchase of non-essentials, build trustworthy relationships with mechanics and other service providers, live in a reasonable house, and so on. These lessons are essential for someone trying to build up a new garden farm, but they are equally useful for those who live in the suburbs—so much of the angst of the modern worker is due to grasping for a lifestyle that has been advertised on television.

The moral of the book, so to speak, is that life is much better when you live within your means and pursue contentment in the place you are. For Logsdon and many of his readers, this translates to finding satisfaction in farming 10, 50, or 200 acres. Often it means being content to do so while working another job, whether full-time or part-time. This is a book that marries up the idea of a sense of vocation with the sense of place.

Even if you aren’t a garden farmer—as I am not—this is an enjoyable book. Logsdon—a lapsed Roman Catholic—is somewhat caustic about the value and durability of Christianity, but if you filter his occasional snide remarks, what you have is a collection of essays that are a pleasure to read on a cold winter evening. The end result may well be a deeper appreciation for where you are, what you do, and perhaps a growing desire to plant a decent sized vegetable garden in your backyard.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Expect Great Things - A Review

Expect Great Things is a spiritual biography of Henry David Thoreau. It provides an in-depth exploration of the nuances of this celebrated individualistic naturalist. Kevin Dann does the dirty work of digging through Thoreau’s various writings, including his copious personal diaries and correspondence, and correlating those informal writings with his published works.

If Dann’s biography of Thoreau is taken seriously, the work that some have done to include Thoreau on the list of vaguely Christian environmentalists should be viewed skeptically. The image Dann presents is of a man who held both strong skepticism of Christian truth with credulous belief in some of the spiritualistic superstitions common in early America. Thoreau certain used language that resonated with Christianity in some of his writings, but his own beliefs were far afield from orthodoxy by any reasonable reading. Dann argues that Thoreau was fascinated with Christ but rejected Christianity. However, to love the man and hate his bride does not show much affection for the loved object.

In addition to presenting the meandering spirituality of Thoreau over the course of his life, Expect Great Things provides a window into the complex and often bizarre spiritual beliefs that were common in ante-bellum America. Dann surveys the rise in popularity of the Freemasons, with their uniquely American adaptations. He spends several pages covering the evolution of the Mormon cult, the various prophetic cults that arose in the early 19th century, and the perversions of Christianity that arose from the Millerites and other pseudo-Christian digressions.

Some of this supernaturalism apparently came from incomplete understanding of natural science. Just as pseudo-Christianity was common, so was pseudo-science. Meteor showers were described in periodicals as divine signs. Accounts of sea serpents were accepted as factual and often embellished. Final conclusions were published about natural phenomena based on partial observations. This led to supernatural explanations for natural events and misinformation about much that would be later clarified. According to Dann, Thoreau’s practice of careful observation was an improvement over many other naturalists of the day.

The structure of this book is weak. The story of Thoreau’s life meanders through chronologically. There are chapter breaks, but there is often little clear reason for the distinction in chapters. The volume has no introduction and thus the reader is left to try to figure out what Dann’s purpose is in writing the book; there is no clear thesis. The aimless wandering of the book may provide a suitable simile for the life of Henry David Thoreau, but that sort of literary experiment is more effective in essays than in book length biographies.

The concluding paragraphs transition with little warning from anecdotes of Thoreau to the moral that Dann appears to want to draw. Based on those few paragraphs, it appears that Thoreau’s life is supposed to reflect the good of radical individualism codified into law based on universally accepted facts that are epistemologically impossible. In short, this account (and perhaps the actual life of Thoreau) represents the impossible tension between the desire to express and the prohibition of contrary expression that we see in modern culture. As such, Dann may have uncovered the patron saint for some in our confused time, but what he highlights in the life of Thoreau provides little worth emulating for those committed to the possibility and importance of pursuing truth.

Despite its weaknesses in form, Expect Great Things has a place within contemporary discourse on Thoreau. Dann sets Thoreau in historical context quite well. He pushes against the idea of a Christian Thoreau and presents more thoroughly the Thoreau that many have seen in the pages of the man's work. Dann adds to the field of study by presenting a nuanced, robust, and realistic portrait of Thoreau's spiritualism. This is also an interesting look into the spiritual climate of the early nineteenth century. For individuals interested in a casual, entertaining read about Henry David Thoreau, this book may be a real treat. 

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs - A Review

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.

Forgiveness Farming

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.

Our Only World - A Review

Reading Wendell Berry is always interesting, whether it is his fiction or his essays. The man has a way with words and the recent essay collection, Our Only World, is no exception.

The ten essays in this volume were written between 2010 and 2014. Some of them are the text of speeches. Others were published in various magazines. All of them are worth reading, even if you don’t agree with where Berry lands on issues.

If you haven’t read Berry before, do it. It may be better to begin with some of his novels, but they are worth the time, whatever you read.

He’s an advocate for rural life in Kentucky. His writing focuses on establishing a sense of place where you live, putting down roots, and being part of the community. There is wonder in what he writes and a quiet power.

He is a Christian of sorts, though he often stands on the liberal end of spectrum on social issues. He’s personally opposed to abortion and thinks it is wrong, but he admits in this collection that he’d help someone else get an abortion. He also argues that marriage precedes government, so he wonders aloud if the government has any business defining it. Many people wonder that, but Berry argues that since the government shouldn’t define it, marriage should mean whatever people want it to. At the same he argues for an order to creation and bases his environmental ethics on it. His single essay on this topic is perhaps the least convincing in this collection, but whether you agree with his logic or not, he writes well and makes his readers think.

Berry's Environmental Ethics

Berry’s bread and butter is in his arguments for taking care of the land. When he writes about his sustainable farming practices it makes me want to get a team of horses and farm. There is a sense of beauty in Berry’s description of life on his small acreage farm. His writing evokes a desire for a sense of place, a sense of belonging somewhere and to a group.

Even in the first, somewhat disorganized essay, which is aptly called “Paragraphs from a Notebook” there is a sense of beauty and balance in the writing. Though there is no direct link between the blocks of text that splash in sequence across the page, there is a cohesion of thought to it.

Berry writes, “We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacity.” This idea is the link between his paragraphs. It is the idea that animates his worldview.

Integrity, perhaps, is the theme of much of what Berry presents to the world. Beware artificial divisions, even between humans. He offers, “The phrase ‘be alone’ is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.” Humans need one another. We are part of something greater, and should seek to be part of something greater than ourselves.

For Berry, conservation is the pursuit of integrity of the land, a search for wholeness. The farmer becomes part of the farm, not its master. He is part of the dirt that he walks on. The citizen is part of the community and should not strive to be somewhere else. Place is important because it is part of being integral. Integrity is the way you are, not just a sense of moral character.

Berry’s essays call the reader back to the sort of world that is coherent and whole. It feels like he’s describing a day and age that has been gone for generations and perhaps only ever existed in novels that romanticize country life. But for Berry such an integral sense of belonging is an eschatological hope, and one that he hopes for many more to realize in this life. Maybe some folks can.

In one essay about a trip to visit a forest in Pennsylvania Berry describes logging practices that he argues respect the goodness and integrity of the forest. The work is done by horse, which is a common theme for Berry, and it is done with a view to leaving the forest healthier, not for maximizing short term profit. The owner of the forest is part of the forest and loves it. He wants to use it wisely, and profit from it reasonably, but still leave it intact for another generation.

That’s another major theme in Berry’s essays. Take the long view. Don’t maximize profits today, but look for ways that a reasonable profit can be had for years to come. Both in forestry and farming, Berry is lobbying for a long term outlook.


Even though I disagree with Berry about many things, he makes me think well to figure out why he isn’t right. I’ve not met the man, but he seems like the sort of person I could enjoy a cup of coffee with even as we heartily debate an important topic. Reading Berry is learning how to argue well and graciously. Maybe someday he’ll win me over to more of his ideas.

Pick up this book and read it. It’s worth the time. But don’t rush through the essays. They are worth taking slowly and enjoying along the way. Our Only World is a volume that deserves to be considered and appreciated. Each of the essays is a little gem that can be appreciated on its own. Though perhaps Berry would argue the essays deserve to be held together with a sense of integrity.

Our Only World: Ten Essays
By Wendell Berry

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

From Nature to Creation - A Review

In his recent book, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving our World, Norman Wirzba makes a case that much of the ecological degradation that has occurred and continues to occur due to a shift in the human relationship with the world around. His argument is that the shift from seeing the world as God’s creation to seeing it as mechanistic nature has allowed disregard for and utilitarian abuses of the environment to perpetuate.

Wirzba is Professor of Theology, Ecology and Agrarian Studies at Duke Divinity school. He is highly regarded among religious environmental ethicists for his expertise on this topic and his creative approach. This, no doubt, led to his inclusion in ongoing series from Baker Academic, “The Church and Postmodern Culture,” which seeks to engage timely topics in an incisive manner.


After an introduction, the book includes five chapters. Chapter One outlines the disassociation that many contemporary individuals feel from the world around. When Nietzsche declared God to be dead it reflected the attitude of many in the world, not simply the intelligentsia. However, when the concept of God faded from the forefront of society, so did the notion of an ordered creation. This allowed the value of nature to be reduced to its utility, whether aesthetic or functional. It also tended to accelerate the sense of separation that human had developed from the created order. The Enlightenment, as diverse as it was philosophically, had tended to treat the world mechanistically and humans as superior mechanism within it. This was accelerated by the so-called death of God, and this only increased the loss of a sense of place and order.

One response to the the rise of the idea of nature was a disassociation from it. A second was the idolization of nature, which Wirzba considers in his second chapter. In some interpretations, nature was viewed as a good in and itself and the preservation of it untrammeled by human hands an act of absolute necessity. On the hand, some idolized nature for the benefits they could extract from it. Modernity, according to Wirzba, resulted in the process of humans bestowing meaning to the world  instead of discovering meaning already in the world. This led to the ultimate idolatry, which is really worship of ourselves. Viewing the world as God’s creation prevents such a perversion.

In Chapter Three, the point is that creation must be perceived as it is and that the process of rightly interpreting the world around is a necessary part of the human experience. Disassociation from the world around, which has been encouraged by many forms of technology, clouds people’s perceptions. It is thus necessary for Christians in particular to seek to gain, as much as possible, God’s perception of the world and its value. By seeing the world as it is and as it is meant to be, the idolatrous turn can be reversed.

The fourth chapter details the importance of regaining a sense of our status as creatures. Perception helps to prevent the negative development of idolatrous attitudes, but humans are only situated in the world properly when they understand themselves as creatures made by God. In this chapter, Wirzba pushes for an agrarian understanding of the world, claiming that a greater connection with the soil is both biblical and vital to rightly understanding the world. He also ties the understanding of creatureliness into good eating habits, which are contemplative of the food eaten and the time, space, and community of the eating event. This sort of romantic solution to the environmental problems will resonate with hipsters and others who are pushing through the postmodern milieu. Whether it will truly help stem environmental degradation is another issue.

Finally, Chapter Five focuses on thankfulness as “the most fundamental and honest expression of what it means to be a human being, because it is here, in the thanksgiving act, that people appreciate and attempt to live into the knowledge that life is a gift.” (131) Wirzba blames a lack of gratitude on the use of money instead of trading. Currency increases the exactness of transactions, which thus leads to a sense of completion rather than open ended thankfulness. The reduction of the environment to its monetary value, as it sometimes is in cost benefit analyses, also reduces the notion that creation is a gift from God. Wirzba comes back again to the notion that gardening helps restore a sense of thankfulness for creation since, after all, the gardener can do nothing to actually grow the plants. An attitude of thankfulness is at the heart of a right understanding of the created order according to Wirzba.

Analysis and Conclusion

Although this volume is short on practical application, it is a fine text and conveys many ideas that are worth mulling. Wirzba’s diagnosis of the problem is especially astute. Environmental degradation occurs when there is a sense of disassociation from the creation. It’s just dirt. Or, it’s only a bird. That sort of mechanistic understanding undermines compassion for other living creatures and a theocentric vision for seeing God’s handiwork in all of creation. As such, this is a worthy contribution to the series and an important book to read.

However, there are points in the volume where Wirzba—who is an good scholar—gets sloppy. For example, he makes a bold assertion: “Many theologians believe bodies to be something that must be finally overcome and left behind.” (21) The trouble is that he cites none of them. In fact, I’ve been looking for someone to make that argument so that I can include it in my dissertation. The sad fact is the no orthodox theologian actually believes that.  I have been unable to uncover a single one, though I am hoping that I find someone. It may be a sentiment in the pews of some churches, but it is certainly not a belief that is widely believed by theologians.

In another place, Wirzba appears to misrepresent the atonement, which is no small criticism for a Christian volume.  He writes, “The reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth that the Christ-hymn in Colossians describes happens through the blood of Christ’s cross, which means it happens through the self-offering life that Jesus demonstrated in his ministries of healing, feeding, exorcising, attending to, and touching others.” (24) He is exactly correct that the reconciliation of all things happens through Christ’s blood on the cross. He would have been correct to argue that the nature of that reconciliation was demonstrated or illustrated by the way Christ lived on earth. The context is talking about living on earth and not waiting to get plucked out of physical existence, but this passage makes it seem that Wirzba is moving the atonement from Christ's substitutionary death to his obedient life; both are  important, but the penalty for sin was paid in blood, not servitude. It may be that this is simply worded poorly, but the atonement is one area that clarity is worth every moment spent.

These problems are significant. However, they do not undermine the overall value of the volume. This is an important entry in an ongoing conversation and Wirzba’s argument of the importance of understanding the essence of creation as a gift from God carries significant weight. Thus this volume has a place in the library of those seeking a deeper understanding of the contemporary issues in Christian environmental ethics.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Environmental Stewardship - A Review

It is a rare thing to be well-read in a discipline and to come across a book that is strikingly different. The experience is refreshing, but it happens only exceptionally.

Wipf and Stock released a new translation of a book by J. Douma, a Dutch ethicist, this year. His volume, Environmental Stewardship is sufficiently distinct from other treatments of the topic that it was a pleasure to read and genuinely novel.

Although the book was released in English in 2015, it was originally published in 1988. This means that Douma’s volume is not “current” in the sense that it includes all of the latest literature. It is academically valuable, however, because it introduces a number of German and Dutch sources that are not often considered in English writing on the topic of Environmental Ethics.

Additionally, because Douma was outside of the main discussions of Environmental Ethics in the United States, he provides a strongly alternative perspective that is neither right nor left of others, but different. This makes the reader rethink existing paradigms because he approaches the same old issues from a unique perspective. Still, Douma’s perspective is both well-reasoned and biblically faithful.


The book has five chapters. In Chapter One Douma surveys the issues of Environmental Ethics and begins to consider who could be at fault for the problems in the environment. Douma interacts with Lynn White’s famous thesis, which is that Christianity is to blame for the world’s environmental ills. However, Douma also interacts with the earlier and apparently more strident critique of Claus Jacobi, another Hollander. Douma’s critiques of both men are strong and much more helpful than many others who have interacted with them. In particular, Douma notes that White’s thesis is really that the ecological crisis is the product of a democratic culture. He is the first to make that assertion, but it rings true. Douma also notes that technology is most strongly critiqued only when it has a negative impact on the environment. In contrast, however, often technology is very good for the environment. Douma is shaking his finger at the hypocrisy of many environmentalists.

In Chapter Two Douma explains the biblical case for environmental stewardship. He undermines the dominion concept and offers an authentic stewardship model. There is no doubt Douma sees humans as part of yet unique within the created order. The correct attitude toward nature is neither anthropocentric nor cosmocentric but theocentric. Yet Douma’s theocentricity recognizes the special place humans have as alone being made in the image of God. Douma argues for a critical understanding of the cultural mandate. Humans are to cultivate the garden, but to do so with a long future in view.

The third chapter outlines Douma’s proposed solution to the environmental issues of the day. He calls for a right attitude to be inculcated in people, such that technology is embraced for its beneficial properties and personal restraint is exercised well. He argues for a common sense approach to improving environmental conditions instead of a romantic plea for a return to a previous day. Those days weren’t better for a number of reasons. In this chapter Douma moves quickly through a number of issues from nuclear power to animal rights. Douma is dealing with attitudes, which means the nearly thirty years between his writing and the present do not undermine the value of his proposed solutions.

The final two chapters deal with the particular issue of genetic engineering. Chapter Four discusses it in general, while the final chapter discusses it in relationship to humans. Douma is careful to note the potential consequences of genetic engineering. Many of those consequences will not become apparent until long after the first steps have been taken. In principle, however, Douma is not opposed to genetic engineering, though he insists it should be done for the right reasons, with particular controls, and within limits. He discusses in detail some of the risks and benefits of genetic testing for early diagnosis and potentially creating designer children. Some of what Douma foresaw as potentially adverse conditions from genetic engineering has come to pass. So too have many of the positives. Still, Douma’s perspective is worth reading despite its dated content.


This book is worth reading because it is so far outside of the stream of environmental ethics that it reopens settled questions and has the potential to improve dialog. For the scholar writing on the topic of environmental ethics, Douma’s footnotes and bibliography are a goldmine of sources from well off the beaten path.

This book is part of an answer to a growing concern in my mind of the need of a well-written, deeply considered environmental ethics that is consistent with an evangelical theology. In general, Douma provides that. At worst, Environmental Stewardship should enhance the conversation by reopening “settled” questions by forcing consideration from a new angle.

Environmental Stewardship
By J. Douma

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.