Eating as Spiritual Practice: Locavangelism and the Evangelical Tradition in America

Today I'm posting Part II of Rachel Wheeler's "Eating as Spiritual Practice: Locavangelism in America Today," presented originally as a paper at a conference and shortened slightly here for blog format. Part I introduced some of Rachel's basic ideas; Part II below draws out the parallels she sees between evangelical thought and locavore practice; Part III, posted on Sunday December 4th, concludes the series. Thanks for Rachel for these provocative explorations!

Part II of Locavangelism in America
by Rachel Wheeler

History and Definitions

I would like to suggest that aspects of the contemporary environmental movement draw heavily – and largely unconsciously—from the deeply rooted American tradition of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has been a powerful force in American culture from the revivals of the First Great Awakening in the 1740s to today when upwards of 40% of Americans identify themselves as “born again.” So just what is evangelicalism? Scholars generally agree on three basic elements of evangelicalism (or four depending on how you divide them up): the importance of the “born again” experience and a personal relationship with Jesus; Biblicism; and the importance of spreading the word. I’ll tackle these one by one, giving a brief explanation of each before considering how various environmentalists and locavores embody these qualities.

The Born Again Experience

The hallmark of evangelical piety – the born again experience – was the defining feature of the First Great Awakening in the colonies, itself part of a larger transatlantic Protestant evangelical awakening. The born again experience essentially speeded up the conversion process that 17th century New England Puritans had made the basis of church membership. Early Puritan leaders faced the challenge of establishing ecclesiastical structures in a radically different religious and physical environment from what they had known in England. If church membership was not to be a matter of birth to Christian parents, but conferred upon the visible saints of God, then the church needed a means of establishing who was among the elect. Full church membership was thus granted to those who were able to deliver in front of their minister and other church members a compelling account of spiritual journey toward Christ. A pattern soon emerged, termed by Edmund Morgan the “morphology of conversion” marked by the stages of “knowledge, conviction, faith, combat, and true, imperfect assurance. . . .

A number of prominent environmentalists were raised in evangelical and fundamentalist traditions: John Muir, often credited as being the grandfather of the American environmental movement in the 19th century, was raised in a strict Calvinist household; Dave Foreman, who founded the radical environmentalist movement EarthFirst! in 1979, was raised in a fundamentalist church and had once considered becoming a preacher. (Although, I won’t go into it much here, Foreman’s philosophy is fascinating as a sort of Calvinist environmentalist apocalyptic millennialism – Foreman is deeply convinced of human depravity and that our environmental sins are leading us quickly toward an apocalypse in which Mother Nature will meet out justice). . . .

All of these environmentalists, as different as they are, have in common that they renounced the Christian gospel of their upbringing and became ministers of the green gospel. But it is not only those who have evangelicalism in their family tree that become environmental evangelists. Below, I’d like to look at various shades of environmental evangelism, from current and former evangelical Christians and to those with no direct link to evangelicalism.

The lecture by the Mad Vegetarian Cowboy I mentioned at the beginning conforms perfectly to the form, if not the substance, of the evangelical conversion narrative: the Christian content has been vacated and an alternate model of righteous living substituted in its place. I have not been able to find out about Lyman’s religious background, but odds are good that someone raised in ranching country in the 1950s belonged to an evangelical church. Like Lyman, Julia Hill was set on the path toward environmental by a medical disaster. When she was 22, the car she was driving was struck by a drunk driver and she was nearly killed. During her recovery, which took nearly a year, she came to realize, “that my whole life had been out of balance…The crash woke me up to the importance of the moment, and doing whatever I could to make a positive impact on the future.”

Like Lyman, the trauma didn’t prompt an immediate conversion, but set her on the path toward a new life. It would be some years before she found her “Jesus,” but writing in retrospect, she felt she was being called by the one true power, the power of Creation. On a whim Hill headed west, scarcely recovered from the accident, and when she first sets foot in a redwood forest, she feels: “these majestic ancient places.. are the holiest of temples, [and] hous[e] more spirituality than any church…”

She stumbles upon a disorganized activist camp trying to save the ancient forests from the chainsaws. In her depiction, the would-be activists are too caught up in petty bickering to do the work of activism. Hill volunteers and one night becomes more than two years. During that time, Hill is transformed by the tree she comes to call Luna.

Hill’s description of her transformative moment sounds for all the world like a born-again experience, the moment of justification by grace that only comes after being laid low in one’s own sinfulness and helplessness: “I had to be broken until I saw no hope, until I went crazy, until I finally let go. Only then could I be rebuilt; only then could I be filled back up with who I am meant to be. Only then could I become my higher self.” In his Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, Dave Foreman sounds like a modern day Gilbert Tennant when he argues for the importance of grace: “breaking free from the gilded chains of civilized banality is not easy. One cannot achieve a state of wilderness grace through books, through intellectualization, through rational argument. Our passion comes from our connection to the Earth and it is only through direct interaction with the wilderness that we can unite our minds and our bodies with the land, realizing that there is no separation.”. . .

Political conservative and Christian author Rod Dreher admits that he used to mock lefty eating habits until a friend offered his family their week’s share from a CSA (explain Community Supported Agriculture) and he was converted by the cauliflower. Presbyterian pastor Craig Goodwin’s conversion was prompted by his purchase of a “Spa Factory Color Sparkle Custom Nail Mix Studio” as a present for his 7 y.o. daughter to bring to a friend’s birthday. It was the height of meaningless consumption, and came in the aftermath of the Christmas season, and in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown. After the crisis, he and his wife resolved to spend a year living by four rules: local, used, and homemade (the fourth rules was Thailand – they would buy goods from Thailand, which enabled them to keep their coffee).

Colin Beavan, the child of a-religious, hippy, liberals has no direct connections with evangelical Christianity, yet his memoir of a year of living lightly on the earth has all the hallmarks of the classic conversion narrative. Beavan announces in the introduction to No Impact Man: “I’m going to tell a story that is more confession, a pre-changing of my ways stocktaking, a prodigal son, mea culpa sort of thing.” He then recounts his sinful ways, in his case, his prideful tendency to see the faults in others but not himself: “It’s true, that I had occasionally tried to make a difference in the world, but I was coming to think my political views had too often been about changing other people and too seldom about changing myself.” On an unnaturally warm January day in New York City, Beavan finds himself aghast at the impact of global warming, the complacency he sees all around him and his sense of helplessness. “Back on that summery day in the middle of winter,” he writes, “I seemed to be hitting bottom.” His epiphany was that he must change himself: “I wasn’t sick of the world, I was sick of myself.”

Beavan came to speak at my university in Indiana last year, and in a lecture hall packed with about 500 students, I had the same feeling I’d had hearing Lyman years earlier: here is a modern day itinerant minister of the environmental gospel. In his chatty, self deprecating hipster way, Beavan exhorted his listeners to change their lives. While Beavan did not invoke a higher power directly, his message implied a faith that individual actions do matter, and that individuals can find the power to do the seemingly impossible. He also implied that the way to righteous living is a matter of common sense apprehension of “truth,” and this raises a second feature of evangelicalism: the belief that there is a source of truth and that it is available to all.

Biblicism/common sense

Famed American religious historians George Marsden and Mark Noll have both explored the fusion of evangelical Christianity with a popularized form of Enlightenment philosophy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, resulting in a common sense reading of the bible among evangelicals, and later, fundamentalists: the bible means what it says, and says what it means, and its eternal, enduring truth can be perceived by anyone, not just seminary trained clergy.

This approach to the Bible is readily apparent in the writings of Christian environmentalists, even though conservative Christianity and environmentalism have long been seen as antithetical. For example, Joel Salatin grounds his farming philosophy in his religion: he finds in the Bible a clear account of God’s order of creation, and the charge to humans to steward His creation. In an interview, Salatin explained:I am a Christian, and I think that the Judeo-Christian ethic calls us to realize that we are stewards of creation – that we are not to just rape it, pillage it, whatever, we are to steward it – and lays down certain principles of growth.” He continued to explain, “When God made [the earth] in Genesis, the plants were to reproduce after their own kind. And genetic modification doesn’t make plants produce after their own kind. So, you know, even to that point, [there is a] template there to live by.” Salatin’s farming philosophy is rooted in his reading of the Bible: farming practices must enhance, not hinder, animals’ and plants’ ability to express their God-given nature. In this view, corn fed beef is heretical, and even sinful.

Don Colbert, a graduate of Oral Roberts University (Pentecostal), and a practicing doctor, draws even more directly on the Bible in encouraging his readers to reform their diets. Colbert begins his 2002 book with the question from the title: What Would Jesus Eat? He expects that his readers as Christians have attempted to model their lives on Jesus’s, but rarely when it comes to food: “we seek to follow Jesus in every other area of our lives, why not in our eating habits?” The bible, believes Colbert, offers a clear path that will lead to physical and spiritual health and so when we eat, we should ask ourselves: “Why am I eating this? And “Would Jesus eat this?” If we ask these questions, he suggests, we will have to face two truths about the way we live: “most of what we eat flows from ill-founded, unwise, and mostly unconscious food choices” and 2) “Most of what we eat in a given day may not be what Jesus would have eaten if He were walking in our shoes.”

Secular environmental evangelists also proclaim a truth that is plain for all to see, often turning to nature itself as source of wisdom and truth. Among contemporary environmentalists, Julia Butterfly Hill expresses this idea most clearly in her resolve: “ I was no longer going to live my life out of fear..I was going to live my life guided from the higher source, the Creation source.” Through her relationship with Luna (the tree), Hill comes to realize: “that what I was feeling was the love of the Earth, the love of Creation. Every day we, as a species, do so much to destroy Creation’s ability to give us life. But that Creation continues to do everything in its power to give us life anyway. And that’s true love.” Hill had accepted Luna as her personal savior and guide for her life.

One could hardly imagine anyone farther apart culturally and ideologically than Don Colbert, a politically conservative Pentecostal, and Michael Pollan, a politically liberal secular Jew, yet in his 2008 book, In Defense of Food, Pollan sounds a note remarkably like Colbert’s. Instead of Jesus, however, Pollan invokes the wisdom of grandmothers: “Most of what we need to know about how to eat we already know, or once did until we allowed the nutrition experts and the advertisers to shake our confidence in common sense, tradition, the testimony of our senses, and the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers.”[9] Pollan’s prescription?: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”[10] Pollan’s truth is a common-sensical truth.

Spreading the word:

Having found salvation, and a new gospel, the enviro-evangelists all feel compelled to spread the word. Here I’d like to start with the seemingly most un-evangelical of the group: Michael Pollan. Pollan is of Jewish background, but apparently non-practicing. His writing is the epitome of rational discourse, hardly the fire and brimstone of the evangelist. But yet, his works are in fact exhortatory and not entirely unlike that most famed example of fire and brimstone preaching: Jonathan Edwards’ infamous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon more often despised (or praised) than it is read. Edwards was a careful student of the Enlightenment, and the power of the sermon comes from the clinical, precise dissection of sin and its consequences. Likewise, Michael Pollan’s work dissects our environmental (food) sins and the consequences to individual, communal, global, and environmental health. Pollan’s equivalent to “Sinners in the Hands…” is his “Letter to the Farmer in Chief,” a letter to the newly elected President Obama published in the New York Times in January 2008, in which he argues that arguing that Obama must make “reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration.” If we continue on our current path, Pollan argues, our destruction is assured. And just as Edwards spelled out the precariousness of the sinner’s state, as a spider dangling above the pit of hell, held up only by the slenderest thread of God’s grace, yet deserving of damnation unless the sinner reforms, Pollan describes in great detail the ways that our food choices are clogging arteries, polluting the environment, driving up health care costs, and destabilizing our economy. His program of reform includes everything from supporting farmer’s markets, doing away with agricultural subsidies to big business, establishing a grain reserve, establishing mandatory gardens at primary schools and creating a new School Lunch Corps whose mission would be to change children’s “food culture.”

Joel Salatin, the Christian libertarian capitalist lunatic farmer, was spreading the word of redemption through agriculture long before he was discovered by Pollan. Salatin devotes much of his time to spreading the green gospel. The farm’s website announces:Believing that the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world, the Salatin family invites like-minded folks to join in the farm’s mission: to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.” . . .

Ragan Sutterfield makes a similar point in his book, Farming as Christian Discipline, “My hope is that Christians will come to see one of their tasks as staking out claims for God's Kingdom by redeeming land from the margins and using that land to create gardens that offer not only good food but also community development and hope.”[12] While Barbara Kingsolver has moved on from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to other writing projects, her website continues to serve as a site of almost religious witness: there is a page filled with reader-submitted pictures of lush gardens and happy children accompanied by testimony of the transformative power of communion with home-grown (or at least locally grown) tomatoes.

Like the temperance and bible tract societies of the nineteenth century the locavangelist movement tends to operate on the conviction that the path to the millennium will be paved by the conversion of individuals: if enough people make the choice for salvation the Kingdom of God will be achieved. And for this, the movement, especially Pollan, have come in for criticism. One reviewer, Laura Shapiro, criticizes Pollan for preaching a doctrine of “individual dietary purity,” which reflects “his religion – the holy, catholic, and apostolic church of food, where only martyrs and lost souls have to shop at Safeway.” According to Shapiro, Pollan alienates the unconverted, because, she write, “he can’t quite bring himself to take us seriously unless we can prove we’ve been born again.” Only time will tell if Shapiro’s critique proves justified, or if the movement gains the momentum and organization to seek systemic change.


Russ said…
A minor correction - John Muir's father came to America when John was 10 to join the anti-Calvinist Disciples of Christ, though he was a Presbyterian while in Scotland.

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