By Duane Otto, Director of Ithaka Fellowship
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall
become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
– The Prophet Isaiah
According to general consensus, the Agrarian Project would have begun and ended with “I’ll Take My Stand” were it not for two prominent failures: President Hoover’s administration and the Economy.
Prior to the Great Depression, the pervasive attitude regarding the general nature of life was well guarded by what the Agrarians had termed the “gospel of Progress,” a pseudo-gospel of sorts, one that promised stability, happiness, and prosperity if citizens simply trusted in the revolutionary forces of development and industrialized technology. Against this worldview the Agrarians were less than comprehensible. Americans simply did not have the patience, nor the appetite, for the “humane virtues of a simpler, more elemental, non-acquisitive existence.”3 Newness had become virtue; oldness was vice. The old was inferior; the modern valuable. It was believed human innovation, not age-old wisdom, would address humanity’s ills.
However, this system of thought proved to be vulnerable in the growing wake of the Great Depression. Large industrialized cities were hit hard. Solutions were desperately needed. In 1932, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, forums seeking these new solutions were opened. New opportunities for a more concrete agrarianism developed. Fearing the New Deal would pass them by, half of the original Agrarian group did the unthinkable. They ignored their own advice and hitched the movement to the political machine, lobbying for political reform, publishing, and presenting a form of agrarianism that could easily be translated into public policy.
From here, the story of New Agrarianism becomes convoluted, its narrative encompassing a wide range of digressions. Specifically, by becoming a political movement all manner of neoconservative styles were invited to join the cause, all of which advocated federal intervention of some kind. For example, one sees European traditionalists, medievalists, proponents of “forty acres and a mule,” new country living advocates, and even environmentalists, conservationists, and transcendentalists all espousing some component of the Agrarian Project. Of course, one is still able to pick through and identify the true spirit of Agrarianism both in thought and practice (over 150 doctoral dissertations have proven this). But in short, the low-grade hum of the political machinery did more to hurt than help the cause.
Which brings me to Wendell Berry. Over the last twenty-five years the spirit of agrarianism has experienced a resurgence under his watch. Why? I do not believe it is because of his early writings on how to rebuild a Great Rural Civilization. History has shown us the futility of this approach. Rather, I believe his effectiveness lies in his ability speak as a poet and prophet, a voice crying out from the wilderness. To put it simply, Berry seeks an inner “conversion” of sorts. By eulogizing age-old wisdom, which is a largely vanished way of life, he courts the reader’s soul and stirs awake deep, fragmented longings ignored and often created by our technological age. With resolute stories of land ownership, home, hearth, marriage, faith, friendship, and clear devotion to one’s place (all of which are core principles of Agrarianism), Berry creates a deep hunger for the tried and true. He opens the reader’s eyes to a better way of life, a life that savors harmony with God, others, and the created world, a way that is often overlooked by Christians even though its beauty and vitality is subtly depicted throughout the great narratives of the Bible.
Since the founding of the movement, New Agrarianism has sought a way to reconcile modernity and tradition, progress and human nature. At its core is the desire to reform home-life, shelter rural-life, and literally build culture from the ground up. I may be wrong in saying this, but it is my conviction that as more and more people struggle with the fragmenting effects of excessive materialism, rampant individualism, and land disassociation, New Agrarianism’s core truths will only grow in their appeal, both in the church and society at large.
Presently, the movement’s vision is thriving only in the social margins at this centuries beginning. The ethos of American evangelicalism is still predominately shaped by optimism in modern technique and programatic formulas. But even this is waning. More and more pastors are growing weary of feeling like frenzied paramedics on a blood stained battle field. Bleeding wounds and casualties demand immediate care, but they are starting to reconsider the fundamental nature of the battle. They are beginning to question the flock’s assumptions about innovation, progress, and technique; questioning what truly constitutes the good life. Even the average layperson is asking these same questions. The Modern experiment is proving to be an hollow existence. As one person put it, “Busyness is a great way to make money, but it lousy way to live.”
I am hopeful that as these questions grow, the church will have better answers to these basic human longings. The New Agrarian Project is not the end all. It is not a one stop shop. But it is certainly a voice crying out from the wilderness. It’s spirit is deeply tuned in to the ethos of Holy Scripture. For those who slow down and stop to ponder its message, a hidden vista comes into view, a path of sorts, one foretold by the prophet Jeremiah and one we would be wise to follow:
“Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
– Jeremiah 6:16
by Duane D. Otto
3 Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “I’ll Take My Stand” (Baton Rouge: LA State University Press, 1977), p.XV.