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A Gospel of the Ground

Daniel Stulac


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Growing up, my siblings and I consumed generic canned vegetables and rehydrated milk while my father and mother scraped to put food on the table. I bear my parents no resentment for our culinary poverty. My father being a pastor, they did not have much money, and cheap food seemed a blessing at the time. In the 1980s, Wendell Berry’s dictum that “eating is an agricultural act”1 simply had not yet reached the dinner plates of Evangelical Presbyterians like us, and so we did not have a garden. I could not have said where squash or tomatoes come from, nor did I wonder. Food was fuel. The cheaper, the better.

Ten years after graduating college and a world away from my upbringing, I find myself in the little town of Piermont, New Hampshire, bracing a U-shaped calf-jack on the hind­quarters of a Holstein named Wynette. The calf is in breech, and Lee is worried.2 Two of its hooves stick out of the birth canal while its mother sways with exhaustion. She has been in labor all day, and would prefer to lie down. But for the well-being of her baby, Lee keeps her upright and attaches two chains to the calf’s feet.

By this point in my life I have nearly a decade of agricultural experience under my belt. I have learned to cultivate beans, corn, apples, blueberries, broccoli, turnips, potatoes, peppers, and numerous other vegetables, fruits, and grains. But this summer is different. I am at Lee’s farm on the banks of the Connecticut River to learn about the dairy business. My job is to hold the jack steady while Lee works the lever back and forth to winch the calf free. I am determined to perform well – a life, and a livelihood, hang in the balance. So does my pride.

Jean-François Millet, Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields

Wynette feels the calf moving within her and begins to push. Without warning, a stream of manure shoots into the crisp June air. It seems to hang in space for a split second and then lands squarely on my forehead, spattering into my hair, my eyes and mouth, filling my ears and nose. I am spitting and coughing as it runs down my neck. The calf is moving; Lee is cheering. Braced firmly against the jack, eyes squeezed shut like a proselyte going under in the baptismal font, I refuse to abandon my post. The stream becomes a river, and I am soon immersed.

A few minutes later, Lee drags the newborn animal across the barn floor and lifts it over a metal rail, face down, so that the amniotic fluid can drain from its nostrils and mouth – a real problem for breech birth calves, one that could easily lead to pneumonia and death if we are not careful. Wiping my glasses, I blink and try to get my bearings. Satisfied that both animals are now clear of immediate danger, Lee makes no effort to conceal his amusement at my condition. At church tomorrow he will have a rapturous tale to tell about the city slicker who thought he knew a little something about farming. “Well,” he asks, grinning from ear to ear, “what will you name him?” I am conferred this honor since it is the first animal born under my care. “Carpaccio,” I reply. “That was some raw beef.”

detail from The Man with the Hoe by Jean-Francois Millet Jean-François Millet, The Man with the Hoe (detail)
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On the day the Lord God made the heavens and the earth – and no bush of the field had yet come to be in the earth, and no grass of the field had yet sprouted up, for the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no human to serve the ground, but a mist came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground – the Lord God formed the human of dust from the ground, and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden, in Eden, in the east, and there he put the human whom he had formed.

And the Lord God took the human and he placed him in the garden of Eden to serve it and to keep it. (Gen. 2:4–8, 15; author’s translation).

The gospel begins with a birth. Christians claim that the God of the universe has made a remarkable intrusion into the human predicament. The God of the Precambrian soup, the God of the Carboniferous forests, the God of the Cretaceous and the Pleistocene, the God of the triceratops and the wooly mammoth: that same God, Christians say, was born in a barn. What we do and how we live – everything about how we express the gospel in the world today – rests on these words from Philippians 2:

Christ Jesus…being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (NIV1984)

He made himself nothing, Paul says, “taking the very nature of a servant.” How, we might ask, is Christ’s servanthood related to his human likeness? What significance lies in the truth that the God of all creation loves creation so much that he enters into creation itself, that he participates in the raw, bodily, organic chemistry of it all?

American churches in particular have suffered protracted confusion on this issue. “Liberals” have tended to emphasize Christ’s humanity over his divinity. The downside to such a scheme is that without the divinity of Christ, we are left without a savior, still needing something more than good advice from a good teacher who lived two thousand years ago. On the other hand, “conservatives” have tended to emphasize Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity, as if Jesus were simply God “dressed up” in human flesh – not really human, but appearing human. This error fosters the ancient and pernicious idea that God’s plan for salvation is to supply special, insider information to a select group of followers, who, through a little prayer and a little Gnostic magic, can be assured that God will snatch them from this world at just the right moment to spend eternity somewhere else. Destined to burn, the earth ceases to hold any real value. Like so many of our culture’s labor-saving products, the earth becomes a disposable stage in the drama of Judgment Day. In this scheme, God is left without love.3

The Bible is clear: God loved the world in such a way that he gave to us his only Son (John 3:16). God loves the world with a passion that exceeds our own. God loves this planet and all its many inhabitants. When we fail to appreciate that God is human with us, that he made himself nothing and is the dust of the earth with us, the gospel comes to be more about psychology, more about feelings and fantasies, more about escaping, and less about God and God’s deep and abiding love for his material creation.

A similar escapism manifests in the modern hope that humans will someday fly beyond our solar system to colonize other planets. Many believe that this is our destiny – to leave.4 But a gospel rooted in incarnation – the human birth of God – has it the other way around. The gospel declares that God put us here, that God is here, and that God makes our home here, His home here. The gospel places us in the world that God loved in such a way that he gave his only Son on its behalf. In Christ, we do not escape our human bodies. Exactly the opposite! Rather than getting us out of our human skin, the gospel declares that God joins us. God joins us, down here amongst the malaria-ridden swamps and the dry, overworked hills. God makes our home his home. God declares this planet worth his time and attention.

That the Messiah should “take on the very nature of servant” is not an idea new to the New Testament. It derives primarily from Isaiah’s Servant Songs, the most famous of which declares that the Servant will take up our infirmities and carry our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). Isaiah’s Servant Songs envision the restoration of people to the land, and land to the people. Above all, they envision the restoration of God’s intimate, immediate presence to a people exiled from their God and from their country. Christians see the completion, the fullness, of Isaiah’s vision of restoration in Jesus. Thus, ultimate restoration in Christ is a restoration of place. God’s incarnation – God’s human birth – is a birth in the land, for the land, for those who live and subsist from the land (cf. Isa. 65:17–25; Rev. 22:1–5).

Tucked away in the middle of these Servant Songs lies an intriguing hint to Isaiah’s redemptive vision. If we want to know what kind of restoration Isaiah has in view, if we want to know what kind of servant the Servant will be – what kind of work he will do, what kind of character he will have – then, the text suggests, we would do well to read the book of Genesis. Look to our parents, Abraham and Sarah, Isaiah advises us (51:2). Better yet, look to Eden. Read about the garden: “For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her ruins. He will remake her desert like Eden, her wasteland like the garden of the Lord” (51:3). 5

I suggest we take Isaiah at his word. If we want to know something about the Servant’s mission on planet Earth, if we want to know what it means that God chooses human birth for himself, if we want to know what difference incarnation makes, if we want to know what Christ restores and redeems through the cross and resurrection, Isaiah says: Look back at the beginning. Look back to the garden in which humanity was created.

According to Genesis 2, we are the dust of the earth. The word for “human being” in Hebrew, ’ādām, or the name Adam as the first human is called, derives from the same root as does the word for “ground” or “soil,” which is ’adāmāh. In other words, human beings are “groundlings.” Every cell in our bodies is made of organic molecules – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen – atoms which were, at one time or another, floating through the atmosphere of our planet, falling down through the clouds as rain, percolating through the soil, being absorbed into the roots of plants, dying and decomposing and living again in the bodies of new plants and new animals.

We are, quite literally, born of dust. But that does not mean we are only dust. Filled with the breath of God, we have a special vocation, too – to serve the garden in which God placed us, and to keep it well. As dust of the earth, we are created to be servants of the soil. We are creatures designed by God to have our hands dirty. We are intended for cultivation. We are here as the keepers, the pruners, the grafters, the midwives, and the husbands of God’s planet. We are of creation, and we are for creation. And as creatures, we are part of creation. It is precisely here, in our raw creatureliness as described in Genesis, in our abject organismal state, that God chooses to abide with us. God – the God who made the dust, who made the stars, who made the elements of which we are composed – that same God chooses from the beginning to make his dwelling among us, to live for all time like us, as a servant of the soil. I am the dust of the earth, but God declares that he is not too good, not too proud, for my dustiness.

Lee has beaten me to church. I can already hear him cackling in the sanctuary. The whole congregation of fifty will know my story, told and retold, before the morning is over. It is all in good fun, and I will play my part in Lee’s rapidly evolving melodrama.

But for the time being, I am standing in the foyer just outside, transfixed. Hanging above me is a life-size painting of Jesus striding through the grass with a lamb in his arms. I have walked past this picture perhaps fifty or sixty times already this summer. Historically speaking, suggests my seminary education, the portrait is quite misguided, quite wrong. For Jesus, as we all know, did not have blue eyes. He did not have rolling locks of sandy brown hair, pale skin, or a long, European nose. In no place do the Gospels suggest that Jesus worked directly with animals or performed any farm labor whatsoever. In many (especially urban) communities, this portrait would come across as saccharine at best, racially offensive at worst. But why, I wonder, have I been willing to account for only its “errors”? Is such a representation of Jesus really as “wrong” as I have assumed? On the morning after Carpaccio came feet-first into this world, I am having second thoughts.

Piermont, New Hampshire, is a small community with a deep history in the land. A blinking, yellow light hangs from a wire in the center of town. The corner store and gas station sells cigarettes, beer, hardware, and scooped ice cream in season. An inn, salon, and post office can be found around the corner. Moose and bear are not rare sights, even close to the center of town.

When Lee and his wife Betty Sue married in 1970, Piermont boasted twenty-five farms. Dairy was the economic backbone of the community. Since then, however, selling milk to Cabot, the regional dairy cooperative, has ceased to make economic sense. Family farmers took on mortgages, hoping the downward trend would prove only temporary. At one point Lee and Betty Sue were selling their milk for half of what it cost to produce. They have survived only because their son Mark is an exceptional cheese maker, turning their high quality milk into an artisanal product that is to be sold to restaurants as far away as Boston and New York. Lee and Betty Sue are the exception. If Mark’s son Eli someday farms their quiet bend in the Connecticut River, he will become a seventh generation dairyman, truly defying the economic odds that Big Dairy has stacked against him.6 A few weeks after Carpaccio’s birthday, the number of farms in Piermont would drop even lower as yet another family, two miles down the road, cashed out and sold their herd. Now Lee and Betty Sue are one of just five farms left.

Looking deeply into Jesus’ blue eyes, I am struck that in a rural community historically devoted to animal husbandry, this little country church decided to hang in its front foyer a portrait of Christ the Good Shepherd. Not Christ in prayer, not Christ the teacher, not Christ the miracle-worker. Not even Christ on the cross, although all of these images would have been “accurate.” No, Piermont Congregational Church chose to characterize its faith through a portrait of Christ the farmer. Christ, whose arms are wrapped around a sheep. Christ, who knows late nights in the barn and early mornings in the pasture. Christ, who knows the backbreaking work of hay season. Christ, who knows the gut-wrenching worry of a failed harvest. Christ of the newborn lamb. Christ of the breeched calf. Christ of the miscarriage. Christ of the compost pile. Christ of the filthy fingernails.

Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Phil. 2:6–7) – being born of worldly dust. A truly Trinitarian gospel implies that our humanity, our “dustiness,” is not a problem for God. Human birth is not God’s emergency Plan B for the world. On the contrary, our creatureliness is precisely what God loves about us. It is precisely what he redeems and restores.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a gospel of escape, a nugget of insider information that gets the believer off the hook while the world burns in the rearview mirror. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of emplacement. It is good news born in a barn. It is a gospel of the ground.

1. Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” in The Art of the Common­place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Counterpoint, 2002), 321.

2. Personal names and descriptions are used with permission.

3. Norman Wirzba, “Placing the Soul: An Agrarian ­Philosophical Principle,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land, ed. Norman Wirzba (University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 80–86.

4. Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An ­Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 81. Davis cites Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Random House, 1994), 385.

5. All Old Testament translations and emphases are the author’s.

6. For a comprehensive analysis of the history of dairy farming in New England, see Kirk Kardashian, Milk Money: Cash, Cows, and the Death of the American Dairy Farm (University of New Hampshire Press, 2012).

Contributed By photo of Daniel Stulac. Daniel Stulac

Daniel Stulac, a doctoral candidate in Old Testament studies at Duke University, writes about faith and agriculture.

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