Dean Ohlman on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land”

The Gift of Good Land

The Gift of Good Land

Today’s response to Wendell Berry’s essay “The Gift of Good Land” comes from Dean Ohlman, who manages the website Wonder of Creation for RBC Ministries.

“The Gift of Good Land,” was published 30 years ago, and we reprinted it in the Fall 2009 issue of Flourish Magazine to celebrate Mr. Berry’s work, but also to provoke some questions: How has the natural world, and efforts to steward it, changed in these 30 years? How has Christianity changed? What is still relevant about Mr. Berry’s words today? What have been our successes and failures as creation’s stewards in these three decades? Where do we go from here?

We’ve asked a wide variety of Christian thinkers, writers, and leaders to respond to Mr. Berry’s essay, taking into consideration these questions and their own relevant experiences. Here is Dean Ohlman’s reflection:

Called Out of Complacency
By Dean Ohlman

When I first read Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Good Land,” it disturbed me. It still disturbs me.

I am disturbed not because I feel his conclusions are wrong, but because they are right—and I am wrong. When I examine what I write and say today, it’s hard to tell what are my original thoughts and what are the thoughts that Berry first implanted within me. The problem is that Berry has lived out his ethical beliefs in a way that puts me to shame. In another essay he admonished those who write a lot about stewardship and community with the natural world but do not act faithfully and consistently on those principles. That admonition falls heavily—and justifiably—upon me and my spirit. Even when you’re convinced you could and should do better, it’s still very hard to break free from the structural sin that has us in its grip. Statements that especially touch me are these: “That those who affirm the divinity of the Creator should come to the rescue of His creature is a logical consistency of great potential force,” and “Charity cannot be just human, any more than it can be just Jewish or just Samaritan. Once begun, wherever it begins, it cannot stop until it includes all Creation.”

Where I have some differences with Berry is his seeing the Hebrew conquest of Canaan as a “manifest destiny” like that of the American colonizers. The Hebrews’ conquest of their promised land was in large part a judgment of God upon structural evil epitomized by the Canaanites. Their being instructed by God to drive out or destroy Canaan’s inhabitants is really more akin to the Flood, the confusion of tongues at Babel, and the fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah than it is genocidal hatred. That the Hebrews mostly failed in it shows their reluctance to be God’s instrument of judgment. But his conclusion that the promised land was a gift to unworthy people who were required to be good stewards of it is very apt.

One of Wendell Berry’s conclusions, however, is prophetic when applied to efforts like the Copenhagen conference on climate change: “The ‘regulation’ of abominations is a modern governmental exercise that never succeeds. If we are willing to pollute the air—to harm the elegant creature known as the atmosphere—by that token we are willing to harm all creatures that breathe, ourselves and our children among them. There is no begging off or ‘trading off.’ You cannot affirm the power plant and condemn the smokestack, or affirm the smoke and condemn the cough.”

Berry puts the onus on each one of us individually, and that disturbs me. It should disturb me.

Dean Ohlman was founder and director of the Christian Nature Federation, a sort of Christian Audubon Society/Sierra Club that existed from 1989-92. During that time he joined the fledgling creation care community and was involved in the startup of the Evangelical Environmental Network, was a contributing editor to Creation Care Magazine, and served on the board of Restoring Eden. Dean is now the host of the RBC Ministries website dedicated to creation care and to celebrating the wonder of creation:

RBC is the publisher of the monthly devotional booklet “Our Daily Bread” and the producer of the TV program “Day of Discovery.” Dean has written five booklets on the wonder of creation for RBC’s Discovery Series and has co-produced three TV series/programs on the same theme.

Dean and his wife, Marge, live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and have been married for 44 years. They have three grown sons and seven grandchildren.

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