When showing the documentary Fresh in class one of the lines that always catches students’ attention is Joel Salatin talking about the chickenness of the chickens. He describes how his way of farming, in contrast to industrial chicken farms, honors the chickenness of chickens. In class discussion I assert that it is a theological statement, and that Salatin means it to be—even if he does not state that in the documentary. He affirms my assumption in his recent book, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for all of God’s Creation.
I immediately heard the phrase as theological because in my ethics class I so frequently talk about living more authentically as the people God created us to be. Christian ethics, in part, is about helping the Markness of Mark flourish. In this book Salatin states that to farm in a way that respects the pigness of pigs or the chickenness of chickens is to honor their creator. It also, he maintains, is the best way to farm. It is a stance of worship and respect, but also practical wisdom. He encourages us to pay attention to the patterns of creation and work with them for the good of pigs, chickens, fields and forests, and our good as well.
Salatin describes himself as a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer” (xiii). One thing that means is that very few people will agree with everything in this book. More significantly it means that Salatin crosses more divides and has more diversity of friendships than many in today’s increasingly siloed society. He has many conservative Christians friends who worship the Creator and many liberal friends who worship creation. “This book has grown out of the tension between those two camps” (xiii). It is an attempt to persuade evangelicals to embrace, for biblical and theological reasons, the type of farming and earth-care practiced by Salatin and his friends in the other camp.
There are many ways to read the book. Read it to learn about Salatin’s approach to sustainable farming, and ways non-farmers can participate in that approach. Read it for help in thinking of ways to talk about these issues to people you know in his target audience. Or, better yet, read it together with some in that camp. Read it for new biblical and theological insights produced by his thinking theologically about his farming practices. I encourage you to read it and let it challenge you broadly and deeply—not just in relation to specific actions and thoughts. As he works to show the contrast between the order and patterns of God’s creation, and the ways of industrial agricultural I found myself reflecting broadly and deeply on agriculture and beyond. I will share a few examples.
In the mid-1800’s Louis Pasteur saw bacteria through a microscope and developed germ theory to explain illnesses. “He proposed ways to kill these critters. He saw nature as fundamentally flawed and in need of human intervention and fixing” (60). A contemporary of his, Antoine Beauchamp, saw the same things through a microscope, but came to a different conclusion. He developed terrain theory, arguing that there are good bacteria and bad, and it is the condition of the terrain that determines which wins out. Pasteur and his followers looked for ways to kill the germs. Beauchamp explored broadly. He studied the impact of things like sleep deprivation, hygiene, and food quality on the terrain. He looked for ways to have a wellness-inducing terrain where the good bugs would win out over the bad. After introducing these contrasting approaches Salatin spends the rest of the chapter describing how the two approaches play out.
Do we take a more passive, victim mentality about sin—a sin gene or the devil made me do it; or, do we work at the terrain of our lives? Urbanization, without refrigeration or indoor plumbing set up a very negative terrain. “From smoke-clogged homes to manure-clogged streets to brewery-waste-fed-cows, the recipe for disease could not have been better” (62). Milk started making people sick. The solution? Germ theory says, kill the germs in the milk—pasteurization (which also kills the good bacteria). But Salatin points out, “raw milk from grazing cows doesn’t need to be fixed with pasteurization. It’s not broken” (63). Solution, clean up the mess and respect the cowness of cows—let them eat what cows naturally eat. “At sustainable agricultural conferences, most of the workshops are positive how-tos. I almost never hear much discussion of sickness and disease. . . At industrial agricultural conferences . . . nearly all the discussions center around diseases and sicknesses. The overriding desire is how to beat nature, how to win, as if nature is the enemy that must be subjugated like a military conquest” (89). I can applaud Salatin’s points, yet as I take a step back I have to acknowledge that I have been immersed in a germ-theory-world for most of my life. How does this influence me? How does a find-the-cause-of-the-problem-and-kill-it approach play out in other areas of my life?
(Coincidentally, the day after I wrote the previous paragraph I read an article in The New Yorker about a team working to lessen sexual assault at Colombia University. The two professors who lead the effort stated that rather than take the common approach that sees it as an issue of individual behavior and punishment as the solution, they think about it “socio-ecologically: as a matter of how people act within a particular environment. . . Their approach . . . does not ignore personal responsibility; rather, it aims to nudge students toward responsible behavior on a collective scale” .)
Germ-theory-mentality combined with industrial agriculture has produced a food system saturated with fear. Consumers fear contaminated foods and farmers fear disease or pests wiping them out. In response we seek to wrap ourselves in a sanitized bubble—sanitize food, keep out visitors who might carry a germ into a chicken farm, and use chemicals to kill malicious bugs that are present. “A farm of faith says this: if I follow the Creator’s patterns, immunity and wellness will follow.” Salatin is not naïve. He acknowledges that industrial mono-crop farmers have reason to be fearful, and consumers understandably want their milk pasteurized and their chickens dipped in bleach. They have reason to be fearful of the products of a mono-cultural industrial system. Jacques Ellul tolds us that technique always leads us to look for new techniques to solve the problems created by technique. Salatin does what Ellul advocates instead, dig deeper, look for root problems, and trust God and God’s ways not technique. What are other areas in our lives where fear pervades and we have not looked deep enough in search of freedom from our fears?