Power Struggles with the Untamed: What Nature Can Teach You About Yourself

When you learn to ride a horse, you become painfully aware of two things. The first is that the reins in front of you are just an illusion of control. The second is that, no matter how strong your thighs are, if that horse decides you belong on the ground, there’s a good likelihood you’ll end up there pretty soon. A relationship with a horse is risky. There’s no way you can completely control an animal that weighs half a ton. Yet, as you might know from experience, a relationship with a horse is a privilege. It’s an honor to move with a beautiful creature that is so much more powerful than you.

When Christians talk about nature, we usually talk about creation stewardship. We care for the earth because in the beginning God called the earth good, and in the New Testament we see that God desires to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. Yet even creation care can sometimes focus too much on controlling or ruling nature rather than learning from it. Are we to interact with nature simply because we were told to take care of it, or does it exist to teach us something? Rightly regarding nature helps us understand human power correctly, and it can give us insight into our relationship with the earth and God.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, we see that when man practices bad stewardship, he develops an unrealistic understanding of his power that leads to man’s destruction. Captain Ahab is driven to fight nature because his perspective of the world is anthropocentric—he assumes that he has the inherent right to conquer the whale and misunderstands who he is in relation to the natural world. Ahab’s missing leg and his “gashed soul” are, Melville tells us, the direct result of the attack of the great white whale. Despite this, Ahab is unable to accept his powerlessness in the face of nature, embodied by the whale, and he becomes obsessed with regaining power: “All…demonisms…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were…made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, nature is the sole source of all human pain and destruction. Ahab completely relinquishes his roles as a husband and father and leads his entire crew into a dangerous oblivion, which ultimately claims the life of almost every crewmember.

The fate of Captain Ahab and his crew could have been changed if Ahab saw fault not in the whale but in himself. In his pride, Ahab fails to see nature for what it truly is, and he fails to see himself for what he truly is. In Ahab’s world, there is only domination. Either Ahab will dominate the whale, or the whale will dominate him. He will be either a slayer of the earth or a slave to it. But there is a middle way that Ahab has forgotten: man’s primary role as caretaker and lover of the earth.

Melville contrasts Captain Ahab with Ishmael. The only crewmember to survive the wreck of the Pequod, Ishmael does not claim control over the leviathan, and he includes many facts about the whale throughout his account of his journey, proving he is more interested in trying to know this unknowable thing than conquering it. He contemplates the foolishness of man in thinking that we can control nature at all: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill…yet for ever and for every, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he can make…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”

Oughtn’t we come to terms with the fact that nature could, at any moment, “insult and murder” us, as Ishmael so bluntly tells us it could? It is a harsh truth that the earth is more powerful than we are, but this truth does not have to destroy us like it does Captain Ahab, who is wrong in assuming that the harshness of nature means nature is against us. Nature can be frighteningly untamable, but that which is untamable is not necessarily evil. Instead of losing his sanity because he cannot control the earth, Ishmael humbly accepts who he is in relation to the earth. He hungers for knowledge of it but is not obsessed with overpowering any part of it, including Moby Dick. He recognizes that he cannot hate the untamable parts of the earth because they reflect something human. Contained within the earth there is an image of something with which he identifies. Ishmael ponders, “Consider both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”

The mysteries of the earth and endless depths of the sea remind us of all we do not know about this world and even about ourselves. Our souls are mysterious. Our bodies are mysterious. We gather facts like Ishmael, but the same questions God spoke to Job still hover over every created thing: where were we when all of this was created? How were the vast mountains and our tiny nerves fashioned? By reminding us of all we do not know and all we cannot know or control, nature humbles us. We, like Ishmael, should approach the earth not with the desire for control but instead with respect and a willingness to experience wonder. We are the creatures whom God made in His image, yet we have been given a world we cannot (and should not) fully tame, and that reminds us both of how finite human power is and how glorious our God is.

Pornography, PETA Style

I would have thought that anyone arguing for a connection between PETA and pornography would have to suggest that objectification of women expressed via pornography was comparable to the objectification of animals in the meat industry production lines. Treating women like pieces of meat and then treating animals like only objects made of meat, as opposed to living creatures, would be a connection that, I think, could be made without too much of a stretch. Continue reading Pornography, PETA Style

Because Beating the Russians Wasn’t Enough: Crafting A Martian Narrative

Joi Weaver proposes that space exploration, that boon of sci-fi fans and writers, lacks a compelling narrative outside the scientific community. It’s ironic that a subject that has served so many artists so well may itself suffer from poor storytelling, but the ongoing shut down of poorly-funded NASA programs proves her point. Here’s an excerpt from her post at the Mars Artists Community blog:

The early space missions had a story that anyone could grasp: we were sending men to the moon! It was dangerous! It was exciting! It was putting our country in the forefront of science! This narrative kept public attention and support for the space program high through the Mercury, Gemini, and early Apollo missions.

But it fell short, ultimately resulting in an early cancellation of Apollo and hamstringing all future NASA spaceflight. Why? No-one ever developed a new narrative. “We’ve beaten the Russians to the moon,” most people thought, “isn’t that the end of the story?”

Of course it’s not the end. But you wouldn’t know that to talk to the average person-on-the-streets. Many people believe the shuttle was capable of lunar landings and had no idea the whole shuttle program was coming to an end until a few months ago. NASA, for all its media presence, failed to provide a new narrative. In the post-Challenger era, NASA decided to stress the safety of spaceflight, despite the fact that it is the riskiest human endeavor possible. NASA TV became little more than clean-cut men and women floating in a sterile environment, smiling as they talked in acronyms that meant nothing to the public: it was very safe, but it was terrible story-telling.

Fortunately, Joi argues, there’s still time to do something about this:

Mars is still a blank slate in the public mind. Some of the more well-informed people may know about the rovers, but that’s about it. This is an opportunity. We can still set the narrative for Mars, and more importantly, learn from NASA’s mistake: the story can’t just be about getting there, or we may never go back after the first trip.

A narrative is almost never set by a single person; rather, it’s a hundred little stories that slowly take root in the heart and mind of the people, gradually changing the way we see the world. No-one can say that the MER program happened because Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles. But would it have happened, or happened in the same way, if he hadn’t written it? Where would the space program be without Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, and a hundred others who fanned our desire to explore?

It’s time to start creating the narrative for Mars, to show the Red Planet as we know it: a place of danger, beauty, and adventure. A place that could, eventually, become home.

Check out Joi’s collaborative Mars narrative at the Mars Blog Project:Mission. And don’t be afraid to contribute!

(image courtesy of NASA)

The Four-Legged Mirror

Terrence Malick’s astounding film Tree of Life opens with Jessica Chastain’s breathy monologue, explaining that there are two ways in this life, the way of nature and the way of grace. No film embodies that dichotomy more practically than Buck.

You know who Buck Brannaman is, even if you don’t realize it. If you’ve seen Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, or Chris Cooper in Seabiscuit, you’ve seen the gentle cowboy who goes by Buck. It’s short for Buckshot, a stage name from his days as a child trick roper. He lost his mother at an early age and suffered through years with an abusive father until a kindly old, childless couple took in him and his brother, and on their ranch, he discovered his love of horses. It sounds like a plot worthy of a mid-century Disney flick, but it’s the true story of the man “God had in mind when He made the cowboy.”

In the past decade or so, new theories on animal behavior have seeped into the popular consciousness. Where we used to apply choke chains and physical punishment to train our dogs, we now use Gentle Leaders and clickers. Dog training is no longer about bending an animal to our will – it’s about forging a relationship with another being based on our species’ limited grounds of mutual understanding. The same is true in the horseman’s world, but the shift has been far more dramatic. In Buck, director Cindy Meehl’s debut documentary, Buck Brannaman shows us that the shift says much more about the people than it does about the animals.

If I treat animals this way, do I treat people this way, too? We all know the answer to that.

The mythos of the American West is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche, it’s hard not to thrill at the image of the cowboy, all leather, dust, and lasso, forging his way into the hostile wilderness and mastering it. There’s something in watching a cowboy bring a much larger, spirited beast into submission that satisfies our desire for dominance, and the struggle still thrills us so much that even James Cameron couldn’t avoid putting the image into Avatar. And yet, upon further thought, it’s an incredibly disturbing image (though, alas, not one inconsistent with human history). The way we treat animals says more about our own souls than the animals’ worth or behavior. And, using the history of the American West as a test case, it’s not a far leap from brutally beating mustangs into submission to the way we treated the native peoples of the land.

In Buck, Brannaman shows us another way. His motto is “gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it.” Following the footsteps of legends like Tom Dorrance and his mentor Ray Hunt, Brannaman revolutionized how we understand our interaction with horses. Where conventional wisdom tells us that the only way to get obedience from a large animal is to scare it, Buck reminds us that fear isn’t respect. His method isn’t based on forcing obedience, but neither is it based on letting the animal do whatever it pleases. He insists that as a rider, you have to teach the horse what is and is not appropriate behavior, but you can only do that by understanding each other. As horsewoman Gwynn Turnbull-Weaver says, “In this discipline, if you want to be great, you have to be a sensitive person.”

Brannaman comes by the sensitivity honestly. Physically abused by his father to the point that his life was in danger, Buck and his brother were removed from his home and placed with foster parents nearby. The typical pattern of abuse suggests that victims become abusers, but Brannaman brushes that aside. When asked how he escaped that cycle, he shrugs and says he just decided that’s not who he was going to be. He met Hunt, started learning how to train horses, and never turned back except to extend forgiveness to his aging father in later years.

The sequences that show Brannaman in action are breathtaking. As someone who has worked with horses all her life, I couldn’t believe what he could accomplish with a troubled horse in less than five minutes. There are echoes of Eden in the interaction, and it’s truly a wonder to behold. It’s also heartbreaking to see what happens when a horse has been so ruined by circumstance and bad training that he is beyond even Brannaman’s help.

That horse is a mirror—all your horses are a mirror to your soul. You might not like what you see in that mirror.

Buck is a perfect companion film to Tree of Life, worthy of many a long conversation over coffee with good friends. Both end with the same intriguing proposition: what if there is no dichotomy? Rather than the way of nature or the way of grace, is there merely the way of nature’s grace? Buck Brannaman seems a man whose life is determined to embody the paradox. His fury at the woman who so ruined her horse that she turned it into a predator that has to be destroyed is not simply anger over the horse. It’s anger at the entire construct, the way of force, a way that would have destroyed him if his foster parents hadn’t interceded. Brannaman transformed his pain into beauty, something that elevates him to the company of great artists, not merely great horsemen.

As with most great artists, what Brannaman’s doing isn’t itself revolutionary, but it looks like magic. Communicating with our animals like Brannaman suggests isn’t our first instinct. And, again, that says more about us than it does about the difficulty of training animals. Maybe that’s why we favor the old methods after all. Cesar Millan’s popularity in the dog training world is quite telling. It’s much easier to intimidate an animal into submission than take the path of nature’s grace. If we dominate the animal, we set ourselves apart, creatures of a higher order completely unconnected to the dumb beasts who serve us. If we follow Buck Brannaman instead and look into the mirror, we might see who we really are.

Bill Gates on Terrapower – Lunch w/ TED

Microsoft founder Bill Gates thinks we need to drive energy down to zero carbon emissions. Personally, I’m suspicious about the motivations and claims made by proponents of human-caused climate change theories. However, as a Christian I believe that we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation and, therefore, we should use wisely the resources that God has given us. In this talk, Mr. Gates introduces the idea of “terrapower” which would use nuclear “waste” to provide power for whole nations.

Mr. Gates’ challenge is inspiring. First of all, with Terrapower he is proposing a free market solution meaning that it empowers people to flourish in freedom to create and solve problems which will help their neighbors. Second, it speaks to the visionary, forward looking part of the enterprising spirit which enables us to simultaneously wonder at creation and dream about how we could better put it to use in a way that is both valuable to humanity and in greater harmony with God’s elaborately designed cosmos.

That being said, I have two criticisms of the talk.

My first criticism is that Mr. Gates seems to be operating under the assumption that energy should primarily come from a centralized source. Why not de-centralize energy production and use technology to allocate unused energy to sources where it is needed? What if 75% of homes and businesses provided 90% of their own energy?

For example, in California, every home owner should seriously consider adding solar panels to their homes. We have sun almost year round and the technology today allows panels to power homes while making it affordable enough for homeowners to install. One individual in the comments section of the video (at TED.com) suggested geothermal energy – another method of decentralizing energy production. The idea of decentralizing energy has the added benefit of naturally appealing to a demographic not often persuaded by “lefty” environmentalism: conservatives. After all, what good conservative isn’t interested in decentralizing power! Mr. Gates and his fellow innovators are missing opportunity for grassroots involvement and reform when they only consider highly centralized solutions.

My second criticism of the talk is pertaining to the remarks made against the climate skeptics. In no way is innovation such as Terrapower necessarily connected to belief in climate change theory. For his part, I thought Mr. Gates gave a reasonable response to a rather annoying question and he is to be commended. If Mr. Gates, and his allies of a more eccentric variety like Al Gore, wish to bring on board “climate skeptics” of an evangelical persuasion, such as myself, all they need to do is cease the demagoguery and point us in a direction of technologies that will help us reduce our carbon footprint without destroying our economy or relinquishing individual liberty to state control. Mr. Gates claimed that they needed hundreds of people/groups working on solutions to the energy problem – they are missing real opportunity for collaboration when they exclude climate skeptics.

A Killer in Captivity

The killer whale killing of this last Wednesday has received a lot press. Video footage of the trainer’s shocking death has gone viral, which hackers have used as a vehicle to spread actual viruses. This has aroused as much righteous indignation as the prurience which motivates millions of hits on videos of a violent end. The killer whale show is slated to resume, Seaworld CEO Jim Atchinson announced on Friday, but without any “in-water interaction” until 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau’s death has been thoroughly investigated.

Reminiscent of Roy’s (of Sigfried and Roy) debacle in 2003, it bears remembering that this whale does have the word “killer” in its name.  Even with creatures less overtly predatory, keeping huge animals confined for an audience’s thrills is an obvious problem. Though Sea World does not plan to kill Tilikum (the whale responsible for Brancheau’s death, as well as two others), neither do they have any plans to “Free Tili.”

The only surprise here is that we are still shocked each time wild animals, expected to perform like clockwork, don’t. In both the case of Roy’s slow recovery and Dawn’s legacy, the possibility that “the show will go on” is touted as a triumph of the human spirit, though it could equally be seen as a continued colonization of the animal spirit, and a lesson consistently disregarded.

Why these shows attract audiences is the first place is a good question. It is undeniable that they are astonishingly popular. Siegfried and Roy were Las Vegas superstars, and Shamu has merited a theme park. The majesty of wild animals is something we feel viscerally. Their elusiveness and their strength mesmerize. It is unsurprising that we like it when animals do tricks. Astonishing feats and entertaining shows will always attract an audience, and this is especially true when they are performed by animals without apparent higher cognitive abilities. But these are no dog and pony shows. The unique cocktail of awe at the majesty and power of large, undomesticated animals and the razzle-dazzle of watching them jump through hoops has made a great deal of money for those with the wherewithal to combine them. It is as if we are trying to reenact the spectacle of King Kong with live animals, from the comfort and safety of bleacher seats.

There will never cease to be a demand for entertainment. Particularly the entertainment of watching human beings make animals above them on the food chain do tricks for fish, or a pat on the head. It is a high wire act: breathtaking in the feat it accomplishes, always in the face of real and imminent danger. But when the danger is real because the wildness of an animal is real (and something enforced generationaly, cannot be trained out in a single animal’s lifespan), then it seems that the endangerment of life and of quality of life is not just a risk for the trainer. In the wake of Dawn’s death, her family and coworkers can take comfort in the fact that “she loved her job and was well aware of its dangers.” The same cannot be confidently ventured for the whale. ‘

Everyday Justice and Lent

“Welcome, dear feast of Lent!” George Herbert, English country priest and poet wrote in Lent (1633). Last week, the western church entered the season of solemn preparation to remember Christ’s great sacrifice and victory over sin and death, and in a short while our eastern brothers and sisters will join us. Lent is usually observed through practices of self-denial and increased spiritual discipline, as Amy Cannon so aptly introduced in a recent article on this site. To prepare our hearts for the joyous celebration of the empty tomb, we must first remind ourselves of the great tragedy of the cross. So, for forty days, we deny ourselves things that are good in remembrance of the things Christ secured for us that are far better, and we take upon ourselves new or intensified practices to make ourselves more like Him. Herbert was right. In fasting, we do indeed find a great feast.

In our Lenten remembrance, we strive to take on attributes of Christ. His work on the cross saved us from the chained bondage of sin and death. We are never more like Him than when we bring freedom to others, and Scripture records that the heart of God is moved most deeply by the plight of the poor and oppressed. And, since Lent isn’t supposed to be forty days of virtue in a church year full of apathy, we can spend this time cultivating aspects of Christ’s character that will carry us through the rest of our lives as we grow in knowledge and love of Him.

At a loss for where to begin? Julie Clawson offers some excellent suggestions in her book Everyday Justice: the Global Impact of our Daily Choices. As I’ve written here before, our most mundane choices from day to day dramatically affect people around the world. In some cases, we unknowingly bind them to modern slavery for our convenience and savings. It may feel great to purchase food, clothing, or luxuries at a deep discount, but the items didn’t suddenly become less expensive to produce. There’s a hidden cost to marked down prices, and we don’t often see those forced to pay. Like it or not, and aware of it or not, we are complicit in their oppression. In Everyday Justice, Clawson traces that complicity through commonly purchased items (coffee, chocolate, cars, food, and clothes) and what happens to what we consume through waste and international debt.

Clawson’s documentation is thorough. This is a book for skeptics and believers alike. In her introduction, Clawson draws a connection between Coca-Cola consumption and genocide in the Darfur region that’s shocking (Sudan is the world’s leading producer of gum arabic, an ingredient so vital to the creation of America’s favorite bubbly beverages that the National Soda Association and other gum arabic groups successfully lobbied for an exception to the US’s sanctions against Sudan, rendering those sanctions meaningless in 1997). When something as seemingly benign as an icy Coke on a hot afternoon puts the drinker in league with a lobby that sought to prevent the US from interfering in genocide, it can be overwhelming to think of hunting down each of these daily routines that have such devastating consequences to our fellow men.

But that’s why the book is called Everyday Justice. Clawson offers the reader a guide to introduce us to living more justly. It exposes the consequences of some of our daily activities and offers simple steps that anyone can take to seek justice instead. As Clawson says, it is an introduction to “tweak – not overhaul” our habits. Rather than overwhelm the reader with the impossible task of righting every wrong and making sure nothing she does has any harmful effect whatsoever on anyone anywhere (a highly unrealistic goal, especially given the nature of our deeply entrenched consumerism), Clawson’s book is an example of how to seek justice in a manageable, practical, meaningful way every day.

Above all, it is a reminder that as Christians, we are called to act in love in all things. If our purchasing choices bring real harm to people, it follows that they can also, if altered, treat people in love and respect. In this Lenten season, as we follow Christ to the Cross, we need not just deny ourselves treats like chocolate or a nice glass of wine for our own sake. We can use that denial to serve our brothers and sisters around the world. In doing so, Lent does its greatest work on us; it reminds us who we are, who God is, and helps us reorder our priorities in light of His. ‘

Global Warming: Facts, Fiction, and Freedom

Global warming might be real, but that doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it.  In fact, if your actions are motivated by guilt or fear, Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley would rather you didn’t act at all.

Hayhoe and Farley are the authors of A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions.  Though I am personally still skeptical of many global warming claims, it’s hard to imagine a team more qualified to write this book.  Katharine Hayhoe is a scientist and professor whose research has been used by the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Congress, various state and federal agencies, and over two hundred newspapers and media outlets worldwide.  Andrew Farley is a pastor, professor, and the author of The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church.  Together, this husband-wife team combines a clear presentation of scientific findings with a Biblically-centered interpretation and call to action.

A Climate for Change argues that, despite what many evangelicals may still tell you, climate change is real–and it’s happening now.

The authors begin by addressing several of the most common objections to the theory of climate change, arguing that these objections are neither scientifically founded nor realistic.  They pay particular attention to some common evangelical objections, recognizing that this is a sticky subject for many Conservatives and for many Christians:

As Christians, we’re naturally suspicious of people who believe differently from us.  How can such activists–those whose voices have so often been raised against us on fundamental issues like family and the sanctity of life–have anything worthwhile to say about the environment?

In the past, we may have seen climate change used as a political tool on the part of this party or that organization to manipulate and get what they want.  Our hesitations are justified.  It’s hard to trust information from sources we feel might manipulate facts to suit their political agenda.

But the issue of climate change really is different.  It’s not about blue politics or red politics or any kind of politics.  It’s about thermometer readings and history.  It’s about facts and figures.  It’s about reality.  And that’s what we want to explore with you in this book. (p. XV)

For one thing, many have objected to claims of global warming because of severe cold weather conditions.  It’s hard to take global warming seriously, for example, in the middle of a severe snowstorm.  This, argue the authors, is due to a misunderstanding of the fundamental difference between climate and weather:

Don’t let your memory of some recent extremes, whether hot or cold, influence whether you believe global warming is really happening.  The reality is that global warming is about long-term changes in climate, measured over many decades or more.  It’s not about short-term changes that we see in the weather from one day to the next, or even from year to year. (p. 59)

Thanks to the recent “Climate-gate” scandal, global warming facts and fiction are more difficult than ever for the public to distinguish.  This book was released in October 2009, just before the email scandal broke, so it’s unclear how or whether the facts cited might be different had the book been written today.  The authors do mention, however, that the facts on which they base their claims are both old and indisputable.  They quote Sir John Houghton:

I’ve worked with hundreds of scientists and the vast majority know that it is happening and understand the science.  The basic science after all is very old science; it’s been known for two hundred years that we are as warm as we are at the moment because of greenhouse gases.  If you put up more of these gases, the world become warmer.  There is no doubt about that from a physics point of view or from a basic science point of view.  No scientist who knows anything will dispute that. (p. 67)

The final section of A Climate for Change contains both common-sense lifestyle change suggestions and some good teaching on Christian social responsibility.  Caring for the earth, the authors argue, is a way of caring for the poor, since they are the people most directly impacted by environmental changes.  People cannot redeem the earth–only God can do that, and he certainly does not need our help.  On top of that, he never commanded the New Testament Church to care for the natural world.  Even the commands found in Genesis 1:27-31 are more general than is sometimes assumed:

If we’re honest, there really is nothing here beyond be fruitful, increase, rule over the animals, and eat anything you want. Furthermore, if we conclude that there is an ecological mandate for today within this passage, then we must equally conclude that our mandate is to have more and more children and to increase the world’s population.  This would, in turn, contribute to more climate change and environmental issues, not diminish them. (p. 133)

While the authors would like you to believe their claims about global warming, they do not want you to act without proper motivation.  Far from imposing a guilt trip on their readers, Hayhoe and Farley instead advocate simple, common-sense, money-saving solutions that will inevitably benefit both you and your neighbors even if nothing is wrong with the climate–and they suggest that you make no changes at all if you are acting out of a sense of guilt:

…the true Christian message is one of freedom of choice, not guilt of duty. The moment we adopt any action out of obligation, we set the wheels of human effort in motion.  Then it is no longer Christ in us and Christ through us.  Instead, it is merely the human-driven notions of philanthropy or activism. If you decide you don’t want to individually contribute to a solution to climate change, so be it.  You are free in Christ to decide that.  Conversely, if you as an individual decide to make decisions that will help, that is great.  You won’t earn status points with God.  (p. 139)

I still don’t know whether global warming is real.  Hayhoe and Farley believe it is, but as a non-scientist I am not qualified to critique their evidence.  I do know, however, that if I’m going to continue in my skepticism I’ll have to find some new arguments, as A Climate for Change effectively dismantled my previous assumptions.  The book is worth reading no matter what you believe about the global warming debate and who knows, you may find, like me, that you don’t know as much about the subject as you thought you did. ‘

Provision and Progress

Michael Pollan is a rising star in the world of food. His recent book, In Defense of Food, was reviewed on Evangelical Outpost not long ago, he appears in a film now in theaters, and in a soon-to-air PBS documentary. He’s garnered attention on speaking tours and in a variety of articles, including this article by John Schwenkler at The New Atlantis. Schwenkler elaborates on In Defense of Food‘s central thesis – that our forsaking of folk wisdom to worship at the altar of decontextualized science is harming us, not simply in how we conceive of food (as Pollan argues), but in all areas of our lives.

The scientific perspective on food encourages us to understand what we eat solely in terms of its constituitive parts, reducing it to “nutrients.” This excludes folkways that approach food more holistically.  Because common sense cannot address food in terms of its caloric content or chemical construction, it has been bypassed in favor of expert opinion. But expert opinion is more and more returning to the value of inherited wisdom, things older generations came to know without scientific justification. Yet again, it turns out we should have listened to our mothers.

Schwenkler’s argument is reminiscent of the recent best seller Blink. In it, author Malcom Gladwell argues that instantaneous intuition, which outpaces reason and seems to defy available evidence, often provides a subtle and reliable analysis of situations, one we couldn’t otherwise perform consciously.  There are all sorts of ways in which an individual may have a way of doing things which she can’t justify, but which may well be to her benefit. Why shouldn’t this be so for cultures? It seems as if Pollan and Schwenkler would have us hesitate before throwing over “the way things are done” in favor of “progress.” They each offer examples of how America is returning to the roots from which it too hastily cut itself off.

Schwenkler, like Pollan, champions “not the kind of wisdom, whether real or merely apparent, [that is] dreamed up within the walls of the laboratory or the ivory tower, but rather the piecemeal accumulation of folk intuitions and commonsense tricks that encourage personal and societal flourishing in ways that abstract theories and appeals to first principles very rarely can.” He argues that “it is often at our peril that we allow such conventions to be displaced.” He notes that from child-rearing to city planning, we as a culture are realizing that our blind faith in engines of progress and modernity have often done us a disservice, one which our cast-aside old wives’ tricks and folk wisdom can remedy. From “free range” kids to farmers’ markets, things like eating local and trusting parents’ intuitions is gaining grassroots support over the prepackaged and oversystematized.

To be fair to the previous generations who got us into this streamlined, scientistic, systematized global economy,  it must be said that life informed by the scientific advances of the modern world has its advantages.  Things like the polio vaccine are just as much derived from science-centered progress as TV dinners. And though we may rightly blame such “progress” for the latter, it is best not to overlook the real progress of the former. Of course, neither Schwenkler nor Pollan are dismissing a century’s worth of development out of hand, but in their rush to affirm those goods which the last century has overlooked, they may do some overlooking of their own.

It cannot be ignored that the attempt to return to the way our grandmother thought of food and place is a move forward. There is no way that modern institutions, which are steeped in science, can be erased or undone, and we ought to be wary of replacing the old system with a new equally unhealthy one.

Pollan has acknowledged these dangers. In an interview with Organic Gardening magazine, Pollan notes that organic is in danger of being co-opted by the same money-driven engines that created the problems organic farming professes to address. Any revolutionary movement is in danger of absorbing (or being absorbed by) the worst of the status quo, and no solution for the food industry is safe from its abuses. Neither Schwenkler nor Pollan explicitly answer how we can go back while moving forward. How the organic movement spread without utilizing the  industry which it repudiates; how can the higher cost of organic justify itself to the poor; and whether it can work to help world hunger, or is doomed to be the hobbyhorse of the wealthy leisure class are all as yet unclear.  The general movement toward organic and local produce would do well to step carefully, working toward real, necessary change to our foodways, without rejecting what good has already been gained. ‘

In Defense of Darkness

It is no real surprise that one of the primary metaphors in Scripture for the dominion of sin and evil ruled over by Satan is that of Darkness. We are diurnal creatures, light-loving and day-inhabiting. We have colloquially marked the development of culture by harnessing fire, defining anthropological success as the ability to ward off the threatening, all-encompassing unknown of night. Darkness evokes the unfathomable — deep sea and deep space. To be so closely hemmed in by the unknown and unnavigable is a psychological challenge as well as physical one. It makes complete sense, then, that the more developed a place is, the brighter it is at night.

America still echoes with the pioneering spirit with which we imagine our forbearers to have carved out from hostile nature a homestead — by clearing land, raising roofs, and stoking fires to keep away predators, cold, and encroaching darkness. It was a strange shift when, still embattled by the Nature that had so long threatened and surrounded us, we found that we had surrounded and were threatening it. Environmentalism is in some ways a desperate backpedaling from the inertia that has kept us blazing trails when there is no real wilderness left. Darkness is unique in that it imposes the sort of disorientation of an untracked waste in even a familiar environment. This is perhaps why we have been less conscious about preserving it than we have other imperturbable and inaccessible things; it continues to be threatening in a way forest and wild animals no longer are, ever-ready to blanket the familiar with the unnavigable, should a fuse overload or a battery die.

National Geographic reports on the relatively recent attention paid to light pollution and its effects:

In most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars, leaving behind a vacant haze that mirrors our fear of the dark and resembles the urban glow of dystopian science fiction. We’ve grown so used to this pervasive orange haze that the original glory of an unlit night-dark enough for the planet Venus to throw shadows on Earth-is wholly beyond our experience, beyond memory almost.

National Geographic catalogues the sweeping implications of artificial illumination of the night sky on noctural creatures. Birds migrate too early, or are fatally attracted to bright lights while migrating; newly hatched sea turtles crawl toward the city lights rather than to the reflective ocean; new studies are just beginning to measure how humans are physically affected by our artificial lengthening of day. “At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.”

It would take only “simple changes in lighting design and installation” in our cities to radically reduce the light pollution that wastes energy and obscures the night sky by directing it upward. Besides the problematic biological impact of the vanishing darkness of our night sky, are there other reasons we should care to work for change? An unobstructed view of the stars, of course, is an experience the majority of the developing world has never had. This is an encapsulation of the sort of tragedy we unknowingly inflict on ourselves: we have cut off avenues to experiences of the sublime and transcendent in order to more securely situate ourselves in the comfortable.

But what of darkness itself? Though darkness is often descriptive in Scripture of the sort of deeds done at night, things antithetical to the searing truth-telling light of God’s Revelation, darkness may also be seen as divine. It veils in mystery what is undeniably there, but which cannot now be fully known; in this sense, anyone walking in a dark room has “faith [as…] the evidence of things not seen.” God has spoken from a thick darkness, as well as a burning bush; and it was His Spirit who brooded over the darkness of the unformed world. Although God is revealed in the world, there is another sense in which “clouds and thick darkness surround him.” He has hidden himself from the world, or in it. Perhaps, then, there is a theological reason for us to perserve darkness: it speaks compellingly of hard-to-remember truths about our God who not only speaks out from Holy Mountains, but covers us with his hand as he passes by, sheilding us from his unbearable glory by his impenetrable darkness. ‘