Monday, September 09, 2013

Soil and Sacrament: A Review

Like so many other young-ish Christian hipster wannabes, I have secret dreams of becoming a farmer. I have never grown food, never tended a garden regularly, never awakened before the sun to milk any animal. The plants on my patio regularly die of neglect. Still, I harbor romantic fantasies of living a life on the land, supporting myself in community from things we grew in the soil. This is, I think, the definition of naivete. The secret dream is, in practice, mostly about devouring agrarian writing: memoir, fiction, how-to: Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Kristen Kimball's The Dirty Life, memoir of a Manhattan journalist falling in love with a rural farmer and then, in quick succession, the work of farming itself, left me in throes of ecstasy at the possibility of agrarian transformation. Pipe dream or pop Christian fad, this desire to be close to the soil exists even if I can't seem to find time to act upon it.

Fred Bahnson's story starts with what he calls an "agrarian conversion." On a mountaintop in Chiapas, Mexico while serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams, Bahnson heard God offering him direction for his life - to care for soil, to grow food, and to share it with others. His memoir - Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith - slips in and out of vocational discernment to tales of modern-day communities focused on food and faith.

Bahnson opens his book with the confession that four years of directing the Anathoth Community Garden left him exhausted, burnt out and searching for some new vocational life. This introduction sets us up for modern spiritual memoir, something in the Elizabeth Gilbert genre of Contemporary Quest for Meaning. Except Bahnson doesn't follow that formula. Instead, he intersperses chapters of personal vocational discernment with chapters telling the story of various farming communities that he visited during a year of writing sabbatical.

Both kinds of chapters stand well on their own. I was especially intrigued by Bahnson's admission of the tension between being an introvert with hermit-like tendencies and a person clearly called by God to ministry among God's people. Congregational ministry was never, it seems, a viable option. But CPT, writing, teaching, gardening, and social justice work were - and continue to be threads of call and vocation that Bahnson works tirelessly to follow. The work of Anathoth - the community garden he directed for four years in North Carolina - and the work of the communities that he visits along the way both provide examples, templates, and inspiration for what Christian community might look like in this new day as traditional congregational structures falter and die. Bahnson's honest writing about hearing God's call clearly and then struggling to navigate the myriad possibilities for response is compelling.

At the same time, the chapters that give glimpses into communities of faith and food are also worthy of attention. Bahnson visits a monastery where monks grow mushrooms, a community garden, a ministry that employs felons and ex-drug dealers to work its farm, and a Jewish organic farm community in Connecticut. Each of these groups of people offer insight into the deep connection Bahnson names as the adam and the adamah - Hebrew for "human" and "earth." English works that way, too: "human" is related to "humus," also "humor" and "humility." People need the land. And in the relationship, something of God arises. There is much beauty in these chapters, both in the writing and in the reality of people planting themselves in a particular plot of earth.

But: I wish that the two threads - travel observation and vocational memoir - had been better woven. Though the entirety of the book centers on food and faith, land and stability, God and gardening, Bahnson does not weave his own vocational journey into the fabric of these farming communities as seamlessly as a reader might like. His vocational journey remains, understandably, unresolved, while the visits were contained in both time and experience. But writing-wise, there may have been a way to make those immersion experiences more of guideposts along an unending quest toward call, a more explicit connection between the Jewish organic farmers and Bahnson's own journey toward something more rooted. What is it, I was left wondering, that I am supposed to take from this? 

Still, spiritual memoir is a genre that I am unable to resist. It is also, apparently, fairly irresistible for writers of all stripes and skill levels. Soil and Sacrament is on the better-quality end of that spectrum, refusing to fall into formulaic memoir structure, inviting reflection and prayer, honest and funny, mystical and practical in turn. Check it out.

Fred's website:
An interview in Image:
And a TedX Manhattan talk:

I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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