Author Interview with Fred Bahnson
Fred Bahnson received a 2011 Project Grant for Researchers award to support The Good Land Project – Extending Practical Charity to the Soil. We interviewed Fred about his 2013 book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, an outcome of his project.
LI: Tell us about yourself and your current work.
FB: My current writing projects are a jumble of scribbled notes, half-baked ideas, and little snippets of narrative that slowly accumulate like geologic strata in the folds of my Moleskin notebook. And the geologic reference is only a slight exaggeration. I’m a slow writer. Once those strata begin to cohere into a recognizable pattern, I’ll pursue them and they will become a book, but for now they’re inert layers of dirt. I have three or four book ideas I’m toying with. It feels premature to speak about them so I’ll speak instead about my other work, which is my full-time job at Wake Forest University School of Divinity directing the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative.
Part of my role is to organize continuing education events on food & faith issues both in Winston-Salem and in the Asheville area. This Fall, for example, we’re hosting Vandana Shiva for a talk on global food security. I’m teaching a class called “Field, Table, Communion: Food & the Work of Ministry” which involves readings, seminar discussion, and site visits to local farms and gardens. For the Spring I’m organizing a conference on Contemplative Ecology and another gathering on Food, Faith, and Climate Change.
We’ve developed a fruitful partnership with Warren Wilson College, where every June I host a 5-day seminar on a topic related to food & faith. This is a WFU School of Divinity-sponsored event, but Warren Wilson allows us to use their lovely campus with its model gardens as a teaching site. This past June we brought in the intrepid Ched Myers, who taught on “Sabbath Economics and Watershed Discipleship.” In 2015 we’ll again be bringing in biblical scholars, permaculturalists, and a musician-in-residence. Each year is a slight variation, but the overall goal remains constant: equip faith leaders with a holistic, scriptural frame for thinking about food systems, social justice, climate change, and ecology. We need to de-balkanize our thinking, and this course is an effort in that direction. It’s but one example of how we’re trying to redefine Christian leadership which for too long has limited itself to concern only for people. We’re trying to follow the scope of Christ’s cosmic redemption we read about in Colossians 1 and say that Christian leadership should really be engaging things like watersheds, food-sheds, our climate, and the non-human creatures with whom we share this earth. And that means learning practical skills for how we care for our places, skills like permaculture, biointensive gardening, and watershed restoration.
LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?
FB: The main project I worked on during my Louisville grant was a book called Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food & Faith, published last August by Simon & Schuster. The publisher called it a “memoir” for marketing purposes, but I really see it as more a hybrid of literary nonfiction with a spiritual quest as the narrative spine on which everything hangs. The book is partly memoir, but it’s also part narrative journalism, part nature writing, and part lyric essay. There’s even a bit of mythic storytelling and a smidgen of theological diatribe. It was fun for me as a writer to bring together all these different layers and styles and try to make them cohere in a single narrative. It’s less a book about gardens and food in the practical sense and more a theologically-informed narrative that uses the religious imagination to think about soil and land and community, about our journey in this life from one garden to another (Eden to New Jerusalem), about the tenuous nature of our place in the world.
LI: What would you like us to know about Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith?
FB: With Soil and Sacrament I wanted to explore both my own journey into gardens, which I’ve come to see as a necessary metaphor for the Christian life, but also my journey to different agrarian strongholds, places where life and liturgy and food and community and land are all blended in a luminescent whole. Places that witness to the fullness of our humanity and our connection to soil. I wasn’t looking for airy transcendence; I wanted immanence, incarnation, fecundity in all its forms. I visited Trappist monks who raise shiitake mushrooms, Mayan coffee farmers and Pentecostal coffee roasters, community gardeners, Jewish farmers. In each place I traveled as an immersion journalist but also as a seeker, praying the 4th century prayer of the Egyptian monastics: “God, we beg you, make us truly alive.” The undercurrent (I wouldn’t call it an argument) of the book is that caring for the soil and feeding people is a means to become more fully alive. To become more fully the soil-people (“earth’s hallowed mould” as Milton wrote in Paradise Lost) that God created us to be.
I grew up with little or no idea where my food came from. With the lens of a theological education I came to see that our distance from the sources of our nourishment has resulted from a widespread Gnostic disdain for the material world. We’ve come to think that we’re somehow above the hard work of growing food. Yet we’re now realizing that when less than 1% of us know how to grow food, something important has been lost. I hope Soil and Sacrament leaves the reader with examples they might follow through the stories of people trying to reclaim a more embodied life. More than anything I wanted to show the beauty and promise of such a life.