JUNE 16, 2016
ONE OF JOEL SALATIN’S favorite stories from scripture comes from 1 Samuel 15. He parses most of it near the end of his latest book, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs. This is a story about the Old Testament God, the one who occasionally orders followers like Saul, the first king of Israel, to kill babies and animals:
Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.
As the story goes, Saul goes to Amalek with an army of 200,000 soldiers, kills “all the people with the edge of the sword,” but decides to spare the best of the farm animals and King Agag.
Joel Salatin is not just a true believer, he’s a farmer — one of the little guys who raises animals on family land — and he comes to his interpretation of Saul’s actions with a distinctly agrarian lens. He isn’t particularly disturbed by the part where God asks Saul to mass murder a bunch of men, women, and children. God’s orders are God’s orders, I guess. Instead, Salatin wants to talk about the animals. “How could anyone not applaud Saul for exercising his intellect to admire good breeding stock when he saw it, and save it for Israel’s future gene pool?” he asks.
A well-bred animal is exceptionably valuable on a farm, in part because acquiring one can require many generations of careful selection. Needlessly killing a good breeding animal is more than the loss of a single life; it’s a waste of generations of genetic engineering. “I mean, after all,” writes Salatin,
this is simply good stewardship and taking care of creation. […] Goodness, Saul probably had some homeless folks in mind when he saved the best of the cattle and sheep, world hunger, helping farmers. Extremely noble ambitions.
Is God happy about this? No, of course not. Saul has disobeyed him, and disobedience — no matter how pragmatic and well-intentioned — is not part of this God’s plan. Saul offers excuses, apologies, explanations that the animals were to be sacrificed to his glory, but it is no use. God’s message to Saul, as delivered by the prophet Samuel, is one of his better-known admonitions:
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.
For Salatin, this is the part that hits home. “If you’re a true softhearted Christian,” he tells us, “tears flow at this point. I see myself in Saul. Defensive. Going my own way. Best of intentions. God is not impressed […] God wants obedience, dependency, respect from us.”
At this moment, it becomes apparent that The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs is, fundamentally, a book about how best to obey God on a farm. “What we’ve found on our farm is that when we devote ourselves to obedience, everything else takes care of itself,” Salatin explains a page or so after explicating Saul’s story.
Salatin’s visions of God and agriculture are deeply engaged with one of the major secular issues of our time: How should a farm be? But Salatin, despite his identification with Saul, answers the question with the confidence of a Samuel, a prophet ready to deliver a message. He leaves out the fact that things never really worked out between Saul and God after the Amalek incident. Saul tries to make up for the debacle by killing King Agag after the fact, but God remains disappointed in him. Saul’s initial disobedience is only the beginning of a downward spiral and fall from grace. At the end of 1 Samuel, as the Philistines approach, he lies down on his sword in a battlefield. End of story.
If you’re familiar with Salatin, you may have smirked when I described him as one of the little guys. In the grand scheme of our globalized economy, Salatin is a little guy, farming mostly the same land that his parents bought in the Shenandoah Valley. But in the world of sustainable agriculture, Salatin is an icon. His big break was a starring role in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book by Michael Pollan that portrays him as an approximate version of the ideal farmer, a little cranky but very good at his job. The documentary Food, Inc., drawing on Pollan’s influence, framed Salatin as something closer to a farmer-activist, someone whose passion and integrity could be leveraged to reform industrial agriculture.
Salatin does in fact run a very fine small farm; if you ever have the chance to visit or purchase food from Polyface, you should. To call him simply a farmer, though, is to misunderstand his ambitions. In recent years, his speaking schedule does look something like the schedule of an activist concerned with reforming a corrupt system, though that isn’t exactly the right characterization, either. (Chartwell, the agency that handles his engagements, is the same one that represents Mitt Romney and Anders Borg, the former Swedish Finance Minister.) Rather than farmer or activist, Salatin likes to describe himself as a “Jeffersonian intellectual agrarian,” his nod to the early American days when even the most prominent thinkers still had fields to till. Yet none of these descriptions get him exactly right.
Simpler to say that Salatin is an evangelist. In his last nine books, mostly self-published, Salatin’s has been the gospel of the small, sustainable farm. Whether he is explaining the mechanics of raising chickens on pasture or the best fence materials for managed cattle grazing, his books are written with the implicit aim of converting his readers, of showing them the light and bringing them into the fold. Over 20 years’ time, his accumulated readership has come to resemble that old joke about the Velvet Underground: Not many people bought his books, but everyone who did started a farm. In this way, Salatin’s flock is spread across the country. His acres contain multitudes, though he only happens to own a few of them.
The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, published by the same Hachette imprint that publishes megachurch pastors like Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes, was written, as Salatin explains on the first page, for “the 34 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelicals, the religious right, Christians, or members of the faith community.” He calls it his “coming-out” book, the one where he finally owns up to being a capital-C Conservative Christian, a graduate of the radically conservative Bob Jones University, “a six-day creationist and sanctity of lifer.” As with his others, this book is not the work of a particularly gifted writer so much as a true believer. Salatin’s prose is serviceable, accessible. He writes like a man who has given many talks. When passages get dull, he nervously interjects phrases like, “But are you ready for the next cool thing?” He has a knack for groan-worthy puns: “The physical is sun powered; the spiritual is Son powered.” His observations can be comically severe. Of a kitchen sink disposal, he writes, “now, there’s an immoral device if there ever was one.” (To be fair, his grouchy attitude is part of his appeal.) In any case, one doesn’t read Salatin for his style.
As for “coming-out” — actually Salatin has long publicly identified as a “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic-farmer.” (His words, not mine.) In fact, much of the opening chapter, in which he enumerates his conservative Christian bona fides, describes the tension that has been created in his life by being both vocally Christian and passionately concerned with agricultural sustainability. He recalls being invited to speak at UC Berkley, a place he describes as a “hotbed of liberalism and fount of godlessness,” and being told by professors afterward that “they had never in their many years on faculty heard a speaker use the word God reverently without getting hissed.” Salatin proudly notes he didn’t get hissed; he received a standing ovation instead.
On the other hand, he remembers picking up Bob Jones University’s Faith for the Family magazine in college and reading, “If you enter a health food store, you’ve just joined a cult.” Thus the central conflict here: Salatin’s ideas about the farm have been embraced by a largely secular environmentalist culture and rejected by the dominant Christian culture he otherwise identifies with. In the past, he’s written deeply and passionately about sustainable agriculture and only occasionally about God. This time, in his effort to reconcile the two, he’s accomplished a provocative, Bible-based examination of agricultural practice. Nevertheless, he’s aware that the new work has the potential to alienate both his long-term secular supporters and the Christian community at large.
Take, for example, Salatin’s insistence on proving his “red-blooded religious rightist” status by making clear his position on abortion:
I’ve delivered a lot of calves in my life. When you reach into that cow to assist, you grab for a front leg and if it’s alive, the calf will instinctively pull away. Your first emotion when that happens is exultant: “It’s alive!” It’s not fetal tissue. It’s a responding, thinking, living being that just hasn’t passed through the birth canal yet.
This is certainly an intriguing description, though I’m not sure that Salatin’s experience with cows has anything to do with a woman’s basic rights. It is also the point at which I assume the majority of Salatin’s secular readers will put down his book and walk away (if they ever picked it up to begin with). Whether it is enough to convince an evangelical Christian to keep reading — well, I can’t speak to that.
The moment is, in fact, just the beginning of what turns out to be a deeply critical portrait of Christian culture. Soon after, he writes, “I’m fascinated by the notion that most Christians happily patronize cheap food that destroys creation in its production, impoverishes third world countries, and supports oligarchical interests, all in order to have more money to put in the offering plate for missionaries. Does that make God happy?” Whenever Salatin notes that he is “fascinated by” something, he appears to be a half step away from disgust.
Salatin’s ambition to convert the evangelical community to the virtues of sustainable agriculture is not just a spiritual cause: it’s also a plainly shrewd business move. The purchasing power of Christian-minded consumers is vast. Despite what you may hear about our farm-to-table renaissance and locavore consumers, the American consumer still buys food from the same industrialists, though the packaging is friendlier these days. Many small farmers who have followed Salatin or other sustainable models are broke. To focus Christian spending on such farms would be a windfall for those involved, a fact that Salatin allows himself to fantasize about in these pages.
And yet: Judging by his observations this won’t be an easy conversion. He relates an anecdote about a megachurch pastor in Kansas who called him after preaching a sermon about agricultural sustainability. “The backlash from the farmers in his church was so overwhelming he was afraid he would have to flee,” Salatin writes. Again and again, Salatin reminds us that “as soon as a Christian starts talking about earth stewardship he’s branded a Democrat liberal commie pinko earth muffin.” The phrase rattles off his tongue so quickly, you get the impression he’s actually heard it a few times.
With the unconverted in mind, a fair portion of this book is given over to the same boilerplate facts and arguments that could be in any book about the unfortunate state of our foodways in the United States. Anyone who can still be surprised by the fact that the postwar rise of industrialized agriculture and processed food had overall negative effects on the state of our health and environment will find plenty to learn among those passages. However, if you’ve read Pollan or Dan Barber or Rachel Carson or Salatin’s previous books, you may find your eyes skimming across some familiar information and argument. What makes Salatin’s effort singularly engaging is a series of close biblical readings — like the story of Saul — that recognize Christianity as an agricultural tradition. All this begins with a patient clarifying of one of the most fundamental scriptural concepts: glory. It is a common word, used constantly throughout scripture in a wide variety of contexts, which can make a definition hard to settle on. The provisional one that Salatin arrives at is “the distinctiveness of something, the specificity and uniqueness” — God’s glory being his infinitude, omnipotence, immutability, and so on.
Salatin puts his working definition of glory in context in two ways. First, with a line from 1 Corinthians:
All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
This idea, that the flesh of an animal may have a different glory than the flesh of a man, is fairly evident to anyone who has sat down to a plate of barbecue pork.
But Salatin’s reading of the word comes into full relief when he marries it to a concept he’s thrown around for a long time: “the pigness of a pig.” The point is that a pig’s physiology allows for it to behave in a unique manner. “[P]igs have a wonderful plow on the end of their noses,” Salatin writes, explaining that this allows them to eat roots, disturb soil, munch acorns, distribute waste, and generally forage in a way that is entirely distinct from, say, the grazing of cattle or the pecking of chickens. Through our recognizing and honoring this pigness, Salatin explains, “[s]uddenly the spiritual mandate to bring glory to God has an object, something physical in which to participate.” In other words, farming as spiritual practice.
This leads Salatin into an explicit condemnation of industrial farming practices that interrupt pigness (confinement houses where rooting is impossible, movement is limited, waste is concentrated) as well as a celebration of the methods he’s developed over the years to honor and employ the unique attributes of the animals he raises. He explains:
Because our farm puts that kind of attention on maintaining the sanctity and dignity of the pig — the glory of the pig — we have a credible launchpad to a bigger discussion about defending the glory of God. Putting the pig in this position does not make God smaller; it makes God bigger and more awesome. This is not theologically demeaning; it’s theologically affirming.
Aware that this is starting to sound a little touchy-feely, he adds, “I slaughter lots of animals.” And then he wonders out loud: “How does killing the pig honor its glory?” Invoking the central metaphor in all of Christianity to make sense of the contradiction, he reminds us of “the sacrificial death of Jesus that enables us to to partake of eternal life.” From there, it doesn’t take much to start seeing the constellation of points that emerge over the rest of the book: the bread and wine that are body and blood; Jesus’s birth in a barn; the many, many ways that spiritual practice and belief take the metaphorical form of food and sustenance. In Salatin’s argument, Christian faith is neither indivisible from nor indifferent to agricultural practice. Analyzing verse after verse, he makes a strong argument for biodiversity and sustainability and his kind of farming: which gets one thinking — why haven’t these ideas been adopted as conventional Christian thinking?
One of the biblical passages that does not appear in The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs is Genesis 1:28:
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
I mention it in part because it is a foundational passage for Dominion Theology, which is something like the idea that Christians have a responsibility for stewardship in all affairs on this planet. On the American fringes, that line of thought can appear to be something like a vast Christian nationalist conspiracy, giving people like court clerk Kim Davis the mandate to use secular positions of power to exert a Christian agenda. I doubt such a conspiracy exists or that most Christians see it that way. More simply, the line reads: “He gave it to us. We’re in charge.”
Working directly from this notion of dominion, though, it is not hard to see a strong Christian defense of industrialized agriculture. If chemical nitrogen, genetically modified grain, and million-dollar tractors can be made from and used to control God’s beautiful creation, why not employ them? What’s a greater demonstration of dominion over all living things than the confinement and total control of an animal’s every living and dying moment? So what if all the land is ruined in the end? Our reward is in Heaven, right?
Salatin’s arguments against that interpretation can lead him to anger. He has long railed against industrialized agriculture, but his resentment here seems to be less concerned with ConAgra or Monsanto or McDonald’s and more directed at the Christians who enable such companies, especially those who have adopted a vision of dominion that doesn’t match his. He quite obviously loathes Christians who “deplete the aquifer in Colorado to grow grain to ship […] to a feedlot that pollutes the air and water to be slaughtered by disrespected workers to be transported via refrigerated truck belching diesel fumes across the country to the burger joint near where we work so we can conveniently and thoughtlessly eat” to have more time to read the Bible or more money to put in the collection plate.
The passion of this sermon is compelling in its genuine expression of the pain and pleasure of belief, conviction, faith. One need not be a believer to enjoy Salatin’s gospel. Yet, the forcefulness of his argument can stretch thin. If this really is all about obeying God on the farm, as his reading of Saul’s story suggests, then it feels a little coincidental to say God’s best way to run a farm is to run it more or less the way Joel Salatin would. That’s the position of a Samuel, not a Saul. At times, it can be hard to discern if we’re reading about God’s plan or Joel Salatin’s. Are we to believe he is such a prophet?
Whether we do or we don’t, if The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs were to accomplish what Salatin imagines, there would be a minor economic revolution for small farms, a reimagining of agriculture in the United States, a realignment of foodways in the Christian church. The concerns of both secular environmentalists and Christian communities could ultimately coincide. Our land and our plates would be better off — perhaps, our souls, too, if we happen to believe. Salatin’s ambitions for us are nothing less. If the book does not provoke a mainstream Christian agricultural revolution, though, it may be no fault of his argument. Instead, it may be that Christians are simply like many other Americans. They just don’t care.