The Art of the Commonplace

by Wendell Berry

Start Free Trial

"The Gift of Good Land" Summary and Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Berry sets out to attempt a practical Biblical argument for ecological responsibility. In his view, most Christianity is insufficiently earthly or practical. Some, such as Lynn White, argue that Christianity cannot cure the industrial rape of the natural world because Adam was made dominant over the world even in the beginning. But Berry points out that the instruction to Adam and Eve was to “dress and keep” the earth, to steward it, and to exploit nature only for “proper ends.”

But does the Bible define a “proper” use of Creation, as opposed to abuse? When the Promised Land was given to the Israelites, the story is more interesting, because the land was gifted by God to a fallen people who were also forced to take it from its current inhabitants. The “manifest destiny” of the Israelites made them conquerors, similar to the American frontierspeople who advanced into Native American territory.

However, the difference between the stories of Genesis and the Israelites is that those who were given Canaan saw it very much as a “gift” that came with conditions. People knew they must not act as gods but must properly use the land, leaving it fallow every seventh year and understanding the limits of human control. They also knew they had not deserved the land, so they had to prove themselves worthy of it. To do this, they needed to be faithful, neighborly, and honest. They also had to practice good husbandry by preserving the source: they could eat the harvest, but they had to save seed and the fertility of fields.

Charity should be indiscriminate; Christians should not love either Creation or other people only for what can be gained from them. They must understand the pattern of the earth and also understand that they cannot control it. To be truly charitable to Creation, they must study agriculture, soil husbandry, architecture, manufacturing, and so on, and then apply these skills in a way that serves their neighbors.

Virtue is not passive—to be good, one must know how to help one’s neighbor, practically speaking. Good neighbors know how to build fences, keep waste out of water supplies, and keep poison out of the air. One must know how to be good.

If the earth belongs to God and we are his stewards, then some livelihoods cannot be moral, such as power plants or radioactive waste dumps. Christian values mean that certain skills are “good” and others are contrary to what God wants us to do.

The trouble with Judeo-Christian tradition is that it does not enable us to sufficiently understand the commonplace issues of livelihood. Moreover, it exalts “great” and “heroic” men, which cannot serve as examples of how to be good in an ordinary way and on a daily basis. Some of us must persevere forever in unheroic tasks, being good workers and maintaining traditions that benefit the world. But since the Industrial Revolution, many of our “good” skills have been made obsolete, and the idea of being a scientific pioneer has made people into heroes. Those who, like Milton’s Satan, believe that their own minds have saved them are exhibiting hubris, usurping divine authority by deciding where they should exist in the world.

A modern example of the drive toward “industrial heroism” is that of experts all attempting to solve the problem of world hunger. The intention is salutary, but hunger cannot be solved by a global solution. Hunger needs to be dealt with locally by solving first the local problems involved in ecology, culture, and agriculture. Agricultural advancement should involve determining what tools and methods are specifically...

(This entire section contains 903 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

needed for certain people, places, and needs. Applying the correct tools and knowledge over the long term may not be heroic but is complex, difficult, and responsible.

True stewardship, then, requires skill and fellowship. We depend on other creatures and shed their blood to live, but if we do this knowingly and lovingly, it is Christian; if we do it destructively and ignorantly, it is a desecration.


This is one of the most overtly Christian essays in Berry’s collection. Here, he attempts to construct his own argument for why Christianity is something that must be enacted practically. He takes issue with the suggestions made by other Biblical scholars that Christianity actually creates problems for the earth by placing humanity, in the form of Adam and Eve, above the plants and animals. In Berry’s view, it is ridiculous to assert that Christianity does not imply a strong requirement of stewardship and care. He gives the example of the Israelites in Canaan, alluding to another of his common themes—that of the reckless American westward expansion and its effect upon the Native peoples—to indicate that, for the Israelites, the “gift” of land meant an obligation to take care of it. Berry points out that being virtuous, then, cannot be simply a passive endeavor. On the contrary, being virtuous and Christian is an active and ongoing practice. While modern science has encouraged us to seek a sort of individual heroism, which Berry admits has its roots in Biblical exaltation of heroes, he does not believe that modern Christianity should support this. Instead, active modern Christianity should involve the diligent, careful, and loving enactment of a variety of vital tasks in order to keep the land we live on in the perfect state in which it was gifted to us.


"The Use of Energy" Summary and Analysis


"Christianity and the Survival of Creation" Summary and Analysis