The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for All God's Creation
THE MARVELOUS PIGNESS OF PIGS: Respecting and Caring for All God’s Creation. By Joel Salatin. New York: Faith Words, 2016. 272 pages. $14.99.
Joel Salatin, the author of The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, has a long and storied reputation among what some people disdainfully call the “hippie food circuit.” I was introduced to him for the first time about a year ago, when a parishioner gave me a book published in 2006 titled The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In that book, Joel Salatin was featured prominently in one of the chapters on locally sourced food. I was immediately hooked when Salatin started talking about benefits of farm-fresh eggs. The timing was fortuitous. I had recently been given six dozen farm fresh eggs from a neighbor and had been eating a steady diet of them for nearly a month. When the eggs ran out, I went to the grocery store and bought eggs as I had done nearly all my life. It was a regressive choice. They were colorless, tasteless, and nearly unpalatable. “Never again” I told myself. It took one month of farm fresh eggs and a chance encounter with Salatin’s advocacy, but I had become a believer and Joel Salatin was my prophet.
Shortly after this experience, I listened to an interview with Joel Salatin. He was striking all the right chords. He was thoughtful, wise, funny, firm, and passionate. He spoke about personal responsibility, animals, food, and God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was in that interview that I then learned he had authored a book titled The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs. I ordered the book a few months later and worked my way through it over the course of three months.
Joel Salatin falls into no easy camp. He’s an outspoken Christian which makes you think you can brand him as a conservative alt-right, but then he’s also an outspoken environmentalist, which makes you think you can brand him as a “hippie pinko commie tree-hugger” as he jokes derisively in his book many times. The truth, however, is that he’s both and he’s neither.
I don’t know too much about farming, but after reading The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs I want to start with some chickens, rabbits, a hog or two, and maybe some turkeys. The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs is Joel Salatin’s attempt to reach his Christian brothers and sisters with the theological rationale for why he farms the way that he farms and why he’s positive that God thinks you should farm that way too...or support that type of farming by the conversations you have and the manner in which you purchase and prepare food. His arguments are both nuanced and compelling.
Joel Salatin is a theologian of glory, but not in the bad way. That is, he has developed a theology of the word ‘glory.’ While we tend to reserve the word ‘glory’ to talk about God, Salatin points out that Scripture speaks about the glory of forests, and the glory of grandparents, and the glory of women, and the glory of celestial bodies, the glory of young men, and even the glory of Lebanon. So what does all this glory talk mean? Salatin says “glory” means “the distinctiveness of something” (p. 18). Thus, the way we honor something is by allowing that thing to express its distinctiveness or uniqueness.
Citing the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Salatin reminds his Christian readers that the “chief end of man” is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” On this basis Salatin says, “Our friends can’t see God. But they can see pigs. When we honor the pigness of pigs, we create a philosophical imperative that we can see.” And “if we deny the pig [the opportunity to express its pigness], and put it on a slatted floor in a cage in a confinement house, it can’t act out its uniqueness. That keeps us from being able to enjoy the pig’s special qualities” (p. 21).
Salatin asks good questions. How do humans act as good stewards of God’s creation? Does “having dominion” mean that we should rape and pillage the earth for the quickest and easiest buck? What does God think about famers who place chickens in cages so small that a chicken cannot even stretch out its wings once in its entire life? When farmers cut off chickens’ beaks so they don’t use them to harm themselves or the chicken crammed next to them, “Does this sound like something that honors the chickenness of the chicken?” or the God that created the chicken with a beak (p. 22)? Salatin’s answer—the Scriptural one—is “No.”
Salatin knows his Bible. He cites it frequently. A Lutheran minister such as myself might raise an eyebrow at his application of some verses, and object to his susceptibility of being beholden to a single English translation to theologically ground the point he’s trying to make, but he should not be dismissed. He’s on to something here, and not just about farming. Even if you never run a farm or raise chickens in your backyard, so much of what Salatin has to say is packed with solid Scriptural wisdom.
If you live in a rural ag-centric locale such as I do, Salatin’s words are likely to be met with disdain. He’s not in favor of spraying crops with pesticides. He insists the earth’s default position is one of “health.” This doesn’t contradict the curse levied upon Adam in the Garden of Eden. Salatin admits there’s still plenty of work to be done, but the earth is not something we need to go out and conquer, like an army general leading his troops through enemy territory. The earth is a thing to be nurtured, like a house, home, and family. It’s not something you beat, starve, and medicate into submission. It’s something you coax and caress and patiently direct into the most faithful expression of itself.
The book itself contains twenty-one chapters. Most of them are organized around competing philosophies. For example, Chapter Six is titled, “Participation vs. Abandonment,” Chapter Nine is titled, “Integration vs. Segregation,” and Chapter Fourteen is titled, “Neighborly vs. Antagonistic.” In each instance, Salatin shows how the way he farms is theologically grounded as the more God-pleasing, God-glorifying way of doing things.
While Salatin focuses in on “distinctiveness” and “uniqueness” he also exposes the inherent idolatry within us all, especially the idolatry of ambition. He writes, “I see it routinely when I get asked to speak at conferences. I’m supposed to come cheap because, after all, I’m just a farmer. If you’re smart and capable, you become a doctor, engineer, lawyer, computer technician—anything white collar. For goodness’ sake, don’t wear a blue collar. That makes your mother and me a failure and your friends will wonder about our family” (p. 107). Do you see the implied idolatry here? Namely, that the only thing worth doing in life is that which makes the most money, is viewed as the most respectable, and pleases mom and dad? More than a few pastors have already had this struggle. We’ve all seen that look. The one levied upon us by parents, friends, and neighbors who size up the necessary educational path for the Office of the Holy Ministry and then do the quick mental calculations to see how much more money could be made if our same studious and academic skills were used in law or medicine or finance. Money isn’t the measuring stick for success or even value of life’s work. Pastor’s know it…and farmers like Salatin knows it.
The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs is a book that needs to be read by more Christians. The questions he asks need to be considered by Christians, and there’s no reason why Lutherans can’t lead the way on these discussions. The last class that I ever took at the seminary was titled “Care for Creation” and one of our assigned texts for that class was the CTCR document “Together with all Creatures: Caring for God’s Living Earth.” These conversations have already begun. Salatin’s not the only one having them, but it’s up to us to keep them going.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.