An Interview with Norman Wirzba, Author of “Agrarian Spirit”

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. He is the author and editor of sixteen books, including This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to published his newest book Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land (August 2022). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

Norman Wirzba

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

I have been writing about agrarian themes from philosophical and theological points of view for a long time. What surprised me is how much readers, even urban readers, resonated with the concerns I was writing about: land health, fresh water availability, life with plants and animals, the importance of manual labor, good food production, community resilience, etc. I had gradually become convinced that the time was right for a synthetic statement of the “spirituality” deeply embedded within agrarian ways of life. Agrarian Spirit describes some of the key agrarian commitments, and then develops the “spiritual exercises” that flow from agrarian ways of being.

Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

Agrarian concerns have always been among humanity’s most fundamental concerns, namely the needs to eat, drink, maintain shelter, and share life together with people and the great variety of fellow plant and animal creatures. Various trends in urban and economic life have created the conditions in which people feel disconnected and alone, disconnected from the land that sustains them and without a deep sense of their kinship with other life. An agrarian spirituality resonates because it is all about building relationships and fostering the connections that help people place themselves in a world that is at once beautiful, good, and hospitable. 

How did you research this book?

This book did not grow primarily out of library research, though it clearly depends on having read many books. Instead, its touchpoint has been the experience of farming people, first my own family, but then the many farmers I have become friends with over the years. Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Gene Logsdon, Vandana Shiva, and Fred Kirschenmann have thought deeply and written profoundly about agrarian matters, and so have also been important guides. I also depended on long and diverse traditions of theological writing to develop in an agrarian way spiritual practices like prayer, perception, humility, generosity, descent, and hope.

What did you learn while writing it?

The most important thing I learned is that agrarian ways of being—where farmers work, how they work, and what they work for—ground and deepen spiritual practices that otherwise risk becoming overly abstract or even sentimental. I also learned that agrarian spirituality is not the exclusive domain of farmers. It has important implications for people living in cities and small towns too. What agrarian spiritual practices do is reconnect people to the sources and manifestations of life in a really profound way.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

When I started I thought I might (minimally) revise and gather together some previously published earlier essays. But as I got into it, I realized that I had to start pretty much from scratch, partly so I could produce a more coherent book, but also partly because I wanted to change how I expressed fundamental insights and concerns.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

My grandfather Wilhelm Roepke was much in my mind as I wrote. Wendell Berry has been a friend and mentor for years, and I would not be writing like I do without his influence.

What is your writing schedule like?

I most love to write in the mornings. I start by revising what I wrote the previous days, and then carry on. Some days I make very little headway, most often because the framing isn’t right, or my mind is distracted by other concerns. Sometimes, the log jam breaks and the writing flows. Those are really lovely days!

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Write from out of your experience and personal conviction. Don’t try to anticipate and then write for some hypothetical market. Then really focus on the craft of writing: clear exposition, avoidance of jargon, concision, good examples and narratives to make your case. Don’t rush or waste your reader’s time with bad writing. Read authors who write well and learn from them.

Who would you like to read Agrarian Spirit and why?

Young people, worried about the future of this planet and the dissolution of communities. Farmers, so as to honor and lift up their important work. Academics, who are often not grounded enough in their thinking and teaching. Urbanites, who have lost touch with the land but are searching for connection and meaning.

What book or project are you working on next?

I am writing a book on hope in a context of climate change. It is aimed especially to younger readers who feel trapped by a history of far too much violence and injustice, and a future of significantly diminished prospects. I try to show that the animating heart of hope is the work of love.