News Column

Prairie Festival takes on religious theme

September 3, 2014

By Michael Strand, The Salina Journal, Kan.

Sept. 03--Stop us if you've heard this one: A Zen cowboy, an atheist and a theologian walk into a barn ...

The lineup for the Land Institute's 36th annual Prairie Festival has taken on a definite spiritual theme.

Dubbed an "intellectual hootenanny" by Land Institute founder Wes Jackson in a 2012 New York Times story, Prairie Festival brings together guest speakers from a variety of backgrounds, along with presentations by Land Institute scientists, art and live music for more than 1,000 attendees from around the world.

This year's event will be Sept. 26 through 28 at the Land Institute, 2440 E. Water Well.

This year's spiritual theme surfaced with Jackson's decision to invite Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast, a pioneer in building bridges between different faiths and a leader of the gratitude movement, said Scott Seirer, managing director of the Land Institute.

"Brother David was the first person he lined up to speak, and then he ended up building it around that," Seirer said. "It's going to be diverse and different; Wes is good at that."

But in late August, Steindl-Rast canceled his visit, and his colleague Anthony Chavez -- grandson of civil rights activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez -- agreed to take his place.

Ethical land use

One of the later speakers to be invited is Ted Burk, professor of biology at Creighton University, who received his doctorate at Oxford University under the direction of famed atheist Richard Dawkins.

Burk said Jackson was speaking at an environmental science seminar at Creighton, and "it came up when we were talking that I had been a student of Richard Dawkins," Burk said. "He said he already had a theologian and a philosopher -- how about the point of view of an atheist?"

Burk said his talk will explore how believers and nonbelievers can take different approaches and still end up with the same view of ethical land use.

As an example, he cites the monarch butterfly.

"It's either an incredible product of creation or evolution," Burk said. "Its annual migration is one of the more remarkable phenomena of nature."

Yet some monarch populations have dropped by 97 percent in the past 20 years.

"None of us would be economically affected by the demise of monarch butterflies, but it would be a shame to leave our children and grandchildren a world without them."

Differing views

From a nonreligious point of view, Burk said, "there are marxist-humanists who believe the Earth is here to be exploited for the good of people -- but there are also people who aren't religious but still have a land ethic."

Likewise, Burk said, religious people can take differing views: "There is the religious idea of stewardship -- but also the flip side, that the Earth was put here for us to use."

The biblical perspective

"There's no biblical warrant for that in my perspective," said Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, who will talk at Prairie Festival about a biblical perspective on land use.

Davis said the Bible "doesn't provide easy answers but complicates the world in a fruitful way."

"From a biblical perspective, arable land is not a commodity," Davis said. "It is not sold on the open market. This is different from land in town, a house in town -- any land on which food can be grown is not treated as a commodity in Israel.

"Who owns the land? Ultimately God. It's granted to us in an intergenerational trust, but it belongs to God."

Unfortunately, she said, "that doesn't answer the question in the modern world any more than it did in ancient Israel. Outright private ownership, or communist ownership, both have problems attached to them, and neither is a biblical answer."

Connecting with Wes

Davis said she first met Jackson about 20 years ago when she was teaching at Yale, and he was there to speak.

"Obviously, Wes wasn't talking about the Bible, but the way he was talking, I could easily connect it to the Bible," she said.

Shortly afterwards, she said, she spent a week of a sabbatical at the Land Institute.

While there, she said, "Wes asked me an interesting question. He took me out to lunch and asked me why is it that the Bible always gets it so right about land. I didn't know that the Bible always gets it right, and certainly didn't know why it got it right, but that question led me in directions that were certainly helpful in my work."

Others at the festival

Other presenters are:

--Bill Vitek, a professor of philosophy at Clarkson University in New York, who will discuss parallels between farming and philosophy.

--Kenneth Levy-Church, a philanthropist and expert on Russian history, who will speak about the crisis in eastern Europe.

--Priti Gulati Cox, a native of India, whose art has explored the effect of corporate globalization on society, politics and the environment.

--Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, Inc., who has worked with her husband, Douglas Tompkins, to create more than 2.2 million acres of national park space in Chile and Argentina.

--Jackson, whose talk is titled "The Need for a Utopian Novel."

--Chuck Pyle, a Colorado singer-songwriter known as the "Zen Cowboy."

--Ann Zimmerman, a Salina singer-songwriter whose music portrays the prairie.

--Mary Kay, a Lindsborg artist and art professor at Bethany College, who will have several works on display in the gallery.

Reporter Mike Strand can be reached at 822-1418 or by email at


(c)2014 The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.)

Visit The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel

Source: Salina Journal (KS)

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters