Fred Bahnson: The Priest in the Trees

Meet Fred Bahnson, author of “The Priest in the Trees.”

Fred Bahnson lives with his wife and three sons in Transylvania County, North Carolina and teaches at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity where he directs the Food, Health, & Ecological Well-being Program. His awards include a Pilgrimage Essay Award, a William Raney scholarship in creative nonfiction at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, a Kellogg Food & Community fellowship, and a North Carolina Artist fellowship in creative nonfiction from the NC Arts Council.

Q and A with Fred Bahnson

Q: What are your two favorite hymns or songs for worship?

A: “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “What Wondrous Love.” I like modal and minor keys, those somber dirges that remind me of Jesus’ self-emptying. 

Q: What is your favorite worship service or part of the Book of Common Prayer?  

A: I like the Daily Office, which for a few months I was praying with my three young sons before school, but lately we’ve been eschewing words and have been sitting together in prayerful silence. I’m trying to help them listen for God beneath the words. Based on their fidgety movements I’m not sure how well that’s working. I also love the service of Evensong. 

Q: What projects are you working on now? 

A: At the moment I’m working on two long magazine pieces. One is an essay and film project for Emergence magazine about Ethiopia’s church forests. That piece will be out in their “Tree” issue in Fall, 2019. The second is a long piece I’m reporting for Harper’s about what I’m calling “the contemplative turn” taking place within American Christianity. And I’ve just published a long essay on Thomas Merton and pilgrimage. In May 1968 Merton took a 2-week road trip out West. This past May, 50 years later, I set out to follow in his steps. I took along my friend Jeremy Seifert, a documentary filmnmaker, who made a beautiful 11-minute film about our journey. Both appeared recently in the “Faith” issue of Emergence, which you can read here.

Q: Your essay includes reflection on worship out of doors. Do you have an experience of worship either inside a building or outside a building that has been especially meaningful for you–where the setting has contributed in some way to the worship in that place? 

A: As I’m writing this it’s Tuesday of Holy Week, which reminds me of a very powerful Holy Week I spent in 2001 in a tiny hillside village in Chiapas, Mexico. All the services were outside. When we knelt for prayer we knelt in the dirt. There was something elemental, painful, invigorating, and grounding about kneeling on the ground to pray. The hardened dirt, the tiny rocks digging into my bare knees. My hope with this essay is that it will ignite people’s ecological imaginations and make us fall in love again with the more-than-human world, and to do that we need physical contact. Long distance love affairs don’t work. At this time in the human story, rekindling that love affair with the world outside our door may be our only hope.

Q: The subject of your essay describes his love of the Psalms. Do you have a favorite biblical passage or one that especially informs the work that you do? 

A: I love the Psalms, I love Isaiah, the Gospels. Paul not so much, though I do love Colossians 1 for its vision of a cosmic salvation. I return often to that beautiful image in Revelation 21 where we see God descending to dwell among mortals. Rather than anemic souls getting raptured to heaven, we’re given an image of God getting raptured down to Earth, where God will dwell with us in a Garden City. And growing on either side of the River of Life is the Tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit, a tree “whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations.” It’s a lovely ending to the scriptural narrative, this image of God’s healing coming through, not around, Creation. As New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing says, Creation is a conduit for divine healing. Especially now in the Anthropocene when we’ve realized that humans have fundamentally altered the bone structure of the Earth, we need to hang onto these scriptural images that show God’s healing flowing through the leaves of a tree.

Fred Bahnson is the author of Soil & Sacrament (Simon & Schuster) and co-author with Norman Wirzba of Making Peace with the Land (IVP).  His essays have appeared in HarpersOxford American, Image, Orion, The Sun, Christian Century, and Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton Mifflin). 

Fred is on Twitter: @fredbahnson

Check out Fred’s books:

Find Soil and Sacrament at Indiebound

Find Making Peace with the Land at Indiebound.