This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Tractor tech and theology

One of the most desirable agriculture commodities these days isn’t corn, wheat or pork bellies, but 40-year-old tractors. Their enduring usefulness, combined with room for innovation, strike an intriguing parallel with Anabaptist heritage and faith.

New tractors are shiny, powerful and loaded with software and gadgets that can make plowing a field almost as simple as pushing a few buttons on a computer or phone. But those technological advances come at a cost. New models are $90,000 to $250,000, and “ownership” agreements can void warranties if a wrench turns too many bolts. Software can shut a unit down before a mechanical disaster strikes, but a typically self-reliant farmer must then drop everything and wait for a dealership technician to make a house call with a computer for $150 an hour.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports some farmers are doing more with less by snapping up models like the popular John Deere 4440, built between 1977 and 1982. Such tractors can be purchased and retrofitted with satellite-guided steering for less than $20,000. The horsepower is sufficient, and biodiesel lessens the carbon footprint while lubricating engines better than traditional diesel. Even with a new engine or transmission at $10,000 to $15,000, the costs are a small fraction of a new unit, without even calculating money saved by continuing to serve most repairs family-style.

Such a strategy appeals to Mennonite thrift, to the farm’s bottom line and to a faith that sees value in combining tradition with the occasional update.

From worshiping in local languages instead of German to issuing snow cancellations through social media, nearly every Anabaptist group has found ways to modify its practices with aftermarket components over the last few centuries. Although the most steadfast Amish bishops will prioritize time-tested ways, no religious body today would be confused with the Anabaptists of 495 years ago, or, perhaps more important, the early New Testament church.

It can be argued the early Anabaptists were either profound innovators of that day’s tractor theology or Luddites stripping out the cab’s radio and tossing aside the Catholic church’s inflated tires in favor of stoic steel wheels. In any case, every generation has balanced tradition with advancement.

Some churches worship with genders mingled so families can sit together, and they have still connected with the Holy Spirit. Some churches project Scripture on a screen for people who don’t carry their Bible into the sanctuary, and they still read the verses. Some churches have opened ministerial roles to women and have been pleased with the results.

GPS steering is a welcome innovation, but it’s not for everyone (especially those still committed to using a team of horses). But at the end of the day, each farmer produces food, which we all need, whatever our theology. Our implements and implementation may vary, but our task is the same.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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