Conversation about Wendell Berry

Ragan Sutterfield discusses Wendell Berry's work and ideas with Nathan Foster in this Renovaré podcast.

Wendell Berry is the kind of writer that when you read his work it can change the way you live. Ragan Sutterfield, author and Episcopal priest in training, talks this week about Berry, sabbath, and permaculture—working with God’s order instead of manipulating the world to our own ends.


On Wendell Berry, the Church, and the economy

Wendell Berry, in his essay God and Country (in What People Are For, 1988):

Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious and economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on the "economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect - indeed, has already elected - to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God.

Read the full, brief, but provocative thoughts of Jonathan Melton on this Wendell Berry quotation at The Patience of Trees.


On Wendell Berry and Orthodox Christianity

Wendell Berry confesses the Christian faith, but it is nevertheless an easy task to find criticism of Christianity in his writings.  In one place he even suggests that Buddhism is superior to Christianity in how it approaches man’s relationship to the creation:  ‘Buddhism, for example, is certainly a religion that could guide us toward a right respect for the natural world, our fellow humans, and our fellow creatures.  I owe a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists’ (‘Christianity and the Survival of Creation’, p. 306).  He has stuck with Christianity, though, but not, seemingly, because its teachings contain more of the truth than Buddhism or any other religion, but mainly because he was born into it.  It is his ‘native religion, for better or worse’ (ibid.).  Such statements are no doubt a cause of consternation to the tradition-minded folk of the South, who see Christianity, agrarianism, and the South as being closely intertwined, if not inseparable.  What can be done, then, to heal this rift that exists between Mr Berry, Christianity, and his native land.

The first thing that can be done is to realize that the Christianity Mr Berry is at odds with is not the genuine Christianity found in the Orthodox Church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but rather its Roman Catholic and Protestant forms (what we shall call Western Christianity from here on), which, like other sects that have gone into schism from the Orthodox Church, like the Nestorians, Monophysites, or Iconoclasts, have added to and/or taken away from the Apostolic Tradition she retains unimpaired.  When he says, for instance,

Throughout the five hundred years since Columbus’s first landfall in the Bahamas, the evangelist has walked beside the conqueror and the merchant, too often blandly assuming that their causes were the same.  Christian organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures.  It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations are as happily indifferent to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economics as are most industrial organizations.  The certified Christian seems just as likely as anyone else to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation (ibid, pgs. 305-6).

he is speaking of Western Christianity (as we shall see).

Read the complete article by Walt Garlington at Confiteri.


A critique of Wendell Berry's theology via Twitter

I don't think I've directly referenced Twitter here before, but today Steven Rodriguez posted a very long thread in which he lays out four objections to Mr. Berry's theological foundations. Those four objections are: 1) the idolization of the local; 2) the severance of Sabbath from soteriology; 3) a collapsed eschatology; and 4) the idolization of the past. Each of these is discussed in a series of tweets, beginning HERE.

SrWB-twt-82917

Again, see the complete thread HERE at Twitter.

Mr. Berry has commented on questions related to his theology in Sabbath poem VII from 2008:

Having written some pages in favor of Jesus,
I receive a solemn communication crediting me
with the possession of a "theology" by which
I acquire the strange dignity of being wrong
forever or forever right. Have I gauged exactly
enough the weights of sins? Have I found
too much of the Hereafter in the Here? Or
the other way around? Have I found too much
pleasure, too much beauty and goodness, in this
our unreturning world? O Lord, please forgive
any smidgen of such distinctions I may
have still in my mind. I meant to leave them
all behind a long time ago. If I'm a theologian
I am one to the extent I have learned to duck
when the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead,
dropping their loads of whitewash at random
on the faces of those who look toward Heaven.
Look down, look down, and save your soul
by honester dirt, that receives with a lordly
indifference this off-fall of the air. Christmas
night and Easter morning are this soil's only laws.
The depth and volume of the waters of baptism,
the true taxonomy of sins, the field marks
of those most surely saved, God's own only
interpretation of the Scripture: these would be
causes of eternal amusement, could we forget
how we have hated one another, how vilified
and hurt and killed one another, bloodying
the world, by means of such questions, wrongly
asked, never to be rightly answered, but asked and
wrongly answered, hour after hour, day after day,
year after year — such is my belief — in Hell.

(2008, VII)

 


A Critique of Wendell Berry's Ideas about Gay Marriage

Wendell Berry’s influence has grown in recent years as many people, Christians or not, have found his agrarian vision a compelling corrective to various modern problems. However, Berry publicly took what we might call a “middle road” on gay marriage. This position surprised (and disappointed) many evangelicals that do not agree. But how does Berry’s position on gay marriage stand up to Berry’s own criticism? Does he agree with himself?


In Wendell Berry’s most recent collection of essays, Our Only World, he “risks” arguing that there should be no law either for or against homosexual marriage. This “risk” explains his feeling of being “caught in the middle” (as the essay’s title puts it) of the current political atmosphere. In other words, Berry’s “risk” is alienating both conservatives—who often appreciate his writing but would disagree on marriage—and liberals—who would find his statements not stretching far enough. Berry seems quite comfortable taking this “risk,” since he does not identify closely with either group.

But what else is at risk here? Is Berry not only “caught in the middle” of the typical sides of the debates, but also “caught in the middle” of his own arguments—or, perhaps more bluntly, does he actually risk contradicting himself? How does this position on gay marriage line up with his own earlier essays related to marriage and sexuality?

In this article I explore Berry’s “risk” in connection with specific arguments from his previous essays on marriage, family, and sexuality in order to provide the overall context necessary for making sense of his current position. Is Berry’s “risk” consistent with his other positions? Is it not only consistent but a logically necessary step? Looking behind simple statements to the broader arguments that undergird and support them will help us understand what to make of Berry’s statement as well as Berry’s continued relevance to evangelical discussions of marriage.

Read the entire article by Jacob Shatzer at Themelios.


Bees, Wendell Berry and Christian Life

As many of you know, I like quoting Wendell Berry and I think he is very pro-bee.

“The word agriculture,” Wendell Berry writes in The Unsettling of America. “After all, does not mean ‘agriscience,’ much less ‘agribusiness’. It means ‘cultivation of the land.’ And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult.   The ideas of tillage and worship are joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘to revolve’ and ‘to dwell’.   To live, to survive on the Earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, are all bound at the root to the idea of a cycle.”

Bees network with flowers and with the hive. This network creates better plants, better harvests.   The better plants wither and die, turning into better soil. The soil then houses better plants. The cycle continues.   The bees network seeks to co-operate with the local good and make it better; if the bees were ever to rob, exploit, cut-off, or steal then the honey would be threatened.

“If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture,” Wendell Berry adds. “For in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.”

            A network of bees-when doing what is good- will bring good to the neighbourhood, the land.

A friend of mine once borrowed her teenage sons’ car and it smelled like a sick boy’s locker room.   When the boy came home, she insisted on why he never cleaned it. He insisted he did but there was another reason for the smell.   A quiet fellow, he simply apologized and went to his room.

The next day, she saw her son driving out of his school and she unintentionally followed him home (you do this, at times, as a parent of a teenager).   She watched him make several stops, all to people who were digging in trash cans along the way.   Her son would go in the back of his car and offer bags of recycled bottles (Or “empties” as we call them in Alberta) to these folks. He would talk to them, listen, and in one case, he prayed with them.

When they both got at home, she confronted him and he confessed that he was collecting all of the recycles from his church, school, and work for the purpose of getting to know the homeless population of his neighbourhood. “They’re invisible,” he said. “And I think it’s best for everyone if they weren’t.”

Her son was acting like a bee.

Read the whole article by Eric Kregel at ericjkregel.


Thoughts on Wendell Berry and the Renewal of Christianity

For Berry, the American farm is a metaphor for life. In Postmodernity, there is a movement to reduce our neighborhoods into mere real estate, the human mind into a consumer, people into numbers, ideas into information, and vocation into employment. Yes, exploitation happens on the farm in northern Canada, but it also occurs in the suburbs of California, if we follow the farm metaphor to our present “post-everything” age.

In The Unsettling of America Berry explains exploitation as something more of a belief, of an attitude than just an ecological practice:

“The first principle of the exploitative mind is to divide and conquer. And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided than we are- both against each other and within ourselves. Once the revolution of exploitation is under way, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship (The craft of persuading people to buy what they do not need, and do not want, for more than it is worth.) Its stock in trade in politics is to sell despotism and avarice as freedom and democracy. In business it sells sham and frustration as luxury and satisfaction.”

Read the entire article by Eric J. Kregel HERE.


More on "The Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel"

I've received some of the greatest gifts of my writing life since publishing this essay in Plough Quarterly’s winter issue last month. I knew I was taking a risk by critiquing the absoluteness of ideals author Wendell Berry, beloved by me and countless others, promotes in his work. I expected lots of people to disagree. I guessed right. What I wasn’t sure how to calculate is who might actually agree with what I had to say.  I took some comfort in knowing that, at the very least, the journal's editors thought there was some value in what I had to say. With this sort of low expectation, you might be able to imagine my surprise when Rod Dreher wrote an overwhelmingly gracious and eloquent response at The American Conservative.  I read each paragraph carefully, expecting the shoe of disapproval to drop at some point.  It never did.  

I also did not expect the level of grace and thougtfulness from those who wrote objections to my essay. This is not the first time Jeffrey Bilbro has offered me a genial counterargument to my thoughts on Wendell Berry’s fiction.  His response (published at Front Porch Republic) to the Plough article includes a friendly admonition to me for not heeding his earlier advice to become more familiar with the range of characters and conflicts within Berry’s fictional Port William.  He’s not wrong. Although I continued to read a copious amount of Berry’s writing, when Plough contacted me about expanding the essay from its earlier version published at Art House America, I did not take Bilbro’s recommendation to update literary references much beyond Hannah Coulterand Jayber Crow.

Read the complete article by Tamara Hill Murphy at HER BLOG.

For a view of links related to the entire conversation, see THIS POST.


And Yet More on The Wendell Berry Critique

Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy is the latest to add his thoughts to an ongoing critique of Wendell Berry's thought as embodied in his fiction. This round of writing began with Tamara Hill Murphy, was seconded by Rod Dreher, countered by Jeffrey Bilbro, and reasserted and extended by Matthew Loftus. Meador begins his own response to Murphy with this: 

Plough has recently published one of the better versions of a critique of Wendell Berry that is fairly common and fairly tiresome. The author, Tamara Hill Murphy, has a great many kind things to say about Berry but then says that Berry’s work is characterized by a naive idealization of the agrarian past and a romanticism about it that obscures the dark corners of that world.

Murphy makes the critique helpfully concrete (and stark) when she writes,

The dissonance with Berry occurs when I consider other family tales buried under the agrarian beauty. These are stories of shattered relationships, addiction, job loss, abandonment, mental illness, and unspoken violations that seem to separate my kinfolk from the clans in Port William. In Berry’s fictional village, readers occasionally witness felonies, infidelity, drunken brawls, and tragic deaths, but all of them seem to be told in a dusky, warming light. …

Berry’s body of work lauds an unadulterated ecosphere. How does he reconcile glossing over (or at least hiding from his reader’s view) the ugly dysfunctions that often prosper alongside the natural beauty of such villages and pasturelands? The stories I grew up hearing and observing provide an alternative cast of characters to the Port William community. I’ve seen firsthand not only the ornery nature of such characters but also the ingrown thinking that sometimes flourishes in out-of-sight locales. For example, there’s the good country farmer I watched with my own eyes fist-beat his son. They seemed to keep their farm by the mad farmer’s standards, but that did not make them good. I tiptoe around extended family members who fought their whole lives like Jayber Crow to avoid answering to “the man across the desk,” yet leave a trail of fractured relationships in their wake.

To be sure, if this critique were an accurate portrayal of Berry’s fiction, it would be rather devastating. But it fails on two fronts. First, it simply doesn’t account for the body of Berry’s work. Second, it fails to recognize the underlying philosophical critique Berry is making which is basically the same critique made explicitly by Lewis in The Abolition of Man and implicitly by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings.

See, again, all of "The Abolition of Troy Chatham" by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy.

UPDATE (1.9.17) See, also, Rod Dreher's response to Jeffrey Bilbro in "Defending Wendell Berry" at The American Conservative

UPDATE (1.14.17) Tamara Hill Murphy responds to all of the above in "A Few More Words on the Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel."


More on The Wendell Berry Critique

Tamara Hill Murphy’s Plough essay, The Hole in Wendell Berry’s Gospel, is well worth reading even if I disagree with much of it. She gives two principal concerns: The first accusation is of papering over the flaws of rural life and the second regards the weaknesses of Berry’s total moral and economic vision. The first accusation is very contestable, the second goes in the wrong direction. Rod Dreher, in his post on the subject, suggests that maybe Wendell Berry is wrong about Wendell Berry– and I agree with him!

In regards to the first issue, I think it is hard to look at Berry’s fiction and not see significant wrestlings with human frailty and wickedness. Jeff Bilbro explores these at some length, but I’ll chime in with my favorite story, “Watch With Me”. This story describes how the members of Port William try to prevent a mentally ill man from killing himself and while it has a happy ending it does not hold back from the realities of life. There is plenty that may be glossed over, but the stories with a romantic glow are matched by the ones full of tragedy.

See the complete article by Matthew Loftus at Mere Orthodoxy.