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.


On Poetry, Angry Rhetoric, and Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, author, poet, essayist, and activist. My high school English teacher and track coach, who is now retired, has said Wendell Berry may be the sanest man in America. I agree. Wendell Berry is a modern wise-man, a rare American sage, who speaks with the authority of the aged. I have benefited greatly from his essays, novels, and short stories. His poetry is a good introduction to his work. 

He wrote “To A Siberian Woodsman” in the late 1960s during the cold war when we were taught to hate the Russians. This poem carries the weight of a societal elder who brings insight and counsel from another world. Berry is a prophet. He is both a poet and a farmer, which offers credentials much more substantial than those so-called “prophets” with self-appointed titles, blogs, and  YouTube channels. These lackluster “prophets” are lost in a mixed-up sea of conservative politics and a doomsday eschatology. Berry isn’t like that. He is a prophet like Amos, the fig farmer.

Read the complete article by Derek Vreeland at Missio Alliance.


Wendell Berry and Pastoral Ministry

Wendell Berry has made his home in Henry County, Kentucky, for more than a half-century. From this place and his affection for it, he has written approximately 50 books of poetry, fiction, and essays. Berry offers an alternative voice we can learn from, especially where his writings mirror biblical teachings better than religious books featuring baptized secular industrial models.

Pastors seeking to revitalize churches will do well to revitalize their minds along lines Berry suggests.

He asks us to choose nurturing over exploiting as a way of life. Exploiters look at people, land, and communities as raw materials to be mined for one’s own career and retirement portfolio. Exploiters inevitably look at churches the same way. Nurturers, by contrast, seek to conserve, preserve, enhance, and heal while living with people in community in particular places. The nurturer seeks wise practices that build for the long term. As Berry writes in The Unsettling of America (1977), perhaps his best-known volume:

The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind. . . . The first casualties of the exploitive revolution are character and community. . . . Once the revolution of exploitation is underway, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship.

Read the complete article by Paul House at The Gospel Coalition.


"Eating as Discipleship"

Wendell Berry's famous statement that "eating is an agricultural act" has motivated many to reconsider the agricultural systems our eating habits promote. Yet Berry's writings also contend that eating is a spiritual act; when we eat, we enact our relationship with the rest of creation and with the Creator. Unfortunately, the social architecture of the developed world encourages us to imagine food as a fuel that we consume. We're trained to treat food as a commodity whose sole purpose is to satisfy our desires and give us energy. 

Lisa Graham McMinn's To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community joins a chorus of other books that call Christians to resist this consumerist view of food. McMinn's book begins with Leslie Leyland Fields's proclamation that "food is nothing less than Sacrament." In defending this view, McMinn—a sociologist and co-owner of a CSA—adds her voice to the growing number of books and blogs celebrating farmers' markets, gardening, and home cooking.

Read all of "Eating as Discipleship" by Jeffrey Bilbro at Comment.


On Wendell Berry, Farming, and Churches

In his book Remembering, Wendell Berry tells the story of two farmers. The first has acquired 2,000 acres through a patient buying out of his neighbors’ farms. He converted all 2,000 acres to corn fields, because corn produces the most cash. In order to farm all of those acres, he went into debt so as to have the necessary machinery and so as to buy all of the necessary chemicals, and “farms” from his plush office while the stress of his vocation slowly eats away at his body in the form of an ulcer.

The other farmer is Amish, and farms his 80 acres with plough horses. This farm is diversified, and is an economy unto itself, for the fertilizer comes from the animals, and the work is no more or less than can be accomplished by the farmer, his wife, and their children and neighbors. This farmer does not have an easy life, but has an ease born of the freedom of a right-sized agricultural enterprise.

(Somewhere, I’m told, Eugene Peterson has written that when Wendell Berry speaks of farming we are to think of the church. No matter if Eugene ever really said this, as my friend Andy Nagel has encouraged the same correlation, and his advice is more important to me than that of North America’s favorite grumpy pastoral theologian. No matter, too, if Berry himself would approve of the correlation. My hunch is that he wouldn’t, and would rant and rave–and who can rant and rave like Berry?–that he was talking about farming, da_ _’t! We are impervious to this rant because of that handy tool of postmodernity, the intentional fallacy.)

Read the complete article by Jeff Hoffmeyer HERE


On Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow and Donald Trump

Jayber Crow must answer the question “How does one keep faith when a place is killed by urbanization and industrialism?” Many of us are faced with a different and possibly more difficult question: “How does one keep faith when a place succeeds according to the terms of urbanization and industrialism?” To keep faith with Port William, Jayber must simply go on living as he always has in the town, honoring its life and caring for its dwindling number of members. And when Jayber departs from the world, so will much of the memory of Port William save what lives on in the work and life of the Branch family who are, in most ways, the sole modern heirs of Port William in Berry’s fictional universe.

But most of us have not been tied to places like Port William. We are not members of the small towns, neighborhood churches, and small local organizations that have been driven into extinction by the cruel forces of capitalism unhinged from anything save greed and ambition. Rather, we are tied to the sorts of places and communities that have often grown and become more successful (in a manner of speaking) thanks to those things.

Read the whole, thoughtful piece by Jake Meadow at Mere Christianity


Three Questions for Wendell Berry

Blogger Erin Doom has written to Wendell Berry to ask three questions: "How would you define a sacrament?", "How is the world a gift?" and "If you had three minutes to say anything you wanted about our symposium theme [Soil and Sacrament: The World as Gift”], what would you say?"

To read Mr. Berry's very brief responses, please read Erin's post, "A Letter from Wendell Berry" at Eighth Day Institute.


On Wendell Berry and The Holy

“We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.
Some people know this, and some do not.” – Wendell Berry

This is a central theme in everything the great Kentucky poet/farmer/essayist/novelist Wendell Berry has ever written. In the quote above, from his essay on “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry uses the word “holy.” That’s a religious word — a sectarian word Berry employs in that essay, which is addressed to, and an indictment of, a sectarian audience.

He’s using their word because he is, after all, one of them. But still he’s not using their word in quite the way they’re used to using it. As such, one could argue that he’s using it incorrectly. Or, alternatively, one could argue that they are.

Read more at Slacktivist