The Christian Reflection Project at Baylor University's Institute for Faith and Learning has published an issue on "Membership" which includes an essay by Brent Laytham entitled "Membered and Remembered." Follow the link at Baylor's site, or click HERE for a pdf version of the essay.
Parker Palmer’s recent musings captivated me as I was preparing a sermon for my Christian congregation titled, “Doubt is a Friend of Belief.” Mr. Palmer sparked my imagination when referencing Wendell Berry’s “Two Muses of Creativity” because, in my experience, the dialectic of the muses is a part of the creative writing process for sermons that aspire to enliven conversation and not merely reinforce status quo thinking. While I was crafting my sermon, it seemed obvious that, just as Mr. Berry asserts there is a “Muse of Obstacles” that refines us as we journey toward our visions, there is also a “Muse of Doubt” that refines those who seek faith as a meaningful part of the human experience.
The disembodiedness of Griffiths' portrayal of theology led me to think about one of my favourite novels, Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, a text I regularly use in my introductory theology classes. As those familiar with Berry's work know, he has no truck with a theology that is (only) cerebral and otherworldly, and Jayber Crow is a novel that beautifully describes what it could mean to live out theological questions in such a way that the answers come to have a meaning and beauty they would not otherwise have.
Near the beginning of the book, the narrator recounts his conversation with one of his professors at Pigeonville College, a Bible college Jayber attended thinking that he had the call to ministry. The problem is that Jayber can't accept the theological answers he's being fed. His questions are too overwhelming, and he finally seeks the guidance of one of his professors, Dr. Ardmire. The conversation they have sets the stage for the entire novel ...
Wendell Berry’s novel, A World Lost, is a story about a family coping with the death of one of their own. In the final chapter, Berry reflects on the manner of man he was. This meditation gives way to a reflection on death as a pathway into the light of a more advanced spiritual realm.
I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.
Berry, who turns 80 this year, still lives on his Hardin [sic] County, Kentucky, homeplace, and still knows how to stir things up. The clip at the top today, in lieu of a Sunday sermon, is the unabashedly heterosexual Berry's coming out as a supporter of same-sex marriage during early 2103.
In typical Berry fashion, it was done in a roomful of Baptist preachers on the campus of Georgetown College, affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention --- Daniel in the lions' den.
Berry minced few words about his views concerning gay marriage and a variety of other topics, nor did he spare the Christian church, skewering it with a variety of quotable paragraphs, including this:
“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”
It was quite a performance, characterized as an "epic slanderfest" by one appalled conservative (previously an admirer of Berry).
On Sunday afternoon, May 18, at 3:00pm Wendell Berry will visit Crescent Hill Baptist Church [Louisville]. Berry will engage in conversation with and respond to questions posed by Dr. Eric Mount, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College. The primary topic that Berry and Mount will explore is the role that faith and people of faith can play to care for God’s creation.
Wendell Berry, born in 1934, is an American novelist, poet environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. He writes poetry, novels, and essays as “a person who takes the Gospel seriously.” Berry writes in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, “We are to rest on the sabbath also, I have supposed, in order to understand that the providence or the productivity of the living world, the most essential work, continues while we rest. This is entirely independent of our work, and is far more complex and wonderful than any work we have ever done or will ever do. It is more complex and wonderful than we will ever understand.
Berry’s description of sabbath as complex and wonderful, inspires me to explore it more deeply. If, like me, you need a sabbath tutor, Berry is a good place to start.
We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see Ahead, but looking back the very light That blinded us shows us the way we came, Along which blessings now appear, risen As if from sightlessness to sight, and we, By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward The blessed light that yet to us is dark.
+ Growing up, “God’s Will” was a path we were all looking for, and this way of thinking limited our understanding of God’s purposes into a single ideal we had to find for ourselves. With every choice we were either stepping towards the straight and narrow or unknowingly walking away. With a belief like this, “trying to discern God’s will” seemed more like religious language to hide our anxiety about the future and our desire to control it.
This dissertation provides a reading of characters in the novels and short stories of two important contemporary American writers through the lens of spiritual theology. While spirituality has often been understood as necessitating a flight from the particular, the concrete, or the everyday, theologians such as Rowan Williams and Nicholas Lash have presented a more robust version of spirituality that understands the call to spirituality not as an invitation to flee from this world, but rather a vocation to a way of life that seeks reconciliation within this world, encountering and embracing God's presence within the contexts of such realities as corporeality, communities, and the created order as a whole. Such an understanding interrogates both ancient and modern forms of gnosticism that have often posed a threat to more orthodox forms of Christian spirituality. After constructing a theological framework rooted in the work of Williams, Lash, and others, I apply it to literature, arguing that the embodiment of these ideas, and therefore a demonstration of what Christian vocation might look like in the everyday, is present in the characters who populate the works of Wendell Berry, a Kentucky writer and farmer who has had a troubled relationship with Christianity, but nonetheless identifies himself as a Christian and takes seriously what the Bible has to say about the faithful life. In contrast, the primary influences that shape his characters' world views are gnostic in derivation. Thus, McCarthy's characters, in their pursuit of various goals, embody the opposite of Christian vocation in the ways that they relate to the flesh, to community, and to creation. Rather than humbly seeking and encountering God in these contexts, they strive always to transcend them, to overcome creaturely limitations, and to become, in the words of the serpent in the garden, "like God". By comparing these writers, the characters they create, and the worldviews that shape their narratives, I demonstrate, in ways that can be applied to other works and other characters, how the reading of fiction can inform the pursuit of the spiritual life.
Here is an image of the present situation (i.e. before I make my own changes). Words in blue indicate the most recent changes.
In the first of these changes, we see who describes himself as “a person who takes the Gospel seriously,” converted to a Christian who, in his own words, “takes the Gospel seriously”.
Within the context of his complete statement (given in the footnote), we see that WB is responding to his interviewer’s assertion that he is a Baptist. The user who made this edit (“Goose friend” hereafter GF) seems most interested in foregrounding Mr. Berry’s Christianity as such. He seems to see a problem with merely accepting WB’s statement and its context as sufficient grounds for asserting Mr. Berry’s personal commitment to Christianity. And he may be correct, in that WB does not pronounce a Credo here. But the passage as originally stated (in yellow), conforms to an actual statement by Mr. Berry. GF, as I read his edit, is distorting the original—perhaps out of a need to pin Mr. Berry down on the Christian map. In addition, GF creates a new problem with his edit in that we must now wrestle with the notion of a Christian who doesn’t take the Gospel seriously.
Of the many Christian readers of WB’s work (of which I am one), there seem to be some (not me) who are not satisfied with the terms by which WB relates himself to Christianity. They seek some absolute, iron-clad declaration by Mr. Berry that he does, in fact, accept and adhere to Christian dogma (perhaps as we find it in the Apostle’s Creed). One guesses that if such a declaratory moment cannot be found, these readers would have to abandon their interest in WB’s work, since his faith has not been proven to be as pure as they would like it to be.
Thesecondchange, from … has criticized Christian organizations for failing ... to … has criticized the Christian organizations that fail …, would be a pretty good revision if it reflected what Mr. Berry has actually written. But I don’t find any passage where he specifies such organizations. Instead, we read in “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”:
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. (94)
His “most” here suggests that the exceptions are few.
Thethirdchange, from “the arrogance of some Christians” to “the arrogance of some religious people” seems to be rooted in a desire to broaden or soften WB’s critique of Christianity (which is the focus of his key essay noted above).
Glynn Young has recently written at his blog, Faith, Fiction, Friends, that “Berry is a writer who happens to be a Christian, and his faith is not an obstacle for readers who don’t share it.” It is kind of ironic that some of those who do share that faith find any number of obstacles and are less generous than they might be in not allowing Mr. Berry’s self-description as “a person who takes the Gospel seriously” to stand.