A Few (too many) Thoughts on Wendell Berry

On occasion, I read an author whose words shape my amorphous thoughts. My embryonic ideas are expressed as fully developed essays. Certainly, this was my experience when I encountered Wendell Berry last year.

Berry is an agrarian thinker, someone who believes that life should be lived in connection with the earth, ideally as a small-scale farmer. Agrarians value localism over globalism, slowly produced items over fast food, and few well-made things over many cheap gadgets.

Berry provides a contrary voice to our commercialized culture. Many of his critiques of our culture are accurate and fit well within the Biblical teaching of Creation; however, I cannot accept his views fully.

Please forgive the length of this post. I am trying to grapple with my position on Wendell Berry as I type. I need lots of space to work out my thoughts.

Lessons Wendell Berry has taught me:

Creation is a created thing.

This ought to be obvious, but it is not. In the beginning, God created. He designed and carefully crafted the world and said it was good – that all of it was good. We can easily believe that mountains, flowers and birds are part of God’s creation, but we also neglect to remember that fungus, mosquitoes, paramecium, wheat and our knee caps are also divinely designed. The earth’s molten core, the farthest galaxy and everything between stand as an art form created by the Cosmic Artist. It is in fact the greatest, most complex artwork.

Most human art and artifacts are carefully preserved in museums where the temperature, humidity and handling are controlled to ensure that the next generation can appreciate its glory. Yet, we treat creation as a toolbox full of things to be used, or worse, we treat is as a disposable napkin, which after one use can discarded. Neither attitude contains within it the idea of stewardship or preservation of creation.

All things are intertwined.

I cannot abuse nature without also abusing myself and those I love. In his essay, “The Body and the Earth”, Wendell Berry explains this concept.

“It is impossible, ultimately, to preserve ourselves apart from our willingness to preserve other creatures, or to respect and care for ourselves except as we respect and care for other creatures; … it is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.

“The earth is what we all have in common … it is what we are made of and what we have life from, and .. we therefore cannot damage it without damaging those with whom we share it.”

Or as poet Francis Thompson said, “Thou canst not stir a flower without troubling a star.”

The home is the origin of the economy and should be the focus of life.

At one time, father, mother, and children lived and labored in and around the home. They might have run a small store or managed a farm. Their work was hard and required skill, but it was done in community with the people they loved. Their work bound them together in labor and each needed the other. That economy served to unite the family as they were striving towards the same goal, rather than separate the individual members in peer groups.

Today’s economy divides the husband from the wife Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Increasingly, the wife is removed from her children throughout that same time period as well. Children are also separated from each other into classrooms. They have between them fewer shared experiences and memories, so necessary for developing relationships with people.

From this economically divided house stems many sorrows. Divorce rates have increased in part because one partner does not need the other and thus has little motivation to endure through difficult periods.  Parents (moms and dads) who work outside the home cannot raise their children well, and thus the training of their children is bequeathed to the state or to the church or to no one. At best, untrained children become rude adults unless they gain some politeness from society at large. At worse, they remain childish,  slaves to their passions without learning the adult virtues of patience and labor.

Image from OffTheGrid.net

Great change can only occur in small, localized areas.

Grandiose generalizations are meaningless because they are not tied to actual people or things. It is impossible to “change the world,” “end world hunger” or even “cure cancer” simply because no one answer will solve any one of these problems.

World hunger consists of hunger of many different individuals for many different reasons. It cannot be fixed simply by producing more food. We already produce enough to fill every belly. People starve because of poor governments, social issues, educational deficiencies and many other reasons. These reasons are specific to the people in each region and cannot be solved all at once.

A few criticisms of Wendell Berry

He idealizes and idolizes the past.

Berry portrays a harmonious agrarian society where each member labors with few machines, relying solely on their acquired skills. He writes of people doing everyday activities as crafts, with love and care. The result, he asserts, is as different as a homebaked loaf of bread is to Wonderbread.

While I am drawn to this vision, I recognize it as a romanticism of the past, ignoring the blessings of a modern world. I find very little skill or pride in hand-washing my dishes, nor can I by wielding a soapy sponge reduce our water usage or clean the dishes better. Instead, I am entangled in a task that prevents me from other things, things that require more skill and love, such as cooking a pleasant meal, playing with my infant, visiting a friend, or tilling my garden.

Because of our non-agrarian society, I do not worry about starvation, because even if my garden does not thrive, I know that my husband is well paid by his career in engineering. Nor do I need to spend all day preparing food, and can write in a blog during my son’s naps.

Globalization is not always evil.

Perhaps the most vilified example of globalization is large companies that have factories and offices in many countries. (For example, a clothing company with corporate offices in Chicago and sweatshops in Thailand.) While many localists decry multinational companies, these corporation often do more to improve the living conditions of an area than most forms of aid.

Their workers may not be well paid by our standards. They might work in what we would consider deplorable conditions, but they are not forced to take a job at the multinational company. Presumably they accept jobs there because there are no better jobs available. Charles Wheelan in Naked Economics cites one town where a factory employing children closed. The children did not go to school, but found worse jobs, starved in the streets, and some even entered prostitution.

Multinational companies contribute in other ways to a developing country’s economy. They often invest in the people they hire, providing job skills and training. Although some of this training erodes the local culture, it also provides a way for people to make enough money to feed their children.

Christianity is more than a cultural inheritance.

This is my primary disagreement with Berry. He practices Christianity for the same reason he lives in Kentucky: It is part of his history.

In his essay, “The Survival of Creation,” Berry writes, “I owe a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists. But there are an enormous number of people — and I am one of them — whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity.” Berry implies that each person should adhere to their “native religion” not to seek the true religion. This implication runs contrary to much of Scripture. Jesus claims to be only way, truth and light, not just one of several great religious figures (John 4:16).

Later, in that essay and in other essays, he quotes poets with the same authority as the Bible. I agree that Christians often ignore their poetic heritage, and they stand to learn much from our own artists and poets, such as Milton, C.S. Lewis and Virgil; however even the most eloquent poet has less to offer than the driest chapter of Leviticus. The poet may be inspired by a muse, but scripture is inspired by the Almighty.

Finally, Barry sees the Christian religion as plastic and moldable. In the same essay,he says, “[O]ur native religion should survive and renew itself so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be.” While the outward appearance of the faith has changed over time, the most important tenants have remained immutable. Believers in the first century trusted in Christ alone for salvation, as did the Pilgrims at Plymouth, as do many today. Some areas of scripture have been interpreted differently over time or even misapplied, but its basic teaching must stay the same. The Christian faith is not just rooted in a document or in various interpretations of that document, but in a God who is unchanging.

I am saddened by Barry’s tepid faith. It causes me to look with caution on all of his other writings for we can begin to only understand creation rightly when we begin to understand its Creator. This does not mean that I will not read and enjoy Berry, but I will read him with caution and consideration.

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About beewhisper

Christian, Mama, Wife, Gardener, Beekeeper
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5 Responses to A Few (too many) Thoughts on Wendell Berry

  1. Pete V says:

    Good post. Berry is a polemic, a dissenter, a contratian to the core. While his essays endeavor to rattle the cages of stagnant monolithic thought, they also precscribe an attractive (albeit somewhat retro-idealizing) alternative.

    In “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” Wendell’s goal, I believe, is to heap culpability on complacent “modern Christians” whose so-called religion is co-opted by “the state and economic status quo.” He does this in an attempt to reconcile Christian culture with right living, not undermine or dilute the veracity of Christianity by invoking the environmental righteousness of another faith.

    That Berry’s sense of stewardship is informed by poets and Buddhists, as well as Leviticus, should serve to temper his faith, not cool it.

    If we read the Bible, keeping in mind the desirability of those two survivals–of Christianity and the Creation–we are apt to discover several things that modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet about, or have paid little attention to.

    We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it… In biblical terms, the “landowner” is the guest and steward of God: “the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23).

  2. Good post. I have thought through a lot of these themes in reading a lot of Wendell Berry myself; I would add “know the consequences of your actions and the origins of the things you consume” and “think longer-term” as lessons to be learned to contemplate the ones you mentioned (which were all quite good!) You touch on this slightly, but I would also add, “new technology can be a blessing to the human community if it’s used with wisdom” as a criticism, since I think computers, dishwashers, and vaccines are all good things (even though, in general, I think we’d all be better off if we moved towards a more Berry-esque simplicity.)

    I think it’s important to understand Berry’s critique of Christianity within the context that his local church (as far as I can tell) is mostly staffed by student ministers who do their practicum there and then depart for elsewhere, further reinforcing his ideas about how global or national institutions look at rural areas as places where we can suck resources (in this case training for student ministers) from without any consequences. In addition, I assume you’ve read his book Hannah Coulter, which navigates some of the ideas about Jesus’ suffering for the world quite beautifully. Also, in the novel Jayber Crow, the main character expresses quite a few classic doubts about various dogmas which are probably straight from Berry’s mind, and I suspect it’s reasonable to conclude that he very well might not have ever encountered a decent orthodox rebuttal to any of these doubts. I think that anyone who grew up with the black-and-white, in-or-out molds of Reformed Presbyterianism will find his theological musings either befuddling or heretical, but I would caution you not to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one (I don’t think you are, but I figured I’d say so anyway.)

  3. beewhisper says:

    Matt,

    Those are great lessons. Thank you for reminding me about Berry’s thoughts on technology. I neglected to mention that under my lessons. He has helped me see new technologies as optional, not necessary. For example, I don’t need a dishwasher or computer. I could wash the dishes by hand/scrawl letters to friends. Perhaps this is more obvious to me in regards to the new phones. I really on need a cell phone that makes phone calls, not one that texts, sends photos and checks my email. In fact, I am more free to observe my world without all those functions.

    I appreciate your thoughts on some Christian responses to Berry. I think we all have difficulty dividing truth from appealing fiction. The easy solution is just to ignore any offbeat theological musings. However, they would miss many great writers and thinkers (and Christians) including GK Chesterton and Dante and, of course, Wendell Berry.

    Peter,

    I agree that Berry is trying to distinguish between the faith of Christianity and the political and economic ideologies often associated with it. Christians do need to be reminded that conservation of land is a Biblical principle. However, I don’t think he is arguing from a truly Christian standpoint, and I still would exercise caution when reading him. He’s so engaging, so poetical, so alluring — He’s a little dangerous.

  4. Anne says:

    Not too many words at all! I enjoyed all the points you made–and I agree with you. I truly enjoyed Hannah Coulter and it was amazing to me how a man could write that book. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read. But, as I’ve listened to my husband discuss with me all the Berry books he’s read over the years, I have seen that he keeps in mind the concerns you’ve expressed here. He is currently reading Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry and Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy.

  5. Oh! Another important aspect of Berry’s work I’ve noted over the years: he is one of the most prominent “liberals” who is unapologetically and unashamedly pro-life (although I wonder whether or not he’d use the term.)

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