BOOK REVIEW: Wendell Berry & Religion

by Mark E. Swanson

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer and a writer of poetry, fiction, and essay whose name seems to be showing up everywhere. He is claimed as a voice in politics, ecology, agriculture, economics, and religion. And what is probably most striking is that he is claimed by those who fall across a wide spectrum in each of those arenas. Berry speaks as an agrarian and that informs his approach to the subjects at hand.

Perhaps it is religion where he feels the least able to offer insight (despite being a Christian), but to those in the Church, his agrarian vision, provides ample fodder for reimagining the world in a manner where more are committed to each other, to a place, and to the gift of God’s world. Wendell Berry & Religion is not, as the book’s introduction assures us, “a book about Wendell Berry” or a “systematic critical analysis of his writing.” Instead, through a collection of essays and authors, it introduces Berry as conversation partner, with a particular perspective, engaged in a diverse number of subjects from the nature of the university to birth control to theology in practice.

The opening section, entitled “Good Work” was particularly valuable. Describing how one should engage their professional calling, the authors (a professor, lawyer/farmer, pediatrician, and pastor) beautifully draw an image of vocation, grounded in an ethic in line with Berry. Of particular note for any pastor, and a breath of fresh air in the wake of most contemporary metaphors for ministers (i.e. CEO, manager, etc.), is Baptist minister Kyle Childress’ essay on the practice of ministry. He substitutes Berry’s words of “farm” and “farmer” for “church” and “pastor” which takes into account the idea of place. Accepting “place” as it is, instead of forcing oneself upon it–as an act of violence. Using Berry’s words, he suggests to new ministers “…that one’s first vision of one’s place [is] to some extant an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and one stays on and works well, one’s love gradually responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually imagine possibilities that are really in it.”

Such an agrarian perspective examines and expands how we deal with and understand a variety of topics. The idea of medicinal birth control is questioned from the view of an organic farmer, Eliazbeth Bahnson, who asks, “How could we be passionate about organic, sustainable agriculture and use hormonal birth control?” Duke Divinity professor Norman Wirzba raises the call for a more “grounded” mysticism, as “…mystical practice requires that we learn to become appropriately and fully present in the places in which we move and live and that we take up our proper place as creatures with the orders of creation.” D. Brent Laytham, North Park Seminary professor, identifies what we can learn about our ecclesial “communion of saints” with Berry’s fictional community of Port William, “which does not reject the hereafter in favor of the here, but rather knows and celebrates the hereafter in the here.”

This book is an excellent read for fans of Berry, and I tentatively recommend it to those who have yet to read him, as nothing can replace the source of their reflection in Berry’s own writings. It should be noted, it appears that many authors approach things with a similar theological perspective, which finds its home at Duke University Divinity School, and the influence of the book’s opening contributor, noted theologian, Stanley Haurewas. One will also not find much if any noted tension with Berry’s views, for which I believe there is some space, but the purpose of the book is not that, as much as it is a conversation, for which Berry is simply the prime participant. I have found the writings of Wendell Berry and his agrarian companions to be a much needed voice in my own life and in the world, much for the reason Ellen Davis, a professor at Duke, points out, “They don’t make me feel better about our situation, but they help me make sense of it, for myself and for my students. Their perspective seems to me deeply sane, and sane companionship is, as the sages of Proverbs knew, essential for living well—with faith and hope, if not with optimism.” And such is the gift of Wendell Berry.