FEATURED: WENDELL BERRY AND THE CULTIVATION OF LIFE [Vol. 2, #3]

January 16, 2009

 

“The Flourishing of
Placed and Peopled Churches
Within Local Cultures

A Review of
Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life.
by
Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens.

 

By Brent Aldrich.

 

Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life:
A Reader’s Guide.

Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens.
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2008.
Buy now from:  [ Doulos Christou Books $17 ] [ Amazon ]

 


Wendell Berry’s writings have been deeply formative for me, as they have for many people I know; his vision of the wholeness (and holiness) of Creation, and the good work, peaceableness and economy of love, and commitment to life together in a particular place consistently affirms the very presence of God’s reconciling work in the world. This vision spans literary disciplines, as well as a working farm and several decades. With the long reach of his writing, Berry has been taken up by many other writers; indeed, I hardly pick up a book about agriculture, place or technological criticism without first flipping to the index to see where Berry is cited. Considering this broad reach comes Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens’ Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide. This book offers the suggestion that “if we were asked to name one person to whom contemporary Christians need to listen, it would be this unlikely source [Berry], a man with no important connections to ecclesial or political or corporate power” (17). Throughout the course of this book, then, Bonzo and Stevens offer a framework guide to Berry’s writing, drawing out some of the most common threads of his vision, and addressing them explicitly to the church.

            At its broadest, Berry’s vision is cast as a “dogged search for health in the midst of disease. His notion of health is undergirded by a set of ideas that includes finitude, humility, localness, boundedness, propriety of scale, particularity” (25). This health seems most observed in nature, in the creation, and in community, with two scriptural precedents that Berry initiates and Bonzo and Stevens elaborate on: Genesis 1 and 2, and 1 Corinthians 12.

            I’d like to turn to Berry’s poem “Healing” to begin to describe the contours of this book:

            “The grace that is the health of creatures can only be held in common.

 

            In healing the scattered members come together.

 

            In health, the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world.”


 

    

The authors trace the range of Berry’s vision first through the precedents of John Howard Yoder and Pope John Paul II, then to others who have been influenced by Berry. The characterization of Berry’s writing is fleshed out, first in the largest convictional beliefs, through the “Great Economy” of creation, to that of the human. The “Great Economy” is suggested by Wes Jackson to be the very kingdom of God, embodied on earth: “for [Berry], clearly, the Kingdom of God is neither purely conceptual nor purely futuristic nor purely otherworldly; rather, the Kingdom points to the actual order of things, which must be reckoned with for anyone to live in reality” (64). Indeed, it is the very reality of God at work, reconciling all of creation from which Berry draws his vision. The relationship of Berry’s vision to the Biblical narrative is highlighted in “Berry’s triad of health-disease-healing resonates strongly with the Reformed worldview motif of creation-fall-redemption” (74). The work of healing, of redemption, is specifically played out “through faithful living in the here and now” (77).

            To recast this vision from another angle, Bonzo and Stevens consider first the wilderness, soil and food, all part of the “Great Economy,” then “Bodies, Households, and Communities” to suggest the shape of human culture described as it is by Berry with the creation as the measure; to pick up later in “Healing:”

 

            “Good work finds the way between pride and despair.

 

            It graces with health. It heals with grace.

 

            It preserves the given so that it remains a gift.

 

            By it, we lose loneliness:

 

            we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

 

            we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

 

            and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

 

            and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in  fragments.”

 

Chapter 7 suggests the scale of such a community, individualism being too narrow and globalism being too large, but a “healing community,” “is a recognition of the limits that define your work and the relationship of your work to other work – this sense of connectedness is the entry point to membership and care. This term membership that Berry keeps returning to carries in it the healing tension of gift and obligation” (137). Chapter 8 uses Berry’s fiction as models for this membership.

            In the final two chapters, the authors present possibilities for the church and the university to embody Berry’s articulation of the Kingdom of God as an operative economy. The chapter on the church is an excellent invitation to churches to share Berry’s vision for health, and a reminder of the ways in which we have been too silent within our particular places:

            “What we are after, following upon Berry’s vision for the healing local community, is the flourishing of placed and peopled churches within local cultures. Without sacrificing any of the authority, practices, and traditions of the church universal, local churches must be particularized not just accidentally and arbitrarily but as the first principle for embodiment” (175).

Certainly Berry’s clearest vision is to see God embodied particularly in all of creation, “The incarnate Word is with us, / is still speaking, is present / always, yet leaves no sign / but everything that is” (Sabbaths 1999, IX from Given). As the church becomes rooted in its place, both in the telling and re-telling of the Biblical narrative and in the narrative of the local community, it will point to a God who is present, and reconciling the dis-ease of the world.

            The final chapter, “Sustainable Learning Communities” looks at the possibility of “redeeming” the university. In approaching the conclusion, based on the chapter title, I anticipated this was the chapter about the church, so I was surprised that the book closed with the university. Although the arguments raised therein are useful, I wonder what it would look like to imagine the role of the church further, extending into the education dialogue, just as it reaches into the rest of the local community?

            This book is a clear guide to a large body of work written by Berry, and may be most helpful in engaging more of the church with the importance of his writing; having read (and re-read) many of Berry’s books already, I would prefer to go straight to the source and recommend a favorite book such as Given or Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, although for a thorough argument as to why these are important books, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life is an excellent guide.