“Living the Incarnation”
A Review of
Wendell Berry and Religion:
Heaven’s Earthly Life
Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens.
Reviewed by Ragan Sutterfield.
Wendell Berry and Religion:
Heaven’s Earthly Life.
Edited by Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens.
Hardback: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Wendell Berry has been in the news a lot these days from his visit to Washington with fellow agrarian agitators to Michael Pollan’s homage to Berry in The Nation’s food issue. This attention is very good on the one hand, it is certainly a welcome development that more people are reading Berry and heeding his call to eat locally, but there is certainly cause to worry about this new attention. The worry is that Berry will be painted, as many have already done, as a “father of the local food movement”—a key voice in a big trend. Berry has written some of the best critiques of the industrial agricultural system and he has certainly advocated eating local food grown by farmers one knows, but Berry, as a thinker and writer, is concerned with problems and ways of living much bigger than any movement (a reduction he himself critiqued in his essay “In Distrust of Movements”). It would be a tragedy if Berry’s legacy were to be left to the advocates of local food alone.
Thankfully we don’t need to worry too much about such a reduction because Joel Shuman and Roger Owens have put together a varied and deep collection of essays that engage Berry with the full complexity and breadth his work requires. Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven’s Earthly Life has been a long time in the making and it is a book that is still unfinished. That’s a good thing, because as Joel Shuman writes in the introduction, this book represents “contributions to an ongoing conversation” with Berry’s work—a conversation “among a particular group of persons, over time and in a particular place.” Such a conversation can never hope to be finished, only interrupted and picked up again—but here we have a very good beginning.
As is indicated in the title, this conversation takes place in the context of the church, among members of the church who “recognize in the work of Wendell Berry a kind of wisdom that might help them and their fellow Christians work, live, and think more faithfully in a world that, to the extent if recognizes their Christianity at all, finds it increasingly unpalatable.”
The essays in this collection range from Stanley Hauerwas’s engagement with Berry on the question of a Christian university to Elizabeth Bahnson’s essay on agrarianism and the contraceptive pill. Though varied, the essays are organized under the headings of “Work,” “Holy Living,” “Imagination,” and “Moving Forward” – which could just as well be titled “Politics.” In each section pastors, farmers, theologians, a lawyer and a doctor engage with Berry around the question of good work and good living in a world that has placed a premium on abstract value over the particularity of people and places as represented in the Incarnation we now celebrate.
It is telling that many of these essays center on stories—the stories that Berry tells in his novels such as Hannah Coulter and the stories of lives lived in the larger story of God’s work in the world. These essayists have not simply read Berry as an interesting thinker—they have been awakened through his writings to a way of living faithfully in the world that means making concrete choices about where we live and what we do. L. Roger Owens writes about how reading Berry helped him make the choice between pastoral ministry and academia, Fred and Elizabeth Bahnson and Richard Church write as people who have made decisions to engage in the daily work of farming largely through Berry’s influence, and Brian Volck and Kyle Childress write about the difference Berry’s insights and stories have made for the practice of their professions as a doctor and pastor respectively. When Brent Laytham writes about a community’s relationship to past and present and Norman Wirzba reflects on the this worldly vision of the true mystic, they are writing from the place of the particular community, the church, in a world that is vying for a different way of seeing. These essays are not abstract engagements with an abstract theorist—they are concrete conversations with a concrete writer who takes truthful speech seriously.
Berry has written so much on so many different topics that it would be too easy to latch on to one aspect of his work and center the conversation there—a monocultural dialog if you will. But Berry’s work deserves a more comprehensive and yet more particular engagement and the church has an opportunity to do just that because the church is both comprehensive and particular, catholic and incarnational. The essays in this collection bear witness to that and draw out many strands of Berry’s work that are left aside by those who would claim him for their “movement.” We are concerned, with Berry, about the question of living lives of goodness and we understand with him that the form of our life, our practices and daily habits and relationships, dictates our ability to see and live out that good. We can be thankful that such great thinkers in the church have begun this conversation with Berry, a fellow Christian—a conversation best continued while working together.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com