Wendell Berry: Where’s the Church?

There’s been a bit of discussion around the absence of an ecclesiology in Berry’s writing.  It seems that the Church is often depicted as something negative. Pastors, especially those “professionals” who move from church to church, get the same treatment.  What are we to make of this?

First, I don’t think Berry’s biggest issue is with Christianity or the Church in general terms, but with a gnostic theology that has crept into the church – a theology that has disembodied and displaced its adherents.  The problem, first and foremost, is any church which has an ‘otherworldly’ focus and causes men and women to abscond from their responsibilities to this good earth.

In his essay “God and Country” (and elsewhere) Berry argues vehemently against certain brands of the church; for example, the organized and institutional church that has wed itself to the modern economy is merely a bastardization of what the church ought to be.  Also, the church that has nothing to say about stewardship of the environment and the importance of our places holds very little esteem in Berry’s thought.

Berry’s own history with church “membership” is quite telling. He actually spent most of his life not attending any local church, but hiking through the woods and writing poetry (hence his Sabbath Poem collections).  He now attends church quite regularly and the church plays a more important role in his later writing, but he’s still quite suspicious of most forms of “organized” church, and particularly suspicious of pastors who are not local and who live transient lifestyles, moving from parish to parish. In fact, I think it is largely due to the mobility of the rural pastor that Berry feels unsettled by the church. Of course, this pastoral transience is somewhat of a norm in many churches, but it is a norm which implies that “place” is something the church does not have to think seriously about.

I think this quote from his novel Jayber Crow is really helpful in establishing a sense of Berry’s own thoughts on the overlap between Church and Community. Here we can see how Berry, through Jayber, shows how Community trumps Church in many ways:

“My vision of the gathered church that had come to me… had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on… It was a community always disappointed in itself,disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.”

I know there has been a lot of criticism towards this; in fact, the Christianity and Literature article by Sean Michael Lucas (Lucas, Sean Michael. “God and Country: Wendell Berry’s Theological Vision.” Christian Scholars Review 32:1. Fall 2002. 73 – 93.) deals with these critiques leveled against such a “secular” vision of the church.

I would, in light of this quote, perhaps disagree with those who claim that Berry’s more “Dantean” novels show a movement from secular to sacred institutions since it seems here that the movement is actually in quite the opposite direction.

Is this problematic?  I think so.  I have not yet read anything from Berry which deals with the unique and important role of the church in a community. But I still have lots to read in this regard.

One other thing I might add as I’m thinking about this. It seems that there is a connection, or parallel, to be made between how humanity is connected to the earth and how the church is connected to the community.  The relationship of humankind to earth is supposed to be ‘ecological’ in the sense that we need to see our connectedness to the earth (that we are made from the dust of the earth); conversely, the church needs to see its connectedness to the larger community. This Great Community, as Jayber notices, must be inclusive even to the reprobate.

This is not to deny the special and unique role people have as bearing God’s image. Here we have one of those paradoxes Christians need to wrestle with: too much focus on our ecological connectedness and we can move towards a form of nature worship or Eastern thought (another charge/criticism often brought by Christians to Berry’s thinking), but too much focus on our transcendence will allow us to destroy the earth as if we were not intimately connected to it and thereby destroying ourselves.  IN much the same way this paradox exists for the church.  If it focuses too much on being embedded in the community it can lose the special character it must have as a witness to the truth of Christ in a non-Christian world, but too much focus on its separation from the world and it becomes a walled garrison that has lost its relevance and usefulness in a place.

Is it Berry’s task to create a well-rounded ecclesiology? Definitely not.  His work, however, has been taken up by theologians (Ellen Davis, Norm Wirzba, Craig Bartholomew, to name a few) and is informing ecclesiology in many places. Tim Keller, in fact, often speaks of his indebtedness to Berry for how he thinks of church.  This is definitely a good start, and one in the right direction.

English > Math

[The following piece was prompted by a proposal from my students who run the school’s newspaper to write a short piece as one side to the debate of which is the superior subject, math or english.  It was fun to write and I can’t wait to see the math teacher’s reactions. I have left his name out of this post.]

There is a book coming out this year in which a variety of authors and thinkers were asked to write an epistle to their younger selves.  They were asked to give advice or admonition based on what they know now and one letter worth sharing comes from contemporary author, Jodi Picoult.  The only piece of advice she thought worthy of sending back into time was this: “You will never use calculus. Trust me.”   As far as I’m concerned, she is right.

But which is greater, English or Math?  So the question has been posed to Mr. —– and myself. Of course, the unfortunate irony for my esteemed colleague attempting to sing math’s supposed superiority is that he must (to his chagrin) rely upon the English language. Therefore, I will do what I can in the way of leveling the playing field by taking the liberty to rephrase the question as such: if x≠ y; is x > y or y > x?  Find (and defend) the value of x.

I’m going to leave variables behind here for a moment (if you are a true philomath, do not worry, I will write slowly), to point out that the fruits of this inquiry will inevitably be flawed because of the nature of the question. The question, as posed, suggests a necessary, mutual exclusion between these two subjects and is therefore a question that only a Mathematic Mind (m2) would ask; but, I would venture, one that only an English mind could answer.

Let’s begin with a look at the English Mind.  As far as I have come to think of it (and with it), the English Mind is Creative and Cultured (E = mc2).  While the creative mind is responsible for imagining new possibilities and developing all the cultural activities (music, stories, poetry) that make life more than something “nasty, short and brutish,” Mathematics targets the lowest common denominator.  The Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd placed “Numbers” as the most basic type of knowledge one could glean in this infinitely complex universe; and who wouldn’t trust a Dutch philosopher?

T.S. Eliot, an early 20th century poet, once asked: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Again, math is but the foundation of the temple of knowledge.  We have all heard that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but I think we might add that the study of English is the beginning of knowledge, while math is but the lowly beginnings of information.  I have no problem with math in the same way I have no problem with the bottom rung of a ladder: both are necessary to step on as you move upwards.

While the mathematician relies upon the dry, yeastless factuality of numbers, the English mind places these facts into the stories in which they make sense, thereby leavening the loaf of knowledge so it is not simply edible, but enjoyable as well.  Even Jesus, with his few years upon this earth, chose not to waste his time propounding mathematical theorems; rather, he gave us story upon story, demanding that his followers be good readers.  Christians, in fact, have been called “people of the book,” which is a badge we should wear with honour.

The English Mind, then, is a mind that knows how to step back and see the entire forest, not one which is content to count and cross-multiply the trees.  The English mind can see the world in a grain of sand or a handful of dust. When Graham Greene talks of earth as a “marble floating through infinite space,” he captures something so immense and sublime in one simple phrase that you can’t help but marvel at your smallness. The English Mind also steps forward, into the dark wood to see the individual trees. It observes the particularities of a place and the idiosyncrasies of a character, the motivations and machinations that make men and women tick and it records them down with the precision of a mathematician and the love of a saint.

And here the false dichotomy between the m2 and the English Mind really breaks down. The true mathematician, I assume, has a similar confrontation with the sublime in the presence of a concept such as infinity.  It would not be difficult to provide numerous examples of mathematical truths that boggle the mind; in fact, it would be as easy as pi.

But to get back on track; English is more important and will always be because it demands a more human way of thinking.  The ancients knew this, and classified it under the humanities.  Math, one of the sciences, was actually considered a handmaiden to literature and philosophy! Ironically, our culture now sees the humanities as something weak, something which needs defense, something which exists to serve the sciences by teaching literacy (as if knowing how to speak efficiently can lead to an abundant life).

Because of this, English has become the helpless victim of numerous, false stereotypes.  Here are the three most common:

1) Any answer in English can be right (ok, I’ll admit that’s somewhat true…)

2) English is an overly emotional subject which trains us how to get in touch with our feelings (frankly, I feel hurt when I hear this, and wouldn’t mind getting together with a group of other English folk to talk it out).

3) English is an easy way to get an A+ (the joke’s on you here; I mark everything with smiley and frowny faces).

So, as you can see, although English might be in disarray in our society, it is a truly superior discipline.  Now I could go on, but I’ve had this tongue in my cheek for far too long and must take care of it.  For my mathematically inclined readers, do not worry; I’ll be fine.