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“My vision of the gathered church that had come to me… had been replaced by a vision of the gathered community.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.