Knowing Your Place
The current economic crisis provides the perfect moment for J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens to draw our attention to a Kentucky farmer and writer in Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader's Guide (Brazos Press). Since the 1960s, Berry has been pointing out where we are headed—and where we could choose to go instead. A creature of neither the Left nor Right, he combines a critique of the corporate mania for growth at any cost with an essentially conservative commitment to the "preservation of tradition and rootedness."
In Berry's world, the modern ideal of depending on government or corporations is replaced with the acknowledgement that we depend on our neighbors and the world around us—both vulnerable communities we must protect and nurture rather than use up. According to Berry, the true remedy for our consumerist troubles, from global warming to endemic divorce, lies "in the possibility of settled families and local communities, in which the knowledge of proper means and methods, proper moderations and restraints, can be handed down, and so accumulate in time and place and stay live; the experience of one generation is not adequate to inform and control its actions."
Bonzo and Stevens, professors at Cornerstone University, answer a question that's long troubled me: What can this commitment to place and community mean for those not living in an agrarian countryside? Are there institutions that can serve as substitutes? The authors think so: "the flourishing of placed and peopled churches within local cultures."
By flourishing, they mean the opposite of the wild growth of placeless megachurches. They mean churches like the ones they belong to, ones rooted in particular spots for long periods, measuring faithfulness not by membership size but by their very rootedness and deep work. They suggest we name churches once more for places, not abstractions (i.e., "New Life Fellowship").
Some of these rooted operations may be megachurches. A powerful example is the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Boise. But the real power of their thinking is for those churches we have long thought in decline. Their chapter "Household and House of God" contains some of the most hopeful pages on the future of local churches I've read in years.
The authors begin with the claim, "If we were asked to name one person to whom contemporary Christians need to listen, it would be this unlikely source, a man with no important connections to ecclesial or political corporate power." I would say this applies for all Americans today: Berry is the great prophet of our time and place.
And I doubt Messrs. Bonzo and Stevens would mind if I recommend that those new to Berry begin with his own books. Get a copy of his collected essays, or the poetry volume A Timbered Choir, or his sweeping novel Jayber Crow. Go someplace quiet and settle in. Prepare to have your worldview—whatever it is—upset. That's what prophets do.
Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author most recently of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.
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Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader's Guide is available at Christianbook.com and other retailers.
Bill McKibben previously wrote on "Christmas Unplugged" for Christianity Today.