Wendell Berry’s body of writing—spanning over 50 books of poetry, essays, novels, and short stories—can be rather overwhelming to those who’ve merely seen his name on the wall of a farmers’ market or the menu of a hipster cafe. Too many Christians still have only a vague sense of who he is or why he is important, and Ragan Sutterfield’s book, Wendell Berry and the Given Life, prepares readers to explore Berry’s work for themselves.
Sutterfield is well-suited for this task. He is ordained in the Episcopal Church, a former small-scale farmer, and the author of several books, including This Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith (2015).
Berry has been an important voice for the last 40 years, but I can see at least two reasons why we should particularly heed his wisdom now. The first is the election of Donald Trump, which many have interpreted as rural America rejecting the country’s reigning economic and political orthodoxies. Berry has spent decades criticizing the industrial assumptions that shape the policies of both major parties, but the local, humane, sustainable economies for which he advocates could not be more different from Trump’s bigger-is-better rhetoric. As Bill McKibben writes in the foreword to Sutterfield’s book, “if there were a literal opposite to Donald Trump on the planet, it would be Wendell Berry.” Perhaps this is the moment to listen carefully to Berry’s vision for creaturely economies.
Sutterfield’s introduction to Berry is also timely given the conversations sparked by Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option. (It was Dreher, after all, who in a 2011 essay nominated Berry as the “Latter-Day St. Benedict” hoped for by Alasdair MacIntyre in the famous closing paragraph of After Virtue.) While Sutterfield doesn’t mention Dreher’s project, he argues that, like Benedict, Berry provides a “coherent vision for the lived moral and spiritual life. … His insight flows from a life and practices, and so it is a vision that can be practiced and lived.”
While some critics accuse Dreher of advocating withdrawal from secular society out of a fear of contamination, Berry offers a clear alternative to this misconception. For Berry, the real danger is not contamination but complicity; as he notes in an interview with Sutterfield, all who care for the health of the land and its human communities are “involved inescapably in … wrongs that they oppose.” Thus he advocates practices and reforms that reduce our participation in such wrongs. His work reminds us, then, that our faith must be embodied, that it must go to work in local, loving economies that strive to honor the immeasurable gift of life.
Humble, Loving Communities
Like Berry’s own writings, Sutterfield’s book follows a symphonic structure: Throughout its 12 brief chapters, themes emerge, develop in new contexts, and find creative resolution. It is perhaps helpful to understand Sutterfield’s exploration of a given, creaturely life as having four main movements. The first considers Berry’s understanding of coherent, loving communities. Berry always works as an amateur—in its etymological sense of lover—whether he is tending his small Kentucky farm or writing poems, essays, and fiction. In all its varied forms, his work models the humility and love that characterize neighborly economies.