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Why Urban Christians Need Wendell Berry

Why Urban Christians Need Wendell Berry

What could the agrarian essayist who still uses a typewriter teach Christians in city centers? You'd be surprised.

To answer that, we first need to be clear on what evangelicals do well and where we have room to grow. In my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, evangelicals lead many successful endeavors for the good of their city. Here on the plains, they lead many outreach and nonprofit initiatives and are increasingly joining Lincoln's arts scene. An Acts 29 church recently used their building to host attendees of the city's First Friday art walk. Some young Christians started an amateur theater company that has staged a number of plays to great success. Over a thousand people attended their most recent performance, and the local paper has given the past two shows front-page billing. A number of Lincoln's gifted preachers are turning their attention to the city in one way or another. My own pastors are deeply influenced by Tim Keller, and I know they aren't the only ones. Point being, if Lincoln is any indicator, evangelicals are doing very well at thinking theologically about the city and doing things that will serve it.

This is where I'm not sure Berry is of much help to us—partially due to his own lack of experience in the city, as Jacobs noted, but also because I think we're actually doing a pretty good job on these fronts. Where we are weak is likely due to inexperience. Give Lincoln's evangelicals another 10 years, and our efforts will steadily improve.

Note what we do well: We think good thoughts and we do good things. But in recent years, some Christian writers have warned that we shouldn't mistake right thinking and right behavior for the holistic well being of a person, or a city, for that matter. James Davison Hunter and Andy Crouch (executive director of the City project) each made this point in To Change the World and Culture Making, respectively. Philosopher Jamie Smith devoted a whole book, Desiring the Kingdom, to this point, stressing that human beings are not chiefly thinkers or believers but worshipers. It's here, I argue, that Berry's vision of community life and creation is most vital for urban evangelicals. For all the things we do well, I'm not convinced that we know how to live as communities of worshipers day to day. Enter Port William.

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Comments Are Closed

Displaying 2–6 of 13 comments

Dan at Hebron Acres

October 31, 2012  5:15pm

If you read Berry’s essay, “Christianity and The Survival of Creation,” he claims “the culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world, and the uselessness of Christianity to any effort to correct that destruction, are now established clichés of the conservation movement.” In Berry’s view, our failure as Christians is a false witness. He wrote, “I see some virtually catastrophic discrepancies between biblical instruction and Christian behavior.” Berry evokes the Greek Orthodox theologian, Philip Sherrard, who wrote that “Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being.” Notwithstanding whether you agree with Sherrard, Berry tells us that if Sherrard’s view of creation is true, then “our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship … it is the most horrid blasphemy.” Strong words, no doubt. But, we cannot read Berry and make attempts to understand what he can teach us as urban evangelicals without this context.

Jake Meador

October 26, 2012  2:04pm

Christian Man - Thanks for writing back. My response would be to say that I agree that Berry can teach us a great deal about all those things you listed, but the point of this piece was to say that there is a primary thing we ought to know before anything else - which is how to worship. And Berry can teach us how to do that. So let's start there. From that base, we can suss out ag policy, urban planning, etc. But let's be clear on how to worship first. If we miss that, everything else ends up getting skewed b/c our hearts are not properly ordered.

Christian Man

October 25, 2012  5:15pm

...These are relatively small, common, piecemeal acts--and indeed, it is on that fine-grained level that much of Berry's work focuses. Therefore he has many things to say to those of us who live in cities. To mark him as "N/A" for urban evangelicalism is a little like saying evangelicalism has nothing to learn from Catholicism. Only a superficial comparison would lead you to dismiss the wisdom of that religion altogether. (2/2)

Christian Man

October 25, 2012  5:13pm

Mr. Meader, you could have dug much deeper. Community,ecology, sex, family--there are so many issues Berry has written on that are of import for life, urban, rural or somewhere in between. Naturally his writings on agriculture have limited practical adaptation to lived urban experience, and I certainly think he says some misguided things, but then again the lives of urban evangelicals are obviously complex, and not defined only by their being urban. So, a more complex treatment of the question, "What good is Berry for urban evangelicals?" might consider how an agrarian cultural vision affects political activism (i.e., petitioning Congress to pass a new Farm Bill), consumer spending (voting with one's dollars by purchasing sustainably-produced food), attitudes towards neighbors("Neighbor, let us break bread together!"), transportation decisions (buying a small sedan instead of a large SUV), etc...(1/2)

No Name

October 25, 2012  3:14pm

I think you may have misunderstood the meaning of the word ascetic. This is a bit disconcerting considering you are writing about theology. I suggest having someone more intelligent proofread your works.

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