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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.

At root, Berry's Port William is a worshiping community. Indeed, I don't know another community, fictional or real, that so gives itself to worship. That worship doesn't always come in the shape of conventional public worship, but the life of Port William is shot through with the gratitude and joy that marks the worshipful life.

In one of the most luminous sections of the novel Jayber Crow, the title character says he is puzzled by the ascetic brand of Christianity he observed in the local church. He goes on to note the way that the people of Port William, including the minister, abandoned themselves to utter joy and delight over their meals and other simple gifts. "Some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries," Jayber says.

What I see in Berry, and what I've been learning to live out, little by little, is the centrality of worship to personal and communal health. By that I mean something like one of Clyde Kilby's resolutions for mental health: "At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me." In short, Berry has taught me to be grateful for Lincoln, grateful for the particularities of the plains and her people. Before I read Berry, my relationship to my hometown was ambiguous at best. I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't love it either. I had learned to tolerate it while counting down the days until graduation and the chance to move to bigger, more exciting pastures.


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Displaying 3–7 of 13 comments

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.

Restoring Eden

October 25, 2012  12:25pm

A lot of what the author brings up is why we at Restoring Eden (Christians for Environmental Stewardship) launched our Creation Reveals program. Encouraging more urban Christians to get outdoors and experience the ways in which creation reveals the things of God. Especially, in our our world of noise and distractions, it is important for Christians to create a space to slow down and connect with God by surrounding themselves with His handiwork. – “For by Him all things were created” (Colossians 1:16). As Wendell Berry has demonstrated, we have a lot to learn about God, community, and ourselves in doing so! http://restoringeden.org/ Nick


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