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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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Comments Are Closed

Displaying 1–5 of 13 comments

Christian Man

November 03, 2012  8:36pm

Mr. Meador- Thank you for your response. That is reasonable. I am concerned, nonetheless, that, to the uninitiated, Berry's use might by this account be understood to be simply poetic. (He is certainly a poet, and there is certainly dire need for its vision among urban evangelicals.) On the contrary, we must never limit worship to an aesthetic reverence, seeking instead to understand and express how dependence before creation, in the humble, day-to-day experience, is itself doxological.

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)

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