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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.

Berry has changed the way I see my home. The landscape became more beautiful. Now I can drive 15 minutes down Highway 77 toward Crete, passing farms and what's left of the prairie, and the scene shoots straight through me. I can go on walks and feel the gusting winds off the Great Plains and welcome them with "unconsecrated relish," to borrow a phrase from Berry. The gospel of Christ alone changes hearts, but God works through many means in his creation. And one of the mightiest means through which he's done deep soul work in my life is through Berry.

Moreover, that love becomes contagious. Recently my wife and I, along with our pastor and his wife, hosted a local foods dinner with a few people from church. Each of us prepared a dish using locally sourced ingredients and, before we ate, told the rest of the group about what we had brought, where we got the ingredients, and how we made it. The night that followed was divine as a small group of people circled around one of God's most basic gifts and gave ourselves utterly to enjoying it. We're now talking with other church members about making these dinners a regular occurrence. And all of this goes back to a fictional town of a hundred-odd people somewhere in Kentucky.

What can Port William have to do with Portland? It depends on your meaning. If you're looking for practical discussions about best strategies for urban planning, not so much. But if you're talking about the most basic and visceral of Christian needs, then the answer is a great deal. The movement among evangelicals to revitalize urban areas with the Gospel will be successful to the extent that evangelicals themselves are enchanted by the God of that gospel and the world he has given us to both steward and enjoy. And for learning to become enchanted, I haven't found a more helpful teacher than Wendell Berry.

Jake Meador blogs at Notes From a Small Place.

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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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