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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.

Church father Tertullian famously asked his fellow third-century Christians, "What can Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" His question highlighted the insurmountable conflict Tertullian saw between the philosophy of the Greeks and the values of the Christians. Of course, most of us now believe that Tertullian was wrong. Athens, it turned out, had a great deal to do with Jerusalem. Sometimes the teachers we need the most come from unexpected places.

I've thought of Tertullian often over the past couple of weeks, as I've been asked to reflect on Wendell Berry and urban evangelicals. Now 78, Berry has passed much of his life in rural America. He has farmed the same hillside farm in Port Royal—population 64, as of 2010—for over 40 years. He has spent even longer chronicling in novels and short stories the life of Port William, a fictional town of similar size and name. His writings have inspired budding conservationists as well as many Catholic and Orthodox Christians, such as Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen and journalist Rod Dreher. But I've realized that the fifth-generation Kentucky farmer and prolific essayist, novelist, and poet has had a limited shaping effect on urban evangelicals.

As more evangelicals have turned toward their cities to understand how to bless their communities, the agrarian Berry's writings seem disconnected from our day-to-day lives and aspirations. One pastor of a prominent Reformed church whom I spoke with said he had never heard of Berry. Many of those who do know Berry don't think he has a great deal to teach urban Christians. Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs admires Berry and praised some of his essays, but said that he didn't think urban evangelicals should spend much time reading Berry. "He can't help them learn how to live faithfully in the city, because he hasn't tried that, at least not for long," said Jacobs. "[It would be] much better to seek out those who are really, seriously devoting their lives to that effort." So that brings us to our own version of Tertullian's question: What can Port William have to do with Portland?


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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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