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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?

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.

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.

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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Byron Borger

October 24, 2012  12:57pm

Thanks so much!


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