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Wendell Berry & the church

There’s a great new book out from ISI, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, a collection of essays about Berry’s thought. It features essays from many of the Front Porch Republic gang, and others. The editors included a piece from Your Working Boy, no doubt out of pity. I just finished a good essay from the writer D.G. Hart, who reflects on the by now familiar claim that contemporary Christianity should study Berry and learn from him. Hart agrees, but contends that Berry has been too quick to dismiss the institutional Church. Says Hart:

Indeed, one of the ironies of the church’s grappling with Berry is that his arguments actually have more force with Christians specifically, and theists more generally, than with the average agnostic who is on the fence about whether Creation is actually created. As otherworldly as Christianity may be in its promise of a new heaven and new earth, its official versions have always rejected as heresies — such as Gnosticism, Manicheanism, and Docetism — any version fo the faith that depicted Creation or embodiment as less than good or that suggested the body and the created order were unworthy of care and cultivation. The gospel may tempt Christians to flee the world, but the narrative of Genesis will not allow them to get very far.

Hart says Berry’s harsh criticism of contemporary Christianity may have a lot to do with the fact that he’s a Southern Baptist, and mistakes a particularly Evangelical view of the connection between the soul and the body, matter and spirit, for the whole of Christian teaching. Hart — who is a historian and a Reformed Christian — calls Berry’s critique of American Evangelicalism astute, because it focuses on how the Evangelical style is so amenable to a culture of rootlessness and a disembodied spirituality. Hart quotes from a Berry passage about economic exploiters (versus nurturers), from Berry’s The Unsettling of America:

The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.

Applying this insight to religion, not economics, Hart, who taught at a conservative Presbyterian seminary, sees a link to Evangelicalism. He says many Evangelicals wouldn’t see themselves in this passage, because they believe they’re doing good.

But they rarely consider the perspective of the settled pastors who have to clean up or work around the religious debris left by the itinerant evangelist or the numerous religious entrepreneurs who compete for adherents and financial support. Evangelicals often think that their work is done once they have secured a person’s conversion. An ordinary pastor, though, is in for the long haul and feels compelled to shepherd those converts well beyond the first flush of faith.

Hart goes on to say that just as the church universal would do well to learn from Berry, so would Berry do well to recognize that his great allies are in the older forms of Christianity — Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed — “that highly regards the rites, ceremonies, holy days, and patterns of inheritance upon which Christians for most of two millennia relied. But these forms of Christian devotion and ministry have generally been the healthiest in out-of-the-way places on the margins of industrial society.”

There’s a lot of truth in that, and I wish I could say it was entirely true. But there’s a part of me that wonders to what extent what Hart characterizes as the rootless culture and style of Evangelicalism has come to characterize a general American way of thinking about religion and religious difference. In Hart’s refinement of Berry’s account, the Evangelical church has become the handmaiden of industrialized modernity, because its theological particularities are especially amenable to a rootless, placeless, individualized way of thinking and living. What I’m not sure of is the extent to which these older traditions to which Hart points have managed to successfully resist what Hart, and Berry, identify as the spiritually and theologically problematic aspects of modernity. I know they have the resources within the traditions to mount resistance. But do their leaders, and their people, want to fight — or do they want to assimilate?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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