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Christianity and Place

Missionary Journeys of the Apostle Paul, from this site; click the image for a much larger version

Just a brief follow-up to my earlier post on Wendell Berry: I have learned a great deal from Berry over the years, and some of his writings are among my intellectual treasures, but I’m not sure Berry’s ideas about place are fully, or even generally, compatible with Christianity.

Jesus was not much of a sticker: born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, he conducted a good bit of his ministry in Galilee before dying in Jerusalem. His last years were itinerant because his message was both urgent and universal in its scope: it could not be confined to a locality. Thus “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

His most influential disciple, St. Paul, imitated Jesus in this. Having already, before his conversion, come from Tarsus in Asia Minor to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of Gamaliel, he extended his peripatetic habits after his encounter with the Risen Lord. One of his strongest articulations of his task — “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” — suggests that he understood a kind of cosmopolitanism to be intrinsic to the apostolic vocation. “Our citizenship is in heaven.” He would travel far, and like his colleague Peter (a Galilean fisherman) would die in Rome.

There are Christians all over the world today because the successors to Paul declined to stay home. They were not “stickers.”

None of this means that affection for one’s geographical place in the world is of no value; but it does suggest that for the Christian it has at best a secondary and contingent value. There are higher commitments to which it must be subservient. To make it a first-order commitment —which as I read Wendell Berry’s work is what he does — is, as far I can tell, a form of idolatry.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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