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Issue 04

5 Reasons to Read Wendell Berry Today

Craig G. Bartholomew

Craig G. Bartholomew is the Director of the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge.

Wendell Berry / Festival of Faiths / Flickr

As long as a Gnostic impulse continues to course through the veins of so much modern, Western Christianity we will not recognise the importance of a voice like that of Wendell Berry. Gnosticism is suspicious of the material, embodied world, always turning away its eyes towards “the spiritual.” It is the Gnostic impulse that underlies the sacred/secular dualism that so pervades Western evangelicalism and reduces Christian faith to a church view rather than a world view. 

Once we discover – really discover – that Christianity relates to all of life, we will see that over his lifetime Berry has bequeathed to us an extraordinary gift in his life, his essays, his novels and his poetry. We need an anti-Gnostic prophet and in so many ways Berry is just this. He not only helps us to see the problem with Gnosticism, but again and again he helps us to see what real, embodied life in all its glory and frailty looks like. How is it that he has been able to do this? And why should we read him today?

1. Because he is attentive to place. 

Berry had every opportunity to pursue a prestigious academic career. However, he made the decision to return home to Kentucky and to farm and attend to his place. Doubtless some of his fellow academics saw this as a catastrophic move. However, it was precisely this move that has generated such a rich life and extraordinary body of work. Henri Nouwen notes that that which is most particular is most universal. Berry embodies this. By attending closely and carefully to his particular, small farm in Kentucky and doing so over his lifetime he has provided us with universal insights. In his “Introduction” to a collection of Berry’s essays titled The World-Ending Fire, Paul Kingsnorth observes that “This [his farm in Kentucky] is the place in which he has lived, worked and written for the last half-century. This is the place whose story he has told, and through it he has told the story of America, and through that the story of modern humanity as it turns its back on the land and lays waste to the soil.”(1)

Gustave de Smet, Large Landscape with Cows by Jean Louis Mazieres licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Berry’s critique, to which Kingsnorth refers, is penetrating and searing. But he has never ceased to hold before us in deed and in word a marvellous alternative. You cannot read Berry without warming to his love for the land, animals and farming, people and community, and so much more. His focused world opens out on all of life and the picture is exquisite.

Berry is a proponent of the local, of local, healthy food production and so on. This is a note we desperately need to hear. Our globalized consumer culture has meant that we source our products from wherever they are most cheaply available. The West has shipped out its industries all over the world and to China in particular so that our industrial base has been shattered. The absurd extent of this is evoked by Sarah Elton of Toronto in her 2010 book Locavore. As a young mom she was shocked to attention about what we eat when she bought her daughter an iced cookie. When she got home she checked the wrapping for the contents only to see that the cookie was made in China. It is astonishing to think that a wonderful, walkable city like Toronto with its many coffee and muffin chains, ends up selling iced cookies made in China.

But Toronto is not alone. We have known for years how dangerous Vladimir Putin is, but this has not stopped us from becoming dependent on Russia. Oil and gas sales fund the war in Ukraine, and, despite repeated warnings, countries like Germany are so dependent on Russia that now, when we need them to turn off the tap, they appear unable to do so. For years London has been awash with dirty Russian money with a veritable tribe of PR consultants, lawyers and others to function as the enablers of the oligarchs.

When we realise that it is not just about the economy, stupid!, we will start to awaken to the need for local and national sustainability, for avoiding a dysfunctional dance with brutal autocracies that puts us in their debt and renders us unable to respond decisively when something like the war in Ukraine breaks out. As we awaken, we will need a prophet like Wendell Berry to point the way to health, sustainability and therefore genuinely ethical foreign policies.

Photo: Jan Kalish (@jankalishphotography)

2. Because he is attentive to farming.

Because we are embodied, we survive – delightfully – by eating the creation. You would think that this would make us intensely aware of the food chain and farming and agriculture. Alas, our closest link to food production is generally the pristine supermarket. In the process, agribusiness devastates the land and animals are subjected to dreadful suffering. I think the first book I read by Berry is his seminal The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. His work in this area is simultaneously damning and rich beyond measure. In his Standing on Earth: Selected Essays he writes, “To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” (2)

Vincent van Gogh, Enclosed Field with Ploughman

3. Because he calls us to attend to the Bible and the doctrine of creation.

In the quote above Christian motifs dominate. Indeed, there is a strong Christian motif in Berry’s corpus. In his must-read essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,”(3) Berry describes the sacred/secular dualism as “the most destructive disease that afflicts us.”(4) He accepts that the ecological critique of Christianity is valid but … notes that the disparagement and neglect of the creation by Christians is not biblical! We need to recover the doctrine of creation and as we do so we will see that “Belief in Christ is thus dependent on prior belief in the inherent goodness – the lovability – of the world.”(5) As Berry evocatively notes, the Bible is “a book open to the sky.”(6)

It is disturbing – Berry would say “blasphemous” – how we have so often domesticated and privatised the Bible. Berry calls us to defamiliarize ourselves with the Bible so that we can see again how it opens out on all of life, on God’s good creation.

4. Because he is attentive to difficult hope.

One cannot, like Berry, attend closely to the world without realising that something is profoundly wrong with it. Christians capture this in the doctrine of the fall. Amidst a world charged with God’s glory, as Hopkins writes, the global Coronavirus pandemic and now, as if we had not been through enough, a single word like “Bucha,” evokes untold misery. Hope amidst such horrors is difficult, and the theme for this edition of TBP, namely “difficult hope,” comes from Berry.

Berry is an essayist, a novelist and a poet. He titles his essay on a poem about the war in Vietnam, “A Poem of Difficult Hope.”(7) Searingly, he notes that “A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope – and thus has hope, even if only a little.”(8) Berry writes of Hayden Carruth’s poem that it “preserves the poet’s wholeness of heart in the face of his despair. And it shows us how to do so as well.”(9)

In 1 Peter 3:15 the apostle writes, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Amidst the challenges of our days we need hope. And Christians are called to be a people of the resurrection, a people of hope. Amidst what feels like a long, dark and derelict Holy Saturday, we need to find hope anew. How do we do this? We need practices of revering Christ as Lord in our hearts. Such practices are not escapist illusions but anchor us in Christ so that amidst the realities of life we hope. We cannot do this alone – note the use of the second person plural in 1 Peter 3:15. Individualism will collapse before the challenges of our day in despair. Healthy community – central to KLC’s vision – will enable us together to find our way back to difficult hope again and again.

Ruizanglada, Ascension

5. Because he is attentive to words.

In his Standing by Words,(10) Berry asserts that for some 150 years we have witnessed language becoming “either meaningless or destructive of meaning. And I believe that this increasing unreliability of language parallels the increasing disintegration, over the same period, of persons and communities.” Postmodernism, with its endless and monotonous deconstruction, has been a milestone on this journey. During the years of the Trump presidency we were exposed to endless lies, alternative facts, and constant accusations of fake news with large sections of the media branded as the enemy of the people. We became immune to it. But now, the terrible sounds of war are again heard in Europe, civilians are being slaughtered and the Putin regime resorts to the same playbook of fake news. A terrible gift of the war in Ukraine is its reminder that words and truth matter, and their loss yields the most dreadful disintegration.

Yet again, Berry not only diagnoses the problem but embodies the solution. He is a wordsmith par excellence. Read his essays, novels – his eight novels centred on Port William are a delight – and poetry, and you will see what I mean. We need new generations of comparable essayists, novelists and poets who will help us to see, who will help us to agonise, who will help us to hope. KLC longs to be part of such a renewal and we invite you to join us in this journey.

If you are not aware of Berry’s life and writings a feast awaits. If you are, note that I myself have found it wonderfully refreshing to return to his work. It goes without saying, but alas it still needs to be said, that my love of Berry’s work does not mean that I agree with everything he says or writes. I am, for example, writing this on my computer; Berry does not use a computer. His provocative essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” is readily available online. We can and must learn from people we sometimes disagree with. Berry’s corpus is far too important and rich to ignore.

Henri Martin, Poet

1. “Introduction” in Wendell Berry, The World-Ending Fire (London: Penguin, 2017).

2. (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1991), 98.

3. In Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (NY: Pantheon, 1992, 1993), 93-116.

4. Berry, Sex, Economy, 105.

5. Berry, Sex, Economy, 97.

6. Berry, Sex, Economy, 103.

7. In Wendell Berry, What are People For? (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 58-63.

8. Berry, What are People For?, 59.

9. Berry, What are People For?, 63.

10. Wendell Berry, Standing by Words (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1983), 24.