Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wendell Berry and Religion

Wendell Berry and Religion , edited by Joel James Shuman and L. Rogers Owens, is subtitled Heaven's Earthly Life. Published by The University Press of Kentucky in 2009, this collection of theology-based essays is part of a larger series of books entitled Culture of the Land, a Series in the New Agrarianism.

The series preface explains agrarianism as "a comprehensive worldview that appreciates the intimate and practical connections that exist between humans and the earth." The editor goes on to describe agrarianism as "our most promising alternative to the unsustainable and destructive ways of current global, industrial, and consumer culture."

The introduction to the essays, written by co-editor Joel James Shuman, lays the foundation for how Wendell Berry's body of work is important to Christian thought by dividing the essays into the following sections: Good Work, Holy Living, Imagination, and Moving Forward.

By way of introducing the "good work" essays, Shuman reminds the reader of a persistent theme in Berry's writing: women and men are created to work and to do so well. The essays in this section examine what good work means to a university professor who ponders whether a Christian university can avoid overspecialization, to a medical school professor who requires his fourth year students to read Berry in order to better treat the whole human being, to a lawyer who milks goats in the morning while contemplating Berry's idea of "legal friendships", and to a pastor who sees his proper work as nourishing the common life of his congregation.

The other sections of the book follow suit as the essayists apply their experiences to Berry's agrarian viewpoint of the delicate, dependent relationship between humanity and the earth. In a well-constructed argument Elizabeth Bahnson cites her own dilemma with birth control pills in "The Pill is like...DDT?" Citing recent studies about declining amphibian populations, Bahnson wonders about the far-reaching effects of current hormonal methods on both women and the environment. As an organic farmer, she worries about adding chemicals to the earth to control fertility of the land That sensitivity to organic farming led her to question the methods we use to control fertility in humans. The very word "control" in relation to nature suggests to agrarians that human beings have lost their sense of place in the hierarchy of creation.

Other interesting discussions in the "Holy Living" section include the importance of community gardens to the ministry of a North Carolina church and an Old Testament scholar's discussion of the value of land in the Bible, exemplified by the words for "human" and "land" in Hebrew, the closely related "Adam/adamah."

Perhaps my favorite essay in this section is an agrarian explanation of theological concepts in "The Dark Night of the Soil"--love that title-- by Norman Wirzba. The author explains the complete surrender of the soul to a higher understanding by equating it to the body's ultimate return to serve the dark stillness of the earth. Supporting this theological discussion of the “dark night of the soul” are beautiful passages from Wendell Berry's poetry:

"Taking us where we would not go--Into the boundless dark.
When what was made has been unmade
The Maker comes to his work."

The final two sections of the book encourage readers to imagine better ways toward stewardship of the earth. While Philip Muntzel posits an embedded hopefulness in the "God-world cycle," Scott Williams explores the "alien landscapes" created by the violent practice of mountain-top removal--for which we are all culpable whenever we perform the simple act of switching on the lights in our homes. A final essay by Charles R. Pinches uses Berry's characters to suggest how Christians can join contemporary political debate without becoming divided into tribal sectarians versus cosmopolitans.

Wendell Berry and Religion will probably find its way into various university classrooms where discussions on theology, philosophy, nature, and ecology flourish. It would no doubt make a wonderful text for an honors seminar including the good work of establishing a community garden. Or, if you work your hands in the dark soil and don't mind turning over a few words for some fertile truth, it just might be the collection for you to cultivate.

This review originally aired May 30, 2010 on WVXU's Around Cincinnati, Lee Hay, producer. To listen to an audio version of the review from WVXU's archives, click on the link to the right of the blog.

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