1. I love Wendell Berry. Still.
2. I love Wendell Berry-ites, especially the evangelical Christian ones out there. Last year I attended a wonderful Wendell Berry book group which met in the jewel of Lynchburg, the White Hart Café, the best Inklings-themed beer-serving coffee shop on the planet, a special PLACE created by our friends Ed and Debi Hopkins, where the more literary and egg-headish Liberty University students come to be Christian intellectuals, hipsters, and sometimes, Berry-ites. An urban place, then, but one whose talk might send you out into the country.
Or as Sky Saxon of The Seeds put it in 1966, it’s a place that might make you say:
Oh, it’s just too easy to make fun of Berry-ites, so you gotta resist the urge, and better than I do. Unlike drug-loving and seedy-about-sex hippies, they are good people, and they, especially the ones actually trying to follow the discipline of farming and “home economics” generally, deserve our respect and interest.
3. So while Lawler’s “its bleepin’ PAGAN” comment is very funny, ultimately, a more serious engagement with the question of how Christians ought to regard the claims of place, “polis,” and family/ancestors is needed. Peter kinda acknowledges that by later linking to the FPR writer Jeffrey Bilbo. There is a place for place in proper theology, and in the natural-law-esque philosophic reasoning that is theology’s proper supplement. Alan Jacobs’ little piece mentioning St. Paul’s missionary example, and Jesus’s “the Son of Man has no home for his head” example, does not begin, as I’m sure he knows, to be adequate. Robert in the comments is right to mention the stark Biblical fact of a Promised Land. He could have also mentioned the stark Biblical fact of “nations,” running throughout, and culminating in the Great Commission and Pentecost.
4. And then there is the fact of Jerusalem: God commissioned a temple there to his worship, inspired the songs and other scriptures about it, and it was there that the crucifixion and resurrection occurred. Herodotus tells us that the coastal Ionian city of Phocaea, faced with the likelihood of conquest by the Persians, up and left, packing “even the images of their gods,” sailing out eventually to found a new city at Rhegium in Italy. The real polis was the people, not the place. The Athenians themselves nearly undertook a similar action when faced with Persian conquest, and the Romans nearly abandoned Rome for Veii after its sack by the Gauls. We do not learn from any historian, I think, that the citizens of Rhegium spoke in reverent tones about their eventual return to the holy place of Phocaea. It wasn’t easy to leave Phocaea—Herodotus points out that early in the voyage half the citizens broke their oath to abandon it due to “so great a longing to see once more their city and their ancient homes”—but ultimately, it could be left behind in a way that Jerusalem, once consecrated, never could be—not even by Christians.
5. Then again, maybe Jerusalem being a place like no other simply underlines Alan Jacobs’ point. And we can see that nation (i.e., “people”) ultimately trumps place, even if place usually helps to make the nation (such as ours), and even if the one nation in history that was capable of surviving dispersion was the one that always looked back to the one holy city not consecrated by human invention or delusion.
6. But more to the immediate point, Berry’s own work suggests (I’m thinking here especially of the ending of Re-Membering) the idea that the “heaven” of our eternal life will occur on a redeemed version of this earth. That might be a fruitful theological idea, or, it might be bleepin’ HERETICAL. I don’t see that it helps us much to consider it PAGAN. One of Berry’s great strengths is that unlike, say, fellow eco-poet Gary Snyder, he never got into the whole 60s “let’s learn from the shamans” thing. He was too grounded for that. It’s when the Kentucky character in Re-Membering is at his spiritually lowest, wandering around the streets of San Fransisco at dawn, that he muses about how it would be great to live there (away from his wife and roots) and learn Japanese and all about Zen Buddhism, something Gary Snyder really did, after he had already written a book all about Northwest Native American mythology. Not that there are no lessons to be learned from polytheism and its many mythologies, but Berry seems to approach them more in the spirit of a Tolkien or a Lewis.
So Berry does not fool with the pagan, not in that sense. His characters turn their back on that San-Fran reaching for “Asian” pantheism and “Samoan/Native American” pagan-ism, and look to the old home place in rural America, where “I’ll Meet You in Church Sunday Morning.”
7. Christians do need to be careful, however, about how Berry might fool with Christianity. His commitment to it is uncertain—there are places where he suggests that he chooses to speak in a Christian mode simply because it is the tradition handed down to him, and others where his commitment seems far deeper. And again, like a modern Simonides or Homer (or a Plato or Dante!), he is powerful enough a poet that he might actually begin to influence theologians. For good, or for ill.
8. I wanted to say more here about how Peter’s best essay against the sticker/boomer dichotomy is his partial defense of the exurbs about a decade ago in Stuck with Virtue. That reminds me that one of the most interesting Christian Berryites I met was one who had resolved, under Berry’s influence, to return from Virginia back to his Southern California suburban home, the better to be closer to parents and his “roots,” such as they were. In fact, his suburb was next door to one I was raised in, so I know all about that pull. Perhaps another time, we’ll talk about the absurdity and profundity of that. I also wanted to talk up what is perhaps John Sayles’ greatest film, the very play-like Sunshine State, as a beautiful illustration of the fact that in modern times especially, some need to heed the Berry-esque call to stay (or return) and build the community, but others need to sell and go, and get free of a community, or mere arrangement, that is holding them back. But I’m off to the woods (to a cabin owned by a suburbanite, of course) to do some writing away from the internet… …so I need to move on, and sorry, I probably won’t be able to respond to comments to this.
9. Point #7 is the really serious one, but it is also true that Berry’s recent remarks on same-sex marriage, particularly in the tone they displayed towards standard Christian social conservatism, should give Christian Berry-ites pause. You really must read Christopher C. Roberts’s account of them on the FT home page if you haven’t yet. Those remarks display a harsh and condemning spirit, alas, one characteristic of so much boomer-liberal “radicalism,” especially as it ages. Maybe Berry is less unique, and more a creature of his times, than we tend to think. And worse, Berry had to at some level know he was insulting legions of his fans, some of them we might even call his disciples.
But it was not a moment where the Teacher initially shocks his followers in order to bring them into a better understanding of his doctrine. Rather, it was a cowardly distancing, and a betrayal of a certain kind of trust. It is one thing for Berry to have, as Roberts convincingly argues, changed his mind or entered into contradiction about the fundamentals regarding marriage. It is another to say the opponents of same-sex marriage indulge in a “Christian bloodthirst . . . condemnation by category . . . the lowest form of hatred.” Those are Berry’s words, and he definitely needs to apologize for them. I still love many of his writings, but I can respect no man who stoops to that sort of carelessly hateful statement, and especially when it is so hurtful to friends of mine.