I spent last weekend at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a wonderful conference, where I was able to both watch invigorating presentations and connect with colleagues & friends.
Without doubt, one of the highlights of the weekend was an interview between Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School and Wendell Berry, the agrarian novelist, essayist, and poet. The forum was simple: Wirzba and Berry sat together on a stage and engaged in conversation for an hour and a half. The audience was packed, and I suspect everyone there would have stayed twice as long if given the chance.
I was first introduced to Wendell Berry by a friend who shared with me the poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” which critiques that mode of life detached from the creation and obsessed with material gain, while encouraging the reader to reacquaint himself with the goodness of the creation and to live according to the rhythms of the earth rather than the rhythms of the profit motive. (The poem concludes with the evocative phrase, “Practice resurrection”).
Later, I began to read Berry’s novels: Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter, Nathan Coulter, The Memory of Old Jack. They all meditate on themes of place, kinship, community, and living in harmony with agrarian rhythms of which most people today have little firsthand knowledge. The response Berry’s fiction elicits in me is what I’d describe as a deep longing—and I don’t mean that in a nostalgic or romantic way. It is a longing for something I’ve never really known. This ‘something’ is not an easy Eden, or some type of panacea for the frustrations of rootless modern life. But it is a something that suggests a kind of coherence and concreteness that would allow life to make more sense. Call it a woven tapestry that is more natural to who we are as created beings than the hastily assembled and disjointed collage that most of our lives represent now.
In the interview with Norman Wirzba, Berry touched on many of the themes for which he’s well known. I jotted down a few notes while
listening, which I’ll offer here without editorial comment:
We live in an age of divorce — and not just divorce from our marriages. We are witnessing the divorce of all good things from one another. Beauty from utility. Patriotism from nationalism. Ourselves from the land.
I’d like to see the Christian gospel amount to something. And right now it does not seem to be amounting to very much at all. I don’t think it will amount to much of anything until we connect it with economy. Not “the” economy, but an economy — a household. In all of what the gospel tells us, I am most caught up with the idea of a neighborhood.
A neighbor is someone who helps you and whom you do not have to pay. And a neighbor is someone who depends on you — who has a claim on you. What an awful idea in our present culture. Yet it lies at the heart of a true religious faith.
We are all city people now. Even country people live like city people. They are mostly consumers rather than producers. They buy all that they use. They have urban interets, and entertainments, and aspirations. They do not watch over the land.
In contemporary culture, to be successful you have to leave home. We are taught to pursue a career rather than a life. What would it mean for us to make a life for ourselves instead? What would it mean for us to build a household rather than a resume?