Essayist, poet, novelist, lay theologian and farmer are all descriptive of the life and work of Wendell Berry. For more than 40 years he has lived on and worked a small farm in Kentucky.
His roots are generations deep in this place. He knows its soil, its people and its stories. He is bonded to place and those who people it. He believes that urban living tends to be rootless and dehumanized. He continues to preach the Jeffersonian dream of a land of freeholds and shop keepers for America and its people with the passion of a latter-day prophet.
He declares that the best life is one lived in harmony with the earth as a good steward in responsible relationships with neighbors and kin. The central purpose of life is learning to love as Jesus loved. And this love is to be expressed in all of the relations of life.
Berry is very critical of modern industrialized agriculture. He is impressed with the practices of Amish and Mennonite farmers who use animal power, who raise and process most of their food, who build up their land and who share work in community.
He contends that people can still live well and long in a community which practices good general agriculture on a scale that is mostly self-sufficient. I say “mostly,” because while Berry is a champion of the free and responsible individual, he is also a champion of people being bonded in a network of community relations.
He seeks a middle course between “rugged individualism” and “communalism.” He grounds this in the teaching of Jesus. Now nearly 30 years old, his The Unsettling of Rural America continues to be a must-read for anyone seeking to understand what happened to rural life during the 20th century.
Berry has studiously refused to be cast in the role of Moses, or even the Messiah, for rural life. He will not say, “Do as I do,” nor will he lay out a plan for the future of rural America. Operating like an Old Testament prophet, he rather points out the failing of the present.
Recently, he has been very critical of the “global economy.” He believes that everyone would be better served by what he calls a “local economy”. He does not define this extensively.
But I would see it as designing the food system in a nation so that most of what was consumed in the catchment area of a metropolis would be grown and processed there.
For example, this would mean that in Missouri most of the food for St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield would be products of farmers, dairymen, others from with 100 or 200 miles of each of these cities.
Granted some regions of the nation and the world have “comparative advantage” on growing certain products, and we have a food system currently organized by huge multi-national corporations with strong influence with the governments.
However, such events as the recent “mad cow” crises would be better contained if we had local or regional economies, rather than global ones. Many of Berry’s essays on rural life and economy have recently been collected and published in The Art of the Common Place.
Through the years Berry has valued good character. His novels are filled with persons who are less than perfect, but among these are those who value truth, fidelity, justice, mercy and love. The characters often develop across time in their morality through the experiences of everyday life.
In many instances they are careful to consider the needs and wants of their neighbors, friends and kinspersons in their decision making. In his poetry and in his essays he also deals well with issues of good character, and bad.
In 2000 Berry published a novel, Jayber Crow. It is an account of the life of the town barber and sexton. In these roles Jayber is at the center of male life in the village of Port William. It is the story of a man learning to love–himself, other men and a woman.
Here, as elsewhere, Berry is critical of what local churches and pastors often do formally and professionally. But the true role of Christianity, and of church, and of the Christian life shines through as Jayber grows in his capacity to express love in godly ways.
When I read the book I could not help but wonder if the initial of the title character were not intentional, because in the end he takes on Christ-like characteristics. In what I take as a sort of autobiographical comment he has Jayber saying that he reads the Bible literally and struggles with its application to everyday life.
To me what Berry is saying rings true. He makes his point well. But, how does a local pastor draw upon it to help build community where he or she ministers? Here are my thoughts:
(1) Realize that globalization rules the day, but that it is flawed. It is hurting many, even in rural America today, and one day its flaws may become evident to the majority of us.
(2) Minister to the hurts that it is causing.
(3) Preach the ideals of biblical Christianity–love, justice, righteousness, and mercy.
(4) Note that the current structures of the economy, of church life and practice and of community life are not in line with the biblical mandates.
(5) Help folk confess their sins.
(6) Be ready to help folk prayerfully seek a better way when the majority comes to see the flaws and the sin in the current practices.
(7) As Berry has advised–Think Locally and Act Locally.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.