Wendell Berry and the Given Life
By Ragan Sutterfield
–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.
The book jacket notes that for over fifty years, Wendell Berry has been helping seekers chart a return to the practice of being creatures. Through his essays, poetry and fiction, Berry has repeatedly drawn our attention to the ways in which our lives are gifts in a whole economy of gifts. The author refers to Berry as the “St. Benedict for our times.” It’s a pretty apt description. “Like St. Benedict, he provides a vision that many people respond to not only with their minds, but with their lives.” (4) The book is chock-full of quotes from all his writings, saving you lots of time and money, if you are inclined to a great distillation of his voluminous works. It synthesizes Berry’s vision for the lived moral and spiritual life that helps us remember our givenness. This vision is grounded in the knowledge that our lives, and our world, are gifts.
Sutterfield knows Berry and does a great job at citing, then giving commentary, on Berry’s prose. For example, Berry writes, “The disease of the modern character is specialization.” Sutterfield follows, “It is by dividing our lives and our concerns that we are able to invest our money in coal companies while giving our charity to fight climate change.
“This, for Berry, is the absurdity of modern life. The division of life allows us to avoid the tragedy of our situation and our choices—it enables us to pretend to be in control, to live as gods, while ignoring the obvious examples to the contrary. ” (10)
A tremendous introduction to Berry’s work, Sutterfield has compiled a dozen central themes from Berry’s vast body of work, which call us to an aliveness in our world. In the chapter, Humility: Coming to Terms with Reality, the contrast between hubris and humility is laid out: “Hubris is always poised to learn its opposite the hard way—humility not through reflective wisdom, but by humiliation with a great deal of damage along the way.” (14) Berry has called out other thinkers for their statements typifying what he calls, “ignorant arrogance.” In the novel, Jayber Crow, Berry writes, “To counter the ignorant use of knowledge and power, we have…only a proper humility.” (15) This humility is a going down and acceptance of our limits, but also an embrace of our reality.
For Berry, the practice of propriety is one of the key outgrowths of the virtue of humility. “The idea of propriety makes an issue of the fittingness of our conduct to our place or circumstances, even our hopes.” We are each a part of a context outside of which “we cannot speak or act or live.” (16) He writes of our entangled boundedness, for our own lives are really never our own. Humility teaches us the good of this entanglement, even as pride tries to escape our embeddedness, usually by ignoring it.
Affection is a key theme in Berry’s work and with it the metaphors of marriage and divorce. After all, love can never be general or abstract—it is only concrete and particular. You can’t love a forest in general any more than you can love people in general. Berry branches out, no pun intended, as he takes up the tension between the general and particular in relationship with the desire to care for the planet. [This is one of a number of points where I believe we need people/writers like Wendell Berry. Speaking for myself, I have a general care for the planet, God’s creation, and try to do my part recycling, etc. But voices like Berry’s help us push deeper down to look at our specific consumptive patterns.]
In one of his best-known essays, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Berry writes, “Sexual love is the heart of community life. Sexual love is the force that in our bodily life connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.” This communal nature of love that makes marriage possible and crucial. “Lovers must not…live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another and back toward the community.” (31)
In the chapter on Economics, Berry contrasts the two economies, the Kingdom of God, “the Great Economy,” and the small economy, i.e. Industrialism, GDP, etc. An interesting aspect of Berry’s economics is the idea of proxies, the ways in which we allow others to do things for us or on our behalf. He says this is what most people in the developed world have given to the corporations to produce and provide for food, clothing, and shelter. He also has a lot to say about choices…
The chapter on Work has a lot to say about tilling and keeping the creation. I don’t think I’m the only one who struggles with the concept/command to Sabbath, but I love reading about it! This chapter, Sabbath: Delight and the Reorientation of Desire, is great. Sabbath “invites asks us to notice that while we rest the world continues without our help. It invites us to find delight in the world’s beauty and abundance.” (65) Sweet has talked for years about coming apart so you don’t come apart. Sutterfield says, “On the Sabbath, we are able to be apart from our achievements.” Berry writes that Sabbath rest is needed, in part, “in order to understand that the providence or the productivity of the living world, the most essential work, continues while we rest…. From the biblical point of view, the earth and our earthly livelihood are conditional gifts.” Sutterfield follows, “We stop so that we can learn again that we live not by bread we have earned, but from the sustaining breath of God that we share in the great exchange of all being.”
What great language the chapter, Stability: Becoming Native in an Age of Everywhere, has. Berry tackles the problem of restlessness. His book addressing this is titled, The Unsettling of America. Sutterfield writes, “To take the spiritual journey of discovering our place we must escape the thinking that the world is small.” Berry’s words: “The life of this world is small to those who think it is, and the desire to enlarge it makes it smaller, and can reduce it finally to nothing.” (80-81) Some writers think the entire planet has become home ground. Berry would counter: “The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood than to the globe.” You can’t save the world, but you can save the Red River Gorge.
Other chapters include Membership: Joining the Community of Creation, Language: Truth and the Work of Imagination, Peaceableness: Living in Harmony with the Whole of Creation, The Prophet: Lament, Imagination, and the Renewal of Religion. There is also an Afterword where Berry answered in writing six questions Sutterfield has offered him after writing the book.
This is a superb distillation of Berry’s work. It offers much to listen to, learn from, chew on, and share. Check it out.