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Wendell Berry and Religion

Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life

Joel James Shuman
L. Roger Owens
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Wendell Berry and Religion
    Book Description:

    Farmer, poet, essayist, and environmental writer Wendell Berry is acclaimed for his ideas regarding the values inherent in an agricultural society. Place, community, good work, and simple pleasures are but a few of the values that form the bedrock of Berry's thought. While the notion of reverence is central to Berry, he is not widely known as a religious writer. However, the moral underpinnings of his work are rooted in Christian tradition, articulating the tenet that faith and stewardship of the land are not mutually exclusive. In Wendell Berry and Religion, editors Joel J. Shuman and L. Roger Owens probe the moral and spiritual implications of Berry's work. Chief among them are the notions that the earth is God's provisional gift to mankind and that studying how we engage material creation reflects important truths. This collection reveals deep, thoughtful, and provocative conversations within Berry's writings, illuminating the theological inspirations inherent in his work.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7349-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Biological Sciences, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction: Placing God in the Work of Wendell Berry
    (pp. 1-12)
    Joel James Shuman

    The title notwithstanding, this is not a bookaboutWendell Berry. It is not a biography, nor does it attempt a systematic critical analysis of his writing. As interesting and significant as those projects might be, they will have to be undertaken by someone else.¹ Rather, these essays are intended to be contributions to an ongoing conversation, in what I take to be the best and fullest sense of the term, meaning that they have to do, not simply with the exchange of discourse, but also with being among a particular group of persons, over time and in a particular...

  4. Part 1: Good Work

    • What Would a Christian University Look Like? Some Tentative Answers Inspired by Wendell Berry
      (pp. 15-32)
      Stanley Hauerwas

      “There are also violent and nonviolent ways to milk cows,” I observed in a sermon on the occasion of the installation of Dr. Gerald Gerbrandt as president of the Canadian Mennonite University on September 28, 2003.¹ I made the comment to commend the parochial character of the Canadian Mennonite University. The Canadian Mennonite University, as its name suggests, is Mennonite and Canadian, and you cannot get more parochial than that. My comment about milking, therefore, was meant to praise why such a university would have no reason to distinguish between theoretical and practical forms of knowledge.

      My sermon—and I...

    • Mr. Berry Goes to Medical School: Notes toward Unspecializing a Healing Art
      (pp. 33-49)
      Brian Volck

      In a literature and medicine elective I help teach, fourth-year medical students read fiction, memoirs, essays, and plays more or less about health, disease, physicians, and patients. Our purpose is not to teach literary theory but to connect these works with the lives of our doctors in training. Most attempts are encouraging; some less so. From the beginning, we’ve read works by Wendell Berry. They are not well received.

      One student, a budding surgeon, dismissed Berry’s “Health Is Membership” as the “most revolting thing I’ve ever been forced to read.” Others were troubled with Berry’s attention to—as they saw...

    • Of the Good That Has Been Possible in This World: Lawyering in Port William
      (pp. 50-70)
      Richard P. Church

      On particularly cold and dark mornings, as I milk our four-and-one-half-year-old goat, I like to think I must be the only Duke University law graduate milking a goat this morning. It is not, of course, that I am the only Duke law graduate (or Duke theologian, for that matter) working at 6:00 A.M. I imagine most of us are. It is just that I think that I am the only one doing such enjoyable work. I would take credit for the story of how a Duke law graduate became a farmer, but, like all good stories, mine has been gifted...

    • Proper Work: Wendell Berry and the Practice of Ministry
      (pp. 71-82)
      Kyle Childress

      This summer I’m approaching twenty years as the pastor of the Austin Heights Baptist Church, a congregation of fewer than two hundred members in East Texas, about half of whom might be present for worship on any given Sunday. At denominational meetings, and around town, I’m continually asked, “When are you going to a bigger church? Why do you stay?” Sometimes I give a long, rambling explanation, but often I respond with, “Because I read too much Wendell Berry.”

      I’ve been reading Berry since 1980 or 1981, after I discovered his essays while serving a small, rural, central Texas congregation...

  5. Part 2: Holy Living

    • The Pill Is Like. . . . DDT? An Agrarian Perspective on Pharmaceutical Birth Control
      (pp. 85-97)
      Elizabeth Bahnson

      I started taking the pill two months after our first son was born. It was a safety measure. After all, he was conceived while my husband and I were (incorrectly) using the natural method. I was only halfway through my master’s degree program. How could I possibly graduate if I got pregnant again? So I started taking the “mini-pill” or progesterone-only-pill, which allowed me to continue breast-feeding.

      I took the pill for a year and a half and didn’t get pregnant, which was a relief. But, I wondered, should I be doing this? It made practical sense—I needed to...

    • The Salvation of the City: Defiant Gardens in the Great Northern Feedlot
      (pp. 98-114)
      Fred Bahnson

      In these days of war, my thoughts return to Italo Calvino’sInvisible Cities,a fantastical novel in which Marco Polo and Kublai Khan meet nightly in the Khan’s palace garden for a series of fevered conversations. Marco Polo tells the Khan of all the exotic, mysterious cities within the empire. Night after night he describes each city until finally the Khan realizes that the young Venetian traveler is really speaking again and again of the same place. But these tales can only distract; the Great Khan knows that his empire is crumbling, that he himself is dying. One evening Kublai...

    • “And the Land I Will Remember”: Reading the Bible through Agrarian Eyes
      (pp. 115-130)
      Ellen F. Davis

      I am an Old Testament scholar and a native Californian—and those two aspects of my identity probably contribute in equal measure to the fact that the ecological crisis has become increasingly important as a focus of my thinking, teaching, and writing. In recent years, I have come to believe that anyone who wishes to understand the Old Testament deeply would do well to learn more about the ecological crisis—and especially about its agricultural dimensions. Conversely, Christians and Jews who wish to understand the depth dimension of the crisis would do well to ponder it in light of the...

    • Landscapes of Flesh: On Finding More Faithful Metaphors for the Body and Its Goods
      (pp. 131-147)
      Joel James Shuman

      As best I can remember, I was seven or maybe eight years old the first time I was there, probably accompanying my grandfather on his weekly walk to count and salt the cattle and make sure the fences were still up. For a boy that age, it was a hard-earned prize, a walk of an hour or more that demanded the negotiation of steep hills, blackberry brambles, rhododendron thickets, and a half dozen or so barbed-wire fences that seemed to have a persistent knack for tearing my clothes and leaving bloody marks on my body. My parents and grandparents called...

    • The Dark Night of the Soil: An Agrarian Approach to Mystical Life
      (pp. 148-170)
      Norman Wirzba

      In “The Long-Legged House” (1969), Wendell Berry wrote that as a writer his struggle has not been to find a subject but rather to know what to do with the subject he has been entrusted with from the beginning. The subject he was referring to was Henry County, Kentucky, the region of his birth: “I was so intricately dependent on this place that I did not begin in any meaningful sense to be a writer until I began to see the place clearly and for what it was.” Seeing a place clearly, Berry notes, is “an enormous labor,” one that...

  6. Part 3: Imagination

    • “The Membership Includes the Dead”: Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership as Communio Sanctorum
      (pp. 173-189)
      D. Brent Laytham

      Christians who recite the Apostles’ Creed profess, among other things, belief in “the communion of saints.” Exactly what this profession means isn’t always clear, either to the Christians themselves or to the wider world. As a Christian, I have developed a greater understanding of and appreciation for thecommunio sanctorumby getting to know the membership of Port William in the fiction of Wendell Berry. This is because, as Hannah Coulter says in Berry’s recent novel, “the membership includes the dead.”¹

      Any reader of Berry’s fiction will know that its focus is a group of Port William farmers and townspeople...

    • Embedded Hopefulness: Wendell Berry and Saint Thomas Aquinas on Christian Hope
      (pp. 190-208)
      Philip A. Muntzel

      Christian belief calls for a distinctive kind of hope, one directed toward the enrichment that God’s love does and will provide. Christian hope is an expression of the confidence that God’s love is powerful enough to make that enrichment possible. To state this compactly, Christians hope for God and in God. Such hope can enhance life, sustain it in the face of unavoidable tragedy, and foster the courage to face the many challenges life presents.

      I have no doubt that this hope, with its twofold relation to God’s enriching and empowering love, has found expression in the lives of countless...

    • Alien Landscapes: Christianity and Inevitable Violence
      (pp. 209-220)
      Scott Williams

      One of the nice things about war, at least from the American perspective, is that it offers a comfortable sense that violence is localized and that its locale isover there.This secret comfort usually comes with a sense that the violence is also inevitable, which means that it is doubly important to keep over there, where it is engaged in by foreigners and people in uniforms. So much of the initially enthusiastic Christian response to the current war in Iraq seemed to rest on those assumptions. But there are good reasons for Christians to question both these descriptions of...

    • Let the Place Judge: Healing the Division between Theology and Practice
      (pp. 221-236)
      L. Roger Owens

      I have lived and continue to live the fissure between theology and practice. The work of Wendell Berry has helped me begin to heal that divide in my life and in my theological work, which are little by little becoming a unity.

      I felt called to pastoral ministry when I was seventeen. This caused an abrupt change in my college plans. Instead of going to a secular liberal arts university to study music, I headed to Anderson University, a Christian liberal arts university. There I studied Bible, religion, and philosophy and fell in love with the academic life. I remember...

  7. Part 4: Moving Forward

    • Democracy, America, and the Church: Inviting Wendell Berry into the Discussion
      (pp. 239-260)
      Charles R. Pinches

      The question of how Christians should participate in the politics of America has been posed lately with a special urgency, although with little clarity. Almost everyone has something to say on the matter. Yet, if one listens a while, the talk seems to break apart into little bits of propaganda, drawn from one or the other side of the culture wars. In theological circles, however, the discussion has taken a particularly interesting turn of late, after the publication of Jeffery Stout’sDemocracy and Tradition.¹ Stout sets about to ask the big question, What, after all, is democracy in America? And...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 261-262)
  9. Index
    (pp. 263-266)