Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: Wendell Berry

From the Front Porch: Only A Man Harrowing Clods

I have found in Wendell Berry, like the late Neil Postman, an insightful critic of contemporary culture and a voice that we ignore at our own peril and to our own impoverishment. The Front Porch Republic has posted the following essay related to Berry’s work and I commend it to you.

Porch

Porch

For most fashionable American intellectuals, the life and work of the poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry represents something of a scandal. Of course, it is understood to be a scandal in its current meaning as a disgrace and most certainly not in its older Christian sense as a temptation. Not only is Berry a writer who lives among the hoi polloi in rural Kentucky instead of cultivating a salon in New York City, but he also spends most of his time farming, or, in the vernacular of contemporary America, doing menial labor.

Further, with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, Americans tend to think of everyone who has been begat as either a Republican or a Democrat. Berry’s polemical work, however, is not easily classifiable under either label. In an age when people are leaving or being forced from their farms and when most Americans no longer understand that the phrase res publica refers to something more significant than ‘everyday low prices’, Berry is committed to the old Jeffersonian idea of an agrarian republic comprised of independent, self-reliant citizen-farmers.
Of course, Berry’s agrarianism has been dismissed as anachronistic by those for whom the idea of progress is religious dogma. However, as C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘as to putting the clock back, would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and if the clock is wrong it is…a very sensible thing to do?’

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Berry’s The Unsettling of America, which was published in 1977, appears at first glance to be a critique of American agricultural policy, which indeed it is. However, it also articulates a sustained, coherent, and compelling analysis of the fragmentation and alienation of modern American liberal culture, and offers an intimation of both an alternative understanding of culture and community, and a classical conception of human beings, their past, and their purpose.

According to Berry, America has suffered from a split personality since the time of the arrival of the first Europeans. In that European beginning, America was considered a land of economic opportunity, a colony in the modern sense of the term. It was understood as a resource to be exploited by the mother country. As Berry writes, “the first and greatest American revolution…was the coming of people who did not look upon the land as a homeland.” This America, the land of the get-rich-quick scheme, attracted fortune hunters, conquistadors, and assorted other adventurers on the make who treated the land and its inhabitants as a business venture.

At the same time, however, America was also a colony in the classical sense in that it was a place of settlement. This America attracted those who wanted a place to live and a land to cultivate, free from the religious and social strife which plagued Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Wallace Stegner, who was Berry’s teacher at Stanford, called the first of these types ‘boomers’ and the second ‘stickers’. A century and a half earlier, Tocqueville noticed this split and attributed it to the difference between royal, proprietary, and merchant colonies and colonies created by compact. However, for Tocqueville, the Revolution and the generally democratic character of the population overcame this dichotomous beginning.

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I highly recommend the following books by Berry:

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The absurdity of modern (im)morality

During the years that I worked with my dad as a private investigator (and even before that as I heard stories of his various cases), I came to recognize the connection between the moral choices people make, the conflict and chaos they experience in their lives, and the way those choices effect others in their family–especially children. This experience made me cynical at first. Then it made me an Augustinian. My view could perhaps now be best expressed as a sort of Augustinian ironic cynicism. Some might see post-modernism in there… no doubt they are right to a degree as we are all children of our time as surely as we are children of our parents.

One of my favorite examples of the sort of immoral drama people sometimes make of their lives is that of the man who hired my dad to see whether or not his girl-friend was cheating on him. OK, so far a fairly normal request. But, it just so happens that his girl-friend was married. So, here’s this guy who’s having an affair with a married woman who hires a private investigator to determine whether or not said woman is involved in yet another extra-marital relationship. When I heard about that request it took me five minutes to stop laughing. “What does he expect,” I thought, “she’s obviously not of the highest moral fiber… and besides, what constitutes ‘cheating” on him… do you video-tape her on a weekend retreat with her husband–does that count as cheating on the boyfriend?” Such is the absurdity of the extended adolescence we often reward ourselves with.

This was of course a rather humorous example. Much less humorous is that of the promiscuous parent who cannot see how their children’s mimicry of their childish behavior will have negative consequences even as they try to pawn off their own responsibility as a role model on various other people–teachers, coaches, youth ministers, friends parents etc… Their concern for their children goes deep enough for them to hope that they will not follow in their footsteps, but not deep enough for them to actually change their lives. That is an illustration of what it means to be a childish adult.

The best contemporary illustration of how the unintended consequences of our actions effect our families–not just in the short term, but generationally–is John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.

Rod Dreher gives another example of this in the following blog post, beginning with the always insightful Wendell Berry:

Wendell Berry has written on why you cannot fully privatize sexuality, that it inescapably involves a covenant between the individual and the community. Excerpt:

If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forebears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglect, community ruin, and loneliness. If you destroy the economies of household and community, then you destroy the bonds of mutual usefulness and practical dependence without which the other bonds will not hold.

I thought about that this week when I heard from an old Christian friend I’ll call Bobby. Bobby is in late middle age, and in crisis. His wife left him earlier this year after having had an affair. It shattered him. He granted her the divorce. Now he’s living a pretty wild life, and called to tell me about it this week. It made me so sad I hardly knew what to say to him. He was once one of the most devout and upstanding Christian men I knew, but now? After listening to him recount his exploits, I finally said, “Bobby, how do you square that with your Christian faith?”

{Read it all}

Also, check out this collection of essays by Wendell Berry, which I believe Dreher pulled the above quote from:

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