I did not grow up on a farm, nor did my parents. Agriculture is not “in my blood.” Even now my “green thumb” could use a touch of developing. But as a 20-something suburban Christian who wants to see a better world, I owe a great deal to the works of a small-scale farmer in Kentucky by the name of Wendell Berry. He has taught me about life and death, peace and violence, sustainability and waste, and the ways they are intimately connected to each other and to everything else.
Wendell Berry is, by my own personal definition, prolific. He is an author of more than fifty books, varying between poetry and fiction and essays, all of which seem to revolve around common themes of “agrarian values”–he upholds simplicity and quality of work over the modern principles of busyness and volume. What I find even more impressive than simply his work on agrarianism, however, is how he connects those same values to every other aspect of human life. Your views on the environment, for example, will affect your views on your spouse, which in turn affect your views on your community, which will then affect your views on the environment; nothing exists in isolation. Showing contempt for any one piece of this puzzle throws the entire system out of balance; how can you care for your spouse if you don’t care about your community and environment, which both affect your spouse’s well being? And how can you care for your community if you don’t care about your spouse, who is a member of that community, and the environment, which houses it? He is not simply a farmer, and he is not simply concerned with agriculture, although his concerns are simple: he wants to see a world healthy, a world sustainable, and a world that cannot be sold for profit.
A wonderful place to begin a foray into Berry’s work is The Mad Farmer Poems, a collection of his poetry over the years which highlight his contrariness. One of his best known poems, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” sums up a good bit of his worldview; it is his ultimatum to the world. If we submit ourselves to that which the world offers (“the quick profit, the annual raise”) then we will in so doing sacrifice our freedom, and not only ours but that of the next generation to come. Thus, Berry offers this alternative: when the world can “predict the movements of your mind/ lose it.” Reject their patriotism, their consumerism, their “bigger is better,” and come to accept your mortality, using it as a gift for those to come.
I cannot explain why his work has touched me so deeply. Perhaps it is exactly his brazen rejection of societal expectations that speaks to some suburban angst I have, or his bold and forcefully cohesive worldview. At any speed, he has touched me, if in no other way than my practice of the spiritual disciplines of simplicity and sabbath. Of course, I’ve learned these in other places (first and foremost from Scripture) but for me, they have taken root in Berry’s perspective.
First: Simplicity. In his novel, “Jayber Crow,” Berry gives us a look at the changing landscape of American agriculture through the eyes of Jayber (a slurred conglomerate of his nickname, “Jay Bird”), a small town barber in the 1950’s. From his perch we can see how the people of his town transform from being simple and satisfied to being tired, overworked, and unsatiated due to the economy of “more.” They farmed modest plots of land and eked out a decent living for themselves and for those around them, but at the promise of more they became slaves to debt and long hours with dreams of prosperity. They overtaxed the land and themselves, demanding more than God intended; all that came from their effort was further debt, and soon they had destroyed everything they once held dear and still came out empty-handed.
This is the future Berry sees for America, and it is the same future I see for the Western Church. It seems to me that we have traded the things we held so close to our hearts (not least the liturgies and witnesses of early Church fathers) in order to foster growth–not only in Church attendance. Where we once participated in a rich history of corporate worship centered around the Lord, we now find personally tailored worship “experiences” that pay little heed to the heritage from which they come. A professor recently mentioned the Lectionary in class, and many students (including myself!) hardly knew what it was, much less knew how it was used. We’ve been overwhelmed by the “Relationship not Religion” movement, which, much like the promises in Jayber Crow, are well intentioned but perhaps ill-informed. They offer great prosperity, but instead leave us in a spiritual debt, having lost that which made us historic Christians (such as the creeds and confessions) and gaining nothing in return. This has led to a continued stagnation of church growth as well as a cheap grace which requires not dedication and service, but only attendance.
This is not to say that the Church needn’t change. It must change if it plans to minister to a changing world. But the rejection of those things which have made the church the Church, all the while adding new program after new program (like throwing noodles at a cabinet until one sticks) has left me tired and unfulfilled. We’ve been adding more in place of better, which has made churches look more like event centers than houses of prayer. I long for the simplicity Berry romanticizes and have since reduced the sheer quantity of “stuff” in my life (physical and spiritual) and returned instead to the quality of stuff. We don’t need program after program to fill our lives–we need worship services which ground and center us from the week behind and for the week ahead. Classic liturgies have served this purpose for hundreds of years, and in my own life they have now served to re-center me in a quality faith, not a voluminous one. I have become, in the words of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a “simple man,” and I find myself happier for it.
Second: Sabbath. I find my notions of Sabbath altogether enhanced by Berry’s notions of rest. All throughout his poetry and novels are themes of sitting, waiting, and being satisfied with doing nothing. In his poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” Berry is struck with fear for the future: both for his own future and that of his children. He grieves the world, but when he decides to rest in nature, he comes “into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief.” He comes “into the presence of still water” (the parallel to Psalm 23 can hardly be missed), rests in creation’s peace, and is free. Berry highlights the necessity to slow down, especially in such an uncertain society; and to rest, finding peace in God’s creation.
Sabbath can be difficult in seminary–between school, work, relationships, and internships, we are all pressed for time. Even as I write this, I find thoughts of the next task rising in my psyche (and the anxiety in my stomach rises with it!). But through Berry’s poetic reminders, I’ve been able find moments, minutes, and sometimes even hours and days where I can be in God’s presence apart from the concerns of the world (and often Berry’s poetry is an effective partner to Scripture as I turn my eyes upon Jesus). I find Psalm 8 often in my mind: if the Lord created the stars, large and distant as they are, and sustains them as with His fatherly hand, then surely He sustains us, for He is mindful even of humanity. Berry ponders God’s creation along with the Psalmist, and it is there he finds the same peace.
Berry rejects the world’s demands to do, do, and keep doing. He is adamant that through simplicity and sabbath we should take time whenever we can to sit and appreciate God’s creation and our fellow human being, embracing who we are called to be in the process. Without such an appreciation, we will sacrifice not only creation and our fellow human being, but also that which is core to our own being: our conviction of faith. “All goes back to the earth,” says Berry, so we must honor one another for we are dust, and we must honor the dust from whence we came and shall return. To do otherwise dishonors the God who made us all.
Noah Matthysse is a first-year M.Div. Student at Calvin Theological Seminary.