In the last post I promised to tell of another book that “gets at” the most fundamental quandaries of modern times, that offers critique and insight about very basic matters in our world. We can lament the problems of our culture (and some do so wisely with prophetic power and grace and others just wheeze like reactionaries who long for the “good old days.”) Some, it seems are a bit overly critical of the West, some not critical enough. Some are so cranky as to fail to witness to any hope; others don’t need much hope because they seem pretty content with things as they are. We trust that the books we’ve cited here over these past months are balanced, thoughtful, helping make you wise and faithful in thought, word and deeds as you engage the world as it is, good and bad. There have been some important ones. I think back about recommending the profound and serious critique of the idols of our time by Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths: Theology and Public Issues Shaping Our World . And I think of how we celebrated Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright’s wonderful call to a robust doctrine of new creation, which funds missional thinking and profound hope, here, now. What a delight and inspiration to think in new ways about God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” I will continue to encourage folks to buy and study Beyond Homelessness by Brian Walsh & Stephen Bouma-Prediger for, as I’ve noted in previous posts, it is deep, rich, radical, and very, very insightful about the nature of our alienation from our place in this postmodern world. Anyone interested in the big picture of the crisis of our times—and Christ calls us all to be, it seems—will be blessed to spend time working on the remarkable books we’ve been promoting.
I would suspect that if there is any one author who is being read by—or at least is on the reading list of—nearly every thoughtful Christian leader who cares about the spirit of the age and who is seeking insights about a more normative, sane life and lifestyle it is Kentucky farmer, poet and novelist, Wendell Berry. Berry is renowned in literary circles for his short stories, novels and poems. He is widely read as a cultural critic, one who pens pristine essays for Harpers and Orion and various regional lit or citizenship mags; he has been interviewed in Sojourners and The Christian Century. His writings regularly appear in conservation anthologies and he has inspired a young generation of environmentally-aware writers, perhaps most notably Bill McKibben. Of course, his main day job is being a farmer, and he has written essays on all manner of agricultural practices, from sheep shearing to logging with horses, from how to treat animals to how to treat land. He is old pals with homesteaders like Gene Logshead and rural scholar-activist Wes Jackson. His land ethic, rooted in a Southern agrarian vision, reverberates into topics as diverse as eating well to race relations to sexuality. He is mostly against abortion and war, has traditional rural values, and knows, as most farm folk do, that families have to stick together, as do other kin and neighbors, even amidst the common hardships of our life in place. So, in his many books, his stories and essays, his polemics and reviews, his letters and poems, he calls us to consider a wonderously different way of living, a way that values things other than growth, speed, efficiency, mobility, power or worldly success. In ways that are neither Marxist nor monastic, Berry invites us to live in deep, ordinary fidelity. That, in fact, is the title of one his collections of short stories, Fidelity.
Finally, we now have a most wonderful introduction to the work of Mr. Berry, a fine and thoughtful guide to his fiction and non-fiction, his ways and means, his life and his writing. Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Readers Guide by J. Matthew Bonzo & Michael R. Stevens (Brazos; $21.99) is yet another book that we are so, so happy about this year. In an age when independent bookselling is increasingly rare, and the sustainability of our little project here is increasingly difficult, we are overjoyed—almost with a bittersweetness—that there are such good writers, such good books, and a movement within religious publishing that is bringing out these kinds of exceptionally important works. We’ve carried Berry since the day we opened 27 years ago and we are overjoyed to know of evangelical Christians that are living inspired by him, and who are writing about him so thoughtfully.
There are some friends, perhaps informed by some of Berry’s worldview, who have signed up for AdBuster’s Buy Nothing Day, today; if “Black Friday” is a bit of a symbol of over-consumption and crazed shopping fever, stepping back can be prophetic and wise, I suppose, if a bit gimmicky. (The Advent Conspiracy is another great movement to pledge to resist the commercialization of our holiday season, a good plan to “replace consumption with compassion.”) And yet, here in retail-land, we are not ashamed of what we do,most of the time, and would be happy if folks do, indeed, buy stuff from us this weekend. I dare not ridicule others who, like me, make a living selling legitimate products. Anyway, it isn’t that buying is bad, it is perhaps the kind, amount, sort of, point and meaning of our commerce that matters—and that is a battle we must fight every day. I’d say, get over the one day “buy nothing” protest and get thyself to a nearby bookstore that you believe in (and convince a nearby library if you can) to buy this book which will, we trust, guide you through the various writings of WB, and offer an appropriate view of economics and a thick account of our human calling to stewardship that will be more important than a mere protest against the Xmas spirit at the mall. Read and disucss it, and the world will be better for it. If you are so inclined, we would appreciate it if you helped us stay afloat doing what we do, and by ordering this from us, here. Order a few, as it will be a lovely gift, introducing people to a writer of considerable charm, depth and prophetic power. Maybe you could have a little reading group; buy local foods from a farmer’s market and have a Berry reading party.
Berry is worth reading, and Bonzo & Stevens are excellent interpreters of his importance. As Phyllis Tickle, herself a southern farm woman, says, they “provide us with the clearest and the most cordially inclined, but still clear-eyed, overview of Berry that I have seen to date. As the green-theology/neo-agrarian movement grows, this kind of careful reconsideration and assessment of its saints, forerunners, and older protagonists becomes increasingly pertinent, and, indeed, even necessary.”
Which is to say, Wendell Berry is the Man. Now is the time. Matt & Michael tell us why. Here is a brief interview with Matt done by my good friend Derek Melleby for the CPYU Bookshelf. It will give you a nice taste as to why they wrote the book and why we should care. Enjoy.