How can Christians conduct their lives in a way that brings honor and glory to God in a culture increasingly hostile to Jesus Christ and his teachings? Christians should listen to the words of the author Wendell Berry when seeking to answer this question. Becoming familiar with the mind of Berry that emerges from his varied work in fiction, nonfiction and poetry would equip Christians to better understand how to live in today’s culture.
In particular, Berry writes about three topics that Christians should seek to understand: love for the earth, love for work and love for community. Christians are oftentimes inoculated by beliefs our culture holds on these matters, which rob us of the fullness of life. Our culture believes the lies that the earth exists primarily for our benefit, work is a means to the ends of prosperity and comfort, and individualism, not community, is the chief good. Berry proclaims that life is much more full when we are connected to the care of the earth, when we see work as purpose-filled and life-giving, and when we remember, as Berry puts it, “the health of self-forgetfulness” and immerse ourselves in community.
1. The care of Earth
Berry has much to say in terms of care for the earth, speaking to the fact that our culture celebrates disconnection from the land. In venerating ease and leisure, we believe that obligations to land would keep us from a desirable life. Berry argues that when we sever all ties to the earth that God has created, we miss a deep and essential part of what it means to be human and what it means to be a created being. Berry touches on the implications of this disconnection in The Art of the Commonplace: “We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.”
As Christians, we must recognize the calling from our pre-fall origins to care for the Lord’s creation. We see this in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Earth was not created to be exploited; rather, it was created to be cared for and responsibly worked. Berry has heard this calling himself, has shaped his life around it, and has made it strikingly clear in his writing.
2. The importance of work
The words of Genesis 2:15 also illustrate the importance of work, illuminating the reality that it is not a product of the fall. As with care for the land, man, in his pre-fallen state, was called by his Creator to work. This truth combats the lie of our culture that work is a means to achieving the end of a leisure-filled, comfortable lifestyle. Generally speaking, our culture establishes work as a necessary evil. Understanding the counter-biblical nature of this cultural understanding, Berry speaks against it in much of his writing.
For those amongst the citizenry of Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky (collectively referred to in his works as the Port William Membership), work is a life-giving enterprise to which they are fully devoted. From the town barber, Jayber Crow, to the life-long farmer, Jack Beechum, each citizen understands their work to be charged with purpose; no task is menial, no job is something merely to be endured. Instead, their work is an essential piece of who they are and who God has created them to be. Furthermore, performing their God-given task in the workplace in service to each other fosters community.
3. The necessity of community
Wendell Berry’s words on community are perhaps his most important for us to understand as Christians in today’s culture. Our culture has placed individualism as the chief good, radically changing how identity is understood. No longer is one’s identity found in who they are in relation to others, but instead it is entirely self-contained. Arising from this understanding, the most important thing about each of us becomes being true to ourselves. Living sacrificial lives in commitment to community is only good insofar as it satisfies our desires and serves our purposes as individuals.
As Christians, sacrificial living is at the heart of our gospel. We serve a God who became man to save us from our sin. Whenever a cultural trend contrasts with the nature of the only One who lived a perfect life, that trend becomes something to be resisted. Berry recognizes this to be true in respect to our culture’s understanding of what it means to be an individual:
No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.
Everything we do has significant effect on those around us; hence Berry’s assertion of the “partiality” of each of us. As the poet John Donne puts it, “No man is an island.” The nature of us as beings is that everything we do has a communal impact. What Berry calls elsewhere “the misery of selfhood” emerges when that is forgotten.
Those in Berry’s Port William are defined by who they are in relation to the rest of the town’s citizenry; they are defined by how they can help and serve each other. In this respect, love of land, work and community are interrelated: community is fostered by the work done by and for each other, and good work arises from loving the piece of creation that each is working. Port William establishes the matrix of human existence through relationships, a model that we see lived out continually in the Word of God, beginning in the very nature of our triune God.
At the center of our calling as Christians is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world we live in, both in word and in deed. We must proclaim His gospel in word, but if our daily lives are not transformed, our message will be devoid of meaning. We would do well to read more of Berry’s work as we strive to learn what transformed lives look like in a world increasingly hostile to the teachings of our Lord.