The Given Life (a book review)

 

Photo via Good Free Photos
Photo of the Cumberland River in Kentucky via Good Free Photos

“We live the given life, and not the planned.” – Wendell Berry

I first fell in love with the words and wisdom of Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s tireless poet, essayist, and advocate for agrarian values, while standing in the stacks of Powell’s book store in Portland, Oregon, on a bright and cool spring day a decade ago. I bought a small book of essays—Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community—while in the city to attend a friend’s wedding. I read the entire volume over the course of my flight back to New Orleans, inciting a conversation about work, unions, agrarianism, and community with my seatmate.

With little money for book purchases, I soon exhausted the local library’s stock of Berry books and novels, and have only returned to him sporadically over the intervening years. Understandably, I jumped on the opportunity to get my hands on a review copy of a book about Wendell Berry that was described to me as taking, “a deeper look into Berry’s life which he has chosen to live out in a Gospel-based manner taken from Scripture.”

A book about the Christian roots and spirituality of Wendell Berry? Sign me up!

Here then, are my thoughts on Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield. berry

This attractive and unintimidatingly light volume lives up to the description I was given. It is, indeed, a book interested in drawing out the spiritual themes and ideas strewn throughout the work of a long and productive lifetime. Sutterfield has done his research, and excerpts from Berry’s writings liberally pepper the pages of this book, which is itself divided up into thematic chapters addressing different aspects of Berry’s thought: Givenness, Humility, Love, Work, Membership, and so on. There are so many wonderfully expressive and thought-provoking Berry quotes in each chapter that my reading was drastically slowed by the repeated compulsion to set Sutterfield’s writing about Berry down to hunt down the cited essays and works and read the quotes passages in their original contexts.

Sutterfield quotes MacIntyre early in his book, with a reference made especially timely by Rod Dreher’s current publicity rush: “we are waiting…for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” Rather than lay out a treatise to rival the Benedict Option, Sutterfield proposes a more modest goal: “this is a book that hopes to show that Wendell Berry presents us with the sort of coherent vision for the lived moral and spiritual life that we need now.”

Berry, as Sutterfield describes him, stands for the rejection of various harmful dualisms, all of the things that present as distinct and separate those things that ought in reality to coexist in a fruitful unity: soul and body, mankind and the earth, the lover and the beloved, heavenly and earthly economies, work and prayer, giving and receiving, belonging and freedom, solitude and communion. Foremost among these, Berry rejects the characterisation of man and environment as existing in competition with one another. Sutterfield quotes Berry,

“If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to.” Our lives are entangled and bound up with each other–people and land and other creatures–so that they can only find their flourishing when the whole flourishes together. In fact, this connection of all things is at our very essence as creatures: “From the point of view of Genesis 1 or the 104th Psalm, we would say that all are of one kind, one kinship, one nature, because all are creatures.”

If I were to pull one recurring theme from Sutterfield’s treatment of Berry, it would be this understanding of man as a creature among creatures, a subject of his subjects. The “given life” is a mutual giving; creation is given to us, and we are given to creation.

In each chapter, Sutterfield excels at putting his fingers on the ideal Berry quote to illustrate the chosen theme. If I have any criticism, it is that Sutterfield is less adept at placing Berry’s thought within the context of human history. While he draws adequately enough from time to time on modern thinkers like Pope Francis or Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and makes the expected educated references to Aristotle and Aquinas, a quick browse of the endnotes for Wendell Berry and the Given Life would give the impression that Berry’s thought is itself rootless, a discontinuity in a Christian incarnational theology awaiting to be discovered anew by Berry and his acolytes.

This may be the result of Berry’s own tendency to dismiss “institutional Christianity” in favour of a more free-form, less “abstracted” religious feeling and practice. There’s a possible blind spot here that I would love to see addressed someday–Berry’s (and Sutterfield’s) criticisms of modernity deserve to be placed in a richer historical and theological context.

This criticism aside–or perhaps it is wishful thinking, the way one always desires someone else to do the work of researching and writing about the topics which are of personal interest–Sutterfield’s volume succeeds admirably, if not as a critical text, then as an endearingly but not overly discursive introduction to the thoughts and writings of Wendell Berry. As an admirer, I can only be happy to see another volume to point readers to the compelling, challenging, and–I will accept Sutterfield’s proposal of the adjective–prophetic works of Wendell Berry.

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