“…we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.”

We can appropriate and in some fashion use godly powers, but we cannot use them safely, and we cannot control the results. That is to say that the human condition remains for us what it was for Homer and the authors of the Bible. Now that we have brought such enormous powers to our aid (we hope), it seems more necessary than ever to observe how inexorably the human condition still contains us. We only do what humans can do, and our machines, however they may appear to enlarge our possibilities, are invariably infected with our limitations. Sometimes, in enlarging our possibilities, they narrow our limits and leave us more powerful but less content, less safe, and less free. The mechanical means by which we propose to escape the human condition only extends it; thinking to transcend our definition as fallen creatures, we have only colonized more and more territory eastward of Eden.

-Wendell Berry, “Two Economies” (1983).

The Problem of Plugging In

An article I wrote in January for my denomination’s magazine, The Covenant Companion, has been posted (as a PDF) online.  In “The Problem of Plugging In” I drew from a couple of Wendell Berry’s essays to discuss the power of metaphors and the way our language hinders or aids spiritual growth.

Your church has problems. So does mine. It takes little observation to know this is true; a quick glance around any congregation reveals challenges, mistakes, and disagreements. Those of us who have participated for any length of time in church life are not surprised by these problems. We may actually interpret our issues as evidence of God’s grace. After all, even our most complex problems are simply expressions of our own inadequacies and evidence of God’s loving and mysterious choice to include us in his redemptive mission.

But despite this silver lining, problems need solutions. Apathy about evangelism is a problem that needs a solution. Stunted spiritual growth is a problem that needs a solution. Anemic worship, stingy stewardship, racial divisions, shallow community, disinterest in justice, and disregard for prayer are all problems churches face that need solutions.

Again, there is nothing especially interesting about churches with problems; it’s the solutions—ministries, strategies, programs, and campaigns— that are noteworthy. Where do our solutions come from? What are the assumptions behind them? Are our members well served by the ways we address our problems?

In 1978 writer and farmer Wendell Berry began his essay “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems” with a discussion about the powerful ways our metaphors shape the solutions we seek. “It may turn out that the most powerful and the most destructive change of modern time has been a change in language: the rise of the image, or metaphor, of the machine.” This industrial metaphor, according to Berry, replaced language that was “biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial.” He goes on to show how the industrial solutions favored by modern “agribusiness” can easily be traced back to a mechanical understanding of how the world works. This is a world of input, feedback, and efficiency.

Download the article to finish reading.

“…the man at the end of the Protestant road…”

I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one.  He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temple into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.  Well, you can read and see what you think.

-Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow.

Berry’s take on the common view that Jesus didn’t found an “organized religion” is perfect in its whimsy and wisdom.

“…more than anybody wants to hear.”

Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful.  There is always more to tell than can be told.  As almost any barber can testify, there is also more than needs to be told, and more than anybody wants to hear.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow.

Confession, Huckleberry Finn, and Beloved Community

During my sermon from Nehemiah 1 on Sunday I paused and asked for reflection from the congregation.  I’d pointed out that, as part of his prayer, Nehemiah confessed his own complicity in the fate that had befallen his people.  In verse 6 he says, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my ancestral family, have committed against you.”  I asked for the congregation’s feedback because, in my experience, confession of the kind Nehemiah demonstrates is an uncommon experience for most Christians. Sure enough, one of our members pointed out how difficult it is for him to understand how he could confess on behalf of someone else.  This is, after all, what Nehemiah does in his prayer: he not only confesses his complicity, he also asks for forgiveness on behalf of his people who did not obey God’s “commands, decrees and laws.”  I relate with this members’ dilemma with this passage; it’s one I share.

In 1987 Wendell Berry wrote an essay, “Writer and Region,” in which he explored some of the themes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  One of these is “the yen to escape the Territory.”

There is also the Territory of historical self-righteousness: if we had lived south of Ohio in 1830, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land.  The probability is overwhelming that if we had belonged to the generation we deplore, we too would have behaved deplorably.  The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably.  Not to know that is, again, to be in error and to neglect essential work, and some of this work, as before, is work of the imagination.  How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it?

Most of us probably don’t consciously think this way, but historical self-righteousness is likely our hidden assumption.  When confronting the ugliness of history it’s simply natural to imagine myself always choosing to fight with the good guys.  Surely I would have been one of the few enlightened white men who would have forsaken my privilege so as to stand on the right side of history.  Probably not.

As Berry notes, this self-righteousness severs me from a real historical narrative; I stand outside of history, superior to it.  This must be one of the reasons many of us find the idea of confession on behalf of our fore-bearers to be confusing or even intolerable: confusing because there is no real connection with my ancestors; intolerable because I would have acted differently in their circumstances.  In contrast, Nehemiah comes from a people and religion that understood their association across generations.  His confession on behalf of his people comes from historical humility.  He knows who he comes from and doesn’t question whether he’d have acted any better in their circumstances.

Without this clear connection with our history the idea of confession, beyond our own personal and immediate actions, will always feel like an unnatural stretch.  Is it possible to reclaim our history, including the undesirable parts that merit our confession?  Later in his essay Berry suggests a definition for “beloved community,” and this seems to me the most hopeful way forward.  The beloved community is marked by, “common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.”

Willingly belonging to such a community places us within the trajectory of history.  Being rooted in common experience, effort and ground converts us from historical self-righteousness to a realization that we come from somewhere and have been shaped by those who came before us. Whether or not such a community is possible or even desirable for most people today is a more difficult question to consider, but without it the Biblical idea of corporate confession will always remain an odd concept.

Wendell Berry on Parenthood

But I have thought, too, that the term of human judgment is longer than parenthood, that the upbringing we give our children is not just for their childhood but for all their lives.  And it is sure the duty of the older generation to be embarrassingly old-fashioned, for the claims of the “newness” of any younger generation are mostly frivolous.  The young are born to the human condition more than to their time, and they may face mainly the same trails and obligations as their elders have faced.

Wendell Berry, “Family Work” (1980) in The Gift of Good Land.