Rethinking Our Loss of Committed Communities

As a younger man, I very much disliked it whenever someone fingered me for some remark, idea or episode which clearly displayed my foolishness. As a man just now embarking upon his 50s, however, the tables have decisively turned; I now pay close attention to each and every opportunity to have some piece of my own folly dragged out into the light of day because, quite simply, I expect that I am about to learn something I hadn’t known previously. The short-term feeling – that of having my pride tweaked by the knowledge that others can clearly see some stupidity in my life – is more than offset by the certainty that I am being given yet another chance to do some much-needed mending of the soul.

One of my most-recent displays of foolishness was to approach That Distant Land: The Collected Stories by Wendell Berry as “just one of nine assigned books” that I was obliged to complete as part of a weeklong class I took at Covenant this past May. As I am enrolled in a master’s program – not a D.Min. candidate – I received the assigned reading list quite late, and that delay helped fuel a heightened sense of panic. “OK, pick these suckers up and burn through all of them as quickly as possible” was the horribly-wrongheaded thought being carried around in the head of this particular “scholar.”

Yeah…didn’t quite work out that way. There will be, as I now know, absolutely zero in the way of “burning through” the collected works of Wendell Berry.

In a nutshell, That Distant Land is a collection of short stories that carries the reader deep into the hearts and minds of various residents of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, from 1888 to approximately 1990. Most of the characters we meet throughout the book are “people of the land,” i.e. they make their living by the sweat of their brow and the swing of the axe. I won’t compound my foolish presuppositions about his work – “What does a bunch of short stories about farmers have to do with my completing this class?” – by pretending that I fully understand what Wendell Berry is trying to say now that I have completed this volume. What I can say with confidence is that it has been a long time since I have felt my heart ache so enduringly for the simplicity of the God-honoring lifestyle he has depicted in his work. (I can also say, with certainty, that I will be reading more of Berry’s work…once I “burn through” the other seven books still sitting on the corner of my desk, of course.)

How is it possible that Berry’s work makes me long for a lifestyle that I have never lived, a simplicity that has never been a part of my experience and a faithfulness to friends and relatives that is almost entirely unknown in our upwardly-mobile American culture? Why do his stories resonate so deeply in a culture where most of us do not even know the names of our neighbors, let alone help them shoulder their burdens on a daily basis?

I think one reason that I found Berry’s work so simultaneously appealing and convicting is that he is working his message in at a very deep level, with almost nothing in the way of “speechifying” or “instructional tone.” He simply invites us to follow along carefully as his characters are born, live, farm, fight, fret, laugh, eat, sell, sow, talk, reap, think and die. Throughout each short story, it becomes clear that these are people of deep Christian faith, so deep in fact that they rarely spend any time talking about it. Faith is assumed; quoting the Scriptures, singing hymns out in the field and going down to the church on Sunday are as everyday and natural to them as milking the cows or bringing in a crop of tobacco.

In one of the rare passages where Berry does allow one of his characters to make anything remotely resembling a speech, an older man is asking his good friend, a lawyer, to set up his will such that his illegitimate son will inherit his land after he is gone. The lawyer, named Wheeler, raises what seems like a good, rational protest against this idea, namely that property in and around Port William is rightly handed down from one generation to the next, with no break in the family line. The accepted lifestyle of the people in Port William is such that it seems nearly impossible that anyone would ever want the last name on the mailbox to change. The old man gently silences his lawyer friend with a raised hand and responds:

“I know how you think it ought to be, Wheeler. I think the same as you. I even thought once that the way things ought to be was pretty much the way they were. I thought things would go on here always the way they had been. The old ones would die when their time came, and the young ones would learn and come on. And the crops would be put out and got in, and the stock looked after, and the things took care of. I thought, even, that the longer it went on the better it would get. People would learn; they would see what had been done wrong, and they would make it right.

“And then, about the end of the last world war, I reckon, I seen it go wayward. Probably it had been wayward all along. But it got more wayward then, and I seen it then. They began to go and not come back – or a lot more did than had before. And now look at how many are gone – the old ones dead and gone that won’t ever be replaced, the mold they were made in done throwed away, and the young ones dead in wars or killed in damned automobiles, or gone off to college and made too smart ever to come back, or gone off to easy money and bright lights and ain’t going to work in the sun ever again if they can help it. I see them come back here to funerals – people who belong here, or did once, looking down into coffins at people they don’t have anything left in common with except a name. They come from another world. They might as well come from that outer space the governments are wanting to get to now.”

(Taken from “The Wild Birds,” pages 354-355.)

So it’s not hard to guess what Berry might say about historic farmland being torn up to build new subdivisions, or the ever-increasing pace at which family properties are being bought up by large corporations, or the prevailing American tradition of families being spread out across the country, reunited (if ever) only at Thanksgiving. Having read just this one collection of his work, it seems abundantly clear to me that Berry believes that true faithfulness to people is best lived out when lived in tandem with faithfulness to place. When we separate ourselves from our rightful geographic location, wherever that may be, we sever a root that has nourished us and ultimately become alien to one another, staring down into the coffins of people we don’t really know anymore. Based on just this collection of stories, it’s not at all difficult to imagine what Berry might say to someone who would respond to an invitation to a large family gathering with, “I’ll be with you in spirit.”

My own story has (until 1993, at least) been a testament to the idea that moving around a lot causes a deep fracture in the bone of our spirit. Cut loose from family and friends, we all tend to drift into relentless self-focus and an increasing desire to “redefine ourselves” as we jump from place to place. Problem with the neighbors? Move! Better-paying job four states away? Move! Church members confronting you with an issue you need to work on? Go somewhere else, for crying out loud. As we seek to project a false image of ourselves to the world around us, the very last thing we want to hear is someone who has known us since childhood saying something like, “Well, gosh, Warren, when did you decide to try on this new persona?” The world we tend to live in nowadays, a world of our own making, supports a lifestyle dictated by nothing other than our preferences and desires, and we tend to like it that way. What you will find in this collection of short stories, however, is an appealing, realistic portrayal of life lived at the polar opposite of this prevailing cultural standard.

I look forward to reading more of Berry’s work in the near future, but just for today, I walk away from this collection with a renewed sense of delight to have been living in Columbia for as long as I have. Something restless in my heart still yearns for the northern suburbs of Detroit, where I grew up and lived (more or less) from 1964 to 1993, but Berry has been immensely helpful to me in finally putting a name to that longing, something more permanent than nostalgia and deeper than remembrance. For that reason alone, I plan to recommend this book to several people.

But in the infinite, unsearchable wisdom of God, I finally came to authentic faith in Jesus Christ right here in Columbia, Mo. I quit drinking while I lived in Columbia. Two of my children have been born here. I met and married the woman of my dreams while living here. Work has been steady, even when I have not been. God has faithfully encircled me with trusted Christian friends who now know who I really am and (somehow) love and care for me anyway. I suspect that all of these good gifts could just as easily have been made available to me in Detroit, had I chosen to stay there, but God clearly had other ideas and I am at peace with it.

Coincidentally, the rooted-in-place ideas that so deeply inform the short stories of Wendell Berry began to percolate out of my heart even before I had gotten around to reading his book. Knowing that I was currently receiving seminary training and working my way toward an MA degree, someone recently asked me “what my plan was,” assuming that I completed my degree. “So what’s after that? Are you going to look to be a pastor somewhere?” My answer was surprising, even to me: “Nothing. No plan. I plan to remain in Columbia and keep working as a ministry volunteer at The Crossing, just the way I am doing now. I just hope to be a little bit better at it, is all.”

For sure, living out life inside a close-knit community is always going to be inconvenient and messy. The collected stories of Wendell Berry do not make the mistake of painting a portrait so idyllic that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality. The people who inhabit Port William – just like everywhere else – mismanage their finances, say stupid things, beat and shoot each other, disappoint their families, lose their mental faculties as they age and (most assuredly) die. The difference, though, is that all of these inevitable life traumas unfold within the relative safety of a cadre of people who have determined to love each other despite their differences and remain committed to the idea that a well-lived life is not first and foremost about the pursuit of whatever they find personally gratifying. What a radical, thoroughly un-American idea…living for something other than yourself!

Acts 4:32-35 (ESV)
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV)
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

2 Corinthians 5:11-15 (ESV)
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

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