Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life, by J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens

Book Review

wendell-berryTitle:                    Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life

Author:                J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens

Publisher:           Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009

Reviewer:  Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology

Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens believe Wendell Berry is a crucial voice for the world today, and more particularly, for Christians today. Their project is simple: to analyze and evaluate Wendell Berry’s writings theologically, addressing themes congruent with contemporary theological concerns while acknowledging ways Berry’s vision can be adopted and lived. It’s no secret that Bonzo and Stevens find Berry to be a profound writer who provides the church with a new vision of life. While Berry’s writing is unlike traditional theological writing, Bonzo and Stevens affirm Hauerwas’ statement at the end of the Gifford Lectures in “The Necessity of Witness” when he “offers John Paul II, John Howard Yoder, and Wendell Berry as crucial voices exhorting the church to a properly countercultural vision of life.” Though Berry seems like a “surprising inclusion” in this list, Bonzo and Stevens argue it is because Berry “represents the fullest embodiment of telling ‘the Story’ through stories…Berry’s work is precisely the sort of ‘renarration’ that can bring healing and make visible the call to ‘practice resurrection’” (35).

Three significant themes evident in the writings of Wendell Berry constitute the heart of this text. Bonzo and Stevens first engage Berry’s notion of healing, a constant theme in Berry’s writings referring to individuals, communities, land, home, education, and society as a whole. Berry believes that all of these suffer from disease and are in need healing. Berry maintains a “creation-centric” vision which upholds the good of God’s created order while also maintaining its ‘fallen-ness’ and need for redemption. The disease needing to be addressed is partly due of the reality of a fallen creation. More important for Berry, however, is modernity’s proliferation of disease. Against the specific ills of modernity Berry provides a new vision for life which he finds rooted in the good of creation, community, and cultivation.

A second significant theme Bonzo and Stevens engage is hospitality. Berry’s descriptions of the community and household consistently establish hospitality as its center. Permeability of boundaries is how Bonzo and Stevens describe Berry’s hospitality. While communities and households maintain certain boundaries necessary for life together, the practice of hospitality makes these boundaries fluid and flexible. Hospitality involves “temporary or provisional entry into the membership of place and relationships.” It is a form of risk. Continuing the theme of health, Bonzo and Stevens note that communities “must already have a measure of health…[and] proof of willingness to be vulnerable” (141). Exploring Berry’s various writings, Bonzo and Stevens note six categories of hospitality integrally tied to community life. Ultimately hospitality is the practice of offering healing; it “has room for the wounded (and for being wounded).” In hospitality there must “be room for everyone, with the only caveat being that love must be accepted as given; it must be received as gift” (163). When hospitality becomes understood primarily as a practice of households and communities questions regarding the true inclusivity of women and marginalized peoples must be raised. Bonzo and Stevens address this briefly by stating the importance of such questions, noting that rural communities historically have not offered sufficient “quality of life and status to women.” Furthermore, they wonder how “marginalized groups of all sorts fit Berry’s notion of local, healing community” (116). In the midst of these questions, Bonzo and Stevens are explicit in acknowledging the varied possibilities for community and household. Working a farm in rural Kentucky is not, and should not be, the only option for all, what matters is making community and home in the place where we find ourselves, to “start where we are, and we’re all somewhere” (123). This does not negate some of the unjust and oppressive patterns present in rural communities and households, but it does show that Berry’s vision is not tied to a fixed understanding of rural America, but can (and should) be dynamic and embodied differently in varying contexts.

A final significant theme of Berry’s that Bonzo and Stevens consistently note is household. “Households are not utopias, nor are the communities they ideally help to build” (113). Households carry certain structures of authority, maintain various traditions and norms, and form specific virtues and character traits. It’s not uncommon for these to be problematic; as capable as households are for establishing ‘good,’ they can be equally destructive and ill-ordered. Nevertheless, a revival of household economics is needed according to Berry. One fundamental way this is accomplished is by countering the modern ideal of separation of work and home. Berry argues that “healthy households cannot be fostered when work is utterly external to the home.” Today work is something we “just attempt to escape,” and as a result, “our home becomes merely a place of recreation.” What “Berry calls for is a return of work to the home, because this is the place where character and communal virtues are formed” (112).

In addition to the significant attention given to the three themes discussed above, Bonzo and Stevens engage Berry’s theological contributions on topics of creation, gift, place, education, and redemption. This text is undoubtedly a needed complement to Berry’s prolific writing for all who wish to engage him theologically. The writings of Wendell Berry have, and will continue to have, a widespread influence. Reading Berry with a theological lens greatly assists the church to embody the alternative and redemptive forms of life presented by Berry—arguably forms of life necessary for Christian witness.

Bonzo and Stevens’ exploration of Berry does fall short of providing in-depth critical theological evaluation. Though the text intentionally avoids placing Berry under the microscope of a theological discipline and audience to which his writings were never directly written, critical theological evaluation remains necessary before the church and theology can assert and appropriate Berry’s contributions. Bonzo and Stevens are exceptional at displaying the strengths of Berry and possible ways the church’s life and theology can be enhanced. Some issues, however, require more critical evaluation. Berry’s creation-centrism, as one example, should not be presented without significant theological discussion regarding its interplay and distinction from Christocentrism. How might Berry’s thesis shift in light of the person of Jesus Christ? How might the church adapt Berry’s contributions, but necessarily challenge his theological foundation, to more appropriately reflect the Christian emphasis on Christ as the starting point for theology?

Ultimately, Bonzo and Stevens themselves make a substantial contribution to the church and theology by exploring the implications and possibilities for the church and Christian life evident in the writings of Wendell Berry. As the authors appropriately display, Wendell Berry is “a necessary voice.” Without a text as comprehensive and articulate as this one, Berry’s voice could not be as far-reaching or as sensibly understood.