Wrestling with Wendell Berry

On a recent cross-country trip, I ran into a new author and lots of wonderful, pesky questions about how I am (or am not) relating to the people and place right around where I live.

The trip was to Franklin, Tennessee. I went there to attend a funky little Christian conference called Hutchmoot. While there I started reading Jayber Crow, a rural tale written by Christian farmer and essayist Wendell Berry. I bought the novel at the conference bookstore and snuck away to a nearby hay maze during a break to get a little reading time and some needed solitude.

I was sitting on a dilapidated lawn chair in the exact center of the hay maze when I began reading this story of town barber Jayber Crow and his relationship to the place and people around him—the fictional river town of Port William, Kentucky. Berry’s novel is a vehicle for him to express his deep, human, Christian convictions about the importance of our relationship to the place and people around us.

Sitting in the middle of that hay maze I realized how hungry I was for just that. Berry’s rich description of Jayber’s steady connection to the place and people around him (Berry calls this web of interconnectedness “the membership”) made me realize how disconnected I had become from the place and people around me—my Pierremont neighborhood.

Sitting in that hay maze I began to realize how Wendy, the kids, and I had begun “living above place,” and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. What Berry was describing in the novel felt so right to me, both as a human and as a Christian. And how I was living felt a bit wrong. As I sat in that fraying lawn chair, questions began to invade the hay maze like a swarm of locusts:

• Was Berry being overly idealistic?

• Is it even possible to experience “the membership” in a subdivision?

• When Jesus said “love your neighbor,” did that include our literal neighbors?

• Did God create humans to be in relationship with the place and people around them?

• Did God call his people to relate to the place and people around them in a certain way?

• Should Wendy and the kids and I move to a small river town in Kentucky?

• Did this neighborly instinct get stunted in me because I moved so much when I was growing up?

• Is commuting evil?

• What does Jesus think about me and my neighborhood?

• Can you reengage with neighbors after mostly ignoring them for years?

These swarming questions were wonderful and heady and pesky and annoying all at the same time. I swatted them away like I would any buzzing summer insect. But here’s the thing: when I walked out of the hay maze, those questions followed me. They kept buzzing around my head, pesky and fascinating and persistent. They followed me on that long drive home back to my house in the slightly hilly subdivision west of St. Louis called Pierremont.

How about you? Have you ever read anything by Wendell Berry? What questions do you have about your relationship to the place and people right around where you live?


From the forthcoming title The Hopeful Neighborhood, copyright 2020 LHM. This is not the final form, please do not distribute or quote.


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