When it is cold out – particularly on a morning where laziness is not just OK but expected – I often wake up and am unable to understand where I begin and my bed ends. In the moment when the mind stirs from slumber there is a certain comfort that envelops and inundates to the point that movement of the smallest degree becomes the utmost of adversaries. The ephemeral – yet desirably eternal – feeling of lying half-awake under the covers on a chilly morning, basking in the warmth of the moment, and hoping to never move a muscle, is the only way I know to describe my relationship to the writings of Wendell Berry.
Habitually when I am reading Berry’s words I wonder if the 84-year-old Kentuckian has been inside of my mind and put poetic language to my deepest convictions or instead if I have been inside of his so much that I cannot begin to separate the way I think, identify, and act without using his very language.
The comfort and contentment sprawled in bed on a chilly morning is truly the only way I find that I am able to communicate what certain pieces of art or their creators mean to me. The peace and interconnectedness between the spiritual and the physical that art can bring is so cavernous that words, images, or musical notes seem to lose all meaning and context and instead turn into an energy beaming from the soul.
Wendell Berry, and especially his writings on the necessity of a certain healthy criticalness and skepticism, has been the warm blanket that swathes me as I wake and pray to God.
As a boy I was always inquisitive – some would say to a fault. I wanted to know about the presidents, so I memorized them in order in first grade and recited it whenever mom and dad wanted to show me off. I loved Atlanta Braves baseball, so I watched them every night and threw a ball against the garage wall every day until someone corralled me in. I went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, so I read my Bible, prayed, and most importantly, wanted to know more.
For me, part of wanting to learn was asking questions. If I got to ask what John Quincy Adams did as president or question whether or not Bobby Cox should go to the bullpen in the eighth inning, I surely was going to wonder about things like heaven, hell, and everything in between.
It wouldn’t be much later that I would stumble across a poem – Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front – that would become the chorus of my intellectual (and thus theological) life. Nestled amongst a couple dozen get-off-my-lawn type poems in one of Berry’s many books of poetry was a page of writing that would not just change my life because of its words, but more importantly push me headfirst into a love for Berry’s writings. In this poem I read lines that made me feel alive intellectually like never before:
Every day do something that won’t compute…Praise ignorance. For what man has not encountered he has not destroyed…Ask the questions that have no answer…Be joyful though you have considered all of the facts…Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.
‘Dance,’ they told me, and I stood still, and while they stood quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced. ‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan. When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’ I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me ‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
Berry spoke to the contrarian within me. The child who asked when he was told to listen. The teenager who poured over books that congregations would prefer be banned. The young man who dreamed of a church that questions instead of nods.
The central tenant of my epistemology, which in turn reflects the way I form my theology, is the idea that critical thought and questioning is not just a part of but central to the Christian life. Nothing is off the table. When the father of the child Jesus heals cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief,” I take that verse to heart. Some days my unbelief may deal with scripture, other days it could be metaphysical, and often it may be scientific – but my refrain that I pray is always that of the man crying out to Jesus. I find that when I come through bouts of unbelief, my belief in turn becomes stronger. Learning, for me, has always been about not just discovering information but processing how I felt about it, if it was applicable, and asking questions.
I find that what many people see as the solid ground that Jesus talks about in Matthew 27 – built on words like fundamental, inerrant, infallible – is often a sandy foundation that floats away when the slightest push or prod comes. Rather the bedrock of a solid foundation is built upon not just a healthy skepticism, but perhaps more clearly as Berry says, a willingness to “praise ignorance” and “be joyful though you have considered all of the facts.”
In an essay entitled Poetry and Marriage Berry eloquently says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” This became a mantra of sort for the way I formed my theology. When I read the Bible, look at the world, and dream of a better future, I ask myself: Am I becoming complacent in the way I think and am I allowing myself to be influenced by people that are different than me? Am I allowing my stream – my way of life – to become disrupted? Because it is in those moments that beauty (singing) comes.
Berry solved two major problems in my early intellectual life and these poems happen to highlight them most prominently. First, I wanted to think, but felt like I couldn’t. Or wasn’t allowed within Christianity. Berry says that thinking should never be spurned. In fact, it is the mind that is “baffled” that is truly thriving.
In the Mad Farmer Manifesto he praises the idea of “ask(ing) the questions that have no answers,” as well. This was the biggest problem for me once I adopted a mindset that was centered around critical thought. How can I ever find peace amidst a mind that is constantly criticizing, questioning, and burdened? How can I find a healthy balance between skepticism and incomprehension? Further, is there ever contentment there, or is it a life muddled with a sense of uncertainty?
Berry answers, “praise ignorance” and to “give your approval to all you cannot understand.” He backs up his idea that “the impeded stream is the one that sings” by also noting that there is a type of ignorance that should be praised – it’s not born from a failure to think, but a willingness to let go at times. Further, Berry argues that it is in the moment when we “no longer know which way to go, [then] we have begun our real journey.”
As I made my way through the scores of Berry’s writings what stuck out to me more than any of his breathtaking fiction or thought-provoking poetry was a tiny book both in size and length. The book – Blessed Are the Peacemakers – was what initially consoled me after the depressing response by many Americans to the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. I wondered to myself how anyone could call themselves a Christian and not stand up for change? It was the first time in my life that I can remember wanting to draw a line between myself and “the other” within Christianity. On the first page of Blessed are the Peacemakers Berry writes,
Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian.’
But instead of Berry continuing his essay by bashing people who adhere to this process, he turns to the text. He goes on to list every place in the Gospels that Jesus speaks about strife, compassion, peacemaking, and forgiveness. He does not add any commentary. He just lists them. Berry allows the reader to look at the words and decide on their own what Jesus is advocating for. Berry calls for a renewed emphasis on re-reading the words of Jesus. He asks for the reader to think about how the words of Jesus affect the way we live. He is not afraid to look at the world around him and wonder if it couldn’t be a little better.
After going through the list of verses, Berry tackles what he calls “the burden of the gospel.” For every verse that makes perfect sense, there are also those that “sometimes raise the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands. This is the confession of an unconfident reader.” And he ends his beautiful book by asking a question instead of answering it: “It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.”
It is for these reasons exactly – asking questions, being content in not knowing the answer, and shunning those who say they know it all – that Berry most readily affected my theology.
The best type of art, in my opinion, is that which reminds us of the fragility of life and inspires us to live more passionately in its stead. In Berry’s writings I find myself constantly broken yet immediately uplifted. I am reminded of my smallness, my incompleteness, and my inability to understand God’s ways. And then told that I am not alone. In Berry’s words I find pain and peace, ignorance and clarity, and doubt and trust. I find struggles and praises, sorrows and worship, and fear and hope.
 Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 18-19.
 Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 7-8.
 Mark 9:24, (NRSV).
 Ibid, 19.
 Wendell Berry, Standing By Words: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011), 97.
 Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 7-8.
 Ibid, 93.
 Wendell Berry, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christs’ Teachings of Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009), 3.
 Ibid, 53.
 Ibid, 68; The question Berry asks is, “How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures?”