Monday, January 21, 2013

The Unveiling of Wendell Berry

Reactions to Wendell Berry's coming out in support of same-sex marriage have run the gamut on the level of admitted surprise. Rod Dreher is "greatly surprised". Emily Stimpson -- who's piece gets the hat tip from me -- states "[A]t least for me, it’s not entirely shocking."

Having written the following paragraph less than a year ago, my reaction is somewhat lower on the surprise spectrum than either Dreher's or Stimpson's.

The imagined world of Wendell Berry is no less silly than the one "imagined" by John Lennon, it just has more tillable land, furry animals, and maybe a few Indian tribes running around killing each other. Berry is a user of the land and a user of resources just like everybody else he criticizes. The fact that he may use a little bit less than others is ultimately a matter of taste and not morality. I don't care what he does with his life, but he seems to care a lot what others do with theirs and has developed his own Sharia-like law based on his preferences.

I would point everyone toward Timothy Dalrymple's excellent response—as do Dreher and Stimpson—as a sensible, representative Christian response explaining why what he calls Berry's "epic slanderfest" is so preposterous.

My concern here is to merely point out why I am not surprised by this at all, and why no one who believes that ideas have consequences should expect this type of transition from Berry, if it is even indeed a transition at all and not just an unveiling of beliefs he has held for quite some time.

First of all, accusing Christians of being haters of homosexuals is merely the latest in a long line of factual errors based on personal prejudice in the non-fiction writings of Wendell Berry. In his famous Why I am NOT going to buy a computer essay from 1987, Berry refers to a computer as "expensive equipment" which, if he decided to purchase one, would be akin to and attempt to replace his wife who typed his writings for him on an old, manual typewriter. A PC with peripherals marketed to a farmer in that year would probably have cost $800.00 ($1,616.00 in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars) and I'm guessing wouldn't be extremely unreasonable compared to equipment expenditures for a medium-sized farm. Almost anyone reading the essay would find his insistence that that acquiring a computer would be in effect replacing his wife, rather than replacing the typewriter to which he's become attached, a strange, weak and badly-reasoned argument.

Secondly, Berry has been a dissenter from mainstream Christianity for a long time, and he has been a fierce critic of Christianity for not being more like him. A good example is his Christianity and the Survival of Creation essay. He first calls the condemnation of Christianity by conservationists for its "culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world" a just condemnation. Then he points out that the anti-Christian environmentalist zealots haven't read the Bible, so they don't realize that modern Christianity's supposed disregard for and rape of creation is not rooted in Scripture, or at least not his understanding of Scripture. He calls for a need to "learn to read and understand the Bible in the light of the present fact of Creation." This in turn requires "careful and judicious study, not dismissal." Ironically, he quotes Leviticus to condemn accumulating large amounts of real estate, however he obviously dismisses earlier passages in that particular book condemning homosexual acts. I'm guessing that if I suggested that real estate regulations were ceremonial or cultural my interpretation would be dismissed along with explicit scriptural condemnations of said acts which he personally finds no problem with since, to his mind, these acts do not affect energy consumption, agriculture, or the airy-fairy ideal of "sense of place in community".

So, what are we left with? The Gospel According to Wendell Berry in all it's self-righteous condescension and hypocritical inconsistency, whether it's appealing to biblical authority to support pet opinions or stereotyping Americans as conspicuous consumers because they use electricity and buy computers. Berry has always been a self-righteous scold about issues that most Christians from the time of Christ on have considered to be matters of prudence and not absolute morality. The fact that he might go the other way, regarding orthodox Christianity's moral prohibitions as matters of personal choice, should not surprise anyone. This is due to the fact that he is obviously marching to the beat of his own drum. The only question left is this: how does he get away with this inconsistency and bad-reasoning?

My theory is that he is protected by the people who have been deeply moved by his works of fiction or have been swayed by some of his down home wisdom about farming. It is sort of like the protection the media gives Obama on matters like the Benghazi cover-up or the Fast and Furious gun-running operation. Or the kind of pass that's given to film industry pedophilia of the Woody Allen or Roman Polanski variety. The obvious prejudices, logical inconsistencies and factual errors are glossed over because "Well, someone needs to say this stuff and nobody else is doing it." I don't buy either premise. Nobody needs to state inaccuracies about Christians hating gays or destroying the environment. Plus everybody on the left is doing that, non-stop, every day. And there is really no point in trying to deny a simple fact, especially not at this point: Wendell Berry is a man of the left. As such, he warrants the protection of the left and receives it.

One more thing: I commend Rod Dreher for his strong words of condemnation against Wendell Berry for his attacks. For emphasis I link to them again. It's not easy to accuse a favorite author of behavior which is "crude, simplistic, combative, vicious, and altogether deeply disappointing" or calling his words on an issue a "barely-coherent farrago of liberal clichés, ugly insults, and shallow, indignant moralizing". But I applaud and echo all his words which can hardly be called exaggerated if you read Berry's original statements.


  1. Dreher seems genuinely surprised that Berry's lecturing is full of "liberal clichés, ugly insults, and shallow, indignant moralizing."

    He shouldn't be surprised, it's Berry's m.o.

    (And Dreher's.)

    The difference isn't in the unearned sanctimony, but which ox is getting gored. Dreher was more than happy to revel in the moral preening when Berry was targeting the free market, and he was happy to follow suit with that Crunchy Cons book and blog.

  2. Yes, no one should not be surprised by this, not the substance nor the rhetoric. Berry's religion is basically Radical Environmentalist Fundamentalism with an aggressive missionary effort on his part including fire and brimstone preaching. He has confessed to having had problems with Christianity in the past, especially the writings of St. Paul. His method has always been that of the reactionary attack dog, and his idea of a better world is where people are more like him, not more like Jesus Christ. He doesn't see how homosexual acts hurt the environment, and since they don't, he can't fathom how they might hurt someone's soul, or hurt a community.

    Dreher has gone on at length different places about how Berry sees the world "sacramentally" (i.e., Dreher's way), but I think he's mistaken. It's more like he sees the earth's creatures in an entirely egalitarian way, and he cherry-picks Bible verses to back this up. It's wrong to cut down (i.e., murder) the old tree that everyone in the community appreciates even if it's on "your" land. Why? Because "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof". In Berry's world, the community is the Lord, and not just any old community, but a rural community whose traditions he himself approves of.

    Even so, I'm not backing off from my praise of Dreher's criticism. Yes, I think that in a way this is more of the same from Berry. But that is only my opinion (albeit I believe a well reasoned one.) I also believe there is something nastier going on here. I've seen before how defense of homosexuality calls upon forces of absolute chaos which have no sensibility, no logic and no sympathy for competing views. You really open up one of Hell's gates when you begin to defend it. As you well know, Bubba, the last phrase of Romans chapter 1 is "...they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them." You call upon the demons and you begin to become like them. Dreher thinks it sounds like Berry is not in his right mind when he is speaking on this topic, and he very well may be correct. Other forces may have hijacked his vocal chords.

  3. Wendell Berry is a crotchety old hypocrite. I despise his writings. He must have a God complex. And did it ever occur to him when he wrote this quote in a lecture---"We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful." that his family's farming, which he defends so dramatically was tobacco farming? I hardly see producing a product that causes cancer as "true, "just" or "beautiful." It merely prays on man's vices, not unlike casinos and alcohol.

    1. You're absolutely right about his hypocrisy. It has always been sad to see so many people I know and respect singing the praises of a man who is so spiteful and prejudiced against the "lifestyle choices" of others, e.g., some people drive cars and use computers. Oh, the horror. He is the perfect example of an old-money wordsmith intellectual who can't abide the new money entrepreneurship that makes the world go around.