Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called, “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” (2017), from executive producers Robert Redford and Terence Malick. Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, conservationist, poet, novelist, and essayist, renowned for pioneering the new agrarian movement, which he defines below in The Land Magazine:

There is another way to live and think and it’s called agrarianism. It is not so much a philosophy as a practice, an attitude, a loyalty, and a passion – all based in close connection with the land. It results in a sound local economy in which producers and consumers are neighbors and in which nature herself becomes the standard for work and production.

David Skinner wrote this about the man in 2012 when he won the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Prize:

For many of us, daily life is not an exercise in conviction. Our actions part ways from our ideals. In moments of weakness, we yield, like tall grass in a strong wind, to forces beyond our control. What others say, we accept. What happens to be on sale, we buy. What we actually think and believe is less a factor in how we live.

At seventy-seven years old, Wendell Berry continues as a great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride. Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks.

He is the sum of his beliefs. And those beliefs arise from a longstanding tradition most fully expressed in the American family farm, a self-sustaining economic enterprise that reinforced familial bonds and human obligations to the natural environment. The word husbandry, in his usage, combines the commitments of a spouse with the responsibilities of the farmer to his land and his animals. And what care the farmer bestows on the land and his livestock may even be reciprocated in due time.

Berry is more than a naturalist. He personifies an American school of thought that was notable, but also contested, in the founding generation. In the debate that set Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton—and rural farms against cities, and agriculture against banking interests—Berry stands with Jefferson. He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible. Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings. And it should have a better sense of proportion: Its solutions should be equal to its problems and should not beget other problems.

Listen to NPR’s interview the creator of the documentary, Laura Dunn, “The Gospel According to Wendell Berry.” The cinematically appealing trailer to the film has a voice-over with Berry reading his poem, “The Timbered Choir” (see the text below).

The Timbered Choir

Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.

Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.

The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.

Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.

Secondary Sources

  • Ragan Sutterfield, Wendell Berry and the Given Life
  • Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter (editors), The Human Vision of Wendell Berry
  • J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide
  • Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens (editors), Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven’s Earthly Life
  • Joseph R. Wiebe, The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity

Living in the time of Trump

Marco Grob.jpg

Photograph by Marco Grob

Since the 2016 presidential election, nothing has provoked more needful thought than the following essays on living in the time of Trump.

ABC: Religion & Ethics (March 31, 2017)
A Sanctuary Politics: Being the Church in the Time of Trump (PDF)
by Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran

Christians in America can no longer differentiate between America and God – something scripture calls idolatry, which is precisely what President Trump wants of Americans.

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
When Character No Longer Counts (PDF)
by Alan Jacobs

One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 election was the wholesale abandonment by many conservative Christians of a position they once held almost unanimously: In politics, character counts. But if character no longer counts, what criteria should matter to Christian voters assessing potential leaders?

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
A New Awakening (PDF)
by George Weigel

Since election day, Americans of all political persuasions have been asking themselves two questions: What happened? And now what? The answers will be found only if we dig into the subsoil from which our present discontents have emerged. The challenges we face are far more than economic or even political. To overcome our moral-cultural crisis, we will need a new Great Awakening.

The ancient humoural system


Diagram from Noga Arikha’s Passions and Tempers. Read about the four humours.

In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis wrote, “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.” This systematizing impulse was made possible, I submit, because the medieval man had discovered the writings of Aristotle, arguably the first thinker in the West who possessed what Lewis calls an “intense love of system.”

On the Myers & Briggs Type Indicator, the “fourth preference pair describes how you like to live your outer life – what are the behaviors others tend to see? Do you prefer a more structured and decided lifestyle (Judging) or a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle (Perceiving)?” I test as a “P”, which means that I am not constitutionally disposed to systematizing like a “J.” Perceivers are like jazz artists, insofar as we improvise based on a score rather than adhere rigidly to it. It would be mistake to think that perceivers are disinterested in systems. For example, I am fascinated by the ancient system of four humours, and continually trying to learn more about this typology and to discern its fittingness within Christian living. These two books come highly recommended:

  • Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the HumoursThis is “the first book ever to recount the full history in the West of the system of the four humours – blood, phlegm, choler, melancholy – fluids within the organism that, for 2500 years, were deemed to determine health and illness, mood and temperament. It takes the reader from ancient Greece to today`s world, via the middle ages, the Renaissance, the era of scientific revolutions, the period of the Enlightenment, and the beginning of neuroscience in the 19th century. The humoural system theoretically disappeared with the advent of modern medicine, but Passions and Tempers describes the surprising and fascinating guises it takes in our day.” The author is “a historian of ideas, particularly interested in the relation between mind and body, and in helping to bridge the divide between the sciences and the humanities.” (See website for book).
  • Art and Laraine Bennett, The Temperament God Gave You. “All of us are born with distinct personality traits. Some of us live for crowds and parties; others seek solitude and time for quiet reflection. Some of us are naturally pushy, while others are content just to get along. We don’t pick and choose these traits; they’re just part of the way we’re made. For in the womb God doesn’t merely mold our body; He also gives us the temperament that, all our days, colors our understanding, guides our choices, and serves as the foundation of our moral and spiritual life. Ancient philosophers identified four basic temperaments, and over the centuries, countless wise souls have used these four to understand human nature. Now comes The Temperament God Gave You, the first Catholic book on the subject in 70 years. Here veteran Catholic counselor Art Bennett and his wife Laraine provide an accessible synthesis of classical wisdom, modern counseling science, and Catholic spirituality: a rich understanding of the temperaments and what they mean for you and for your family. Drawing on decades of study, prayer, and practical experience, Art and Laraine show you how to identify your own temperament and use it to become what God is calling you to be: a loving spouse, an effective parent, and a good friend. Best of all, they give you a Catholic understanding of the four temperaments that will bring you closer to God and help you discover the path to holiness that’s right for you.” (See the temperament indicator from book).

I took the Temperament Quiz based on Art & Laraine Bennett’s book and my results were surprising. I always thought of myself as a sanguine-choleric but on this particular test I come up as a melancholic-phlegmatic, which may indicate that there is a gap between my self-perception and reality or, alternatively, my temperament has undergone some transformation over the years. The unexpected outcome may also indicate that systems have limited value, and no human being, in his or her full-orbed complexity, can or should be pigeonholed. Take the quiz and share your results with me through the above website.

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Royally ugly

Even though I am a monarchist in my politics, I am not a royal watcher of the House of Windsor—unless Netflix’s The Crown qualifies. Nonetheless, I could not pass up on sharing a photograph of the royal family donned in ugly Christmas sweaters, thanks to Madame Tussauds London. In case you think the family looks a bit fake, they are . . . wax figures.


Cultivating a cultural imagination

From the Center for Faith & Work: “… where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.” – Augustine

All human beings long for transcendence. The yearning for something holy, something higher than what we currently experience or know, can be the spark for so much of our work. But if that longing isn’t active, if our imagination atrophies and we can no longer see the unseen, work can seem meaningless. So how does the imagination stay active? And how does our common longing for what’s transcendent shape communities and industries? Author and cultural commentator David Brooks sheds new light on the reality of our common longings and the hope that it bears for our society.

David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. He is currently a commentator on “The PBS Newshour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. In March of 2011 he came out with his third book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, which was a number 1 New York Times bestseller.

Proust Questionnaire

French essayist and novelist Marcel Proust filled out a questionnaire at age 13 and then at age 20, which is known called the Proust questionnaire. The 19th century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Proust was believed to reveal an individual’s true nature.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?Proust
  2. What is your greatest fear?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  5. Which living person do you most admire?
  6. What is your greatest extravagance?
  7. What is your current state of mind?
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  9. On what occasion do you lie?
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  11. Which living person do you most despise?
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  16. When and where were you happiest?
  17. Which talent would you most like to have?
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
  21. Where would you most like to live?
  22. What is your most treasured possession?
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  24. What is your favorite occupation?
  25. What is your most marked characteristic?
  26. What do you most value in your friends?
  27. Who are your favorite writers?
  28. Who is your hero of fiction?
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  30. Who are your heroes in real life?
  31. What are your favorite names?
  32. What is it that you most dislike?
  33. What is your greatest regret?
  34. How would you like to die?
  35. What is your motto?


The great god Gun

PhotoAs a foreigner in the Lone State State, I have observed that many Texans cling to their guns with a disturbing religious zeal. My casual observation now finds articulation in a searing meditation by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist and historian Garry Wills, who now holds the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair on the Life and Teachings of Jesus and Their Impact on Culture at Emory.

Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry at the shrines of Moloch dotting the landscape. Molochism is the one religion that can never be separated from the state. The state itself bows down to Moloch, and protects the sacrifices made to him. So let us celebrate the falling bodies and rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.

The New York Review of Books: Our Moloch