Wendell Berry


To the best of my knowledge, I just made that second word up, and claim dibs on it. But it is on my mind these days as I progress through the dissertation, prepare for and teach my slate of classes, and becoming gradually – though inexorably – more involved in the church we have been attending since September.

In my academic work, I have discovered that I gravitate toward questions of identity and of community formation. Students are beginning to figure out that I can be sidetracked by an innocent question like “what motivated the early Christians to begin to congregate as individual communities?” or “why did the Qumran community feel it was necessary to remove themselves from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness?” But as a Baptist – cum – Anglican, I find myself increasingly suspicious of grand claims of macro-level, galvanizing forces that link big categories and big metanarratives to small communities. In other words, we need to take the Qumran communities as representative only of themselves; we need to look at the ancient church of Lyons or Laodicea or Jerusalem as representative only of their own community. We can’t just assume that they were part of the “big narrative of XYZism or XYZianity.” Whatever major trends were blowing in the wind in first and second century Judaisms and Christianities, what we can be sure of is that individual communities adopted or rejected certain trends on the grounds of whether they were consonant with what these communities believed to be true and that helped foster the particular mission of each.

“Ecclesiography” is my term describing the contemporary movement of “writing about the church,” or perhaps even better, “writing to create the (new) church.” It includes blogging, publishing important new books, distributing scandalous new tracts, and so on and so forth. There is a lot of this going on, particularly by people I count among my friends and acquaintances.  People are eating this stuff up, particularly the ’40 and under’ crowd, as well we should be, because this new “ecclesiographical” writing, intended to inspire a new conception of what it means to “do church” or what it means to “be church” or even “do/be Christian.”  I am all for this, because, as ecclesiographers such as Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, Pete Rollins, and countless other writers and bloggers (including this one) have said repeatedly, the way we are “doing church” is just not working the way it once did. We need something new.

But we may justifiably ask whether or not ecclesiography is really giving it to us. (For the record: God, I hope so. Lord knows we need it.) Church communities have, throughout their histories, been galvanized by revolutionary, prophetic writing. This obviously includes Scripture, but it also includes other writings as well. It may be too early to tell. But it seems to me that ecclesiography is having strong impact on the personal, individual level, but much less so at the institutional level, either in the local individual parish or at the big denominational or megachurch levels. At the beginning of this decade, evangelical megachurches in the Syracuse area were swarming with memberships and regular attenders. While they still do well relative to the “non-megachurch” contingent, over the last 10 years these big churches have ALL seen dramatic dropoffs in attendance and memberships, in spite of being on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking. Mainline churches have fared a bit better only in that many of them have simply held steady, but there is a high degree of turnover while maintaining more or less the same overall numbers. And fundamentalist churches are in serious decline. Catholic churches are closing their doors and selling off their properties. At all levels, including my own church, parishes are in jeopardy of losing their pastors because they can’t pay them.  Just at the local Syracuse-area level, the numbers are affecting all three of these “big categories,” even though many of them are receptive to the ideas of McLaren, Rollins, Miller, and even me about revolutionizing the way we conceive of being Christian and being the ekklesia of God. I’ve yet to encounter a church of any denomination that is resistant, for example, to the current trend of becoming “missional” or building a “missional” church, a word that entered into the vocabulary of the churches in the late 90s as a result of McLaren’s popularizing of it from Lesslie Newbigin’s use.

But that’s part of the problem. As a result of its popularizing by many of these new gifted ecclesiographers, “missional” has already been denuded. What does it mean? My suspicion is that churches are not using the term in the same way from church to church. My friend the ultrarev, for example, just the other day posted a piece on his blog on the missional church and his desire to plant one somewhere. But they’re already everywhere, and they’re losing members like crazy, because we don’t know what it means! I can imagine Socrates, today, engaging in a dialogue with McLaren over “missional.” As much as I like Brian, I can’t help but feeling that even he, like Meno, would ultimately (good-naturedly, of course) accuse Socrates of being a sting-ray who has numbed his mind and have to recognize that, at the moment, the best we can do with “missional” is identify and describe its attributes better than we can actually define the quality that makes all churches that claim the title as “missional.” My suspicion is that we tend to use “missional” to describe our “ideal church,” meaning quite literally a church that embodies all the qualities that we believe are essential, necessary, good, and “true.”

As I see it, “missional” has become one of those “big categories” that is being coopted and, perhaps, inappropriately applied at a macro-level of Christianity that is itself largely a myth. This happened with “emergent” just recently, and I’m seeing it again here with “missional:” It’s turned into a Movement. This happens when readers of any new work or argument, like that of the Ecclesiographers, take their work and their arguments seriously and see themselves as becoming part of what they represent and attempt, with however limited success, to impart the wisdom of “missional Christianity” to their church community. But what has happened with “missional” is that it is, so far, showing itself to not be radical enough, which means that it can be adopted and coopted by those churches who really have no business employing it. It is becoming a more user-friendly and less-freighted term for “gospel-centered”, which is – or ought to be – synonymous with “evangelical.”  Which is to say that the use of “missional” is to cast into new terms what we have been doing all along…which isn’t working. The consequence of this lack of precise definition and “exacting control of context,” as Wendell Berry puts it in his masterful article “In Distrust of Movements,” is that the term can be preempted even by its enemies. Prepackaged, uncritical, consumerist versions of Christianity are now suddenly “The Biblical Church of our Missional Lord,” offering us what they have always offered, and the Movement fails. (Mr. Berry’s full article can be found in his collection of essays entitled Citizenship Papers.)

I hope that the Missional, Ecclesiographical writers that are now doing so much important work keep doing it and do not get discouraged. But in the meantime, what does this mean for the rest of us, who attend declining, failing churches that are both broken and broke? Simply labeling ourselves as “missional” or “emergent” or “postmodern” or anything else is not going to fix us as long as we identify our primary problems as a single-issue problem that can be addressed by a single-issue solution. What is needed – and what the eccesiographers are giving us! – is a full diagnosis, and enough people with knowledge, skills, motives and attitudes that are unique to the specific needs of each local church. The problem: Where is everyone?

We can read our ecclesiographers until we’re run out of material, and agree with every word they write, but until we actually start doing something and defining as precisely as we can what “missional” means in the context where it is needed or used we are going to continue to slide towards irrelevancy.

The harvest is long, but the laborers few.

So I’m staring blankly at this almost-but-not-quite-finished conference paper for the SBL meeting in Boston in a couple of weeks and I keep being distracted by other logismoi. Paper: Physical remains of early Christian memory. Distraction: Wendell Berry and memory. Paper: How books form part of an enculturating process that helps a group achieve some sort of hegemony. Distraction: Berry’s books as challenges to existing cultural hegemony wielded through education, the economy, and the media.

There is a connection here.

Must … resist …

(To Be Continued…)

To those of us who are a) frustrated with the realization that we double the value of our cars everytime we fill it up at the pump, or b) feel like telling the world “told you so” over the first option, and c) both of the above, I give you Wendell Berry’s latest essay.

I’m consistently amazed by Berry’s knack for finding parallels to the crises we find ourselves in today in the canon of world literature; in this case, he compares our burning passion for preserving the AWOL (my term for “American Way Of Life”) at all costs with the desire for unlimited power and knowledge of Faust. We the people are Faust; Mephistopheles is the guardian of the AWOL; and concerning Hell,

When Faustus asks, “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” Mephistophilis replies, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” And a few pages later he explains:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we [the damned] are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.

For those who reject heaven, hell is everywhere, and thus is limitless. For them, even the thought of heaven is hell.

I leave it to you to finish the analogy.

Just came across this, in the latest Orion Magazine:

osprey1.jpg

Doctrine

I love the church
of the osprey, simple
adoration, no haggling
over the body, the blood,
whether water sprinkled
from talons or immersed
in the river saves us,
whether ascension
is metaphor or literal,
because, of course,
it’s both: wings crooked,
all the angels crying out,
rising up from nests
made of sticks
and sunlight.

– Todd Davis

Indeed. It sounds like it could have come right out of Aldo Leopold or something.

Hollis Schoolhouse in New HampshireLast week I wrote a bit of my personal, experiential observations of our local homeschool coop. So tonight I’m looking to make good on the promise I made that I’d write a follow-up that was more analytical and reflective. So be warned: this is more of an essay than the last piece, but I think it’s a useful exercise for me and perhaps for others as well.

As a preface to my analysis of Homeschooling, I should state up front what I feel the business of education is, or perhaps more accurately, what I believe it ought to be, whether it is college and university education, graduate education, or grade-school education. At the end of the day, my evaluation of education draws most of its inspiration from Wendell Berry, who has not really written systematically about his educational philosophy (so far as I know), but who nevertheless has plenty to say about it scattered throughout his writings. My thoughts on it, likewise, are directly related to my work in the academy, which is to say that it influences what I do in my teaching on the one hand and that my subjects of study shape the reasons I teach at all.

Like Berry, I see the education of young people as being centered on developing the creativity of the individual person in a way that encourages responsible action in the local community and the larger society as a whole. Education needs to embrace a role that leads students develop their humanity in relation to other people and to the physical land where they live. What we teach should be somehow connected to where we are in life (geographically and otherwise) and to where students are. Berry would say that education’s primary role is to instill knowledge that is experiential, relational, creative and imaginative, democratic, local in its orientation, and fundamentally interactive with the natural ecology of where we live. Just so. To the extent that education is individual-centered, I maintain that this individualism (in the classic liberal sense of developing the full potential of the student) is, nevertheless, rooted in the local community in that the “potential” is precisely the ability of the student to contribute to the life of the community through his or her own gifts, place, and so on. Finally, the purposes of education needs to encompass the concepts of goodness and wholeness, which is to say that we need to teach our young people the ability to judge what is good and whole.

Wendell BerryMuch of contemporary education, however, focuses on the development of “skills” that will make people productive not in their own local community, wherever that may be, but in the global industrial and consumer-capitalist economy. I agree again, here, with Berry, who argues that schools – by which Berry means public schools – are “mind dominated” by outside forces (the global industrial/capitalist doctrine) that essentially dictate what students are to take away from their education. In my work in New Testament, Judaism, Greco-Roman religion, Early Christianity, and Islam, scholars know this kind of imposed “mind domination” by the terms of “cultural hegemony,” stemming from work of Antonio Gramsci. Cultural hegemony is the essentially the ability of those in power (from small communities to global industry and national governments) to package thoughts. It is the ability to control “knowledge production” by packaging the hegmonic power’s ideology into the distillation and dissemination of culture. (more…)

Kermit the Frog Unpigged!Kermit’s serenade from the first season of Sesame Street in 1970 finds itself as the title of Jill Hudson Neal’s article in today’s Washington Post. The family and I have been getting frustrated with our recognition that on a student budget “It ain’t easy being green.” (Cue the music…)

Anyhow. April is upon us, which means 30 days of guilt-inducing environmental propaganda being tacked onto the 40+ days of Lent that mercifully end next week. The family and I have been trying to come up with budget-possible ways to do our part. But, as Neal says, “And choose the organic eggs instead of whatever’s on sale? Please, that $4 will buy me a grande soy latte.” I’m not into $4 coffee, but the same four bucks gets me 48 eggs instead of 12 where we usually get our groceries.

The thing is that my house wants to go into it wholesale. Get all the food via the Community Supported Agriculture distros. What we can’t get there, hit the co-op store. (Sadly, I’m not aware of even a Trader Joe’s out here; any Syracuse-area readers, if you know of one, let me know, OK?) Or hit the local farm stands when they’re open. Heck, if you got the yard space, get a cow and some goats. And I’m just talking food here; our kids are out of them, but we used cloth diapers, we use cloth napkins at dinner, avoid disposable eatery, and wash a ton of our clothes by hand. In our homeschooling circles, chemical cleaners are out; natural-based organic cleaners are in.

It’s all great stuff. And, for a grad student with a family, prohibitively expensive. Alas. It’s very frustrating; Jill, we share your pain and frustration. It’s so easy and tempting to take the “The-last-days-are-coming-and-it’s-all-going-to-blow-anyway-no-matter-what-we-do” philosophy of my youth and which I still hear (unfortunately) in more conservative Christian circles. But even in those circles, the environmental health drive is there, even among those who subscribe to the aforementioned “end times” perspective on it. Instead of focusing on “saving the earth” and on community ethics, the focus is on individual health and morality. I used to think that this was a very selfish and not especially biblical way to look at it. I still to do, to some extent. But now that I literally can’t afford to shop anywhere other than Aldi’s or Sav-A-Lot and we make regular use of the food pantry in order to eat anything remotely healthy, I can appreciate the individualistic sentiment a little more.

Rather than throw the environmentalism, individualism, and communitarian babies out with the bathwater, what we’ve kind of decided to do is “Think Little,” as my favorite poet puts it. In order to support and encourage the larger whole, we need to start with ourselves. A fusion of the spiritual ethics of starting with our own selves in our OWN spiritual state before talking about the spiritual state of others (Jim Dobson, are you listening??) with environmental concern and the state of our own physical health.

This is common ground. Regardless of where we fall in the whole global warming and environmentalist issues, I would like to think that our own health would prompt us to make better, more healthy and more economically sane choices of what we eat, what we drive (and how often) and how we clean in our own lives and families. And then, when the time is right, we can perhaps do more, both for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Sing on, Kermit.

The Old School HouseAfter a great weekend of hiking, bird watching (and squirrel-watching), and just visiting with my folks, my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, as well as my own family, I’m finally getting back to the Aedificium.

I kind of need to fess up a little. I’ve got a TON of things on my mind these days, ranging from school life to food production and consumption to money and economics to the education of my children and my own students to the state of the Christian faith to domestic politics, social justice, and foreign policy of our own nation. In between my work, my family, various church activities, and, when we can get away to do it, my walks in the woods, I’ve been blogging and returning to Wendell Berry.

I’m currently engaged in a project on concepts of “imperial” vs. “indigenous” or “local” education, and in the course of reading I’ve come across this gem, from Mr. Berry’s essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear:”

“The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” — which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.” (emphasis mine)

There is so much in this quote that I almost don’t even know where to start, except to say that the first reaction for this educator and former librarian (a.k.a., “industrial and capital information specialist”) is a defensive one. The entire information industry (and make no mistake, it is an industry) depends on job-training and research. But the defensiveness is short-lived for me. Library schools no longer teach students knowledge-management, but information management, and even while I was in library school I could see how dependent the library profession was on the technology industry in all its various guises. To an extent I think that this has to happen, but the thing is that this technology industry has infected elementary schools.

As an archivist and librarian, my emphasis was always less on the technology and the information industry than trying to carve out a space in the institution a space for those materials that preserved and promoted a kind of ethical history of whoever I was working for, and how the institution’s history fits into (or did not fit into) the kind of “moral tide” of its community and of the nation. Which is to say, of course, that for institutional librarians and archivists, the selection of “information” to manage is a political, economic, and ethical act.

As an educator, I have long held to the belief that Berry articulates here, that education’s proper use is to enable cultivate an ethic of responsibility in the lives of young people (and of older ones as well). But again, expressed this way, teaching is a political, economic, and ethical act. If educators are to be entrusted with the responsibility to teach “young people to put their lives in order” and to “know what things are more important than other things,” we have to realize the subjective nature of the educational endeavor. It is an awesome responsibility, and if teaching is taken seriously, as it is in my household, it should scare the living bejeezus out of those of us who have it as a calling.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, as a Christian, I am constantly evaluating two things; first, whether or not Christianity, as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood by millions in this country, is compatible with the educational goal of enabling citizens (and not just “Christian Citizens”) “to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible,” and second, if it’s not, then Why not? and What can we do about it? What went wrong, and where? Isn’t the entire heart of gospel ethics rooted in this call? In the life and teachings of Jesus as well as the Prophets?

William Sloane Coffin, Jr., in the “Quote of the Moment” pane up on the top right,” noted that while he was not particularly optimistic, he was full of hope, and I have to admit that this expresses my own position on the issues I raised in that last paragraph. I am a cynic about Christianity’s ability to contribute to economic, political, social, and cultural responsibility as it is currently preached, practiced, and understood. I’m not especially optimistic that its current dominant “manifestation” here in the 21st century can adjust itself to meeting that responsibility either. But I have hope, because I’m seeing numerous individual, community, and even church efforts that share this hope and are beginning to live radically different expressions of our faith that do live out the radical ethic of Christ, one that we educators can employ in our mission not to inform, but enable.

Teachers, let’s get to work.

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