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On Mr. Berry and Professor Jennings

August 25th, 2022 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

In his critique of my discussion of “whiteness” in the book, my friend Scott Pryor observes that it seems as if I’m shifting away from Wendell Berry’s critique of modernity and toward Willie James Jennings’s.

On one hand, in Chapter 2, The Great Uprooting: Race and the End of Nature, Meador balances the approach Carl Trueman took in “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.” Trueman’s was an intellectual history of the contemporary Western preoccupation with identity. Meador’s book is a social history. Both are valuable and each compliments the other. In this chapter, however, Meador’s reach may have exceeded his grasp. He tries to do a great deal in a small compass and exacerbates the risks of compression by describing what he identifies as the “problem of place” in terms of Whiteness. In other words, Meador is channeling Willie James Jennings instead of Wendell Berry.

(Do read Scott’s whole post. His point about the Mongols is fair and there is much in all of his posts that I want to continue to reflect on.)

I wanted to take the Berry -> Jennings point briefly here, just because it’s a relatively short point but probably worth making: The reason I was primed as I was to read The Christian Imagination (and also his related essay “Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?”) is precisely because I have read Mr. Berry.

This part of Berry’s work is not as discussed amongst Berry’s many conservative admirers, but it is worth remembering that he is in many ways a man of the old left. He’s more Pete Seeger or Arlo Guthrie than paleocon. This is forgotten today because that version of the left has basically disappeared, bombed out of the narrative by centrist neo-liberals and then utterly ignored by today’s successor ideology. Yet in many ways I think that version of the left is one of the best things to arise in America’s political history. And I would like to see it regained.

Anyway, back to my point concerning the farmer and the professor: The book that made Mr. Berry famous, The Unsettling of America, is a robust critique of land theft and the styles of farming that European settlers brought with them into the Americas. Here’s one excerpt that is broadly representative:

One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it. As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be. The continent is said to have been discovered by an Italian who was on his way to India. The earliest explorers were looking for gold, which was, after an early streak of luck in Mexico, always somewhere farther on. Conquests and foundings were incidental to this search—which did not, and could not, end until the continent was finally laid open in an orgy of goldseeking in the middle of the last century. Once the unknown of geography was mapped, the industrial marketplace became the new frontier, and we continued, with largely the same motives and with increasing haste and anxiety, to displace ourselves—no longer with unity of direction, like a migrant flock, but like the refugees from a broken ant hill. In our own time we have invaded foreign lands and the moon with the high-toned patriotism of the conquistadors, and with the same mixture of fantasy and avarice.

Then later:

The Indians did, of course, experience movements of population, but in general their relation to place was based upon old usage and association, upon inherited memory, tradition, veneration. The land was their homeland. The first and greatest American revolution, which has never been superseded, was the coming of people who did not look upon the land as a homeland. But there were always those among the newcomers who saw that they had come to a good place and who saw its domestic possibilities. Very early, for instance, there were men who wished to establish agricultural settlements rather than quest for gold, or exploit the Indian trade. Later, we know that every advance of the frontier left behind families and communities who intended to remain and prosper where they were.


If there is any law that has been consistently operative in American history, it is that that members of any established people or group or community sooner or later become ‘redskins’—that is, they become the designated victims of an utterly ruthless, officially sanctioned and subsidized exploitation. The colonists who drove off the Indians came to be intolerably exploited by their imperial governments. And that alien imperialism was thrown off only to be succeeded by a domestic version of the same thing; the class of independent small farmers who fought the war of independence has been exploited by, and recruited into, the industrial society until by now it is almost extinct. Today, the most numerous heirs of the farmers of Lexington and Concord are the little groups scattered all over the country whose names begin with ‘Save’: Save Our Land, Save the Valley, Save Our Mountains, Save Our Streams, Save Our Farmland. As so often before, these are designated victims—people without official sanction, often without official friends, who are struggling to preserve their places, their values and their lives as they know them and prefer to live them against the agencies of their own government which are using their own tax moneys against them.

The only escape from this destiny of victimization has been to ‘succeed’—that is, to ‘make it’ into the class of exploiters, and then to remain so specialized and so ‘mobile’ as to be unconscious of the effects of one’s life or livelihood. This escape is, of course, also illusory, for one man’s producer is another’s consumer, and even the richest and most mobile will soon find it hard to escape the noxious effluents and fumes of their various public services.

Let me emphasize that I am not talking about an evil that is merely contemporary or ‘modern’, but one that is as old in America as the white man’s presence here.

So there it is: The development of racialization in America, the wreckage brought about by colonialism to the land, and then the way in which that narrative continues to repackage itself across time, with the previous generation’s oppressor becoming the oppressed. I am deeply understanding of why folks object to using “whiteness” to name this process. But my fear was and is that the refusal to use such language often (not always) goes along with a failure to actually name the problem rightly. This is, incidentally, my concern with Professor Trueman’s book: There are always material realities driving history and I do not know that he reckons adequately with those materialist drivers of the very real challenge he is defining and mapping out in his recent books. The modern self was not born in the mind of Enlightenment philosophers, or it was not only born there. It was born in the ripping, tearing, and uprooting of America done by many (not all) of the early settlers. Berry recognizes it and makes it central to his entire body of work. In this, there is no conflict between Mr. Berry and Professor Jennings.

Likewise, Berry’s book The Hidden Wound, written while he was still a graduate student at Stanford if I recall correctly, makes many of the exact same arguments about race that Jennings does. I quoted some of what Berry says in there in the intro to the book, in fact. Here is Berry talking about the ways in which racialization in America and Christianity in America produced a sharp conflict in the minds of Christian believers, as their bodies belonged to an economy founded on injustice and theft while their minds, as it were, belonged to a kingdom called into existence by grace, humility, and care.

Consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of the people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to perfect an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit. If there had ever opened a conscious connection between the two claims, if the two sides of his mind had ever touched, it would have been like building a fire in a house full of gunpowder: somewhere down deep in his mind he always knew of the danger, and his nerves were always alert to it…. Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. The question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy.

Anyway, I am thankful for Scott’s careful reading of the book and would happily commend all of it to you, his criticisms very much included. Here my purpose was merely to note that the divide between Mr. Berry and Professor Jennings, on matters of history at least, is basically non-existent. If there is a second purpose I have here, it would be this: I am keen to see a revival of some of the old leftism of Mr. Berry. As I am reading John Gray, what stands out to me is the ways in which all of our dominant ideologies on offer today seem to trade in what Gray refers to as the characteristic myth of modernity, the notion that all of history up till now is the prelude to the making of a new world and that it is for us to take action to alter and remake the human condition. I want out of that scheme altogether. But I think the presentist left, the reactionary right, and the  tail-chasing centrists are all, in different ways, working to preserve it. I do not wish it to be preserved. Nor did Mr. Berry nor, in his older work, did Professor Jennings. And it is with them that I wish to take my stand.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).