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What Wendell Berry Gets Wrong About Wendell Berry

January 2nd, 2017 | 6 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Tamara Hill Murphy’s Plough essay, The Hole in Wendell Berry’s Gospel, is well worth reading even if I disagree with much of it. She gives two principal concerns: The first accusation is of papering over the flaws of rural life and the second regards the weaknesses of Berry’s total moral and economic vision. The first accusation is very contestable, the second goes in the wrong direction. Rod Dreher, in his post on the subject, suggests that maybe Wendell Berry is wrong about Wendell Berry– and I agree with him!

In regards to the first issue, I think it is hard to look at Berry’s fiction and not see significant wrestlings with human frailty and wickedness. Jeff Bilbro explores these at some length, but I’ll chime in with my favorite story, “Watch With Me”. This story describes how the members of Port William try to prevent a mentally ill man from killing himself and while it has a happy ending it does not hold back from the realities of life. There is plenty that may be glossed over, but the stories with a romantic glow are matched by the ones full of tragedy.

Murphy’s invocation of Hillbilly Elegy is curious here, considering that J.D. Vance’s memoir is set decades later than most of the Port William stories. Part of what is so valuable about these stories is the way in which they describe a social milieu that at one point in time held back some of the ills that Vance experienced. I don’t think the intergenerational flaws and sins are overlooked in Berry’s fiction (see Nathan Coulter) so much as they are dealt with in a way that seems foreign to us in our modern era.

More importantly, the vision set forth in all of Berry’s fiction, essays, poems, and speeches is indeed incomplete and in need of serious correction, even if it isn’t billed as such. I think it is fair to say that many people, including Berry himself, take Berry’s writings as an exhaustive and self-contained vision. This vision is very provincial, and meant to be so, such that the social and economic way of life that Berry hopes for may seem achievable when in fact it leaves many problems and questions unresolved.

Even Murphy rightly points out that most Berry enthusiasts fall far short of living out the sort of ideals espoused in his works because to do so is so difficult, even utopian. Because Port William is often taken as an example of these ideals and because the essays themselves call for a radical reorganization of our modern economic order that seems to suggest everything would be much better if we all went back to wherever the nearest Port William was, neither Berry nor his critics have much interest in taking anything piecemeal.

However, I would argue that this is a mistake. For example, Berry recently gave a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health entitled “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age”, which was excellent as long as he was talking about thought, limits, and our prodigal age. Half the speech, however, was taken up by a paean to price controls on tobacco, a statist intervention to sustain the production of poison. (I haven’t the space here to respond to Berry’s essay on the subject except to say that it is a prime example of how anyone smart enough to talk themselves into supporting something ridiculous can do so.) I think it is entirely possible to distill the good from the bad in Berry and still be enthusiastic about his pronouncements despite his serious flaws. Hannah Coulter is not Scripture, but I think we can take a lesson from Proverbs: we still read and appreciate the book even though Solomon clearly didn’t work out of a lot of his own implications from what he wrote.

I think the main things that can be learned from Berry and are difficult to appreciate unless you read his stories, his poems, and his essays (in part because very few others are saying the same things without citing him) are:

  1. People, animals, and the earth are dependent on one another and have natural limits, many of which are reflected in the Bible’s teaching. Human communities will generally flourish when we respect these limits and will usually face serious consequences when we don’t respect them.
  2. Treating people, animals, and the earth the way that we treat machines is bad because this does not respect their created limits.
  3. Technology that allows us to overcome our natural limits and treat living things like machines should be viewed with inherent suspicion because it is usually treated as benign or good without any thought for the consequences of breaking those limits.
  4. Our economy as it currently exists encourages exploitation and carelessness; it has no inherent regard for faithfulness, natural limits, Biblical precepts, or human flourishing. We can have a different economy if we are willing to work for it.
  5. There is knowledge and wisdom that can only be acquired with time, experience, and staying in the same place for a long time. Fruitfulness is often a function of rootedness.
  6. This knowledge and wisdom related to rootedness, combined with an unambitious respect for natural limits, helps us to flourish as human beings and care for one another.

There are a lot of caveats that one must take in reading Berry and I generally agree with Murphy’s urge that we put more stock in the Gospel’s imagination than Berry’s. However, the above-mentioned themes shine through quite clearly and beautifully in Berry’s work. They are all being ignored at many levels in very large sectors of society and this fecklessness is to our moral and physical peril.

Furthermore, the degree to which these precepts are not taken seriously corresponds to the potential for harm that we might do to ourselves. So even though I think Berry applies them very wrongly in many cases (among other warnings I’d urge one to heed in reading him), I think their discussion and application is fairly urgent. If someone else takes up these issues with greater clarity and beauty, by all means, switch to reading that person.

Otherwise, I’d recommend reading Hannah Coulter and Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (you can easily read the introductory essay, The Joy of Sales Resistance, to get a sense of Berry’s delightful verve.) My favorite short story, “Watch With Me”, can be found in the collection That Distant Land and some of his best poems are collected here.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at