When Did Wendell Berry Start Talking like a Christian?

By Jeffrey Bilbro

1979, or thereabouts. Granted, this answer simplifies a considerably more complicated story. But I begin with this date to foreground my claim that Berry’s use of Christian language does indeed shift. Though Berry’s Christian theology has received much attention, most readers assume its presence, conflicted though it may be, remains relatively consistent throughout his writings. This, however, is not the case, and focusing on when Berry began talking like a Christian sheds light on why Berry thinks Christian language is necessary.

It was in 1979 that Berry published his first essay on a biblical vision of stewardship, started writing his sabbath poems, and began drafting Remembering. At this time, he was also carrying on a remarkable correspondence with the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder in which he takes up, albeit uneasily, the defense of the biblical tradition. Berry’s revisions to his earlier work provide another window into his changing stance toward Christianity during these years; when he selects his poems for the 1985 Collected Poems, he omits several of his early poems that conveyed a kind of pagan, animist vision of creation.

What seems to underlie this shift is Berry’s growing sense that the Christian language of Creation was indispensable for rightly articulating the human place in the world. As he writes in his 1979 essay “The Gift of Good Land,” “the idea of the land as a gift—not a free or a deserved gift, but a gift given upon certain rigorous conditions” has far-reaching implications, and working out the implications of Creation-as-gift animates much of Berry’s later work.

As a young author, Berry sought a new language to name and articulate his sense of a sacred presence within the natural, material world. Dissatisfied with the terms handed down by his Christian tradition, Berry turned to poets working outside the bounds of institutional religion. He describes this quest most explicitly in a 1970 essay titled “A Secular Pilgrimage” in which he identifies a loose tradition of “nature poets” who “sensed the presence of a shaping and sustaining spirit within [nature].” Poetry written in this tradition, Berry argues, “arises out of a state of mind that could very accurately be described as religious.” But his use of the word “religious” seems to cause him some uneasiness, and he immediately clarifies that he means it in a “primitive” rather than institutional sense.

In this essay, Berry concludes that the dawn of a more ecologically harmonious era would require us to articulate this primitive religion in new language: “Such an era, like all eras, will arrive and remain by the means of a new speech—a speech that will cause the world to live and thrive in men’s minds.” This desire for “a new speech” motivates his readings of these nature poets, poets who are exploring new ways of naming the “mystery” that is immanent in the physical world.

Though Berry calls for “new” language in this 1970 essay, ten years later he had come to distrust the possibility of conjuring up some radically new language. Rather, Berry had committed himself to the difficult work of renewing the Christian language he had inherited. In a letter to Gary Snyder, Berry admits, “My own problems with the Bible go back to childhood. In a society even nominally Christian, the Bible is bound to be a source of cheap religious thrills and of a false and abusive authority. It also becomes a kind of ‘parent’ against which the rebellious will rebel. My own disgust and rebellion lasted longer than I wish it had. . . . I now think or hope there is a kind of critical love that can make our inheritance from the past usable and useful.” Such passages chart Berry’s growing awareness that his Christian tradition and its theological terms do not impose some false consciousness that obscures reality; rather, they provide a linguistic repertoire he needs to make adequate sense of nature’s complexity.

By 1980, then, Berry’s letters to Snyder evince his commitment to renew the language of his Christian tradition rather than to find some “new speech” that could name the divinity immanent in the physical world. Their correspondence on the Christian tradition was sparked by two manuscripts that Berry sent to Snyder in the fall of 1979: his essay “The Gift of Good Land” and drafts of his first fifteen sabbath poems. “The Gift of Good Land” represents Berry’s first extended engagement with the Christian theological tradition, and it develops the robust theology of Creation that informs Berry’s later writings.

The concluding sentences of his essay state his position in stark terms: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” In other words, Berry has come to believe that our lives are a continual participation in the Creator’s gift of life. This ontological reality obliges us to honor this gift in the way we sustain our lives.

Berry sent Snyder a draft of “The Gift of Good Land” in September 1979. In December, he sent Snyder a manuscript with the first fifteen of his sabbath poems. Snyder was rather skeptical about the merits of Berry’s sabbath project. He makes comments about particular poems, noting lines he likes and others he doesn’t, but his overall assessment is blunt: “I can enjoy the poems, but not the theology.” In his response, however, Berry defends his endeavor. He acknowledges that the institutional church has sadly abused Christian language, but Berry no longer wants to find a “new speech”; his hope now is that careful, imaginative poetry might help to redeem an abused yet necessary way of speaking:

Biblical concepts such as ‘sabbath,’ ‘incarnation,’ and ‘resurrection’ seem to me just particular names for general principles. That’s misleading. They do have their particular meanings. What I think the churches have done is use the particular meanings to obscure the general ones. . . . These poems are the result, partly, of a whole pattern of dissatisfactions: with my time and history, with my work, with my grasp of problems, with such solutions as I have found, with the traditions both of poetry and religion that the poems attempt to use and serve. That last dissatisfaction is the cause of all the immediate difficulties. There the traditions are, inextricably braided together, very beautiful in certain manifestations, but broken off, cheapened, weakened, encrusted, with hateful growths—yet so rich, so full of the suggestion of usefulness and beauty, that I finally can’t resist the impulse to try to lay hold of them.

Berry’s syntax indicates the tentative nature of his work; he begins with one statement, then calls it misleading and offers a more accurate one. He seems at once eager to take up these beautiful yet cheapened words and unsure of how best to go about this difficult task. Yet over the following forty years, his more than 350 sabbath poems demonstrate the rich fruit this approach has born.

In one sabbath poem, Berry states his theological convictions with remarkable boldness:

The incarnate Word is with us,

is still speaking, is present

always, yet leaves no sign

but everything that is.

The presence of the Creator in Creation may sound akin to pagan animism or pantheism, but Berry comes to understand this mystery in terms of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The Word who spoke Creation into being becomes a member of his Creation. As Berry writes elsewhere, drawing on several Old Testament passages, “Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures.”

This incarnational understanding of Creation inspires the robust theology of Berry’s sabbath poems. As another of his poems has it, each sabbath is “the morning / also of the resurrection of Jesus.” We can rest, finally, because the Word who spoke the world into being became incarnate to redeem Creation, and Christ’s resurrection is the earnest of a redemption that is already inaugurated and in which we are invited to participate. Hence, as Berry famously writes, we can “practice resurrection.” Yet by the time he embarked on his sabbath poems, Berry had come to believe that it is only through Christ that we can be at one with the Creator and so enter into “the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God.”

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “When Did Wendell Berry Start Talking Like a Christian?,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (March 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.