An archive of this Sojourner's Journey – Reflections, book reviews, and other random thoughts

Book Review: Wendell Berry and the Given Life

About the Book:

We drive to work on the stored energy of ten thousand years of sunlight. Our daily bread seems to generate miraculously from store shelves. And our communities can be connected with a billion ones and zeros over fiber optic cables. For us, the idea of being a creature can seem passé. Yet in this lonely world of mastery, in a time so dominated by human desire and design that it has been dubbed the “anthropocene,” the human age, many of us feel that we are missing some essential truth about who we are.

The glimpses of this truth come when we lose cell reception on a long hike in the forest and our eyes are lifted to the simple marvel of trees. We feel this truth when we take up a shovel and sense the satisfying heave of dirt as we plant a modest garden. We hear this truth when we tune out the traffic and listen to the song sparrow’s melody, eavesdropping on a beauty that serves no human economy. In all this we hear a whisper of the truth that we are creatures—and we long to live in this reality. But how can we, when we have moved so far from our life source in the soil?

For the past 50 years, Wendell Berry has been helping seekers chart a return to the practice of being creatures. Through his essays, poetry and fiction, Berry has repeatedly drawn our attention to the ways in which our lives are gifts in a whole economy of gifts.

Berry presents us with the sort of coherent vision for the lived moral and spiritual life that we need now.  His work helps us remember our givenness and embrace our life as creatures. His insights flow from a life and practices, and so it is a vision that can be practiced and lived—it is a vision that is grounded in the art of being a creature.

Wendell Berry and the Given Life  articulates his vision for the creaturely life and the Christian understandings of humility and creation that underpin it.

My Thoughts:

In some ways I loved this book and in other ways I found myself frustrated with it.

To begin, the author sought to cover a great deal of ground.  Each one of the chapter themes could have spanned many books and so we are given a very brief look at what the Sutterfield considers the core of Berry’s thoughts on a topic.  In some cases this was perfect, giving a glimpse into an idea that you can then go and explore for yourself across Berry’s writings.  In other cases I found that it made the topics seem somewhat idealistic and that there simply wasn’t enough space to fully round out the discussion, particularly as it comes to application to the world in which we live.

I deeply appreciated the theme of the given life: what it means to receive and what it looks like to be given in return.  I also loved the reflection on what it means to be creatures, living within the limitations placed upon us by the Creator.

As I always do with Berry’s work, I struggled with the emphasis on place and roots.  While so much of it appeals to my soul, that’s not the life I’ve been called to as an emissary of the gospel to foreign lands.  I do love the idea of place and roots and living within my “watershed,” however I always wish more discussion was given to the reality that not all “wander” because they are discontent or irresponsible, but because God calls.

The places where I found myself frustrated within this work is where we were presented with a beautiful ideal without enough space to really flush out what that can look like in the wide world.  Without that discussion I found my thoughts to easily drawn to how short we fall of even our most preciously held ideals about how to live, which opened a doorway to guilt rather than hope.  Perhaps that was just me, but I did find that such a brief overview of so many lofty topics wasn’t as beneficial as I had hoped in answering the question, “What does it look like for me to live the given life?”  Perhaps that wasn’t the question that the author was seeking to answer.  Perhaps the book was intended to be simply informational.

Is it a good book?  Yes.  I think it is especially helpful if you know very little about Wendell Berry and his vision.   But for myself, I suppose I was hoping for a bit more depth wrestling with integration and application of the given or “creaturely” life.

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I was given a free digital copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion, which is given in the review above.

 

 

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