Monday, October 8, 2012

The Unsettling of America

Written in 1977 as a prophetic word into the dangers of industrialism, Wendell Berry writes about the connections between good farming practices, cultural formation and the character development of a people group. Whenever I run into someone who has been reading Berry for thirty or more years, without fail, The Unsettling of America receives mention. It really has been a seminal work that captured an entire generation of folks who embrace Berry's vision of goodness, community, work, economics and creation. I quote here from a section where Berry is direct in identifying the unbridled enthusiasm with which the institutional church in America has tended to be in bed with industrialism and its dangerous assumptions regarding unlimited growth, consumption and technology. We can hear the voice of the evangelist saying, "I don't care what it is, as long as it works" or the preacher speaking about the evils of this world without giving a second thought to the ways in which he is dependent upon the world's production and fruitfulness. In a word, the message of Contemporary American Christianity has often been "have nothing to do with 'the world,'" all the while has embraced the destructive zeitgeist/spirit/patterns of the world. Berry writes here about how Contemporary American Christianity, to the detriment of the Bible's vision of life, often has tended to separate the physical elements of Creation from the spiritual aspects of our existence:

“For many of the churchly, the life of the spirit is reduced to a dull preoccupation with getting to Heaven. At best, the world is no more than an embarrassment and a trial to the spirit, which is otherwise radically separated from it. The true lover of God must not be burdened with any care or respect for His works. While the body goes about its business of destroying the earth, the soul is supposed to lie back and wait for Sunday, keeping itself free of earthly contaminants. While the body exploits other bodies, the soul stands aloof, free from sin, crying to the gawking bystanders: ‘I am not enjoying it!’ As far as this sort of ‘religion’ is concerned, the body is no more than the lusterless container of the soul, a mere ‘package,’ that will nevertheless light up in eternity, forever cool and shiny as a neon cross. This separation of soul from the body and from the world is no disease of the fringe, no aberration, but a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault. And this rift in the mentality of religion continues to characterize the modern mind, no matter how secular or worldly it becomes.

But I have not stated my point exactly enough. This rift is not like a geologic fault; it is a geologic fault. It is a flaw in the mind that runs inevitably into the earth. Thought affects or afflicts substance neither by intention nor by accident, but because, occurring in the Creation that is unified and whole, it must; there is no help for it.

The soul, in its loneliness, hopes only for ‘salvation.’ And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God, and it is therefore the confluence of soul and body, word and flesh, where thoughts must become deeds, where goodness is to be enacted. This is the great meeting place, the narrow passage where spirit and flesh, word and world, pass into each other. The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction. It says that they cannot be divided; that their mutuality, their unity, is inescapable; that they are not reconciled in division, but in harmony. What else can be meant by the resurrection of the body? The body should be ‘filled with light,’ perfected in understanding. And so everywhere there is the sense of consequence, fear and desire, grief and joy. What is desirable is repeatedly defined in the tensions of the sense of consequence. False prophets are known ‘by their fruits.’ We are to treat others as we would be treated; thought is thus barred from any easy escape into aspiration or ideal, is turned around and forced into action”  (pp. 108-09).

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