Wendell Berry and the narratives that frame our lives

Everyone lives life through the stories we tell ourselves. Part of Paul’s genius with the book of Romans is that he frames the lives of Christian converts through a new narrative – Israel’s story retold. This is seen throughout chapters 5-8. Christians are no longer Adam’s people. They are people of the new exodus who are being brought through the wilderness into their new glorious inheritance. This narrative gives us a new identity and baptism is the means by which our stories are brought into the fold of God’s narrative for us (Rom. 6.1-14).

Stories matter. The stories that we tell ourselves matter. The stories that we read about in literature and watch on TV matter. If we’re not careful the stories that we passively watch and read about can begin to shape our lives for the worse.

Stories that I see framed in the media are stories where success matters and success is defined in very narrow terms – power, control, money and fame. Ask anyone (especially the young and naïve) what their dreams are and you will find their stories are framed by success. And what do you expect? The average person watches four and a half hours of TV a day. We’re not created to be isolated monads. Who and what we associate with matters because we tend to adopt their values (1 Cor. 15.33; Proverbs 13.20; 22.24-5). And it’s important to note that these voices do not typically extol the virtues of being committed to family (maybe friends but not family).

What is needed then are resources to combat the voices that speak to us from culture. If we don’t actively fight this we’ll end up passively adopting them.

This is where Wendell Berry fits in.

Berry is most well known for his essays bemoaning the advent of the industrialization that came with modernity. He is an advocate for an older order of things – rugged families who provide for themselves – lovers of land and community; agrarians. He’s become an advocate for farmers, a critic of the American war machine, and a committed environmentalist, all the while farming the same plot of land he’s owned in Kentucky for 50 years.

The great thing about Berry is that he also writes fiction and poetry. And this is where Berry is a resource. His fiction (I’ve read Hannah Coutler and Andy Catlett) revolves around the fictional town of Port William. The narrative that frames the characters in his works don’t struggle with status anxiety; they don’t clamor after the latest fashions and trends. They are simple and contended people. Their lives revolve around their families. Everyone works – everyone does the same sort of work and everyone does it together. There’s no corporate ladder to climb. The church matters but there’s no frenetic activity. There are no small groups, youth groups or conferences. Everything happens organically.

Port William isn’t perfect and neither is Berry. But he’s a hell of a lot better voice to listen to than this fall’s line up of sitcoms