Wendell Berry and the Given Life

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 12 May 2017

Member Reviews

This book summarises the philosophy of Wendell Berry an important clear thinker who is embedded in a specific place at a specific time. The book is structured as 12 chapters covering topics such as givenness, love, economics, language. It speaks to the emptiness and meaninglessness of much current discourse, of the importance of human interactions, human sized systems and of viewing ourselves accurately before God.  Berry is an authentic prophet who sees clearly the true value of community, relationships, family and work.
I had hoped for a general introduction, but found that  the author expected a rather high level of fluency in Wendell Berry's thought, which  caused me to go back and re-read various papers and articles. 
This is a very good book for those who have read Berry's most significant papers and books and who wish to synthesise the philosophy between different manuscripts and identify what to read next,
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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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This was a wonderful book by Ragan Sutterfield (author of the great book Farming As A Spiritual Discipline) on the life and work of Wendell Berry. Berry has had an immense impact on a diverse group of people. He is often quoted by spiritual writers, has influenced the agricultural world, and is an award winning writer in multiple genres. For all of this, Sutterfield calls Berry an amateur. Berry calls himself the same. But sutterfield reminds us that the word amateur has, at its roots, the meaning “for the love of it.” Berry does what he does out of love. Interestingly, his love stands in stark contrast to what much of the Western world loves and as such is seen as a prophetic (Ch 12). The author also makes strong parallels between Berry and St. Benedict. Thought the two are very different in many respects, they are after much of the same things when it comes right down to it. The author delves into this during the first chapter and it is very interesting (though I wish he had gone a little further with it).

Throughout the book the author brings us to many important themes that appear in Berry’s multifaceted work. Humility is explored in chapter 2. Here very important things are said about creatureliness and the necessary limit of the creature. Love (Ch 3) and economics (Ch 4) are intertwined both with each other and with the creatureliness that is explored in the first chapter. What book about Berry would be complete without a chapter on Sabbath (Ch 6) and membership (Ch 8) ? One of my favorite chapters, however, was the chapter on Berry’s exploration of peaceableness (Ch 11). I was particularly drawn to the idea of “authentic patriotism” and find that such a discusion is of crucial importance during the time in which we live. This chapter also explores the necessity of imagination when dealing with the conflict within our world. Sutterfield writes “If we cannot imagine our enemies, if we cannot begin to see them as bearers of God’s image, then it will be easier to kill them.”  Sutterfiled does a great job of piecing together Berry’s thoughts in this chapter. The chapter on Berry as a prophet, as previously mentioned, was very compelling. Berry’s work is beautiful but it’s also edgy at times. This poet, like the poet-prophets of old, has the ability to snap you awake up with his writing. Finally, the short afterward was great. Here the author had several questions which Berry answered. I found a clarity and graciousness in his words here and was thankful this section was included.

If you are a Berry fan this book is for you. If you are interested in agriculture or environmental studies – or creation theology for that matter – this is for you. If you haven’t read Berry but are interested in his work, this is a really great place to start as the author explores Berry from a number of angles and through his various genres of writing (fiction, poetry, essays, etc). Great book.
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Brilliant!

I am excited when I see scholarship about Wendell Berry’s thought and work published. Berry’s writing (especially his fiction for me) has greatly impacted my own thinking. The greatest endorsement that I can give to Sutterfield’s ‘Wendell Berry and the Given Life’ is the fact that it systematizes, to a degree, Berry’s thought and does so without relegating Berry to academia or reducing his works to folksy, antiquarian truisms. 

Wendell Berry teaches me how to be a creature and a steward and how to live in a world with other creatures.  Sutterfield’s volume shows me how Berry teaches me that. I will return to this volume again and again because it makes my experience of reading Berry more pleasurable and more profitable.

ARC provided.
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