Biblical Convocation in Wendell Berry's Remembering
Donnelly, Phillip J., Christianity and Literature
Whether we consider Wendell Berry's poetry, his fiction, or his essays, the remarkable integrity of his writing can make it difficult to discuss one aspect of his work apart from the whole. Berry identifies himself as an "agrarian" (Another Turn of the Crank ix); in his vision, the life of the small family farm is central to a right understanding and practice of ecology, ethics, politics, religion, marriage, fiction, poetry, and faithful speech generally. Working from such an integrated view, Berry's writing implies that genuine lasting solutions to national problems, whether agricultural, ecological, or ethical, must be effected not primarily through changes in national political policy but through the integrity of the practices and stories arising out of and shared by local communities. Shared local narratives provide the context and meaning for individual lives and sustain a shared understanding of what constitutes a good life; such stories, according to Berry, can also provide the local education required to make a community ecologically self-sustaining over generations (What Are People For? 166-67). As part of his insistence upon the ethical status of ecological and agricultural considerations, Berry's writing often sacralizes the cosmic order by drawing upon religious discourse. His use of religious images, themes, and motifs can sometimes be eclectic, but Berry often draws upon specifically Christian biblical sources and traditions. An obvious example would be the sustained Dantean engagements throughout both Remembering and Jayber Crow. (1) The character of Berry's fictional engagement of biblical writings as they bear upon his agrarian vision, however, has yet to be established with much clarity. (2) Does his writing simply sacralize nature? How could such a sacralization avoid subsuming Christian vocabulary into a vaguely pantheist discourse? What does Berry's deployment of biblical themes, images, and stories imply about the character of the overarching narrative that guides his writing? Taking as a point of departure some of the conflicting evaluations of Berry's engagement of theological discourse, the argument here focuses upon three aspects of Berry's novella, Remembering, each of which engage biblical texts and biblical poetic traditions: (3) the central image of the right hand, the overall narrative structure, and the use of lyric voice. Each of these elements differently involve the act of "convocation" that Berry contends is integral to authentic poetry and is characteristic of speech in a healthy community.
Although there is some critical consensus regarding Berry's place in a tradition of American "Nature Writers," beginning with Thoreau and continuing through the likes of Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez (cf. Buell 6-11, Slovic 3-14), there is less consensus regarding the character of Berry's engagement of biblical literary tradition. According to John Lang, Berry's "poetry of Incarnation" emphasizes divine immanence in creation to a degree that is unusual among Christians; however, such emphasis does not entail pantheism, in Lang's view, because Berry consistently deploys the term "creation,' rather than "nature." Such usage thus implies a transcendent creator who is not identical with creation: "That nature surpasses human making is one of [Berry's] central themes. But that nature surpasses nature's making is also implicit in his writing" (Lang 263). (4) In contrast, Richard Pevear, in discussing Berry's essay, "Native Hill," argues that the use of biblical themes and vocabulary ultimately serves a "stoic deification of nature" (Pevear 344). (5) Pevear's argument cites Berry's appeal to a cyclical view of time and the related understanding of death as a natural part of life. (6) Such an accommodation of death, as distinct from Christ's victory over death, makes Berry's position, according to Pevear, "deeply inconsistent, contradictory and argued with a certain amount of intellectual 'bad faith'" (344):
Nature idolatry is finally a worship of power. …