Book Review: Wendell Berry and the Given Life

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As you’ve probably noticed, I read a lot of books. I’ve read a few dozen this year, but I’m always open to reading new books. When I read the description for Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield, it caught my attention.

Naturalist Ragan Sutterfield presents Wendell Berry’s vision for the creaturely life, and the Christian understandings of humility and creation that underpin it. Berry’s insights flow from lived practices, 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.

I haven’t read a lot specifically about our place in creation, and I thought about concern for the environment from a Christian perspective would be really interesting. This book was well-written and compelling, and though I am confident others may enjoy it, it wasn’t quite my cup of tea.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Positives

This is the first book I read by Sutterfield, and I was very impressed. Though Sutterfield was synthesizing works by Berry and sharing writing from others, this book read very smoothly. In fact, the writing was so cohesive, there were a few times I had to stop and re-read because I had missed where Berry’s quote ended and Sutterfield’s writing began. I also thought this was a really thought-provoking book and shared some compelling points.

Negatives

My biggest criticism is that the book bordered on over-spiritualization of concern for the environment, which I will address in the Catholic Perspective section.

Though I felt it was overly idealistic or bordered on unrealistic, I think that it is understandable because it was setting a vision for what we should strive for, not necessarily a “let’s drop everything and do this now.”

The remainder of my criticisms come down to personal preferences. I had some disagreements with points he made and there were a few side comments made that threw me off like broad dismissal of GMOs.  As someone with a chronic illness, it was also difficult to read the section on health. I understand the overall point he was trying to make by saying health was wholeness, but it was still a little frustrating.

Catholic Perspective

I was surprised that this book wasn’t outright religious. I actually think this was a good approach, though. The focus was on living Christian values and letting that speak for itself rather than outright saying “Christians believe X, therefore Y.” I think this allows the book to have a much broader appeal than to just Christians, which is an advantage.

I enjoyed seeing the connections between Christian faith and Berry’s thoughts. Overall, it made a lot of sense, but there were a few points where it felt like a stretch. The book said early on that Berry called himself a “forest Christian” and “bad-weather churchgoer,” and this was evident by some of the criticism of religion and the weird spiritual components.

As I mentioned earlier, my biggest criticism was the over-spiritualization of concern for the environment. The descriptions ranged from “hippy-dippy” to broaching on New Age. There were several points where it seemed like he was equating the value of human life to animal life or nature. There were also lines like “[b]y working the soil and growing food from it, we are participating in ‘a sacrament…’”

Despite these criticisms, I do think the underlying Christian themes were good. In fact, my favorite section was the one on the Sabbath. It was really interesting approach combining Jewish background, the Christian faith, philosophy, and modern practicality.

Final Thoughts

Though I have several criticisms, I sincerely believe others may enjoy it. If this is a topic you’re interested in, whether you are Christian or not, I encourage you to give the book a chance. It’s just not my cup of tea.

 

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