Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life

BonzoStevens_8_13.inddIn a previous post, I mentioned the work of Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry. I also mentioned a very good book about him entitled, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life (Brazos Press) written by college professors J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael Stevens. What follows is a short interview with Dr. Bonzo about the book (the interview took place shortly after the book’s release in 2008) that explains why reading Wendell Berry is helpful to college students, parents and youth workers:

CPYU: Some of our readers may not be familiar with Wendell Berry. Tell us a little bit about him and why you think his work is important for Christians to consider?

Bonzo: Wendell Berry is a farmer, writer and former college professor. He has written several novels, volumes of poetry and multiple collections of essays. He has been called the social critic of our age. He continues to farm his land, live simply, and speak prophetically. Berry shows the believing community how easily it is to mistake a culture of death for a culture of life. As a recent Dallas Times editorial has suggested, “Wendell Berry is the man for our time.”

CPYU: What first drew you to Wendell Berry’s writing? How has he influenced your work as a philosopher and college professor?

Bonzo: I found my way into Berry’s work through his short stories where his concern for community and his emphasis on a sense of place resonate. As a professor I work hard to craft a classroom as place where students belong. Learning is a project that we engage in together. And we work hard towards the making of a good life that we share by asking hard questions about how we understand and what we desire. Beyond the walls of education, my family and I run a small C.S.A. (Consumer Supported Agriculture) farm the shape of which has been influenced by Berry’s vision.

CPYU: What were your motivations for co-writing your book Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life?

Bonzo: The book is an act of friendship. Michael and I wrote nearly every word together. We simply had a conversation about Berry, sometimes straying into talking about high school football, parenting, or lunch. The conversation grew out of two classes we taught together on Berry’s thought. We saw the impact his vision had on students’ lives. There aren’t many books written on Berry, especially doing the kind of synthesis we wanted to do. Thankfully the editors at Brazos agreed with us.

CPYU: The majority of our readers are parents and youth workers. How do you think this demographic would benefit from reading Wendell Berry?

Bonzo: Berry’s insight in what makes up a healthy community and his awareness of the forces that work against such practices are essential in a world that apparently has been stripped of meaning and purpose. As my wife and I raise our son, we intentionally try to equip him with the resources to lead a good life, a life which witnesses to the reality of the kingdom of God in our world. Berry’s wisdom reminds us of the goodness of creation, the havoc we fallen people wreak on creation and each other in the name of efficiency and wealth, and the healing that is a’comin’.

CPYU: Why do you think college students should read Wendell Berry?

Bonzo: College students are setting the habits and practices in place that will shape their lives. Berry invites us to be intentional about our habits and practices by forcing us to think about our future lives in relationship to the environment that makes that life possible and in relationship to the families, households, and neighborhoods in which we will dwell. Quickly we realize that a life overflowing with gratitude is the only proper response to what God has given us.

CPYU: For people who are new to Wendell Berry, where do you suggest people start reading?

Bonzo: It is hard to go wrong. If you start with an essay, I would suggest “The Body and the Earth.” If you are going to start with his novels, you may want to begin with an early work like A Place on Earth to set the context of his fictional village Port William. Jayber Crow is probably my favorite novel. There is a new collection of his Mad Farmer poems just out that I highly recommend.

CPYU: Do you have a favorite quote by Wendell Berry?

Bonzo: From the poem “Marriage:” “We hurt, and are hurt/and have each other for healing/It is healing. It is never whole.”