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City Vision: Comparing Timothy Keller and Wendell Berry

     In recent years, two authors have loomed large in my reading, and have therefore had a large degree of influence on my worldview. It’s all the more disconcerting then, when I find them to be in some level of disagreement with one another. The two authors, in this case, are Wendell Berry and Timothy Keller. The subject in which they disagree consists of the way Christians should think about cities.

Timothy Keller’s City Vision

     Consider first Tim Keller’s city vision. Keller has somewhat famously championed the strategic importance of cities to Christian ministry. In his book, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), Keller argues that Christians “should love city life and find it energizing” (Center Church, 169) and “Christians should seek to live in the city . . . to use the resources of the church to seek a great, flourishing city” (172).
     Keller stated his case even more boldly in an April 18th sermon at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. In that sermon, entitled “Serving the City,” Keller said, “If you’re a Christian, and you can live in New York City, do it.” Keller’s enthusiasm for city life flows in part out of the fact that millions of people are moving into the cities of the world every decade, creating unique opportunities for global, gospel impact.

Wendell Berry’s Country Vision

            Novelist and essayist Wendell Berry on the other hand considers this commendation of city life somewhat hasty. Berry is famous for his novelized depictions of the agrarian life as generally more wholesome and humane than city life. This sentiment impresses itself on his readers through the inhabitants of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, whose patient heroes resist the influence of “big city” culture and whose prodigals embrace it to their own eventual corruption.
            In Remembering (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008), Berry describes the emotional journey of Port William native Andy Catlett. The beginning of his straying is marked by these words:
He is a man fated to be charmed by cities. They frighten him and threaten to break his heart, but they charm him too. He came to them too late not to be charmed by them. . . . Years ago, he resigned himself to living in cities. . . . (59)
In the same vein, in Jayber Crow (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2000), Berry links the slow disintegration of Port William to the encroachment of the city:
People in Port William would find it handy to drive to work or to shop in Louisville. And Louisville would find it handy to grow farther out into the countryside. City lots would be carved out of farms, raising of course the price of farmland, so that urban people could enjoy the spaciousness of rural life while looking evening and morning at the rear ends of one another’s automobiles. (282)
I have been concerned enough about the divide between Berry’s and Keller’s views that I corresponded with Mr. Berry about the matter. He confirmed his suspicions about city life in one of his letters:
I have heard it argued by young preachers that God is crowding people into the cities in order to make it handier to convert them. This seemed to me to imply a very low opinion of the intelligence of God, who might be expected to see that this industrial efficiency would make the crowds equally available to the purposes of the devil. (Personal correspondence of April 6, 2016)
Questionable theology notwithstanding, at the very least, these sentences seem to confirm Berry’s low opinion of city life.
            Or do they?

A Major Point of Commonality

            In Center Church, Keller himself admits that it would be easy to read Berry as being anti-city. Keller writes, “While Berry does laud the life of the farm and the small town, he defines the ‘agrarian mind’ as essentially that which values the local . . . .” (170, emphasis in original). Keller goes on to examine Berry’s essay collection, Citizenship Papers, arguing that a locally-grounded lifestyle is expressed primarily through a commitment to local relationships and a rejection of “pride and a lack of respect and gratitude for nature . . . manifesting itself in exploitation and greed.” Keller concludes, “What this means, I believe, is that a person with an ‘agrarian mind’ can live in a city very well.”
            Would Berry himself agree with Keller’s analysis of his opinion? In the same letter quoted above, Berry insists that the divide between city and country is not finally great enough for us to villainize either:
[We must not make] an arbitrary division between the city and the country, which in fact are not so far divided that they don’t about equally suffer the effects of a brutal economy that enables the very rich to prosper by plundering the land and the people.
In other words, it is not the farm or the apartment building that matters, but rather the habit of interacting with one’s neighbors and surroundings:
I would say that some places in some cities are undoubtedly more spiritual than a strip mine or a hog factory. On the other hand, some rural places may be more spiritual than some slums, casinos, or whorehouses.
Berry’s words dovetail with the second point Keller makes in his sermon of April 18th. Summarizing God’s words to the Babylonian exiles in Jeremiah 29, Keller says, “respectfully resist the values of that place, don’t assimilate.” God’s people are to live in the city, but continue to resist the self-centered values of the city.
Both Wendell Berry and Tim Keller affirm the importance of an other-oriented worldview and warn against the city’s tendency to poison it, even while the particular antidotes that they offer work in different ways.

Three Suggestions for Reading Wendell Berry

            With these thoughts in mind, I offer three suggestions for reading Wendell Berry for the most benefit. First, read Berry as a student of human nature and of the natural world, not as a student of the Bible. He provides invaluable insights and, at times, helpful correctives, but he cannot (nor would he, I think, want to) replace biblical, pastoral theologians.
            Second, read Berry as a balance against the anti-environmental and ultra-libertarian influences that sometimes pervade right-wing evangelicalism. Berry reminds us of the primal importance of the land and of our duty to work for a just economy, not merely a free market one.
            Third, read Berry as an encouragement in rural ministry. Keller has called us into the city, and rightly so. Strategy demands a greater Christian presence in the city. But integrity demands a continued Christian presence in the country, and Berry’s writings can serve as an encouragement for those laboring there.

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