Agrarian Pastoral Theology
Updated: Feb 21
What Are People For?
by Wendell Berry
North Point Press (1990)
In this Mars Hill Audio conversation Eugene Peterson directs people to read Wendell Berry for pastoral theology (I think he calls it “spiritual theology”). Peterson says all you need to do is substitute “parish” wherever Berry uses the word “farm” and you will have good, solid pastoral theology. I decided to take Peterson’s advice and see what I could learn about pastoring from Berry.
What Are People For? is a collection of Berry’s essays and poems. The collection begins with a couple of Berry’s poems, proceeds to a section of essays reflecting on authors and their literary work, and ends with several essays concerning ecology, anthropology, economics and technology. It would not be fair to simply conflate his work with pastoral theology. He has other purposes in mind as he writes, purposes which are very much worthy of attention in their own right.
In this collection he seeks to call people to be attentive to our own nature. He further asks us to consider that the economic goals that drive most Americans fail miserably to achieve truly beneficial ends. The consequences of this failure are many. We undermine family, community, and thereby even individual happiness. In the process we have separated ourselves from creation; we have become disconnected from the land. Consequently we are not caring well for the creation in which we live. We are not being faithful stewards. Since my concern in this review lies elsewhere, I will commend the book to those of you who are interested in entering further into Berry’s specific arguments.
Even though Berry does not write pastoral theology per se, I definitely can see why Peterson commends him in this regard. Several themes emerge in his agrarianism that have rich application in the realm of pastoral ministry. Many of these same themes are evident in Peterson’s own writing. To begin with, Berry is a writer and as such he is deeply concerned with the best use of words. He holds words in high esteem, and he understands the importance of structure for literary beauty. His concern for good writing is evident, and undoubtedly part of the reason Peterson commends him for pastoral theology. Words are primary tools for good pastoral work, and much can be learned from Berry in using them well.
Next, Berry models methodologically how a proper understanding of anthropology (who we are as human beings) must precede the goals we pursue. The importance of understanding biblically who we are as people is every bit as important when it comes to pastoral ministry as it is when it comes to economics. The goals that I have for myself, for my family, and for church members will take shape from my understanding of who we are as people. Good pastors are people who care well for souls. But to care well for souls they must have a proper understanding of the nature of those souls. Such understanding will enable the pastor to guide people upon the proper path. But it will also protect him against disappointment, disillusionment, and frustration.
The importance of place is another prominent theme in this collection. For whatever reason, Americans (including American Christians) have by-in-large forgotten the importance of place. For Berry, real action–and thus true character–implies place and community (surely both are Christian concerns). He writes:
There can be disembodied thought, but not disembodied action. Action–embodied thought–requires local and communal reference. To act, in short, is to live. Living is a ‘total act. Thinking is a partial act.’ And one does not live alone. Living is a communal act, whether or not communality is acknowledged.
Berry helpfully reminds us that place and community are not two separate things. They go together in their particularity. Christians need more than “a community.” They need a particular community of which they are part for better or for worse. In this sense one community is not as good as another. For Berry community is not an amorphous utopia. Rather, as he says, it is: “…common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.” As pastors we need to learn to better attend to this importance of place in our own lives, and also to guide Christ’s people in attending more faithfully to it.
A final theme from which pastor can benefit is the importance of affection, or what Berry prefers to call “pleasure.” Berry argues that when it comes to something like ecology, bumper stickers and political lobbying will never get the job done. Rather, he says, true ecology requires pleasure. The people who really care for the land will be people who take pleasure in the land. In short, true ecology will be pursued by people who have a particular love for it.
It should go without saying that the same is all the more true for the work of shepherding. True shepherding requires a pleasure in the people, an affection for them. Good pastoral work can only take place if the shepherd loves the sheep. The hired hand will not really shepherd the sheep. As long as nothing threatens the sheep, what he does may look like shepherding. However, when the threat comes, affection for the sheep is what leads the shepherd to lay down his life for them. As I reflect on the importance of affection, I am reminded that it is something for which I must beg the Chief Shepherd. The people of God ought to also pray regularly for their pastors that God would give them true affection for the sheep.