[Wendell] Berry is a serious Christian, and also a serious reader of poetry. His prose is studded with quotations from the Bible and the poetic canon. It may be surprising (though it shouldn’t be, really) how easy it is to find a text in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Blake, or Wordsworth celebrating humility, fortitude, magnanimity, chastity, marital fidelity, or some other Christian (though not exclusively Christian) virtue. Character and virtue are indeed fragile, and it’s reasonable to exploit all the resources of human culture to shore them up. But although it lends his writing gravity and grace, I’m sorry that Berry insists on giving the agrarian ethos a religious framework and on situating human flourishing within a “Great Economy,” by which he means not Gaia but the “Kingdom of God.” As a result, he speaks less persuasively than he might to those of us who feel that our civilization has somehow gone wrong, and that at least some part of traditional wisdom is indeed wisdom, but who cannot believe that this universe is the work of the Christian God, or of any God. And yet we need Berry’s preaching as much as anyone. Jesus came, after all, to call sinners, not the just, to good farming practices.
Our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren. I don’t see how anyone who shares Berry’s Christian beliefs could fail to adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient — if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply — then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.
Of another ex-Marxist, Dwight Macdonald, Scialabba once wrote that though Macdonald “despaired of politics,” he “was an exemplary amateur,” for he “sought to apply to our politics and culture the strict critical standards of an honest intellectual craftsman — standards at once deeply conservative and deeply subversive.” That last phrase encapsulates why Scialabba’s detection of a final incompatibility between the ideas of those like himself and those of people like Berry — a group that includes me, at least by distant aspiration — is too quick. What irks, finally, is not that he misreads or fails to sympathize with Berry’s work, but that he misses that Berry is, or can be, a co-belligerent, if not a comrade, in a shared project. Scialabba can see this clearly in the case of former communists “hurt into” disenchantment and exile; he should see it too in Berry.
True, Berry is a certain kind of Christian and a certain kind of conservative, but just for that reason he is also a certain kind of friend to Scialabba’s goals for the world’s improvement. Not all of them, to be sure, but who can find a friend like that? On the contrary: given the overturned table of contemporary politics, it’s catch as catch can. All the more so if Berry’s art, like Chiaromonte’s, like Macdonald’s, avoids a moralistic reduction of politics to personal responsibility, and embodies instead the refusal to separate what belongs together: truth and justice, art and activism, private and public. That refusal was radical in their time, and it remains radical today.