Book Review: Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

“Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community: Eight Essays” by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is a name that has come up over and over in my reading and in discussions with other readers. Most intriguing to me was the fact that his writing — covering topics from politics to religion to current affairs, and everything in between — has been recommended to me by friends and acquaintances from all political and theological stripes, spanning the entire spectrum from left to right. One of the book’s endorsements pointed out Berry’s “unique position in American social debate: not liberal, not conservative, not libertarian, but always sharp-tongued and aglow with common sense.” Sounds like my kind of writer!

Berry is one of the last century’s most prolific writers of poems, short stories, essays, and novels. He also taught at the University of Kentucky during the time that both of my parents attended there. Even today at the age of 75, he is an active speaker, teacher, and advocate for the ideas he has set forth in his writing.

I chose for my first foray into the writing of Wendell Berry this book, which is a collection of eight essays (the last of which provides the title for the book) centered loosely around the theme of economics, though there is a diversity of themes represented in the various essays. I feel that I ought to present my review of this book on two levels: Quality and Content.

The quality of Berry’s writing is first-rate. I’ve read many books that I would classify as well-written, but there are occasional books that are a joy to read, simply because of the way an author has been gifted in the art of sculpting stories through the medium of words. This is one of those books, and Berry is one of those gifted writers. It is no wonder that people of so many different backgrounds have enjoyed his writing. I think I would enjoy reading his essays even if I disagreed with him on every point!

Which brings us to content. I don’t believe there could be anyone who disagrees with Berry on every point, simply because of the sheer common sense and pragmatism with which he writes. I imagine that I’d quite enjoy reading his essays even if I was in complete opposition to his conclusions, which I am not. Of course, I doubt as well that there is anyone who will completely agree with Berry, but this would please the author, who states in the foreword, “An essayist has no right to expect complete agreement but has a certain responsibility to ward it off. If you tell me, dear reader, that you agree with me completely, then I must suspect one or both of us of dishonesty.

Berry is in no danger of being completely agreed with, as he is the rare individual who can be classified as truly “other” in nearly every way. As he lays out his philosophy on economics, the environment, war, religion, and any number of other things, he goes to great lengths to avoid being boxed into what he calls “political packages”. He believes strongly in conserving and preserving the environment, but is not an “environmentalist”. He hates war, and is highly critical of militarism, but is not what we would typically think of as a “pacifist”. He is a self-described “contrarian” and “dissenter”, but also a great American patriot. At every point he fairly but critically evaluates American culture as he observes it (the essays in this book were written between 1991 and 1994), while outlining his vision of what ought to be, with a practical (though not at all easy) plan for how it could be accomplished.

You (and I) will have to read more of his writing to truly comprehend Berry’s positions, but I’ll attempt to briefly outline some of them as set forth in these essays:

Strong focus on developing the community and local economy

Berry writes in the tradition of the “Southern Agrarians“, believing that the key to success in and joy of life is rooted in land ownership and conservation. Each person should own land, growing crops and raising livestock to support their own family. Neighbors should spend time together, supporting each other both financially (by buying/selling within their local community as much as possible) and socially (by bearing one another’s burdens and encouraging one another’s successes). The key to common safety and defense is good relations within the community, and between neighboring communities. He upholds the Amish as an example of a community that lives in such a way, but does not advocate separation from society-at-large as they do.

There is not much hope (or use) for cities in Berry’s worldview. Cities separate people from the land, and create foreign dependence and a society built on competition rather than on mutual success. He exhibits both optimism and pessimism toward the possibility of a future worldwide agrarian society (his idea of a utopia). Optimism, in that he believes that all it would take is for small, local pockets of people to begin to live in such a way, influencing first their neighborhood, then their towns, counties, states, nation, and eventually the world, as people learn to live peaceably together and to desire mutual success rather than attempting to “climb to the top” at others’ expense. Pessimism, in that he does not see this as a realistic possibility, because humans are generally too selfish and greedy.

Conservation of God’s Creation

Berry believes in the inherent goodness of God’s creation, and feels that humans, as the height of creation, have an obligation to be good stewards of the land and creatures. He agrees with anti-Christian conservationists that the Church has a terrible track record of stewardship, but sees Christians as the best potential solution, not the greatest problem. We need only see that everything belongs to God and that we are to care for what He allows us to “own”, extending our influence as we are able.

In the only essay where Berry specifically speaks of his Christian beliefs, though, he goes too far in his high-view of Creation, bordering on worshiping creation more than the Creator. His views on Biblical interpretation seem to be somewhere between the Julius Wellhausen tradition of “higher criticism” and the deism of Thomas Jefferson. Alarmingly, he also speaks of God’s Spirit residing in animals, plants, and the dust itself, which is a heterodox idea found in panentheism and the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, not Scripture.

While Berry describes himself as a Protestant, his actual doctrinal beliefs (as near as I can discern from these essays) would be rejected by all but the most liberal of Christian theologians.

Peaceableness toward enemies

Written in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Berry devotes one essay in this collection to defining his philosophy of “peaceableness”. He advocates applying the Biblical command to live peaceably with neighbors on a national scale. This does not imply a passive non-violence, nor aggressive anti-war protesting. Instead, it requires an “active peace”, that would require as much courage and sacrifice (frequently including lives) as war. His concept of peaceableness is an outworking of his agrarian society on an international level, when nations would genuinely desire the mutual success of all others, rather than engaging in power struggles that ultimately accomplish nothing but endless cycles of destruction. Though many discount this idea as being naive or unrealistic, he rightly points out that it has rarely been attempted, and that some nations, such as Switzerland, have successfully implemented policies of peace for extended periods of time.

Decreased reliance on technology

Berry is adamantly opposed to most uses of technology. He sees most technology as destructive both to the land and to our communities, because our interpersonal relationships are increasingly impersonal. He is in favor of
“natural” technological advances that improve our ability to responsibly farm the land or to communicate with one another, so long as we don’t become overly reliant on technology.

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Overall I agree with Berry on many points. I like the idea of buying local and building a strong local economy based on mutual success and good relationships. I believe this type of economic situation (rather than Marxism/socialism as some suggest) is what is described in the New Testament (see Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-35) when believers in the early church “had all things in common”. I would wonder, though, whether there might be a scenario in which this type of philosophy might be applied to the culture we see today. Is there a “middle ground” in which people rely less on technology and more on personal interaction, developing our local economy and limiting our dependence on outside (whether foreign or other domestic communities) goods, and being responsible stewards of Creation, without completely reverting to a totally agrarian society? I don’t know. If it is possible, it will only happen because of the leadership of great thinkers and communicators such as Wendell Berry, though hopefully with a better grasp of God’s purposes for Man as set forth in His Word. We must remember that, as much as we love God’s Creation (including our fellow Man), this world is not our home. Our desire for perfect community will be found only in the Body of Christ, and will only be realized in the Heavenly Kingdom that is yet to come.

Buy it here.

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