Wendell Berry’s Halcyon Bean Patch

Wendell Berry has come out in favor of Christians laying off their hateful opposition to homosexual marriage. You can read more about it here. A few immediate thoughts come to mind.

First, I trust that this will cause many Christians who have looked to Berry for cultural insght to rethink things, and go back to first principles. Berry, it turns out, initial appearances notwithstanding, was not a representative of the moral tradition of the West. Wendell Berry, when it comes to the spirit of the age, turns out to have been a vanguard kind of guy, not a rear guard kind of guy. It is as though we were wandering through the aisles of WalMart and came upon him with a shopping cart filled up with those bags of Bugles, manufactured by General Mills. Wendell, we hardly knew ye!

In other words, a lot of Christians were attracted to what he was saying because they thought he was premodern. Turns out he is postmodern, with all the requisite sexual confusions. Berry won the National Humanities Medal in 2010, and was the 2012 Jefferson lecturer for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Previous recipients of these awards were fellow outsiders like Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Elijah the Tishbite.

Second, let me briefly respond to Berry’s observation that the Bible has a “lot more to say” about other sins, like fornication and adultery. This is quite true, and almost entirely beside the point. Say that a mother came home from grocery shopping to find out that her twelve-year-old son had set fire to the couch. When she was remonstrating with him, suppose further that she was met with the argument that he had been listening carefully to her for years, and that she had always had a “lot more to say” about table manners than this. This may be perfectly true . . . and yet . . . the couch.

For believing Christians, the issue is what the Bible teaches, not how much it teaches on one thing compared to other issues. There are matters of first importance compared to other matters, but this is determined by wisdom, and not by word counts. We should not tally up citations of the Ten Commandments throughout Scripture in order to manage our disobedience by triage.

Third, Berry says that liberals and conservatives have both invented a “politics of sexuality” that establishes marriage as a “right” to be granted or not by the prevailing side. Berry says that this “contravenes principles of democracy” — as though the principles of democracy were not themselves a construct that determines how we grant or withhold certain defined things on the basis of the prevailing side. He wants to go on to say that that “self-evident” rights are not bequeathed by the government. This is quite true, but let us ask a few follow-up questions. Self-evident to whom? By what standard?

Mustafa has four wives and it is self-evident to him that he should have them. Bob has Bill and it is self-evident to him that this was meant to be. John has Suzy and it is self-evident to him that Bob and Bill are missing something important. In short, not to belabor the obvious, the meaning of the phrase self-evident falls out of particular worldviews — it is not a neutral thing that creates the right worldview. There is no neutrality anywhere, not even in Wendell Berry’s halcyon bean patch.

And last, Berry says that “condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred.” Yes, but what he fails to recognize here is that the Bible has a “lot more to say” about not eating oysters than it does about condemnation by category.

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scott.j
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If one understands that adultery and fornication include homosexuality, sodomy, and such, then the Bible has more to say about these than previously thought.