The day has been grey, cold, and rainy here in Durham. If I were in Boston, there would be snow on the ground, adding a little poetry to the gloom. When I arrived at Cocoa Cinnamon I had a hard time finding a seat because the little room was packed with people who had brought each other in out of the cold for coffee and conversation. There was one empty chair at the table, so I was able to find my place.
I wanted to come here in particular today because it felt like the best place to come to continue my conversation with Wendell Berry’s book What Are People For?. (At this rate, perhaps, I should start wishing you a very Berry Christmas.) Since the book is a collection of essays, I’ve bounced around a bit, rather than reading cover to cover, and I have been struck by the recurring themes, even though the collection was written over a number of years and for a variety of publications, as far as I can tell. He answers the question in the title by describing how we thrive in community, which includes not only one another but the rest of creation and those who have come before us. The purpose of our existence is to connect.
In three different essays, Berry pushes hard against the tendency for a writer to see the surrounding world as “raw material” for whatever he or she wants to do rather than the real thing. He bounces off of a quote from an article written by William Matthews who says,
A poet beginning to make something needs raw material, something to transform. . . . For [the poet] subject matter is not important, except that it gives her the opportunity to speak about something that engages her passions. What is important instead is what she can discover to say. It is not, of course, the subject that is or isn’t dull, but the quality of attention we do or do not pay to it, and the strength of our will to transform. Dull subjects are those we have failed.
And Berry replies,
This assumes that for the animals and humans who are not fine artists, who have discovered nothing to say,the world is dull, which is not true. It assumes also that attention is of interest in itself, which is not true either. . . . Mr. Matthews’s trivializing of subjects in the interest of poetry industrializes the art. He is talking about an art oriented exclusively to production, like coal mining. Like an industrial entrepreneur, he regards the places and creatures and experiences of the world as “raw material,” valueless until exploited. (84)
Berry goes on to say whatever we say with our art —words, paints, you name it — has to be connected to real life, to “the territory underfoot.” Art for the sake of art misses the point, even as I may have lost you by this point in the post.
Here’s why I was taken by his discussion of “raw material”: I find art to be a meaningful metaphor for faith. I think of God as an artist when I look at all the wonders of creation around us; I think God calls us to be artists, filled with the imagination of the One in whose image we are made. What hit me today in my reading during Advent are the ways in which the Incarnation provides an example of “the territory underfoot” that Berry describes. To read Genesis is to see a Master Designer at work who first creates the raw material and then breathes and speaks and shapes things into existence. The birth of Jesus puts God right in the middle of things, down in the dullness, in the middle of what Berry calls “the beloved community”:
common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs. (85)
As much as anything else, the birth of Jesus is God’s way of saying being human is a good thing, or as Ginger says every chance she gets: we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. We were not put here as props for God’s special effects, or so Jesus would have someone to save; we were created to live in beloved community with God, created to tell the story of our days in whatever way we can as an invitation to one another to share both the blessings and the burdens.
Life and art and faith are all team sports.
This post, I fear, is headier than I hoped or intended. I feel what Berry is saying in ways I struggle to get on the page. At the heart of the picture of a poor teenage girl giving birth to a baby boy in a barn behind a motel in a town that wasn’t her own is God right down in the middle of us saying, “You are not alone; you are loved and you are not alone. We are in this together.”
Gloria in excelsis deo.