I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s 2010 book Imagination in Place. I like a book that doesn’t have to have the requisite colon and subtitle. (Don’t get me wrong, I like colons and subtitles, but it’s a pleasant change of pace to do without them once in a while.) Berry has written more than 50 books of poetry, essays and novels. Some of his essays stick with me like pine resin. I see his characters and the places where they live. The story of Burley Coulter’s dying and the love and faithfulness of his community is as vivid as if it were my own story. It’s in his 1993 book Fidelity.
It is the place, the meaning and particularity of place, which are at the heart of what Berry is writing about in this new collection of essays. Maybe a part of what resonates with me from Berry is his rootedness in Kentucky, a place where my own family lived for many generations before I came along. But in truth my own living there was only for a short stop as a toddler and for a little more than five years as a seminarian. And I didn’t know the place(s) as Berry does so deeply and intimately. In truth, I’ve never known a place in the way he does.
I have a lot to learn from the likes of Wendell Berry and I’ve been working on loving my place(s) in the world. Tonight, however, what he helps me do is name a few things I’ve been learning about my own writing recently. The writing I’m especially talking about is my book, Anatomy of a Schism, which is drawing finally to a close.
Here is what Wendell Berry says, “If . . . you want to write a whole story about a whole people – living souls, not ‘higher animals’ – you must reach for a reality which is inaccessible merely to observations or perception but which in addition requires imagination, for imagination knows more than the eye sees, and also inspiration, which you can only hope and pray for” (15).
Now, I’m writing an academic book and not a novel or poetry. I do lots of different kinds of writing, working different intellectual muscles here at my blog, in ecclesial publications and in academic articles and books. Yet, I hope all my writing, whatever its genre, will be about “whole people, living souls” (the Hebrew for this is nephesh chayah, living breathing person or soul). The work I do with the LPI Project is about real human beings, living souls who serve the church as pastors and ministers of all kinds. The writing and teaching I do in pastoral theology is committed to beginning in the messy particularity of lives, lives of whole people in actual concrete places. Not two-dimensional case studies but flesh and blood, with desire, grief, brokenness, beauty and wonder.
Or maybe this is better put as writing about broken people who are becoming whole.
Berry also says this kind of writing includes a kind of advocacy (15). Some folks worry about advocacy and its dangers. Academics especially like to worry about this. It was in the process of studying for exams and writing my dissertation proposal that I came to realize the absolutely non-negotiability of advocacy, or as I’ve come to call it the “caring horizon” of any work of theology. To be a Christian theologian is to care for the work one does, the people who matter in that work and what matters to those people.
This is messy and multi-faceted, almost never straight-forward and sometimes hilarious in its muckiness. Nevertheless the goal of authenticity in love requires a commitment to a deep sense of compassion, even when it must be held at the horizon for the sake of getting at something difficult.
I learned in the past week – or came to articulate what had been growing in my internal knowing for some time – three old-new things. The first felt like a brand new insight, although it sounds annoyingly obvious when I write it here: No one will be able to see fully what I see in the stories I’ve collected and worked with now for seven years. This is one of the burdens of research. It is not unlike the burden of pastors who know their congregations in ways that no one else will ever know that community – rooted in a particular time and place. Good pastors know very well the corporate, public and shared life of their congregations, but they also know the more intimate relational and personal stories of many members of their congregations.
The second thing is that I can’t write for anyone else – editors, colleagues, pastors, seminarians, mentors. None of that works. I have to write the book as I have to write it. Again this sounds painfully obvious, but trust me it is not always so obvious when you are in the middle of it. The writing has to be my interpretation of events, lives, stories. It is done in collaboration, first with the clergywomen (or other participants in a study) themselves, and also with several worlds of scholarly conversation. But finally only my name will be on the book and I have to take a forthright sort of ownership of what is between the covers or from one end of the electronic code to the other. I work in the knowledge, wisdom and debt of many others, but the risk and responsibility of writing are my own.
Then there is this third thing. A lesson I keep having to learn over and over: I have to finish and let it go. The book will then take on a life of its own.
This week has held several moments of seeing the blooms and fruit of plants I put in the ground long ago. Things I never think about, but which live on and continue. A friend described this kind of investment as her “invisible legacy.” Teachers, pastors, entrepreneurs, parents, know about this. We make commitments and invest loving attention and seemingly endless care and then we don’t get credit publically: no ribbons, medals or cash prizes. We just have to look and know in our hearts, Yes, I created that event. I gave them that idea. I brought those two good things, resources, people together.
And then there are some legacies that run deeper, and we’ll never even know about. This is the work of the Spirit. And surely this is seeing into the world with the kind of imagination that Berry is commending. He says, “You have begun to ask also how things will be, how you want things to be, how things ought to be. You want to know what are the meanings, both temporal and eternal, of the condition of things in the world” (14-15). And I say, yes. This longing that Berry captures has a deep resonance with the kind of theology I hope to write. Authentic. Grounded in the lives of real people and places. Imaginative and hopeful. God help me.