Symposium Introduction

In these days of resurgent nationalism and violent xenophobia in the West, it is common to feel anxiety, if not outright despair, over the future of pluralistic democratic societies. The possibility of a fruitful human sociality depends on our capacity to face up to the world in its complexity, to the nuances of other lives. This capacity feels especially at risk today, when populist leaders capably mask fear of difference as a strength, dismissing complexity (e.g., immigrants, protesters) with a satisfying aggression. The resultant feeling of power threatens to make our fear invulnerable to rational correction. What are we to do when we find ourselves in its grip?

One of the primary reasons to be grateful for Joseph Wiebe’s The Place of Imagination is that it helps us think about moral re-formation in nonideological ways. Wiebe argues that healthy community depends on incarnate human affections, awakened via the imagination. Wiebe’s book in this sense is an argument for reading fiction, in that “fiction portrays an imagined world in a way that capacitates recognition of a deeper meaning of social circumstances than what political rhetoric offers” (155). If we have read a good novel we know this to be true. Someone whose political affiliations make him an incorrigible moron in my eyes on Twitter can be rendered visible in a much fuller way in a novel. And if I am reading that novel earnestly, the act of doing so may expand my perception of the actual persons in my life. “Imagination,” Wiebe writes, “arouses the somnambulist kept asleep by the formalities of national idioms and cultural identity” (26). No one would accuse a contemporary populist rally of being soporific, but in truth such political phenomena demonstrate a refusal to awaken to nuance, to “irrepressible and unclassifiable particularity” (25).

Ideological rhetorics try to assuage our fear of difference, of complexity, of the unclassifiable in each person and the particularities of place, but they do so only through reductionism. Fiction, by contrast, is an indirect form of communication that has the capacity to let characters remain persons, with all the mystery that entails. Wiebe argues that Wendell Berry’s fiction, at its best, allows onto the page “what is not easily explained, rationally accounted for, or understood but nevertheless remains an unrelenting fact of existence” (7). In this respect, Wiebe shows, Berry emulates the nonreductive attention to singularity that characterizes William Carlos Williams’s poetry. Williams’s language dwells humbly with the fact that it cannot capture life, given “the flux and diversity of [its] subject” (21). Such language treats life’s complexity and excess with reverence instead of fear, and invites readers to do so as well.

In this manner, Williams’s poetry and Berry’s fiction both incarnate the “poetics” of healthy human adaptation to reality. Berry is a vocal advocate of local adaptation, which implies the kind of attunement to place in its true and irrepressible particularity that reductive logics don’t allow. “As an example of the struggle of local adaptation, [Berry’s fiction] shows that to be human is to live as a creature in creation,” Wiebe writes (32). To be a creature in creation means to live in a world that exceeds your authorship, recognizing its excess without fear or rivalry. In religious terms, it means recognizing that the author of life transcends your own power, that you are not God. In Berry’s terms, it means taking wilderness seriously. Wilderness, Wiebe explains, “is the part of life that is neither arbitrarily willed nor conscripted into a human enterprise. . . . In short, wilderness is uniquely unconquered space” (49). This is not to say that it is bounded off from other spaces; in every place, wilderness names life’s beyondness of our control. With wilderness, Berry alerts his readers to “a reality before his thoughts and desires, before his commitments and advocacy, the character of which is offered in his description of wilderness as dispossessed of human self-interest” (50).

I think it is fair to say that Wiebe’s book asks readers to reckon with the wilderness of the real, on an existential level. On the one hand, this is inevitably humbling—to admit one’s limits, one’s ultimate dependence and mortality. In Berry’s Port William novel, Nathan Coulter, Wiebe shows how Nathan must wrestle with a multigenerational history of attempted self-assertion in the face of contingency, an inherited desire for self-authored permanence. “The chief attribute of the Coulter patrimony is a resolute individualism that denies bequeathing property and authority gracefully to the next generation” (62). Nathan struggles to admit that there is an inevitable futility in human efforts to order permanently what is never guaranteed—the future. But without this admission there is no hope of adaptation to the facts of creaturely life.

On the other hand, Wiebe shows that the excess of the real can be uplifting and motivating. In Jayber Crow, Jayber recognizes that if the world were constrained by necessity, then it could not measure up to his love. Thus his work is to prove “that Mattie’s mistaken (at least to his mind) marriage with Troy was not inevitable—a truth that cannot be proved but only experienced” (109). In other words, for Jayber, life’s complexity offers hope that it didn’t have to be this way; but he can only be confident of this when his own life becomes “the embodiment of [another] possibility” (109). Jayber’s work of love is fruitful in that it allows him to imagine “the world as it is as more than what can be seen or shown in time” (111). Here life’s transcendence of human understanding becomes a consolation, enlivening Jayber’s capacious affection for persons and place.

In Wiebe’s analysis, then, we might say that genuine community is a child of wilderness, of an honest confrontation with our limits and with the generative mystery of the world. Wiebe gives readers the gift of an occasion to examine what can “turn people around, away from hubris and narcissistic ambition, toward a self-reflection that opens them to the depth of creation” (156). The Place of Imagination is a book about how to practice this shift, from being fearful pawns of the status quo to being enfleshed and attuned creatures on this earth, in communion with the fullness of its mystery and divinity. It uses Berry’s fiction to reveal particularities of character and place as the manifestation of creation’s plenitude, allowing us to see ideological reductionism as a gesture of fear rather than strength. Unsurprisingly, the book has generated a vital and fascinating conversation between our panelists.

The following symposium brings together experts in ethics, theology, sustainability, and poetry, to dwell with the provocations of Wiebe’s book. It is a vibrant discussion, full of appreciation and challenge. Emily Dumler-Winckler opens the conversation with an essay that highlights Wiebe’s integration of individual moral psychology with questions of systemic justice. She commends Wiebe for his textured account of the development of virtues in broken places and communities, for articulating the challenges and uncertainties that present obstacles to the cultivation of faith, hope, and love. More critically, Dumler-Winckler wonders whether Wiebe draws unwarranted distinctions between mind, body, and soul in his analysis of Berry’s fiction, and highlights a problematically gendered assignment of parts of the soul to some of Berry’s characters. Most significantly, she asks if Wiebe’s emphasis on the uncertainties of life risks occluding the virtues of Berry’s characters, questioning in particular whether Jayber’s magnanimity must be understood as despairing, or Hannah’s patience as hopeless.

Christiana Zenner’s essay begins by noting her suspicion of Berry as “the settled white male,” while agreeing with Wiebe’s (and Berry’s) sense that moral discernment is not reducible to rational argument and must be pursued as a poetics. On this score, Zenner highlights for praise Wiebe’s refusal to turn Berry’s work into a triumphalist ideology. Though she appreciates Wiebe’s expert use of Berry’s corpus, Zenner also criticizes the relative lack of clarity about “theories and methods of interpretation” that underlie Wiebe’s exegesis at times, especially when he draws from multiple authors and genres of literature situated in various historical contexts.

Joelle Hathaway’s essay focuses on Wiebe’s argument that Berry’s fiction should be read as “parables,” and from there develops an account of the variety of Berry’s writing—essays, fiction, poetry—and its relation to local adaptation. Hathaway emphasizes in particular Berry’s poetry, both in its formal characteristics and in the habits of attention that ground it, as necessary for the development of worlds of integrity in his fiction. She highlights how the characters of Port William spill over into Berry’s poetry, as if what is revealed by their lives cannot be revealed only through fiction.

Paul Schutz contributes an essay that highlights possible conversations between Wiebe’s analysis and figures in the theological tradition ranging from Thomas Aquinas to James Cone. He too notes the value of Wiebe’s approach to parables, especially for theologians in their interpretations of the Bible. According to Schutz, Wiebe’s analysis makes it possible to understand reading Scripture as a formative practice because it provokes thought and reflection, rather than simply because it contains instructions. Ultimately, Schutz raises some critical questions about Wiebe’s use of the lost sheep parable as a way of describing Berry’s method of fiction writing, and asks for further elaboration on some key points in part 2 of The Place of Imagination.

In the final essay of our symposium, Matthew Whelan explores Wiebe’s comment that imagination “does not imitate or plagiarize nature” (26). Initially, Whelan illuminates the significance of this claim for art, taking it to mean that in order to be authentic, artistic creation must not proceed as if it were ex nihilo. Instead, the artist must create in light of nature’s priority of being, and its consequent authority. Human making cannot dismiss the given, the preexistence of nature, the judgment of wilderness. Artistic labor is not creation per se, but co-creation, and involves attending to and perceiving natural processes that exceed the artist’s authorship. Whelan develops Wiebe’s insights in this direction in order to go further, extending Wiebe’s idea of creativity to the field of agriculture. Whelan’s exploration will leave readers with a broadening sense of the significance of Wiebe’s argument, its applicability far and wide, to all manner of human making and doing.

Emily Dumler-Winckler


For Love of the Little Platoon

Joseph Wiebe keenly observes that Wendell Berry’s fictional works “are not just lessons about moral imagination but also lessons in it,” lessons meant to transform the moral imagination of the reader (151). The same can be said of his own book The Place of Imagination. By drawing his readers into these fictive journeys, Wiebe too invites them to imagine “what it means to live well in wounded communities and broken places” (10). From the outset, Wiebe recognizes a major challenge in writing on Berry’s fiction, namely, “to give an account of the Port William community that is neither sentimental nor quaint” (1). In his interpretation, the places and the people who inhabit them do not provide ideal models for us to imitate in any straightforward sense. They, like we, are complicated and less than perfect. Nonetheless, he thinks, they exhibit certain virtues that we might emulate, virtues that rectify a vitiated social imaginary marked by racial violence and prejudice, segregation, isolation, waste, war, and exploitation (153–54). There is much to commend about this book. I will begin with a word about the various literatures and conversations that it engages (or might engage), and then pose a couple of questions—first, about moral psychology, virtue, and hope, and second, about the role of agrarianism in the formation of the moral imagination—and conclude with a reflection on reading as an ethical practice.

Through the central themes of this book—making a home of a broken world, suffering, race, place, imagination, affection, virtues, incarnational love, community, and identity (to name a few)—Wiebe fruitfully brings into conversation scholarly literatures that do not always or often speak with one another. Alongside such texts as Willie Jennings’s The Christian Imagination (2010), The Place of Imagination contributes to recent literature on race, place, and moral and theological imagination, which probe the wounds of racial violence that mark the communities we inhabit. At the same time, the book might be seen as a contribution to what Willis Jenkins in The Future of Ethics (2013) has described as a turn to virtue in environmental ethics, as well as what some see as a return to religious communities, values, and ideals, as the way forward. So too, the book adds to emergent literature on Berry’s work, while connecting it to conversations in literature and religion. Berry’s fiction is best read, Wiebe argues, as a poetics and as parables. Likewise, narrative theologians interested in the role that stories, characters, virtue, imitation, and innovation play in moral formation will find much that resonates. The book does not explicitly engage biblical scholarship. Nonetheless, one could make fruitful connections with, for instance, Walter Brueggemann’s work on the prophetic imagination, war, and agrarianism—the prophetic injunction to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This reader was hoping that Wiebe would add to this impressive range his reflections on gender in Berry’s work. Of those who have taken up this theme in Berry, few have focused on his fiction. Wiebe devotes the second chapter, “Affection: Community, Race, and Place,” to considerations of race. I would have welcomed a similar chapter on gender or a greater attention to gender and race in Berry’s fiction throughout the subsequent chapters. That said, this text is a fertile seedbed for further engagement in these areas.

Our moral imagination and affections are rooted in the communities and places we inhabit and are shaped, for better and for worse, by their legacies. This is one of the key insights that Wiebe examines in Berry’s fiction. At points in the text, the imagination itself appears to be a panacea for the social ills that plague modern societies. But Wiebe knows that the theological, moral, and social imagination can be vitiated or salutary, corrupt or salubrious. The virtues are needed to refine and rectify our affection, perception, and imagination. Whereas part 1, “Moral Imagination and Community,” treats the “Imagination” (chapter 1), “Affection” (2), and “Style” (3) in Berry’s work broadly, part 2, “Biographies of Belonging,” focuses on three characters featured in three of Berry’s fictional works and the virtues that shape them: “Jack’s Mind: Regret and the Virtue of Knowing” (chapter 4), “Jayber’s Soul: The Psychology of Magnanimous Despair” (5), and “Hannah’s Body: Grief and the Space of Hopeless Patience” (6). In conclusion Wiebe writes: “Jack’s mind shows how wisdom and regret shape the intellect of affectionate perception. Jayber’s soul shows how magnanimity and despair shape the psychology of affectionate perception; Hannah’s body shows how patience and grief shape the spatial reality of affectionate perception” (151).

Given the sense of holism throughout the book—the sense that imagination, reason, affection, body, place, and ecosystems are intimately bound up with one another—I wonder why Wiebe decides to parse the moral psychology of each of these characters and their respective virtues in precisely this way. Ancient debates about the interrelations among mind, body, and soul, as well as the names, number, and connection of the virtues that perfect different parts of each are alive and well among virtue epistemologists and ethicists today. Wiebe does not directly engage those debates, ancient or modern, except to insist on Berry’s holism—his non-dualistic understanding of the role that body and spirit play in the spiritual journey. Still, the questions remain: why Jack’s mind, Jayber’s soul, and Hannah’s body? And why this traditionally gendered assigning of mind and soul to male characters and body to the female character? These characters cultivate the virtues of wisdom, magnanimity, and patience, in the face of regret, despair, and grief, through an elaborate dance of body, mind, and soul. I wonder whether Berry’s narrative resists such clear parsing? Is the mind, body, soul distinction as clear in Berry’s fiction as it appears in Wiebe’s analysis? Berry’s warning, as Wiebe knows, is severe: “Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company of only other explainers” (by order of Author, JC). But Wiebe hazards the risk. What is gained or lost in this investigation? At least this: we gain Wiebe’s insights about moral formation, while those less familiar with Berry’s work might lose some of his holism. What follows is a fuller response to this question.

The chapter titles reveal one insight that is woven through the chapters in part 2: that virtue is always cultivated in the face of dangers, toils, and snares and enables its possessor to respond well to such difficulties. The virtues shape our affective response to people and events such that we experience regret, grief, anger, sadness, and joy that is fitting to the situation. But they also cultivate our response to these emotions, what we do with our regret, grief, anger, etc. So too, Wiebe like Berry rightly resists the false binary between personal virtue and structural change (36). Virtue is not just a matter of personal righteousness as though such a thing could be set apart from just relations with neighbor, community, and land in the midst of systemic injustices. The virtuous recognize institutional and systemic sociopolitical ills—domination, exploitation, discrimination—and find creative ways to reimagine and reform these institutions and systems for the better. Wiebe’s is an important contribution to conversations that seek to move beyond false binaries of individual virtues and participation in sociopolitical structures.

As for the particular virtues Wiebe names, I could not shake a couple of questions about hope and despair. The first question is interpretive; the second is normative. Hopefully it goes without saying that readers should err on the side of trusting Wiebe’s interpretations of Berry over my own. That said, I wonder whether Jayber and Hannah are quite so hopeless, quite so despairing as Wiebe portrays: this is the first question. If so, my second question is whether I want to follow Wiebe in endorsing “magnanimous despair” and “hopeless patience” as virtues.

As for the first, Wiebe argues that “the primary virtue of Jayber Crow is not his hope but his despair” and admits that “it remains to be seen how these virtues might fit within the Christian tradition” in which faith, hope, and love have been central theological virtues (217n12). It’s true, as he notes, that Berry uses a line from Andrew Marvell’s poem as the epigraph for the book: “Magnanimous despair alone could show me so divine a thing.” Wiebe argues that Berry uses this poetic notion of magnanimous despair to demonstrate God’s love for the world through Jayber’s imagined marriage to Mattie, the woman he loves (108). Jayber’s despair is magnanimous, he claims, only to the extent that it is a condition of having his soul oriented properly in love. The “divine thing” about a soul able to love in this way is its openness to suffering and “partiality in the form of the crucifixion . . . it’s the work of love to become like Christ in love” (111).

To be sure, Jayber has moments of hopelessness and despair: “But there were times too when I lived in a desert . . . then I lived by faith alone, faith without hope” (Jayber Crow, 247). Indeed, he describes “Hell itself . . . [as] unrelieved by any light or hope” (248). But in the next breath adds, “But love sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit” (JC, 248). Love inspires hope and resists despair. Again “Hell is described as a place with no hope. . . . But the earth speaks to us of Heaven” (JC, 354). In the final chapter of the book, Berry has Jayber share a final self-reflection: “I am a man who has hoped, in time, that his life, when poured out at the end, would say, ‘Good-good-good-good-good!’ like a gallon jug of the prime local spirit. I am a man of losses, regrets, and griefs. I am an old man full of love. I am a man of faith” (JC, 356). As a man of faith, he goes on to describe a friend “(imagined, but also real) I call the Man in the Well” (JC, 356). The central question for the “Man in the Well” is whether he will despair or hope. “Does he despair, give up, and drown?” (JC, 357). Jayber’s conclusion seems clear: “Listen. There is a light than includes our darkness, a day that shines down even in the clouds. A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost. He does not believe this easily or without pain but be believes it” (JC, 357). If the first chapter of the Gospel of John is not already ringing in your ears, Berry goes on to proclaim that none are lost from the “lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, [to] those who pray ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’” (JC, 357). The latter is Jesus’ final cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1). Wiebe thinks that we have two options: “Accept that the only thing that gives his story hope is an infantile conception of God or else pity Jayber’s waste of love” (127). But if we might understand Jayber as the man in the well a third option appears: hope born of love—perhaps child-like, but not childish or “infantile.”

The second question follows closely on the first. Even if we grant that Wiebe is right, that Jayber and Hannah are despairing and hopeless, should we endorse “magnanimous despair” and “hopeless patience” as virtues? Despair and hopelessness: there’s the rub. For Aquinas, the virtue of hope resists the vices of presumption on the one hand and of despair on the other. Presumption is one danger: overconfidence in our abilities to make our own way, or unwillingness to see the grim and menacing realities of the situation. Despair and hopelessness present other troubles: failures of imagination and of will to hope beyond hope, to trust God, our communities, or ourselves to (as womanist scholars say) “make a way out of no way.” Hope is closely bound to faith and love, not only in these classical and womanist thinkers, but also in Berry’s work. Jack is a character whose magnanimity has been shaped by loss, pain, regret, and even at times, despair. But in the end, faith, hope, and love remain. So too with Hannah. Perhaps my question is, why insist on despair as part and parcel of virtue rather than as a temptation the virtuous surely must face but resist? My hunch is that Wiebe wants to accentuate the fact that virtues are only ever formed in the midst of broken communities and lives. This, of course, is true. But the virtues have always been formed under these constraints and are necessary precisely to overcome the temptations of presumption and despair in the midst of such difficulties.

My final question, for the sake of this conversation, pertains to the necessity and centrality of Berry’s agrarianism for the rehabilitation of the moral imagination and whether or not it can be extended to non-agrarian landscapes and lifestyles. Can a person cultivate these virtues of wisdom, magnanimity, and patience among others without being rooted in an agrarian community, or reading about those so rooted? Wiebe seems to think so. As he notes, “One can reflect on and embody the poetics Berry invokes in scenarios different from those in his novels. It is how one can be agrarian in the city, in the university, and so on” (154). As if to demonstrate this point, the conclusion opens with a vignette from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy about Avery Jenkins, a man on death row in Alabama and a prison guard who was transformed by hearing and sympathizing with his life story. Wiebe suggests that “Stevenson’s narrative about Jenkins and the officer exemplifies Wendell Berry’s moral imagination”—his sense that our perceptions and the norms of an exploitative culture and extractive economy can be transformed by encountering the stories of others (150). Like Stevenson’s nonfiction, Berry’s fiction is meant to shape our moral imagination. Yet, as Wiebe notes, for Berry, transformation comes by way of “fidelity to place . . . this rehabilitation is Berry’s agrarianism, what he calls a way of thought based on land” (151). A tension seems to arise at this point between the transformation that may come by fidelity to place—whether city, university, or prison—and the transformation that depends on a way of thought based on land.

If this way of thought “based on land” is central to Berry’s agrarianism, to the practices, habits, and virtues cultivated in intimate connection to not only any place or neighborhood but specifically to land, I wonder whether Berry’s agrarianism can be extended in the ways Wiebe hopes. Here, the contrast between Stevenson and Wiebe, on the one hand, and Berry, on the other, seems stark. Jenkins is obviously barred from agrarian rehabilitation. Perhaps that’s the point—mass incarceration is designed to obliterate such attachments in guards and prisoners alike. But the officer’s rehabilitation (and presumably that of the reader’s as well) does not come either by fidelity to place or by a way of thought based on land. It comes through identification with Jenkin’s story. The gift of this transformative encounter comes in spite of hostilities, prejudices, and racism. But for Berry, as Wiebe demonstrates, the place and the land with its trees, rivers, farms, and woods matter. How central then is Berry’s agrarianism to moral rehabilitation? Presumably “fidelity to place” can be cultivated anywhere, moral transformation can happen anywhere, but I am not convinced that the same can be said for Berry’s agrarianism. Nonetheless, I share Wiebe’s hope that a place-based identity, wherever that may be, might hold the same promises as Berry’s agrarian vision. This vision requires an attention to neighbors and land or the lack of connection to either as well as the desire to overcome the routines of an exploitative culture and extractive economies by recognizing our complicity in them.

A final word on reading as an ethical practice: by helping us to read Berry well, Wiebe helps us to become good readers—readers of fiction, history, communities, land, one another, and the world around us. In the end, Berry’s work, and his fiction specifically, does not offer a prescriptive program or principle for redressing our social ills and neither does Wiebe. Instead it provides parables and what Wiebe calls the poetics of community. There’s no cheap or quick fix. The kinds of transformation of imagination, self, and community, to which Berry and Wiebe invite readers cannot be prescribed. Indeed, transformation requires good attentive readers, readers attached to their own places and communities. In his essay “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson imagines an interlocutor asking, “Where’s the fruit? . . . Why not realize your world?” Like Emerson, Berry and Wiebe suggest that the “transformation of genius into practical power” is never quite so simple. It demands virtuous, imaginative, loving attention to place, land, animals, books, neighbors, communities, enemies, economies, and ecosystems. Making a home of the world begins . . . well, at home. As Edmund Burke suggests, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” Given the systemic nature of social ills and our complicity in them, personal and sociopolitical reform is an endless task. Nonetheless, we must begin somewhere. Wiebe suggests we might begin with the ethical practice of reading well.

  • Joseph Wiebe

    Joseph Wiebe


    Response to Emily Dumler-Winckler

    Emily Dumler-Winckler’s response hits me the hardest personally. Given that there’s already a lacuna of gender analysis in Berry’s interpreters, what’s the deal with letting men get the roles of mind and soul while the woman is, yet again, stuck with body? My interpretation reflects Berry’s presentation by reinscribing the problematic mapping of his gendered anthropology. Dumler-Winckler is absolutely right; my bad. If I were to give a more adequate response to this question it would be a thorough investigation of how mind, soul, and body are intertwined throughout Berry’s literature and of women’s presence (and absence) and roles throughout these narratives. Flora, for example, is only present in Andy’s mind in Remembering and is central to, yet effectively body-less in, Andy’s embodied journey to become re-membered. Elsewhere, in “A Half-Pint of Old Darling” Miss Minnie gets drunk on her husband’s whiskey in an act of magnanimous thrift and self-sacrifice. There are examples that raise generative tension to my presentation of Hannah that both merit attention and form the basis for a critical engagement of my argument.

    The reason why this first observation is so acute for me is because I knew it was a problem yet didn’t address it. When I was coming up with a structure for the second part of the book that would give a rationale for the three novels, the tripartite anthropology resonated with my interpretation of Berry and offered the section coherence. As I was editing the revisions, I became increasingly uncomfortable that I wasn’t addressing the problematic history and assumptions of writing on Hannah’s body—but I went ahead with publishing it anyway. It was my first year at a tenure-track job, which was my only year with course releases to finish the revisions and publish the manuscript before taking on a full teaching load. I remember staring at an unadorned wall in my office among boxes of files unsorted and shelves of books randomly placed feeling the urgent desperation to make hay while the sun shines. As I contemplated how to address the lacuna, I added up the time it would take to do it right. After the accounting I instead wrote remarks in a footnote about the problem and the shortcomings of not dealing with it. I accept the responsibility, but I want to also point out that the academic structure in which we all live—especially as pre-tenured faculty—make these errors very tempting to risk. Our universities don’t incentivize careful, thorough scholarship as much as they do swift; only academics who publish a lot and fast are seen as “productive.”

    The further problem the book’s structure causes, as Dumler-Winckler notes, is that what is lost in the tripartite organization is Berry’s holism that at least complicates if not resists my account of the form and function of virtues in Berry and their appeal for a theological environmental ethics. Specifically, what is lost is a relationship between the virtues and despair wherein love and hope are shaped by, yet in the process overcome or at least linger beyond, despair. Is Jayber as hopeless as I suggest, and if he is, is that really a virtue?

    It’s a matter of interpretation, of course, and Dumler-Winckler is overly generous to suggest readers should trust me; my approach to writing is that it’s better to be wrong than boring. So, I’m going to double-down on the suggestion that despair is “part and parcel of virtue” and defend it as something environmentalists in general and Christian ethicists in particular should learn from Berry. Why?

    As a grad student I took a seminar on Deleuze with Ken Surin in which we had a conversation on belief and ethics that has stuck with me. Deleuze writes, “We need an ethic or a faith, which makes fools laugh; it is not a need to believe in something else, but a need to believe in this world, of which fools are a part” (Cinema 2: The Time-Image, 173). Another student fawned over this idea, that Deleuze offered a defense of belief that not only might make a tragic figure like Antonin Artaud laugh but reorganize the world in a way that such artists are not critical exceptions but help constitute the world itself. Surin demurred. The problem is not about belief; we have too many beliefs as it is. Artaud will laugh, he said, and went on to suggest that the real ethic we need is one that makes the greedy slickster in the white coat cry.

    I agree with Surin’s critique of beliefs and the targeted despair, though most readers of Berry, I think, would suggest that any ethic derived from Berry’s work should instead be based on the belief that faith, hope, and love remain. Jayber’s love of Mattie is foolish. Shouldn’t we believe that the world as it is created includes his foolishness even if our culture of hypersexuality doesn’t? An ethic of love that could make Jayber happy, his love redeemed not only in spite of but through his despair, is one I think a lot of environmentalists and Christian ethicists would find satisfying; yes, things seem hopeless but our ecological attachments and environmentally friendly behavior are fulfilling and we remain hopeful that because we’re working with the grain of the universe it will be redeemed. I’ve sat through multiple conference papers presented by Berry interpreters and religion and ecology scholars who emphasize the beliefs central to changing our industrial economy and putting things right. Arguments against idealism or sentimentality focus on the difficulty of gardening—pests, weeds, and the fickle nature of planting rotation teach us that good work animated by the right beliefs isn’t easy and help us reflect on the struggle of connecting with the world.

    To which I want to say, “gag me.” I’m sorry, but I find the positivity of most environmentalists nauseating and the accounts of difficulty cosmetic. Surin says we have too many beliefs, to which I want to add we have too much positivity. Too many movies have happy endings. Too many songs are sung in major keys about dancing, empowerment, hooking-up, fast cars, and cute animals. Dumler-Winckler draws on the imagery of the man in the well and its antecedents in the Gospel of John, which is exegetically correct. But that tune will be sung by JT telling us to dance, dance, dance or Taylor Swift reminding us that everything will be all right if we just keep dancing like we’re twenty-two. Deleuze might say the tune should be Monty Python ironically insisting that we always look on the bright side of life—which always makes fools (like myself) laugh. But I sing Jayber’s Man in the Well to the tune of Alice in Chains: “Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved / See my heart I decorate it like a grave.” A minor key ballad driven by a harmonized wail that grows in substance and intensity but ends in melodic strain. It’s a love song of despair; the anguish is the form of affection, its essential aspect.

    The connection between despair and love as I see it in Jayber Crow and Alice in Chains is a truth communicated in music and fiction. In Berry’s essays, he argues that hope and love are better action-guiding virtues than fear, anger, guilt. This argument resonates with many instructors and activists who say it’s hard to get people motivated to work on environmental initiatives when the problem appears so vast that they despair at their ineffectiveness and therefore do nothing. Fair enough. But why is it that we experience presence and love when we’re at our most vulnerable? Whether it’s the ennui of a privileged academic in late-capitalist modernity or an expression of a profound existential crisis that reflects broader cultural problems, there is an opening that happens at our lowest moments. If this opening forms the basis of an argument against the virtue of despair, I take the point; however, I don’t want to narrate it as a temptation to face but nevertheless resist because it’s only when the darkness is irresistible—either by condition (read Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason) or attraction (my preference for Alice in Chains over Justin Timberlake)—that there is an experience of the divine that is transformative, energizing, freeing.

    For Berry, this experience consists in his agrarianism and is communicated through fiction. Dumler-Winckler’s provocative account of the dis-analogies between me and Stevenson and the role of agrarianism for moral imagination certainly got me thinking. I’ll end this response with the question, can Berry’s insights be both agrarian and pertain to urban contexts? If so, is the condition of possibility that they have to be separable from land? The main reason why I maintain that agrarianism’s cultural logics produce stories the moral significance of which do not require rural or remote locations is to refocus readers’ attention on the dynamics of affection in Berry’s fiction without making the mistake that the mind is its own place—that these dynamics can be analyzed separate from where they occur and ramify. Of course, agrarianism in particular and fidelity to place in general are not necessary for all moral formation. Jenkins’s rehabilitation was not animated by agrarianism; however, its meaning should be understood with respect to place and the attachments made there. The significance of both the experience of identification with Avery’s story and its effects are connected to places—the court, the prison. Jenkins, the “reader” in this analogy, did indeed have his thinking based on land (the prison, the cotton field) albeit in highly problematic and dehumanizing ways. And it was precisely his change in relationship to place that was altered through identification with the story; he could no longer work there, at the prison, because of how it determined his connection with others. It is fair to say with Dumler-Winckler that this account of Jenkins doesn’t map precisely onto my reading of Berry, but I emphasize the point because the work that I’m trying to do is expand the range of meaning, our imagination, of what constitutes and is involved in “ways of thought based on land.”

    • Emily Dumler-Winckler

      Emily Dumler-Winckler


      A Response to Wiebe’s Response: mostly on hope and despair

      As with the book, I am grateful for Wiebe’s response and for his generosity throughout. It seems somewhat rare that we academics admit the shortcomings of our own work or the limitations that constrain our efforts. Wiebe shies away from neither. In response to my concerns about gender he says “my bad.” He recognized certain dangers and limitations prior to publication. But academic timelines, he notes, prize efficiency over due diligence, getting it done over getting it right. I keep hearing this mantra among junior colleagues and share Wiebe’s discontent. I find it troubling for the future of the field.

      At the same time, I want to extend the conversation and clarify my points about despair and hope. Wiebe is kind to note that I my interpretation of Berry’s story about a man in the well and its antecedents in the Gospel of John is “exegetically correct.” There I noted that Jaber’s conclusion seems clear: “Listen. There is a light than includes our darkness” (JC, 357). And Berry likens this to Jesus’ final cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1). A divine address, according to the Apostle’s Creed, on his descent into hell and out again. But Wiebe fears that this same tune—to the incarnational melody “a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” will be “sung by JT telling us to dance, dance, dance or Taylor Swift reminding us that everything will be all right if we just keep dancing like we’re twenty-two.” I must admit that I am not quite sure what analogy is being drawn here. If it is one of blind optimism, unthinking positivity, naïve idealism, or distractions of popular entertainment this is not at all what I have in mind by suggesting that hope in the midst of the blackest of nights is a virtue, and one that resists the temptations of despair. I think that perhaps Wiebe and I are much closer on this point, than his response suggests.

      He turns to music—a fitting medium for thinking about, expressing, and experiencing despair, lamentation, hope, and love. Whereas he seems to think that I sing the popular tunes of Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift, he prefers to sing “Jayber’s Man in the Well to the tune of Alice in Chains: ‘Down in a hole and I don’t know if I can be saved / See my heart I decorate it like a grave.’” This is a “love song of despair; the anguish is the form of affection, its essential aspect.” When I teach James Cone’s text The Cross and the Lynching Tree to undergraduate students, and particularly the first chapter “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” I have student’s listen to Paul Robeson’s version of the spiritual. The chorus vacillates between “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows my sorrow” and “… Nobody knows but Jesus.” In both cases the same refrain breaks in—as an unexpected, unexplainable, excess–“Glory Halleluiah.” Another love song, one of hope born in face of, in resistance to, despair.

      This is how I imagine the man in the well. “Glory Halleluiah” doesn’t get him out; it doesn’t change his circumstances or lessen the sorrow; it’s not a fix all; neither is it pie-in-the-sky optimism or naïve idealism. It’s hope that light can pierce the darkest darkness. It’s hope in the midst of that darkness, not an escape from it. This hope entails not detachment from or domination over the dangers and perils of the world we inhabit, but rather the ability to live well and die well in their midst. Hope as I understand it resists the temptation of despair, even if it is born in the face of that temptation. After all, decorating one’s own grave, and calling others to witness the death and ornamentation, appears to me an act of hopeful resistance in its own right.

Joelle Hathaway


December 10, 2019, 1:00 am

Paul Schutz


December 17, 2019, 1:00 am

Matthew Whelan


December 24, 2019, 1:00 am