This past spring semester, Dr. Robert Creech at Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University taught a course titled, “Wendell Berry: Creation, Stewardship, and Spiritual Life.” This was the third of his courses which focused on Christian authors. The previous authors studied were Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson. Creech noted that these three writers have been particularly influential in the formation of his own life with God, God’s People, and God’s Creation.
As he prepared for the Berry course, Creech discovered on the SSA website the syllabus that Dr. Jay Phelan of North Park Theological Seminary developed for his course, “The Thought of Wendell Berry.” His research and reading assignments made Creech’s work in course design much easier. Creech’s course reading assignments were arranged topically and the class read essays related to the topic on Tuesdays and poetry and fiction on Thursday.
The seminar had twenty students, the maximum enrollment possible, along with two auditors. From the first day students were organized in five learning cohorts. Cohorts were given the responsibility of leading an opening moment of worship and then catalyzing class discussion around the day’s reading. Each cohort was responsible for this five times during the semester. Additionally, the cohorts worked on the major project for the semester, a devotional guide entitled “Forty Days with Wendell Berry.” Each cohort produced an e-book that could serve as a devotional guide for a church focusing on creation care during a Lenten or Advent season. Each day’s reading contained a quotation from Berry, an appropriate passage of Scripture, a brief devotional thought based on those, a prayer, and thoughtful questions or suggested action items. At the end of the semester each team had a half hour to present their work to the class, explaining their process, reading favorite passages, and reflecting on what they attempted to accomplish with the book. (See one group’s book available on Amazon here.)
Dr. Creech reflected on his experience with the class, “Discussion has been lively each class, and I look forward to being in class with these students around this thinker with great pleasure each week. There were quite a few highlights over the course of the semester. On the first week I invited Dr. Terry York, a published poet and lover of poetry, to join us and talk about reading poetry. During the discussion of “Racism – the Hidden Wound,” Dr. Stephen Reid, an African American Old Testament scholar on our faculty joined us for an honest discussion of Berry’s ideas and of the challenges that issue continues to offer our culture. Kyle Childress is slated to join us this Thursday as we talk about Wendell Berry and the Practice of Ministry. Kyle is a friend of Berry’s (and mine) and has written on this topic.
There was the day in class when a student stopped me before class and told me how angry she was with Berry’s short story “Sold,” as it opened up for her the reality of what the “Unsettling of America” means to rural families. I have seen students near tears as they read aloud Berry’s poetry. On the day we talked about “The Pleasure of Eating” I brought kolaches from a locally-owned bakery in West, Texas, a small rural community north of Waco.
When I teach the course this fall, we plan to host a banquet that only uses food locally grown or prepared ourselves, in the spirit of the course.
Wendell Berry seems to work with a hierarchical understanding of the world in which all his ideas ultimately connect to the health of Creation: Wilderness, Soil, Food, Body, Marriage, Household, Community. The health of any requires attention to the health of all. So as we have talked about education or racism or food or medicine or economics, we have never moved out of concerns for wilderness and soil.”