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Sunday, 28 November 2010

Wendell Berry and pastoral theology - Part 1

Doing some reading recently through some of Wendell Berry's novels I was struck by his account of a number of incidents of death and dying and attempts at pastoral visitation. I thought that these rich accounts of the interaction between the minister and the families might prove a rich source for reflection by those involved in such visitation. Certainly there is a substantial cultural difference between early 20th century Kentucky the situation a century later in Australia. Nevertheless, I reckon there is still something to be learnt particularly for engagement in pastoral care with people who are members of the Christian community. Stories such as this are a great source of material for reflection as they are interesting to read and rich in substance and nuance in a way that formal case studies can never be.

The first incident comes in The Memory of Old Jack as Matt Feltner the long time friend of "Old Jack" (Jack Beechum), takes up the responsibility for organising his funeral to prevent the funeral falling into the hands of Jack's daughter and son-in-law from whom he was deeply estranged, in both sympathy, and understanding as to what was important in life. Jack remained committed to his farm and community while they had moved to the city and lived life devoted to the pursuit of money and its comforts.

The story displays Matt's efforts to be faithful to the friendship in death, a claim that for him overrides the formal claims of family. Matt,
... put on his glasses and looked up the number and dialed the undertaker in Hargrave. It was a strange and stubborn mood he was in. He was standing guard over Old Jack and over his death. He would not have the outline of that absence blurred or its dimension narrowed. The voice of the gentleman at the other end of the wire was full of solicitude, prepared for death no matter whose, and Matt propped himself against it. The voice assumed that Matt would be down later to select a coffin and to make the necessary arrangements. Matt thought not. The gentleman would be informed of the arrangements when they were made; as for a coffin the dead would be well satisfied with whatever was cheapest. Ans so it went on. Each exchange followed by a silence in which the gentleman on the other end was perhaps taking notes. The dead, Matt allowed were noted for their frugality. (p.149)
Matt then moves on to deal with the preacher, Brother Wingfare, a seminary student recently arrived in the community to arrange the actual funeral service. The seminarian was,
... a pale, slightly plump, impeccable young man, very new to his profession, eager to please both God and man, a difficulty of which he had not yet encountered either extreme. He began of course by saying that though he had not had the privilege of knowing- uh- Mr Beechum, he was very sorry to learn that he was dead. "But' he said " the Lord knows of our affliction, and is our refuge in the hour of trouble. ... Matt sat down in the easy chair facing the preacher."Well" he said "I don't know that you should be sorry. After all you didn't know him particularly. And it is not a tragedy when a man dies at the end of his life." (p.150)

The interview of Matt's with the preacher continues where it has begun, on Matt's terms, with each of the assumptions of that the preacher makes is undercut by Matt's directions as to what needs to be done and how the service will be conducted. The entire exchange reverses our presumptions as to how such a conversation should be conducted and who is in charge and who is the specialist in such a time and on such an occasion. After announcing that what is required is a simple graveside service, Matt goes on to explain to the preacher why he is making this request.

"My friend" he said "I want you to understand this". He considered a moment and went on. "He was not a churchly man. He was a man of unconfining righteousness. He stuck with us to the end. He never liked a great deal of fussing and formality, and we don't want to impose it on him now. That would be kicking him while he's down, if you know what I mean.

Brother Wingfare either did, or did not know what was meant. He did not say. But he was paying attention. He heard something in Matt's voice that did not permit his mind to wander. There was a strange authority in this old man with his white hair, with the dirt of the filed on his clothes, who spoke as the younger kinsman of a dead man much older. Nothing in his training at seminary had prepared him for this. He was supposed to be the spiritual authority. But he knew he was receiving orders. And he was afraid he was taking orders.(p.151)

Matt presents him with a list of Psalms that he wants read, that will comprise the service. There is then an exchange with the preacher who asks if he wants a few remarks, or a prayer at the end of the service, a request which is answered with a clear and definite no. As it happens when it comes to the service, the preacher ignores this final instruction. and after reading the Psalms well, as Matt acknowledges, then launches into a long prayer, which Berry reports with an acute ear for the genre, ... and having thus notified the Almighty of so much, the truth or error of which, He presumably already knew, Brother Wingfare concludes by imploring special blessings upon the bereaved mourners in their hour of sorrow. (p.160)

The question of authority in this context, who has it, and on what basis is it exercised is central to this moment in the novel. Matt is exercising his authority out of his place in the membership of the community of Port William and his relationship over time, and in that place, to the other members of that community. Granting of specialist religious authority by a distant institution does not cut the mustard in Berry's telling of the story. It is Matt, not Brother Wingfare who has faithfully exercised his authority in the conduct of the burial.

In Part Two of the blog on this theme, I will look at another incident, this time in A Place on Earth, involving a pastoral conversation with a family dealing with the news that one of its members has gone missing in action during World War 2.  I suspect that there will be a Part Three looking more broadly at what Wendell Berry has to offer on the practice of ministry, drawing on a discussion by Kyle Childress that forms a chapter in Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven's Earthly Life.

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