Is the Church Getting Worse?

Wendall Berry’s How It Went and Some Wisdom From Will Willimon

Josh Retterer / 11.8.22

It met me at the door of the shed. The scent was overwhelming, but not unpleasant. It shouted one thing, oddly even louder than their distinctive sound; bees! There was no mistaking the perfume of propolis, old honeycomb, worn wooden supers, and time. Lots of time.

The neighbor was showing a child (me) how he harvested the honey from the hive. He started with uncapping the little wax lids of the comb’s thousands of cells with a hot electric knife. Then the magical moment of extraction, using centrifugal force on the frames, the honey is flung onto the sides of the steel container. They make a machine for truly everything! Lastly, the harvest was run through a strainer to get out the bee bits that don’t spread well on toast, and into jars that had the neighbor’s name on it. The labels made it feel very official, final, like a benediction.

While I didn’t become an acolyte of the beekeeping religion that day, I did come away deeply affected by the art of it. He had to work with, with the bees. He was encouraging them to just keep doing — under as ideal circumstances as possible — what they were going to be doing anyway. That requires a deft touch, not only with the tools, but with the bees themselves.

***

Reading Wendell Berry’s new book, How it Went, the stories about the folks belonging to Port William, Kentucky, Berry’s fictional town, remind me again how annoyingly talented Wendell Berry is. Amazing essays, gorgeous poetry, and fiction that is just too good for someone already good at too many other things. He’s so talented, in fact, just reading through the stories reminded me of the afternoon with the bees.

The story that did the memory jogging, titled, The Art of Loading Brush, has Andy Catlett hiring Austin, the college student, to help him clean up the mess left from a contractor who badly botched a job of fence repair. If an aging Andy had to swallow the dual insults of paying twice to fix something once, he was going to be sure Austin was the beneficiary of learning the right way to do it. Someone had to be. Andy watches how Austin tosses the brush into the truck, and sees a “learning moment.”

Andy said, “Austin, my good boy, damn it, wait a minute. We ain’t going to make a mess to clean up a mess. Do you want to put one load into three loads or into one load?” He looked at Austin until Austin said, “Well. Obviously. I would rather put one load into one load.” Andy saw that Austin’s ears were turning red, and he was amused, but he said fairly sternly, “Well, come and pick up that branch you just threw on and turn it over so it takes up less room. Now snug the butt up against the headboard of the wagon. “That’s right,” he said. “That’s the way we do it. We pick up every piece and look at it and put it on the load in the place where it belongs. We think of the shape of every limb and stem and chunk and pole, and that’s the way we shape the load. “It’s the use of the mind,” he said, “what they ought to be teaching you in school.” 

“Now,” he said, “we’re practicing the art of loading brush. It is a fundamental art. An indispensable art. Now I know about your ‘fine arts,’ your music and literature and all that — I’ve been to school too — and I’m telling you they’re optional. The art of loading brush is not optional.” “You talking about symphonies?” Austin had stopped and was standing still to signify the importance, to him, of symphonies. “Symphonies! Hell yes!” Andy said. “You take a society of people who can write symphonies and conduct symphonies and play symphonies and can’t put on a decent load of brush, they’re going to be shit out of luck.” Austin’s face, starting with his ears, had become almost astonishingly red, and Andy rejoiced. He was bearing joyfully now the burden of knowing better. Maybe in the passing on of his ghostly knowledge he was doing his duty to Austin.

Andy made sure he drew Austin’s attention to the “indispensable art” of discernment, an applied awareness that engages holistically to whatever task or job of work you are engaged in. That sounds both impossible and worthwhile. But it’s also what elevated my neighbor’s beekeeping hobby into an art. Like my neighbor, Andy shows an eagerness to pass on what he’s learned. If that sounds a bit basic or even romantic; that’s largely because of its rarity. It felt like a privilege to encounter. 

In the eponymous chapter, How it Went we are given a summary of  the life of one Pascal Sowers. I kept returning to a couple of paragraphs that wouldn’t quite leave me be. There was something about his behavior during a trivial interaction that impressed me. 

To know his fairness and his gratitude you had to hear him in his bluntest way of speech giving credit, never to himself, but to Sudie for all he owed to her. To take the temperature of his heart, you had to notice his hospitality to stray cats and his attention to the personalities of dogs. His affection would be revealed by favors that he would do unexpectedly, disowning them as he did them, ignoring thanks. 

One day when Andy came out of the bank in Port William and was crossing the road to his pickup, he was headed off by Pascal, who was carrying one of the devices known as “come-alongs,” needful for lifting or pulling. It was a new one. “You got a come-along?” Pascal asked. “No,” Andy said. “I don’t.” “Well, you got one now,” Pascal said. He pitched it into the back of Andy’s truck and walked away while Andy was thanking him.

What a beautiful description of a Christian, but not because Pascal was nice to animals and generous. Merely — yes, but something else shook out in the telling. Ignoring thanks — how rare and refreshing. “We love because He first loved us,” which doesn’t entirely preclude accepting thanks, but it tends to make you awkwardly fast-walk away from it. 

Berry manages a sort of vivid gentleness in his fiction that dodges syrupy sentimentality, which I attribute to his low anthropology. Maybe it was something I ate, but after reading the book I felt all emo and angsty. I wondered: are we getting worse? And by we, I mean the church. I look at news, interactions with folks, conversations with clergy, read the latest scandal, and I honestly wonder if the automatic wince that happens every time I hear the word “Christian” on the news or trending as a hashtag, is healthy. I’m not talking about burnout, worried about the end of Christianity, or God’s ability to actually do what’s already been done on the cross. No, I think it’s more of a point of pride. I mean, it would be crushing to add the “We are the worst era in the history of Christianity” award on top of everything else. It definitely feels like a point in time when, if it were Bible times, our chapter would start with, “in those days … ” — that’s never good.

I know at least I’m not stacking up well against the likes of Andy and Pascal. Having grown up in small towns, I know those two people aren’t entirely fictional because I know them. Knew them. It feels like most of them are gone.

So does that “we are the worst” award come pre-tarnished? Do we all get one, or is it like a trophy or a cup where it stays in one place, like that cabinet in high school? I asked my friend Pastor Sam Gyorfi, who first drew my attention to Berry’s work years ago, the same question, is the church getting worse? I had him read the book before he answered. 

A simple realization that we are called to do that which is right, regardless of the outcome. Our attempts at decency are not the reason we attempt them, and often times all we can do is laugh at the ridiculous situations that come from them. Feels like the Church to me. On page 128 when talking about Andy and his farm: “Now it is beyond doubt or question their place, and they have become its people. They have given their lives into it, and it has given them a life such as they could have had in no other place.

Oh, the disparity between what the Almighty will accomplish and our stated goals. 

Listening to an interview by Dr. Johanna Hartelius with everyone’s favorite Duke homiletics professor/Methodist Bishop you never knew you needed, Will Willimon, a light bulb went on. Being a Bishop, he is well familiar with low anthropology and/or the church, so I figured he would be another perfect person to answer this rather desperate sounding question: Folks (like me) often talk about the state of the church. Is it worse now than it was in your first congregation? Is it worse than the state the church in Corinth was?  I say that because I think folks see God’s grace as getting attenuated over time — romantically working better in the past or among country folks. It certainly can feel like it.

So, dear Bishop, are we getting worse? Willimon replied with some gold:

Never thought about it that way. I’d say …

If you didn’t read the assignments in Church History 101, or if you have never heard Paul rip into one of his congregations, you might be tempted to think that the church is worse off today than in previous ages. We shouldn’t flatter ourselves. The church’s present sin is not that original. After we crucified the Son of God, well, all subsequent sin has been unimpressive. 

The church is a mess and always has been. The Bride sleeps around, unfaithful from the first. Read Paul’s letters. Blame the moral mess of the church, ancient and present, on Jesus. When Jesus decided to save sinners, only sinners, saving them by convening them as his Body, well, no wonder the church is a mess.

I look at the present state of the UMC, Inc., and lament. Yet, by the grace of God I’m reminded that we are no better nor no worse than the ragtag saints who came before us, no less recipients of God’s mercy, all dependent upon a God who loves sinners, including his poor, battered, compromised Bride, the church.

“All dependent on a God who loves sinners.” I pray we aren’t the worst. If we are, we live as proof of His mercy. Scratch that. We already are proof of His mercy. Seems like there is an art to experiencing the “already are” part. We have time. Smells like honey. 

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COMMENTS


4 responses to “Is the Church Getting Worse?”

  1. Joey Goodall says:

    “We love because He first loved us, doesn’t entirely preclude accepting thanks, but it tends to make you awkwardly fast-walk away from it.”

    “Having Grown up in small towns, I know those two people aren’t entirely fictional because I know them. Knew them. It feels like most of them are gone.”

    Thanks for this evocative and lovely piece, Josh! I’ll have to move this Wendell Berry book up in my queue.

  2. David Zahl says:

    thank you for this, Josh. there’s so much here to digest!

  3. Jane says:

    Wonderful Josh. Thank you!

  4. […] “Is the Church Getting Worse?” And Josh Retterer draws on Berry’s stories to reflect on the nagging fear that church and culture are locked in a kind of decline: “Like my neighbor, Andy shows an eagerness to pass on what he’s learned. If that sounds a bit basic or even romantic; that’s largely because of its rarity. It felt like a privilege to encounter.” […]

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