Persons of character are not public products. They are made by local cultures, local responsibilities. -Wendell Berry, “A Remarkable Man” in What are People For?
In his essay “A Remarkable Man” Wendell Berry reviews Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. “Nate Shaw,” a pseudonym of a black farmer from Alabama, is described by Berry as a man of incredible wisdom who speaks deeply from his lived experiences. He is a “farmer-storyteller” who shares his mind and character by thickly describing the acts which have constituted his story and the lessons he has learned as a product of his “cultural inheritance.”
Berry uses this man’s story as an opportunity to critique our notions of intelligence, education, and the conception that the best and only way to move within society is “up.” In the case of Shaw, Berry points out that it would be our mistake to assume that “with education–given his intelligence, his strong character, his local fidelities, and a good deal of luck–Shaw might have become a well-educated small farmer,” without also remembering that “he might also have become a ‘farm-expert,’ and thus the natural enemy of our economic class.” By imposing our expectations of what would have been “best” for Shaw, we may have removed him from the very context which makes him a remarkable man and a model of character.
Within the context of this critique Berry remarks that “Persons of character are not public products. They are made by local cultures, local responsibilities.” This comment led me to recall a meeting I had attended since moving to Kansas City.
Speaking to a gathering of pastors two years ago I heard Dallas Willard challenge his hearers concerning moral instruction and character formation. Willard remarked that church leaders had the opportunity to serve as a tremendous resource of moral instruction in this generation. To serve as such a resource demands an examination of the message which Jesus preached and the type of community which he constituted in his name.
Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God continues to be good news. Willard invited church leaders to announce the Kingdom of God and instruct others in the disciplines of Jesus. Instruction within the context of a disciplined community would lead to the formation of persons of character “made by local cultures, local responsibilities.”
Church leaders have an immense challenge to continue to develop and nurture the types of local cultures that produce persons of character. Liturgy, song, preaching, fellowship, service, and other corporate practices continue to be powerful means by which the Spirit of God utilizes to sanctify persons as part of the community called Church. It is through participation in the common life of those who call Jesus “Lord” that we come to possess character.
“Persons of character are not public products. They are made by local cultures, local responsibilities.” Berry is right, and we would be wise to align ourselves with his words.