It seems for most of my life that I’ve been surrounded by friends who are superhero movie connoisseurs. While I find these movies to be entertaining and impressively produced, I am often left wanting. I fail to see how I can relate to men and women with unhuman-like abilities who are constantly pitted against all-powerful iterations of pure evil. I don’t believe that these stories speak very much into my life. Perhaps many superhero movies do not pass Walker Percy’s test for a good book. Percy argues that bad books “lie most about the human condition.” It is simply not true that any of us will fight insurmountable evil with superpowers. Life’s battles are typically smaller, but just as profound.
Wendell Berry seems to understand this in his book That Distant Land, a collection of short stories centered on the fictional town of Port William. Berry masterfully crafted these stories to be honest about the human condition with its complex mixture of triumph and sorrow. In so doing, he managed to communicate powerful and eternal truths about the importance of community, kinship, and love.
Just look at Uncle Peach and Wheeler Catlett. Uncle Peach is an estranged family member who makes poor life choices. Wheeler chose to push him away for many years. Broken families are no doubt a reality in this sinful world and perhaps among all of us. But Berry, through Wheeler’s mother, shows the importance and responsibility of love for those whom we call family. The human condition is messy and full of failure, but that does not excuse us from entering into the messiness.
A similar lesson is taught through Mat Felner and his mother. Sickness and pain is a reality with which all of humanity is familiar. Mat encountered this frailness first hand with the hurt man that stepped into his door. He was afraid and shocked by this man. We are all discouraged by the challenges of our world, but Mat’s mother was “a woman who did what the world put before her to do.” In another story, Elton Penn and the community showed love to the sick and desperate Mary Penn. Berry recognizes the realities of man’s fears, but encourages us to break free and love the world in small and ordinary ways, especially through our family members and neighbors.
Most of the battles that you and I will face are on the level of a hurt man stumbling into our lives or a family member who we just don’t understand. It is unlikely that we will be battling Lex Luthor in the air. However, the stakes for the struggles that we encounter can be just as high. Just look at Jesus Christ, whose ministry mostly consisted of proximate acts of healing and love within the limitation of the province of Judea in the first century. Jesus’ ministry ushered in the Kingdom of God. Wendell Berry’s storytelling is a call to love the world and fight its battles within the limitation of our own lives and communities.
Eric Peterman interns on Capitol Hill as a member of the 2015-2016 Falls Church Fellows Program.