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Book Review Part I: 'Jayber Crow' by Wendell Berry
Feb 15th, 2015 at 10:10pm
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Posted to libertynewsforum on 2/14/15

Book Review & Commentary  2/14/15
Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself by Wendell Berry, copyright 2000, published 2001…….the last two chapters of the book have been published by the Temenos Academy Review, edited by the English Platonist Kathleen Raine.  One of the patrons of the academy is the Prince of Wales.  I just mention this to show Berry has been taken notice of outside the United States.


Jayber Crow is a novel of the Port William Membership (Berry uses the word membership for community, perhaps because it is more specific, or at least appears more specific to modern English language readers).  It is essentially a homecoming story.  Young Jonah Crow is orphaned at the age of 10, and he has to leave the country around Port William (the Port William ‘neighborhood’) to go to an orphanage in another part of the state.  The story deals with his eventual return to the Port William neighborhood and his gradual reintegration into the community.  Along the way we get insights into the life of institutions as compared to the life of communities, as well as insights into what it means to love your neighbors (including the ones who are hard to love and/or do not love you back) to be faithful to others, and thoughts on the impact of modern technologies on rural life.

Jonah Crow is born in Goforth Kentucky, a small village near to the somewhat larger village of Port William shortly before the end of the First World War.  Both of his parents die when he is three years old and he is taken in by an elderly aunt and uncle who live down on the Kentucky River and operate a landing with a shop.  (Before paved roads the River was a vital source of both trade, transportation and communication).

Aunt Cordie and Uncle Othy die when Jonah is ten and having no known close relatives left in the neighborhood, Jonah is sent to a Christian orphanage in another part of the state.

In the orphanage all the children go by first initials and last names, so Jonah becomes, J. Crow, later the ‘J’ becomes Jayber.  After his years in the orphanage, Jayber spends a year in a Seminary and then he takes a semester of classes at a University in Lexington, Kentucky.  Though not completely dismissing any of these institutions he doesn’t particularly like any of them either.

Jayber notices that the institutions are not integrated with the larger world in the way his old life at Squires Landing was; rather the institutions are all like islands floating in the midst of the larger world.  I suppose one could say they are like desert islands, because they cannot sustain the people within them by themselves but rather they must rely on the outside world for supplies while at the same time holding themselves at arm’s length from this world that sustains them.

The Orphanage and the Seminary both perceive the outside world as a threat to their values and a source of endless temptation to their charges.  Here Berry goes back to his old ideas about the division of the body and soul.  The Orphanage and Seminary see themselves, according to Jayber, as representatives of all that is good while the outside world represents the body, supposedly the great source of evil in our lives…though Jayber notes that it is a contradiction for a religion to pray for the resurrection of the body and then turn around and condemn the body as the source of all ills.  Jayber wonders if in reality it is the soul that is responsible for many of our ills.  Before this notion is dismissed out of hand one might note that traditionally Christianity has held that evil began with a fallen angel, an immaterial being, a being with no body.

But back to the institutions in the book; not only are they divided from the outside world, they are divided within themselves between students and teachers/professors.  At the orphanage this takes the form of a relentless observation and disciplining of the students.  Everywhere they go they line up, they have room inspections, and they are frequently directed how to behave.  The students at The Good Shepherd orphanage are never far from the watchful eyes of adults, who seem to want to know everything about them, even their thoughts, Jayber says.  Under the pressure of this constant supervision Jayber becomes very secretive, a trait which will remain with him in some form or other throughout his life.

Though the University is at the other end of the spectrum from the orphanage it is no more of an integrated community.  At University you are not under constant supervision, but this is not so much because you are trusted to manage your own affairs as it is because at the University you are relatively anonymous.  If you show up to class you will be taught but if you do not show up no one will miss you.

Like the Orphanage and Seminary the University sees its values as different from those of the larger world.  But whereas the first two institutions see the outside world as a threat to their values the university sees itself as having new and better values than those current in the larger world; the University sees itself as “the world of the future” though because of this its services are not so valuable to the world of the present as they perhaps could be or as the University’s founders intended them to be.

« Last Edit: Feb 15th, 2015 at 11:07pm by Frank1 »  


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Re: Book Review Part I: 'Jayber Crow' by Wendell Berry
Reply #1 - Feb 15th, 2015 at 10:18pm
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The life of these three institutions is very different from the life the young Jonah experienced at Squires Landing or the life the older Jayber would later experience in Port William.  The life of Squires Landing was not antagonistic to the life of the world around it, neither viewing the surrounding human community as a threat to its values, as the Orphanage and Seminary did, nor as something inferior to it as the University often seemed to view the surrounding world.  Rather the life of Squires Landing was seamlessly connected with the physical world around it and also with the values of the surrounding human community.  Perhaps an even bigger difference between Squires Landing and the institutions was that the life of the landing knew and appreciated its connections with the surrounding world rather than half-resenting them and viewing them as a necessary evil as the institutions might have done.

As to the dynamics of both the physical and non-physical connections (by non-physical connections I mean connections on the level of values) the Landing had with the land people around it, the Landing was connected with the River trade and therefore with the River itself, and with the surrounding farms and farmers and through them with the land itself.  Furthermore, the young Jonah was less divided from the adult world at the Landing than Jayber was from the adult world of the institutions.  Jonah was not constantly monitored in both thought and deed for potential wrongdoing.  At the Landing, Jonah had significant freedom and when whatever chores he had around house or store were done he could go play with other children or just roam.

Now you might say “Frank, any place where people live and work, whether a farm or a University in the city is ultimately connected with the land and the people who work it because no matter where they are people eat.  This is of course true to an extent, but it must be noted that there is a large qualitative difference between getting your food from your own land or that of a neighbor and having your food shipped to you from hundreds or thousands of miles away.  In the former cases one can know intimately the conditions under which the human producers of one’s food labor as well as the conditions under which their animals, plants and land are maintained.  Under the latter condition (which is the condition most of us now live under) one has a much harder time knowing the conditions under which the humans who produce his food labor and the animals and plants who became his food live; in fact their conditions could be (and often are) quite horrible and we would not know it.  The same goes for much else that we consume nowadays.  Rather than consuming products of local artisans who we know, much of what we consume comes to us over distances of hundreds or thousands of miles and again we know little to nothing of the conditions of labor or the environmental practices of those who are making, storing and shipping these goods to us. 

  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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Re: Book Review Part I: 'Jayber Crow' by Wendell Berry
Reply #2 - Feb 15th, 2015 at 10:34pm
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Now there has a non-local aspect to the economy since at least the middle ages, increasing since the era of colonization, but it was small and society was not dependent on it.  The Americans of the 18th century may have been dependent on international trade for sugar and tea, but the more necessary staples of life could be produced closer to home; and one might note furthermore that at least in the past the non-local goods that you consumed were purveyed to you through some type of locally owned establishment as opposed to some national or international chain store.  By contrast, we are dependent on international trade not only for luxury goods but even for many of the basic staples of life, and these goods are increasingly purveyed to us through massive corporations that set up shop where we live and quickly put their local competitors out of business.  One could say our economic situation has deteriorated greatly over the past century, at least as far as economics is a working of community, family and religion/culture.  If the sole goal of an economy is to deliver one as many goods as possible as cheaply as possible than I suppose one could say our economic system is a success, but I reject the previously stated premise as being the goal of an economy as Berry would as well.

In addition to questioning the life of institutions in general, Jayber also questions specifically the institutionalized religion of his time and place.  Jayber’s time and place being 20th century Kentucky the predominant form of religion is Evangelical Protestantism (Jayber never mentions specific denominations, I am assuming Baptist or Methodist).  As mentioned earlier, after ‘graduating’ from the Orphanage, Jayber spends one year as a seminarian at Pigeonville College.  It is not long though be he begins to question the religion of Pigeonville.  Jayber notices that though his professors preach that we should take the Bible literally, when you get right down to it, they often do not take it literally.  In addition to this conflict between what his professors preached and how Evangelical Christianity is actually practiced, Jayber has what from the perspective of many Evangelicals would be a far worse doubt; that is he doubts whether the Bible is in fact completely true throughout.  As Jayber says “…I could see it changed, how could all of it be true?”  Jayber goes on to say: “For instance there is a big difference between the old tribespeople’s coldhearted ferocity against their enemies and Jesus’ preaching of forgiveness and love for your enemies.  And there is a big difference again between Jesus’ unqualified command, “Love your enemies” and Paul the Apostles’ “If it be possible as much as lieth in you, live, peaceably with all men,” which amounts to permission not to live peacefully with all men.  And what about the verse in the same chapter saying that we should do good to our enemy “for in doing so thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head?”  Where did Jesus ever see doing good as a form of revenge?  I saw the Bible as pretty much slanting upward until it got to Jesus, who forgave even the ones who were killing him while they were killing him, and then slanting down again when it got to St. Paul.”

As previously mentioned not only did Jayber being to question whether the Bible was true in its entirety, he also was disturbed that though Evangelicals often preach that we must take all of the Bible literally, they in fact do not take it all literally.  Jayber says ”If we are to understand the Bible as literally true, why are we permitted to hate our enemies?  If Jesus meant what he said when He said we should love our enemies how can Christians go to war?  Why, since He told us to pray in secret do we continue to pray in public?  Is an insincere or vain public prayer not a violation of the third commandment?  And what about our bodies that always seemed to come off so badly in every contest with our soul?  Did Jesus put on our flesh so that we might despise it?”

Finally Jayber has a third problem with is the problem of how and what to pray.  The ‘Problem of Prayer’ hits Jayber when he realizes that Christ’s own most fervent prayer; “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will but thine, be done,” was refused.  Jayber realizes that God’s will and ours might not be the same, that we might not get what we pray for, that in spite of all our prayers we will suffer.  Before the magnitude of this problem had truly hit Jayber he says that he both prayed how own and listened to the prayers of others, both in public and in churcn, complacently enough, but now he was “unsure what it would be proper to pray for, or how to pray for it.  After you have said ‘thy will be done,’ what more can be said?”

Jayber was in training to be a preacher, but with the ‘problem of prayer’ now confronting him head on he was unsure about whether or not he could lead a congregation in prayer.  If we are supposed to pray “thy will be done” and if God’s will may be opposed to our desires, what is the purpose of prayer, as Jayber says: “Does prayer change God’s mind?  If God’s mind can be changed by the wants and wishes of us mere humans, as if deferring to our better judgement, what is the point of praying to him at all?”

  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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Re: Book Review Part I: 'Jayber Crow' by Wendell Berry
Reply #3 - Feb 15th, 2015 at 10:36pm
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Jayber wonders does God want us to “cross the abyss between Him and us?”   If we cannot cross it by ourselves will He help us across?  “Or does he want us to fall into the abyss?  Are there some things he wants us to learn that we cannot learn except by falling into the abyss?”  Jayber goes on to say “I wasn’t just asking questions, I was being changed by them.”  He says that his prayers “dwindled down nearer and nearer to silence” his prayers were no longer “confrontations with God but with the difficulty – in my own mind, or in the human lot – of knowing what or how to pray.”

Jayber first goes to his “talkiest professors” with his questions, but they just tell him to stop asking so many questions and have more faith.  The problem with these men as far as their ability to help Jayber with his questions was that they had never asked them themselves.  As Jayber says: ”Those men could go on all day about the sins of the flesh or the amount of water needed for baptism or whether you could go to Heaven without being baptized or who could or couldn’t go to Heaven, but they couldn’t say why if we’re to take some of the Bible literally, we don’t take all of it literally, or why we kill our enemies, or why we pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that we may be seen of men.”

Jayber says that the advice to give up his questioning may have been good enough “except that my questioning would not give me up.”* 

Finally Jayber takes his questions to the professor who is recognized as the hardest professor at the college by the students, “old Dr. Ardmire,” who was a master of the Greek New Testament.  Jayber is afraid to bring his questions to Dr. Ardmire because he knows the Dr. will tell him the truth.  Putting his description of the relative merits of Dr. Ardmire as compared to the other professors at Pigeonville into colloquial terms Jayber says Dr. Ardmire was “not one of your frying-size chickens.”

So Jayber proposes his questions to the wise old doctor, who actually gets a gleam of light in his eyes, a “light of kindness” and perhaps also of “amusement” as Jayber speaks to him.  After Jayber finishes asking the professor the questions already iterated (as well as some others) and Dr. Ardmire says “Do you have any answers?”  Jayber says he does not and that he reckons he cannot be a preacher with such doubts and Dr. Ardmire says he also reckons that Jayber cannot preach if he has such doubts.  Jayber goes on to ask Dr. Ardmire when and where he will find the answers to his questions and Dr. Ardmire replies that Jayber has questions for which he cannot be given answers.  Dr. Adrmire says Jayber will have to “live out” his questions, “perhaps a little at a time, and that in fact it may take longer than his lifetime to find the answers he is looking for…and this ends Jayber’s time at Pigeonville College.

After Jayber leaves Pigeonville he makes his way to Lexington where he barbers and takes a semester of courses at the college, where though he is technically enrolled as an education student he takes mostly literature courses.  In Lexington, though Jayber at first enjoys his freedom he eventually begins to get lonely, as he really knows no one beyond the level of an acquaintance.  Jayber begins to find himself crying at night and thinking and dreaming of his aunt Cordie.  He also said, as concerned his classes at the college that he no longer desired to “make something of myself” or to “rise above my upbringing.”  Rather he simply desired to return and in the winter of the New Year of 1937, in the midst of a great flood, he makes his journey home.  Jayber’s journey home is in some ways a religious experience and at one point as he crosses a bridge threatened by the flood he says: ”And this is what it was like – the words were just right there in my mind, and I knew they were true: ‘the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’  I’m not sure that I can tell you what was happening to me then, or that I know even now.  At the time I surely wasn’t trying to tell myself.  But after all my years of reading in that book and hearing it read and believing it, I seemed to have wandered my way back to the beginning – not just of the book, but of the world – and all the rest was yet to come.  I felt knowledge crawl over my skin.”

And that is just where Jayber was headed, back to the beginning of his world in Port William, with everything yet to come.

Now I will comment on the views of Christianity and/or Evangelical Protestantism that Jayber expressed.  Though I do not claim to be addressing everything he touched on by any means, but rather I’m just commenting on the issues that most stick on my mind, which may be different than what another reader would focus on.

  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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Re: Book Review Part I: 'Jayber Crow' by Wendell Berry
Reply #4 - Feb 15th, 2015 at 10:36pm
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Berry believes in taking the written word at face value.  Part of this may be in reaction to the devaluing and distortion of language that is carried on daily in the political and economic life of our country, and he has addressed this devaluing of meaning-in-language directly in some of his other work.  Berry is also opposed to the destruction of meaning that he sees in modern literary criticism, which opposition he expresses in a humorous ‘NOTICE’ in the front of this book.  Said notice reads: ”NOTICE: ‘Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.’  BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”

One could say Berry approaches the written word in the same way one who values honesty approaches the use of the spoken word; that is, he approaches it with the philosophy that it should be taken as “saying what it means and meaning what it says,” and precisely one of Jayber’s concerns was that it appeared to him that the Christians around him were not taking Jesus like “He meant what He said.”

Though I may disagree with Berry on certain of the Gospels interpretations of the Gospels, like the need for complete non-violence, I accept his overall concern with hypocrisy among Christians.  In America you could say we have two “Christianities.”  The religion as it is practiced privately in homes, in churches, and in people’s daily lives, and the Christian religion as a political force.  The Christian religion, like so much else, is debased when it touches politics.  Political Christianity is a religion of easily repeated, and often banal, slogans and platitudes.  Political Christianity also has a tendency to become associated with whatever else its political purveyors believe in, whether or not these things might actually be compatible with the Gospel message.  It all rather reminds me of a truck dealership not too far from where I live; in his commercials the owner of this dealership says they believe in three things: God, Guns and Trucks.

As far as Jayber’s comments on the division of body and soul in Christianity, ultimately the body and the soul are linked and what effects one detrimentally will effect the other detrimentally as well, and as nature sustains our bodies, as nature is in some measure an extension of our bodies, what effect nature detrimentally will come back to effect our bodies and souls detrimentally, which is a point Berry has made over and over and over.  Body-soul-nature, these cannot be nicely separated and each put into their own individual containers, rather each of the three is intimately linked with the other two.  In contrast to this intimate union of body-nature-soul, Berry would say the modern Christian abuses his body, abuses the natural world around him, and yet imagines that in spite of these abuses of body and nature somehow his soul can remain spick-and-span as long as he goes to church every Sunday.

That finishes Part I of my review of Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry.  There is much more to follow, only Jayber’s early life and his physical journey back to Port William have so far been covered…and I have certainly not mined even just that 20% or so of the book to the full extent possible, but rather have simply touched on themes that struck me; I am sure much more could be said.



*On a personal not I can say here that I know how Jayber felt having experienced a period in my own life where my mind kept bombarding me with questions and doubt.


« Last Edit: Feb 15th, 2015 at 11:15pm by Frank1 »  


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Re: Book Review Part I: 'Jayber Crow' by Wendell Berry
Reply #5 - Feb 16th, 2015 at 7:44pm
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But Christianity was never meant to be practiced "privately." There is a false dichotomy being presented.
  

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Re: Book Review Part I: 'Jayber Crow' by Wendell Berry
Reply #6 - Feb 16th, 2015 at 8:38pm
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Mercy For All wrote on Feb 16th, 2015 at 7:44pm:
But Christianity was never meant to be practiced "privately." There is a false dichotomy being presented.


I might ask you to expand more, but as I think I may guess what you are addressing, I am going to reply.


When I wrote about living out Christian values privately I used that term to described Christians living out Christian values in their daily lives.  You try to live out Christian values, I try to live them out, etc.

I did not use the word privately to mean Christianity is something which we are not supposed to talk about with those around us.

However, I would also say there is a difference between living out Christian values in a communal setting, which obviously Berry supports, and the politicized type of Christianity we see in the public realm in modern America.  It is not that Christians should not be able to take their values into, or to talk about their values in the political sphere, but rather the way Christianity so often winds up being talked about, which is in a very hypocritical, one could say 'pharisaical,' 'get out the voters' manner.

Perhaps, in a democracy this is inevitable.  In a monarchy, Christianity would not have to be so debased.

Politics ruins everything they say.
  


To say homo sapiens, is to say Homo religiosus; there is no man without God. ~Frithjof Schuon
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