September 11, 2009

Jayber Crow

Tonight we are going to be discussing Wendell Berry’s book Jayber Crow, and I want to begin by talking about why we are even bothering with a novel in the first place. After all, if Holy Scripture is the record of the Most Holy Trinity’s revelation to us, then why waste time with what someone else has written—especially if it is a work of fiction?

We touched on the answer to this question at the end of last week’s session:
The reason we always begin these seminars with a novel is the same reason Christ Jesus told stories. Stories help us experience the truth in a way that engages not just our rational equipment but our whole person. The only way most of us have ever studied Holy Scripture is with a list of questions, but stories help us get at the same issues in a way that is more profound and more immediate.

I want to build on that with an extended quotation from Eugene Peterson’s study of spiritual writing, a work entitled Eat This Book. Rev. Peterson writes:
What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of…verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history ... bringing about legible, coherent writing that has continuities from generation to generation, a narrative with plot and characters and scenery.

Rev. Peterson continues:

The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses … gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken open at random. (p 101)

So rather than using the fortune cookie approach to Holy Scripture—looking up all the possible references to community in a concordance and then using those verses as an outline for our study (or, worse yet, going out and purchasing a series entitled Ten Principles for Building Community, a kit that comes complete with ice breakers and discussion questions)—what we are doing is immersing ourselves in the story of a particular community—the town of Port William. As we grow old with Jayber, as we listen to him look back across the years, we enter into his community, and since Jayber’s story has, in the words of Eugene Peterson, “continuities from generation to generation”, since his story is “a narrative with plot and characters and scenery”—in other words, since it works precisely the same way that the Bible does—once we are finished with this story then we are much better prepared to listen carefully to what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are saying to us, to our “actual communities of men and women with names in history”.

But, as I also said in our last session, it’s important that we understand that Jayber Crow is not an instruction manual; it is not a blueprint for community. The novel is, after all, an idealized depiction of rural life in Kentucky during the mid-20th century. Wendell Berry does a masterful job of describing the joys and hardships and the conflicts that were part of that life, but he also completely ignores other, very important issues. To pick just one example, racism is never really a factor in the book. There is an elderly African-American couple that appears briefly in the early chapters of the novel; there is a reference to an African-American man at the beginning of chapter eleven, and, finally, there is a memorable incident in chapter twenty where Athey Keith scolds Hiram Hench for making racist comments. However, during the mid-20th century, Kentucky was ground-zero for the Ku Klux Klan, and that organization is only mentioned once, briefly, as part of the background for an extended bit of humor in chapter twenty-one. Of course, all writers make choices, and Wendell Berry chose not to focus on racism. That doesn’t make Jayber Crow a badly written book; it certainly doesn’t make it an immoral book, but it does mean that, like all books, it has limitations.

And, for our purposes, those limitations are especially obvious when it comes to the subject of religion. Towards the end of the novel, Jayber has this to say about his spiritual life: “I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road” (p321). That is not at all an understatement, because, while Jayber lives in a community that is, in many ways, intensely interdependent, his relationship with the Most Holy Trinity is intensely individualistic. For example, during his time as a “pre-ministerial student” at Pigeonville College, and, to some degree, throughout the entire novel, Jayber wrestles with how Holy Scripture is to be interpreted. The questions that he asks are profound, but, apart from a few conversations with the faculty at the college, he is content to simply mull the issues over in his mind and heart; in other words, it never occurs to him that the historic Church may have had already addressed those questions. And, while Wendell Berry’s description of religious life in Port William is a spot-on depiction of a typical rural Protestant parish in the middle decades of the last century—rotating pastors, absence of male leadership or even men in general, religion understood as a feminine undertaking—Jayber also has only a distant relationship with the flesh and blood congregation, as a congregation. He cleans their building; he rings their bell; he digs their graves; he dreams about the communion that they all share, but he never truly is a part of that parish. In fact, at the end of the novel, he admits that he feels “more religious” down by the river, “and yet every Sunday morning [he] walk[s] up there, over a cobble of quibbles” (p321).

So the Christianity that is available to Jayber is not the historic Faith of the Church. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal that we can learn from this character and from the community of Port William. What I want to do with the rest of this presentation is to briefly touch on the various dimensions of community that we will be talking about in the weeks ahead, and I want to demonstrate how this novel came help us think about those dimensions in some really compelling ways. We will, of course, be talking about the book throughout this entire seminar, but, tonight, I want to provide you with an over-view of some of the key issues and some of the most important passages.

Next Wednesday night, we will be talking about stability. Last week, we said that stability means staying put and working things out where you are; we said that it is the fundamental condition for growth in the spiritual life—both our own personal life and the life that we share. In fact, without stability, there are certain things which simply will not happen. For example, if Jayber had not spent his entire adult life in Port William in the close vicinity of Troy Chatham, one of the novel’s most powerful, concluding scenes would never have taken place:

So there he was, a man who had been given everything and did
not know it, who had lost it all and now knew it, and who was
boasting and grinning only to pretend for a few hours longer
that he did not know it…And there I was, a man losing what I
was never given, a man yet rich with love, a man whose knees
were weakening against gravity, who needed to go somewhere
and lie down. I stood facing that man I had hated for forty
years, and I did not hate him…If I could have done it, I would
have liked to pick him up like a child and carry him to some
place of safety and calm. (pp360-1)

Jayber could have packed up the Port William Zephyr and moved to Louisville, but he consciously chose to stay in his small town, and that choice of stability gave him the opportunity to do some profound and transforming spiritual work. In the same way, if we are willing to make the choice of staying put in this particular parish with this particular group of people, we will give ourselves and others the opportunity to do similar kinds of work. But if we only see this parish as a stopping point on the way to somewhere else, then we will never make any real spiritual progress, let alone do the sort of transforming work Jayber did.

On Wed, Sept 23, we will talk about authority. Authority means knowing who’s in charge and what that means and how that works. Jayber Crow provides us with both positive and negative models when it comes to authority. One of Jayber’s life-long fears has to do with “the man behind the desk”; it’s an image that arises from his experience at the Good Shepherd Orphanage, and it becomes incarnate in the polite and foreboding (and anonymous) state inspector that appears in Jayber’s shop at the end of the novel. Thus, contrived authority is always going to be impersonal (“He was—I believe he said—Mr. Mumble Something of the Forces of Health and Sanitation) unaccountable (He did not speak for himself but for a man behind a desk who spoke for a man behind another desk, who also did not speak for himself) and implacable (“If they don’t bother me, I surely won’t bother them” “I understand. But they are in the business of bothering you”). But the book also contains a powerfully positive model of authority in the character of Athey Keith. Athey has authority in Port William not only because he is a virtuous man, but also because he knows his place in the cosmos; he is respected because he respects the basic realities of life. This is clear in the way Jayber describes Athey’s approach to farming:

The law of the farm was in the balance between crops (including hay and pasture) and livestock. The farm would have no more livestock than it could carry without strain. no more land would be plowed for grain crops than could be fertilized with manure from the animals. No more grain would be grown than the animals could eat … This was a conserving principle; it strictly limited both the amount of land that would be plowed and the amount of supplies that would be bought. (p185).

The application to community life in our parish should be obvious: in order for authority to be wielded properly in our parish, it must be grounded in a larger, more comprehensive matrix of authority, and that matrix must be an organic, creative expression of scripture, tradition, spiritual experience, and personal direction. Authority that operates apart from that matrix is illegitimate and unhealthy.

On Wed, Sept 30 we will talk about hospitality and fellowship; it is how we welcome others into community and support them in the life of community. Jayber Crow contains many scenes of what we traditionally think of as hospitality and fellowship (for example, Jayber is part of an on-going game of rummy in Jasper Lathrop’s store throughout the Second World War, and he is welcomed into the family of Danny and Lyda Branch when his age begins to limit his ability to care for himself), but, essentially, hospitality and fellowship have to do with love, and there is no better example of love in this novel than Jayber’s vicarious marriage to Mattie: he becomes the man that Mattie needs in her life. All this is explained to us in the dialogue that Jayber has with himself as he is trudging home from the Riverwood Christmas Dance:

“So her need, then, you’re saying, is to have a faithful husband?”
“Yes, that must be what I’m saying.”
“Well, where is she going to get one?”
“Well, I don’t know. It seems a stupid question. She has already got a husband.”
“But is he not unfaithful?”
“Yes, he is unfaithful.”
“And she needs a faithful one.”
“Yes, she does.”…
“But where could—how could—she get one?”
“Well, if she is ever going to have one, I’m sure, of course,
it will have to be me.” (p242)

That is how love works in the community that we call the Church: we form new relationships, not to replace, but to supplement and support and, ultimately, redeem and transform the relationships that we have out in the world. Nurturing people into those relationships is what we call hospitality; living within those relationships is what we call fellowship.

On Wed, Oct 7, we will talk about Care for the Dead. After Jayber becomes the grave-digger for the congregation, a good deal of the novel takes place in and around the Port William cemetery. This plot development gives us a graphic feel for the passing of the generations, but it also demonstrates how a healthy community interacts with the departed. Jayber first discovers this when he has settled once again in Port William:

Another new thing happened to me after I came back to Port William was the feeling of loss. I began to live my losses … The place itself and all its conversation surrounded me with remindings. Aunt Cordie and Uncle Othy and the Thripples and Put Woolfork … all the people of that early world I once thought would last forever, and then thought I had left forever—[they] were always coming back to my mind because of something I saw or heard … The grief that came to me then was nothing like the grief I had felt for myself alone, at the end of my stay in Lexington. This grief had something in it of generosity, some nearness to joy. In a strange way, it added to me what I had lost. (pp130-2)

As Orthodox Christians, we have something that many Christians no longer have because the Church provides us with a framework for interacting with the departed. We have unique liturgical responsibilities to and for the dead, but we must also find concrete, practical ways in which to ‘live our losses’; we must develop the relationship that we have with those of our community who have gone on before us; we must find ways to extend hospitality and fellowship into the next life.

On Wed, Oct 14, we will talk about the Economy of our community. We will talk about how we order our life together. Towards the end of the novel, Jayber describes how Mattie organized her home life:

Through all the time and troubles of her marriage to Troy, she held as well as she could to the old ways. She never let the economies of her household sink down. She was a woman of great energy, whose movements always had a certain force and momentum and resolution, as well as grace. She kept house, kept a flock of chickens, gardened, canned, and peserved food, made clothes, practiced every sort of ingenuity and frugality. (p341)

In discussing this particular dimension of community life, I am not suggesting that all the members of our parish should learn to be self-sufficient and live off the land. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but, what we do need to be thinking about—and what I want us to talk about on Oct 14th—is the typical trajectory of parish life in this country: when a community is small, the members must do things for themselves (cleaning, teaching, caring for the children and for the youth and for each other); that is one of the clear marks of a small parish. However, the larger a community gets, the fewer things the members do for themselves—in fact, it is understood to be a sign of maturity and success when you can hire a janitor and nursery workers and staff people to work with the children and youth and an assistant priest to visit folks in the nursing home and the hospital. But is that truly the way we want to order our life together?

On Wed, Oct 21, we will talk about conflict. The novel is full of conflict, from the first chapter when Jayber talks about Fee Berlew, the “only man [he] ever had to (so to speak) throw out of [his] shop” (p7), to the on-going, antagonistic relationships that Jayber has with Cecelia Overhold and Troy Chatham. In fact, towards the end of the book, Jayber has this to say about his life in Port William:

This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell—where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need most, where we see no hope and have no faith… (p355)

So this novel is not going to provide us with a blue-print for conflict resolution any more than it is going to turn out to be an instruction manual for community. However, Jayber’s honest assessment about his life in a small town ends with the story of the man in the well, which is one of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in the entire book:

A man of faith believes that the Man in the Well is not lost.He does not believe this easily or without pain, but he believes it. His belief is a kind of knowledge beyond any way of knowing. He believes that the child in the womb is not lost, nor is the man whose work has come to nothing, nor is the old woman forsaken in a nursing home in California. He believes that those who make their bed in Hell are not lost, or those who dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, or the lame man at Bethesda Pool, or Lazarus in the grave, or those who pray, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani”. (p357)

The key, then, to conflict in community is not so much the techniques we use to manage it or even resolve it as much as whether or not we are, ultimately, willing to suffer on behalf of others, whether we are willing to enter into and bear up under the pain and loss and fear that this world generates, the way Christ Jesus did on the cross.

On Wed, Oct 28, we will talk about toxic community. Jayber is honest and gracious in his assessment of the various communities that he has been a part of at different times in his life. Even when he is thinking back on his time at the Good Shepherd, he observes that, even though he “dislike[s] the life of institutions and organizations,” “if confronted with a hundred or so orphan children of two sexes and diverse ages and characters all to be raised and educated together…I can’t say with confidence that I would do better” (p33). However, at the end of the novel, Jayber visits the Keith farm, and he has nothing good to say about what he sees:

Every scrap of land that a tractor could stand on had been plowed and cropped in corn or soybeans or tobacco. And,yet, in spite of this complete and relentless putting to use,the whole place, from the house and garden all the way back to the river, looked deserted. It did not look like a place where anybody had ever wanted to be. It and the farming on it looked like an afterthought. It looked like what Troy had thought about last, after thinking about himself, his status, his machinery, and his debts. (p340)

The poison at work in Troy’s soul has had a tragic impact not only on his wife and children, but on the land itself. And the older he gets, the more Jayber sees evidence of this same kind of toxicity throughout the broader culture that is beginning to intrude on Port William:

The people are in an emergency to relax. They long for the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. Their eyes are hungry for the scenes of nature. They go very fast in their boats. They stir the river like a spoon in a cup of coffee. They play their radios loud enough to hear above the noise of their motors. They look neither to the left nor right. (p331)

We often think of toxic communities solely in terms of cultic behavior and the abuse of authority, but Jayber’s observations remind us that, when communities begin to sicken, then the impact of that dysfunction is going to be felt not only at the level of our relationships with each other and the Most Holy Trinity, it will also be felt throughout society as a whole, and even in our relationships with the natural world.

On Wed, Nov 4, we will talk about the world, how we interact with our culture, and how that interaction affects the life of our community. In Jayber Crow, the world is symbolized by The War and The Economy:

…The War and The Economy were seeming more and more to be independent operations. The War, I thought, was just the single Hell that is always astir in the world…And the nations were always preparing funds of weapons and machines and people to be used up whenever The War did break out in full force, which meant that sooner or later it would … Also, it seemed that The War and The Economy were more and more closely related…The War was good for the Economy…(p273)

Jayber’s on-going descriptions of how the world changes the community of Port William are very poignant, but we must not let that obscure the ugly fact that, in the end, the War and the Economy win: the local school is closed, the town’s stores all fail, the highway arrives, the cemetery is filled with the patriotic dead, and, finally, the Nest Egg is cut down. As we talk about the life of our parish, we need to keep in mind the fact that our hope is an eschatological one: All communities eventually lose to the War and the Economy, so we are not talking about this subject in the hopes of sustaining our parish indefinitely; we are talking about this subject because what we do in this life extends into the next. Our faithfulness may not make an appreciable difference at the level of history, but it can have a transforming difference on eternity.

On Wed, Nov 11, we will finish up by talking about Practical Outcomes. As I said last week, this will be the most important session of the entire seminar, because we will be talking about specific things we can do in our parish to live out true community. That takes us beyond the scope of Jayber Crow, but I hope that tonight I have demonstrated that this novel can be a tremendous resource for us in our work, and we will certainly be referencing the book throughout the rest of the seminar. Let me encourage you to keep this project in your prayers and to carefully read through all the scripture passages before each session. I look forward to being with you again next Wed night when we will be talking about the importance of stability.

fr. aidan

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