We’ve now past the half-way point in Jayber’s account of his life. I’m reading Wendell Berry’s book along with the folks at Living our Days blog at https://michelemorin.wordpress.com
Each Thursday we talk about a few more chapters together and reflect on what we’ve noticed.
Check out the About page at my blog for the reading schedule and join us, or just listen in on the conversation ( :
Reflections of a Grave-digger:
In which Jayber becomes a grave-digger and church custodian on the side and cultivates compassion for the living and the dead.
The people there had lived their little passage of time in this world, had become what they became, and now could be changed only by forgiveness and mercy. The misled, the disappointed, the sinners of all the sins, the hopeful, the faithful, the loving, the doubtful, the desperate, the grieved and the comforted, the young and the old, the bad and the good—all, sufferers unto death, had lain down there together. Some were there who had served the community better by dying than by living. Why I should have felt tender toward them all was not clear to me, but I did. p.158
But all those who were there, if they had lived past childhood, had twice in this world, first and last, been as helpless as a little child. p.158
Reflections of a Church-goer:
In which Jayber begins to attend church regularly, if only to gaze out the window and think his own thoughts, and comes away with a very distorted conception of Christianity and a cynical view toward its young preachers.
Here, I suspect, the author uses Jayber to get in his own rants about religion. He seems confused in his understanding of how Christians are called to be ‘in the world but not of it’. Consider these quotes:
In Port William, more than anyplace else I had been, this religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. p.161
They were not going to school to learn where they were, let alone the pleasures and the pains of being there, or what ought to be said there. You couldn’t learn those things in a school. They went to school, apparently, to learn to say over and over again, regardless of where they were, what had already been said too often. They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works—although they could tell you that this world had been made by God Himself. What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful, and that some of the greatest beauties are the briefest. p.160
They had imagined the church, which is an organization, but not the world, which is an order and a mystery. To them, the church did not exist in the world where people earn their living and have their being, but rather in the world where they fear death and Hell, which is not much of a world. To them, the soul was something dark and musty, stuck away for later. In their brief passage through or over it, most of the young preachers knew Port William only as it theoretically was (“lost”) and as it theoretically might be (“saved”). And they wanted us all to do our part to spread this bad news to others who had not heard it—the Catholics, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists, and the others—or else they (and maybe we) would go to Hell. I did not believe it. They made me see how cut off I was. Even when I was sitting in the church, I was a man outside. p.161
It seems to me that Jayber’s resistance to the heart of the gospel with its reality that there is a hell and that people are not inherently good enough to avoid going there… is what caused him to sit as an outsider in the congregation. He could not receive the bad news in order to recognize the good news when it was delivered.
And the preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, having just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish. p.161
To give Jayber (Berry?) the benefit of the doubt, I do wonder whether the church of this time was misguided in its suspicion of pleasure and beauty as being ‘worldly’, and plainness and deprivation as being somehow more ‘holy’. I grew up in a sect that had this leaning–jewelry, dressy clothes, make-up and even a woman wearing her long hair down were taboo in my parents’ generation and still suspect in mine. It has taken me a lifetime to come around to seeing God as the source of all things beautiful, and His ways–the very essence of holiness–as supremely beautiful and bearing little resemblance to the religion of my ancestors in some respects.
A Christ-follower rightly related to the world may take great pleasure in its beauties and enjoyments, receiving all things as gifts from a good God whose has designed all good things to point to Him as Creator. Holiness is not found in shunning beauty and pleasure but in viewing it through the lens of God’s Word, seeing it as pointing to His beauty and goodness, enjoying it, stewarding it, but not worshiping it.
Though every good thing is meant to point to God and bring Him glory, we being born idolaters do so easily cling to things for satisfaction instead of their Maker. Things are to be stewarded for His Kingdom’s sake; they whet our appetites for what is yet to come, for God Himself. I wish Jayber (Berry?) might have understood this, but he seemed to get stuck in loving created things but missing the redemptive plan of their Creator.
Having said that I do appreciate this evaluation of why people showed up in church week by week.
I thought some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place. The people didn’t really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still they liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude. I loved to hear them sing “The Unclouded Day” and “Sweet By and By”: We shall sing on that beautiful shore The melodious songs of the blest … And in times of sorrow when they sang “Abide with Me,” I could not raise my head. p.163
I too love the old hymns and find this consciousness of heaven’s joys to have faded from our churches even in my lifetime, perhaps because we live in such plenty.
But here I rant ( : and this is just a story and Jayber a hypothetical individual… I will desist, and defer to a C.S. Lewis quote I think captures so much of what is missing from Jayber’s perspectives…
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” –C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Jayber buys a car and finds a girl
In which Jayber , wanting ‘to take an active part in the ongoing life of the twentieth century’, buys a car in order to seek out companionship with the opposite sex:
When I was not driving it, which was nearly all the time, it sat with a complacent expression in the driveway beside the shop, seeming to be eating and digesting my money. p.167
My wonderful machine sometimes altered my mind so that I, lately a pedestrian myself, fiercely resented all such impediments on the road… Ease of going was translated without pause into a principled unwillingness to stop. p.187
…it is not good for man to be alone…
Oh, at church and other places I would be among women, but I would not be with them. Maybe this is not easy to explain. It is not exactly a hardship but it is not a pleasure either to be among women who know you are there but don’t look at you, or who speak to you in a distant and resolutely friendly way as if you might be anybody on earth except in particular yourself. p.171
This seems a sad commentary on the fellowship of the church in his place and time, whereas Scripture says women are to be treated as sisters and mothers. Men and women are intended to complement each other, not just in marriage, but in everyday life.
Berry alludes to ‘“Ma Perkins” and “Our Gal Sunday” and “The Romance of Helen Trent” on the radio turned up to thunderous volume’ in describing Clydie’s widowed mother. I had a little peek at Wikipedia to find that these were popular radio soap operas of the day. The articles included some links to old audio recordings, including several episodes of Ma Perkins.
Have a quick listen here–https://archive.org/details/MaPerkins021950
The advertising is the funniest (and strangest)! We have grown accustomed to being persuaded by visual effects (seeing is believing) but with radio the potential consumer has to believe without seeing. Advertising has certainly changed. And you have only to listen for a minute to recognize that male/female interactions have been radically altered since Jayber’s time!
Perceptive (and often comical) Character depictions
Uncle Stanley had no more sense of privacy than a fruit jar. p.156
Uncle Stanley loved to sit on the edge of a grave, dangling his feet in, and instruct me to do what I was already doing, his conversation varying between unspeakable and incredible. p.157
Aunt Beulah, who had her ways from which she deviated no more than a train from the track. Her hearing was as sharp as Miss Sigurnia’s was dull. Aunt Beulah could hear the dust motes collide in a sunbeam; she could hear spiders chewing on flies.
Aunt Beulah thought the world had done her a long list of disservices, and she kept the list faithfully and knew it by heart and recited it often. She was, in fact, a sort of old-age version of Cecelia Overhold. She felt that the entire population of Hargrave had failed to recognize her innate superiority. p.173
He was all show, and he had the conviction, as such people do, that show is the same as substance. He didn’t think he was fooling other people; he had fooled himself. He thought he saw what he thought we saw. Sometimes after he left my shop, I would discover that my teeth were clenched. p.177
So far, he was just propping himself up, asserting his superiority perhaps just by habit; nothing had required him to suspect that the reference point or measure of what he did or said might not be himself. p.182
of Troy’s father:
“though he was not a talkative man, there was never much room between what he said and what he thought.” p.179
Of new ways of thinking about farming (and spending)
In which Jayber’s idealized sweetheart marries the disapproved-of -Troy who proceeds to upset the tried and true ways of farming and frugality in favor of machinery and debt.
Troy seems to characterize the changes in the economy that took place after the war. Dependencies shifted away from nature and neighbors to machines and money, led by the allure of an easier and more independent lifestyle.
The new way of farming was a way of dependence, not on land and creatures and neighbors but on machines and fuel and chemicals of all sorts, bought things, and on the sellers of bought things—which made it finally a dependence on credit. The odd thing was, people just assumed that all the purchasing and borrowing would merely make life easier and better on all the little farms. p.183
After the Depression and the war and the years of work that they were now beginning to think of as slow and too hard, the country people were trying to get away from demanding circumstances. That was why I bought the Zephyr. We couldn’t quite see at the time, or didn’t want to know, that it was the demanding circumstances that had kept us together. p.184
At the time all this began, Troy was twenty-three years old and Athey sixty-seven. Athey belonged to that life that had, in fact, ended with the war; he could not imagine the life that was to come. Troy, who could not imagine the older life, was overflowing with the impatience of the new one. p.186
There is much that could be said about the pros and cons of the changes that took place in America following the World Wars. Consumerism really took off at this time and with it the lifestyle of debt. But also intensified farming methods enabled the world to be fed rather than starving with the population explosion…But these things are way beyond discussion here. A family farm is a dear commodity. I can still go back to my grandparent’s farm where one lone uncle has survived to tend it but its days are passing fast and it is being swallowed up quite literally by housing developments…Perhaps a story, such as Jayber Crow, is one of the best ways of insuring that the way things were is not forgotten…