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Author Topic: Jayber Crow  (Read 1163 times) Average Rating: 0
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David
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« on: October 28, 2003, 04:55:16 AM »

In the Mr. OC.net thread, I mentioned Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry as my current favorite novel.  I was introduced to this book by my priest, who also introduced it to Fr. Thomas Hopko.  Fr. Thomas, a long-time admirer of another southern writer Flannery O'Connor, proclaimed Jayber Crow the best novel he has ever read.  I think I must agree.  Some of the below is pasted from other reviews whose words fit my thoughts well.

Here is a notice at the beginning of the book: "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."  Keeping that in mind, I will tread lightly.


Jayber(born Jonah Crow) is orphaned twice, and after a stint in a church-ran orphanage, he becomes a pre-ministerial student.  Soon however, he begins to question the inconsistencies he finds in the Bible. He finds that he will be unable to preach the gospel with any integrity and seeks out "Old Grit," his professor of New Testament Greek. He tells the professor that the words of Jesus are all that hold true for him, but if it all boils down to "Thy will be done," what is the use even of praying? Their short interview and J. Crow's ministerial future ends when the professor says to him:

"You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out -- perhaps a little at a time."

"And how long is that going to take?"

"I don't know. As long as you live, perhaps."

"That could be a long time."

"I will tell you a further mystery," he said. "It may take longer."

Troubled by his unanswered questions about the Bible and drawn back to his childhood home, he makes his way after the flood of 1937 to a barbershop in Port Williams, where he practices this trade for most of his adult life. He also takes on grave digging and janitorial services for the local church, most of whose female members regard him warily because he isn't above a Saturday night "water" drinking party with the boys.

Jayber's troubled faith, his position as a barber, and his honorable love for an unattainable woman all combine to provide him (and us) with valuable perspective on the passage of time and the changes it brings.

Here are some of my favorite passages from the book that don't spoil too many surprises:

"From my college courses and my reading I knew the various names that came at the end of a line of questions or were placed as periods to bafflement: the First Cause, the First Mover, the Life Force, the Universal Mind, the First Principle, the Unmoved Mover, even Providence.  I too had used those names in arguing with others, and with myself, trying to explain the world to myself.  And now I saw that those names explained nothing.  They were of no more use than Evolution or Natural Selection or Nature or The Big Bang of these later days.  All such names do is catch us within the length and breadth of our own thoughts and our own bewilderment.  Thought I knew the temptation of simple reason, to know nothing that can't be proved, still I supposed that those were not the right names.

I imagined that the right name might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply:  the love, the compassion, the taking offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death.  If love could force my own thoughts over the edge of the world and out of time, then could I not see how even divine omnipotence might by the force of its own love be swayed down into the world?  Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death?

Yes.  And I could imagine a Father who is yet like a mother hen spreading her wings before the storm or in the dusk before the dark night for the little ones of Port William to come in under, some of whom do, and some do not.  I could imagine Port William riding its humble wave through time under the sky, its little flames of wakefulness lighting and going out, its lives passing through birth, pleasure, suffering, and death.  I could imagine God looking down upon it, its lives living by His spirit, breathing by His breath, knowing by His light, but each life living also (inescapably) by its own will - His own body given to be broken.

Once I had imagined these things, there was no longer within me any question of what is called "belief."  It was not a "conversion" in the usual sense, as though I had been altogether out and was now altogether in.  It was more as though I had been in a house and a storm had blown off the roof; I was more in the light than I had thought.  And also, at night, of course, more in the dark.  I had changed, and the sign of it was only that my own death now seemed to me by far the least important thing in my life."

On dealing with an enemy...

"At the clap of that condemnation in my thoughts, what had happened to him seemed to happen to me, and for the first time I saw him apart from my contempt for him.  I saw him clear-eyed.

I saw us both as if from a great distance off in a time: two small, craving, suffering creatures, soon to be gone.  T. was a beaten man and knew it, and was trying not to know it.  You could see it in his eyes.  Now at last he was to inherit a farm that he had worn out, that he had so encumbered with debt that he could not keep it, that I knew would now be dragged into the suck of speculation and devleopment to be subdivided under some such name as Paradise Estates....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.  He was an exhausted man on the way back, not to the nothing that he had when he started out, but to the nothing that everything had been created from - and so, I pray, to mercy.  

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 he had acknowledged then what he finally would not be able to avoid acknowleding, I would have hugged 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."

And my favorite passage:

"But faith is not necessarily , or not soon, a resting place.  Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark.  Even a man of faith knows that we've all got to go through enough to kill us.  As a man of faith, I've thought a considerable amount about a friend of mine (imagined, but also real) I call the Man in the Well.

The now wooded, or rewooded, slopes and hollows hereabouts are strewn with abandoned homesteads, the remains of another kind of world.  Most of them by now have no buildings left.  Everything about them that would rot has rotted.  What you find now in those places when you come upon them are the things that were built of stone; foundations, cellars, chimneys, wells.  Sometimes the wells are deep, dug to the bedrock and beyond, and walled with rock laid up without mortar.  Virtually every rock in a structure like that, if it is built right, is a keystone; it can't move in or out.  Those walls, laid underground where there is no freezing and thawing, will last, I guess, almost forever.

Sometimes the well is the only structure remaining, and there will be no visible sign of it.  It will be covered with old boards in some stage of decay, green with moss or covered with leaves.  It is a perfect trap, and now and then you find that rabbits and groundhogs have blundered in and drowned.  A man too could blunder into one.

Imagine a hunter, somebody from a city some distance away, who has a job he doesn't like, and who has come alone out into the country to hunt on a Saturday.  It is a beautiful, perfect fall day, and the Man feels free.  He has left all his constraints and worries and fears behind.  Nobody knows where he is.  Anybody who wanted to complain or accuse or collect a debt could not find him.  The morning that started frosty has grown warm.  The sky seems to give its luster to everything in the world.  The Man feels strong and fine.  His gun lies ready on the crook of his arm, though he really doesn't care whether he finds game or not.  He has a sandwich and a candy bar in his coat pocket.  And then, not looking where he is going, which is easy enough on such a day, he steps onto the rotten boards that cover one of those old wells and down he goes.

He disappears suddenly out of the lighted world.  He falls so quickly that he doesn't have time even to ask what is happening.  He hits water, goes under, comes up, swims, or clings to the wall, inserting his fingers between the rocks.  And now, I think, you cannot help imagining the way it would be with him.  He looks up and sees how far down he has come.  The sky that was so large and reassuring only seconds ago is now just a small blue picture of itself, far away.  His first thought is that he is alone, that nobody knows where he is; these two great pleasures that were his freedom have now become his prison, perhaps his tomb.  He calls out (for might not somebody chance to be nearby, just as he chanced to fall into the well?) and he hears himself enclosed within the sound of his own calling voice.

How does this story end?  Does he save himself?  Is he athletic enough, maybe, to get his boots off and climb out, clawing with fingers and toes into the grudging holds between the rocks of the wall?  Does he climb up and fall back?  Does somebody, in fact, for a wonder, chance to pass nearby and hear him?  Does he despair, give up, and drown?  Does he, despairing, pray finally the first true prayer of his life?

Listen.  There is a light that includes our darkness, a day that shines down even on the clouds.  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 byond 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."  Have mercy.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1582431604/qid=1067330184/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-4065463-1835848?v=glance&s=books

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« Reply #1 on: October 28, 2003, 01:05:50 PM »

A bump, as I spent about an hour typing those portions last night in a bout of insomnia and would like to know that someone had read it. Smiley
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« Reply #2 on: October 28, 2003, 02:48:37 PM »

David --

I am a big fan of Wendell Berry, but I have not read this book. Thanks for the recommendation. He embodies a real classical conservatism that is so lacking in today's world.

Greg
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Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. - Philippians 4:8
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« Reply #3 on: October 28, 2003, 03:30:20 PM »

Greg,

I've only read one of Mr. Berry's essay collections(What are People For?) that was also spectacular.  I look forward to reading much more of his work.  Have you read any of his poetry?
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