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Saturday, 26 January 2008

Wendell Berry - novelist

Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself by Wendell Berry
Counterpoint, 2000.

Wendell Berry is a wonderful story teller, is a sharp observer of the changes in a community and a real theologian to boot.

This is the first novel of his that I have read. I will be looking to get hold of others. I was moved and engaged by the story of Jayber Crow, orphan, barber and bachelor - a man who discovered he did not have the call to preach.

Berry's doubts about organised religion find voice in the life and spiritual struggles of Jonah Crow. After years of readig the Gospels Jayber observes that he has come to believe that ...
Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one.

Berry is also good in his critique of the spiritualisation of Christianity, that finds voice in the reflections of Jayber Crow on the importance of the body and the goodness of creation.

In a fine review of this novel Michael Wilt observes:

Taken to a church-run orphanage, young Jonah believes he hears the call to be a preacher and, when the time comes, enrolls in college on a scholarship in “pre-ministerial” studies. But it is not long before he finds himself in trouble.

If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins –- hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust -- came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and its pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body.

Jonah comes to recognize that he is not called to preach. “I was a lost traveler wandering in the woods, needing to be on my way somewhere but not knowing where,” he says, echoing Dante. After some trial and error, that somewhere becomes Port William, the community in which he had been born but from which he had been absent since the age of ten. His journey to Port William, through the rising waters of several days of winter rain, evokes the biblical Jonah’s water-journey, but is most memorable for the hospitality he receives at its end. Having picked up the barbering trade in the orphanage and practiced it for a time to support himself, Jonah buys Port William’s vacant shop and opens for business. He is eventually re-christened Jayber by the locals, and can finally say, “I felt at home.”

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