Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

I started reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry based on the recommendation of someone I respect, but only know through Facebook. She is the mother of a friend of my daughter's. She has opened a classical Christian private school. In short, I want to be her when I grow up. So when she says she is reading a good book, it goes on my list.

I had no idea what to expect. With a name like, "Jayber Crow," it could be anything. I didn't know if it was fiction or non-fiction, biography or philosophy, historical or modern. It turns out to be the sweet fictional "life story of Jayber Crow, barber, of the Port William Membership, as written by himself." 

We learn he is old and near the end of his life at the beginning of the book. It is unclear who he is telling his story to or why. He is never famous, he never accomplishes anything that would cover him in glory. He lives an ordinary bachelor life as a barber in a tiny town. However, he is thoughtful and reflective. Being a barber gives him access to all the townspeople and their secrets. He watches and remarks, but never really gets involved. He is a consummate outsider all his days, yet he is in the middle of life in the small town like no one else.

I'm not sure if the book or its author is supposed to embody Christian values. Jayber considers going into the ministry for a time, but has to give it up due to serious doubts. Yet the book does not mock faith, and Jayber's life's journey seems to be finding answers to the doubts he expresses early in life. In fact, a respected theologian tells him that it may take his whole life, and possibly longer, to find the answers Jayber is looking for. 

However, the real heart of this slow, meandering story is Jayber's love for Mattie Chatham. He is a little older than her and he arrives in the town as the young barber, watching 14-year-old Mattie walk home from school. She eventually marries the town's basketball star, who, in Jayber's opinion, is wholly undeserving of her. After seeing her husband, Troy, out with another woman, Jayber makes a solemn, yet unsanctified, vow to Mattie, alone and in his own mind. He will be the faithful husband she deserves. For the rest of his life, while never telling her of his undying love, he sets out to prove that someone like Mattie can have a man who will sacrifice all for her, who will love her until the day she dies. 

This odd, but achingly beautiful, love story begins to parallel Christ's love for us. This message is so subtle, it can be missed, but I believe it to be the theme of the book. By the end of the book, Jayber is at peace, he has developed a secret, yet very chaste and innocent, relationship with Mattie when they meet accidentally and randomly from time to time at a secret spot on her property. When her husband sells the land she so cherished to developers as she lies dying the hospital, Jayber mourns with her in her hospital room. It is the closest they come to acknowledging any feelings for each other. 

I believe there is beauty hidden in this book. It is a slow tale, told in small vignettes. I think if I re-read it, I would see even further into the author's purposes in writing it. I believe his argument is that "while we were yet sinners, God loved us..." Jayber experiences and displays the most unselfish kind of love imaginable. He is faithful to a "wife" who barely acknowledges of his existence. He loves with no hope or expectation of it ever being returned. Along the way, Jayber describes the beautiful nature surrounding him. I'm sure there is meaning in this. He tells of the townspeople with all their faults and foibles. Yet despite the hurt and harm some of them cause, he can never bring himself to hate. Even Mattie's brash, selfish, and arrogant husband earns Jayber's sympathy. 

I suppose Berry is saying that we are all fallen and flawed, but we are all loved. That love is undeserved and beyond comprehension or even full knowledge. The townspeople never knew the depth of Jayber's feelings or insights into their lives. He was outside. Of but not in. Yet he knew them more intimately than they knew themselves or each other. 

If this is a Christian work, it is perfect in its subtlety and nuance. 

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