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Off the Shelf: Jayber Crow

JAYBER CROW, WENDELL BERRY (2000)

*Spoiler Alert*

“This is a book about heaven.  I know it now.  It floats among us like a cloud and is the realest thing we know and the least to be captured, the least to be possessed by anybody for himself.  It is like a grain of mustard seed, which you cannot see among the crumbs of the earth where it lies.  It is like the reflection of the trees on the water.” – Jayber Crow, page 351.

Wendell Berry’s fictional novel Jayber Crow is the long telling of one man’s life. Jayber Crow is the town barber of Port William, Kentucky, and his story relates the interweaving of the strands that brought him and kept him there.  It’s a story of community, of farming, of falling in love and staying there, of modern progress, of Christian theology, of a broad river and a grove of ancient timber, of coming home.

As the story draws to a close, Jayber Crow declares heaven to be the soul of the book – the thread that ties together all its stitches and themes.  In his life, as he explains, heaven is both the smallest of all pieces and the reflected transformation of everything.  Regardless of whether or not you’ve read Jayber Crow, Jayber’s life offers each one of us a beautiful picture of eternity.

Near the end of his story, watching the flow of Port William’s river, Crow reflects upon the movement of his own life.

“Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise.  All the important things have happened by surprise…And so when I have though I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along.  Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?” (322).  

Jayber Crow realizes that, in his living, he has only caught a small glimpse of his life.  He understands that his story is one told by a Storyteller who remains yet outside of time and that Crow’s own work will not always be bound to bodies and days.  Jayber knows that his life, like a river, overflows his lifetime; it is in this that he finds his rest.

Yet Crow’s peace in his promised eternity is not limited to himself.  He acknowledges that the promise is the promise of a Kingdom – it is the promise of a renewed People of God.  While cleaning the town chapel, Jayber is given a vision of his own community, redeemed by the love of Christ.  Although he has lived all his days among broken people, wounding them and being wounded by them, Jayber sees beyond the brokenness into the renewed community that is to come.

“My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it.  And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace” (205).  

Just as Crow knows that his own story will be lived beyond the walls of this troubled world, he knows that the stories of those around him are eternal as well.  Jayber finds his identity – his “membership” – not only in his community as it is, but also in his community as it will be.

Jayber Crow’s narrative is enveloped by hope, rooted in his redeemed self and redeemed people; yet even those hopes may seem insufficient at the close of the story.  After fighting the long fight to defend his town from the terrors of a fallen world, Jayber is brought to his knees in failure.  Land that he and his community have sought to protect for years is exploited and destroyed while the one woman he has loved all his life lies dying.

As Jayber kneels beside her bed, she whispers to him, “’I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful.  To know it’s being ruined is hard’” (363).  Crow’s response is not one of petty answers or trite condolences.  He does not attempt to deny the ruining of the world; it cannot be denied.  Yet in the wasteland, he affirms and embraces the belief to which he holds.  Through tears, Jayber responds, “’But what about this other thing?’” (363).

The future Jayber Crow looks to for himself and for his community is the hope he looks to for the world.  Just as he and his people are at once broken and being made beautiful, so is his world at once ruptured and being restored.  For Jayber Crow, this hope is the “other thing;” for Jayber Crow, this hope is everything.

This hope is the hope of heaven – a mere mustard seed in the world and the reflection of the entire world itself. The book ends in the trailing off of eternity; the story will never be over but will continue into the everlasting beauty of which the narrative tells.  As Jayber Crow affirms, “Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go.  Now I am ready” (353).

*”Off the Shelf” is a brand new series where we’ll take a closer look at some of our favorite books–new and old (but mostly old).