Kentucky poet and novelist Wendell Berry is beloved by many Catholics, who appreciate his biblical spiritualism, traditionalism, and perspective on vocations, among other things. Particularly Jayber Crow, one of Berry’s most popular characters from the eponymous novel, who is a man of faith, community, and introspection.
Anthony Esolen in his essay “If Dante Were a Kentucky Barber” even compares the fictional character to Dante. I too love Berry and Jayber Crow. Yet I can’t help thinking that so much of what Berry communicates through Jayber finds its proper fulfillment only in the Catholic Church.
Jayber, a barber in the fictional rural town of Port William, Kentucky, has a complicated relationship with religion. After his parents and extended family die, he’s sent to an orphanage. For a time he feels called to ministry, but questions regarding the Bible and Christianity lead him to abandon pastoral studies. He eventually returns to his hometown and sets up a barbershop.
Jayber also accepts a job as a janitor at Port William’s church and begins attending Sunday services. It’s listening to sermons there that he perceives a problem in low-church evangelicalism:
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.
Jayber rightly perceives is the dualistic Gnosticism of much of Protestantism, which either explicitly or implicitly regards the material world, even the human body, as inherently evil. The Calvinist doctrine of “total depravity,” for example, conceives of human nature as entirely sinful, rather than good, albeit corrupted, as Catholicism teaches.
These gnostic tendencies seem irreconcilable with human life. Jayber explains:
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. To begin with, I didn’t think anybody believed it. I still don’t think so.
Jayber recognizes that if God called creation good, then it would be odd to condemn it as evil, even damaged by sin. Such people contradictorily hold a “a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works.”
Moreover, our experience as embodied souls testifies that many things are indeed good: pecan pie, an autumn sunset, well-aged bourbon among them: “They [the inhabitants of Port William] knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still they liked it,” says Jayber. A God-man who turns water into wine and cooks fresh fish for his apostles would doubtless agree.
There are, however, some qualities of church that Jayber comes to love, including the “naturally occurring silences.” These create moments of both quiet contemplation and even – imperfect – mystical union among the parishioners. “But always too soon the preacher would become abashed (after all, he was being paid to talk) and start a prayer, and the beautiful moment would end.”
This shows a profound difference between a Protestant liturgy focused on preaching the Word of God, and a Catholic liturgy focused on the sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, Jayber seems to be expressing a natural desire for Eucharistic adoration, in which the Church unites in silent contemplation and worship of Christ’s Body and Blood.
Catholic worship is not only vertical but also horizontal. This, too, Jayber intuits: “I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.” Jayber yearns for an incarnated Church, in which members love each other because of their union with Christ, something Catholics possess via baptism. Indeed, his longings even point to an earlier Christendom where all of society was joined together in Christ.
Alternatively, because Jayber is a Protestant, he is confounded by the Bible. He notes how Protestant preachers can debate the finer points of theology while remaining incapable of explaining, “why, if we were to take some of the Bible literally, we don’t take all of it literally.” Severed from historic, patristic Christianity, Jayber lacks a rich tradition that reads Scripture according to different senses that cohere in a unified whole.
He acknowledges: “Not a single one of my doubts and troubles about the Scripture had ever left me. They had, in fact, got worse. . . .I can’t help it yet; the questions are with me yet.” With no authoritative interpreter, Jayber is left to his own flailing, subjective experience to make sense of the Bible.
In perhaps his most absurd and question-begging reflections on religion, Jayber remarks:
I don’t want to argue with anybody about religion. I wouldn’t want to argue about it even if I thought it was arguable, or even if I could win. I’m a literal reader of the Scriptures, and so I see the difficulties. . . .I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. . . .Well, you can read and see what you think.
Of course, Jayber’s theological analysis presumes sola scriptura and “perspicuity,” Protestant doctrines that assign religious authority and interpretation to the individual Christian. This too goes against Jayber’s desire for something organic and inherently communal, rather than a belief system tied to a book and an interpretation that is ultimately self-referential.
And, in truth, this is exactly what Catholicism offers. It’s a familial, traditional, liturgical, incarnational, and sacramental form of Christianity that binds its members together not by consensus in biblical interpretation, but union with an ancient, apostolic institution of rich, inculturated worship.
Sadly for the fictional character Jayber, his story is already written and conversion seems unlikely. For the now 86-year-old Wendell Berry, that may be another matter entirely.
*Wendell Berry [Photo by Guy Mendes, The New Yorker]