Jayber Crow Gets Religion


And then one day I asked myself, “How is it going to suit you to be called Brother Crow”? I walked around a while, saying over and over to myself, “Brother Crow, Brother Crow, Brother Crow.” It did not seem to be referring to me. I imagined hospitable, nice people saying to me before Sunday dinner, “Brother Crow, would you please express our thanks?” And then I couldn’t imagine myself.

I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the old division of body and soul that I had known at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins—hatred and ager 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.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow


It is true that American religion is first and foremost moralistic, then something fuzzily doctrinal.  There is a self and a world to save. But if the aspiring orphan from Squires Landing is onto it, then on any given day it is arguable that somewhere along the way before becoming doctrinal there is a long layover in Gnosticville. It’s that detestable, loathsome, crummy little town that seems to have no end of blue laws soft, hard and mediocre. Some variation or other of Exodus 20 is graffitied on the town’s burned-over district, yet oddly Genesis 1:31 escaped the city planning.

Unfortunately for that town bereft of any worthy worldly amusement, the body and soul were both created not merely good but, in fact, very good. The soul is no better than the body. True religion knows nothing of a meta-physical ascent from the nether-regions of the body to the Platonic echelons of the soul.  True, both body and soul have the unhappy predicament of being in a sinful condition, but the essence of both is still very good.  Otherwise, there is no conceivable reason for Jesus to have gotten up and ascended at all, or, to even to have descended in the first place. But is has somehow been written into the DNA of American piety that if we aren’t about moralistic self-improvement the next best thing is the betterment of an already innocent soul. It’s a function of what some have recently deemed moralistic-therapeutic deism, which really isn’t anything new under the sun.

The good news, for those worried about our young friend the endeavoring if confused preacher, is that he is bestowed only a few pages later with some sound advice. After confiding his myriad carnal questions to the one man on staff who seems to have ever asked them himself, revealing an all too familiar humanity, he is spiritually advised to forego the ministry call. He ends up a barber (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler).  I’ve known a barbers who knew a thing or two about the world and what it means to be human in it.

This entry was posted in Gnosticism, Wendell Berry. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Jayber Crow Gets Religion

  1. RubeRad says:

    In Christless Christianity (right at the beginning of ch 4), OHS Horton credits his barber with having a tremendous influence on his parenting.

    And I remember taking one of those career/personality tests in high school, you know “Do you like to work with others, do you like to work with your hands, …”, and it told me I should be a barber. I think I’ll stick with SW though. As a friend at work says, “I’m glad they pay me to do it, because I’d be doing it at home anyways!”

  2. John Yeazel says:

    Luther seemed to have an ongoing dialog with his barber- Peter the barber. He gave him some great anti-gnostic advice on how to pray which is well worth the time to read. I use it often in my life. You can probably find it on google.

  3. Chris Donato says:

    What had been formally separated has been conjoined in American gnostic religion—ascetism and licentiousness.

    Jayber Crow gives us yet another reason to reconsider mandatory bi-vocational ministry.

  4. Zrim says:

    Rube and John,

    Ironically, I’ve had bad luck with my barbers of late. I’m sure it’s a wrinkle in the system.


    I’m routinely amazed at how ascetism and licentiousness can be such snuggly bed-fellows. And here I thought confessionalists were good at paradox.

  5. Chunck says:

    Zrim, I don’t see your email nearby, can you drop me a line please?


  6. Zrim says:


    You’re welcome.

  7. Ryan Eshleman says:

    very nice post

    and an excellent book i should add

  8. Zrim says:

    Ryan, I found it strangely reminiscent of “Catcher in the Rye,” which is another excellent book.

  9. Ryan Eshleman says:

    I’ve heard about it. Haven’t read it- maybe I’ll look into it

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