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.