I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
He and his family belong to Church of the Redeemer in Nashville.
Someone once asked me to name a novel that had changed my life. I’m sure many books have changed my thinking, my opinions, my understanding of God or the world or myself; but my life? I took it to mean, “Name a novel that literally changed the way you spend your days, one that altered the shape of your story in way that you can actually put your finger on.”
For me, that book was Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. The subtitle, The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself, may not exactly excite you because, let’s face it, who wants to read 384 pages about a barber? A small-town barber, no less?
If you’ve never read anything by Wendell Berry, you should know that he’s highly regarded as an essayist, a poet, and a novelist, and that all of his fiction is about the members of a small Kentucky community called Port William—a town loosely based on Berry’s own town of Port Royal. In the endpapers of some of the books there are maps and family trees of the imaginary township; I happen to know, for example, that after work Jayber would have passed Nathan Coulter’s house and then the Rowanberry farm on his walk down to the River, where he would have turned right to get home to his little river shack called Camp House. After 384 pages it feels like I know (and care) as much about Jayber as I do about anyone I’ve ever met. If you’re still not sure Port William is a place you’d like to visit, let me put it this way: imagine a whole series of stories about hobbits, and Port William is the Shire.
Jayber, an orphan and a bachelor, is a quiet man and a deep thinker, leading a peaceful and quiet life as well as he can as he observes and serves the community around him. Before he becomes the town barber, Jayber attends college and wrestles with some enormous theological questions. In one of the most memorable passages in the book he meets with his New Testament professor, a wise old man nicknamed “Old Grit.” Jayber tells him about his struggles with God, and the old man tells him:
“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
How many times I have wanted answers, when the only way to know them is to live them out in Grace.
I want to tell you about the tragic love story at the heart of the book, and about the painful and needless destruction of an ancient forest, but I’m out of space. I’ll end by saying this: I finished the book and literally wept on the floor of my office. Years later C. S. Lewis gave me a name for what I felt that day: sehnsucht. Joy, longing, yearning for something more, something unexplainable and terribly beautiful.
That day, after I blew my nose and washed my face, I started looking for land. I began thinking very seriously about community, and the Kingdom, and how best to instill in my children a love for Creation and for the people in our own Port William. We sold our house and moved to a little piece of land we call the Warren, and when people ask me how I got into beekeeping, or gardening, or seeing community as a way to enflesh the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, I hand them one of my copies of Jayber Crow.