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    Jayber Crow and “The Call”

    April 7, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.


    The above is the “notice” posted in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow. This is strikingly similar to the “notice” which precedes Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:


    Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.


    Do you think Wendell Berry will attempt to exile me for correctly identifying his thinly veiled literary allusion?


    I think it was back in college that Si and I first started discussing the sacred/secular divide. I think we’ve all experienced this sort of thinking, in one situation or another. For instance, “the ministry” is sacred while being a butcher is secular. Being a missionary is sacred while being a businessman is secular.

    This divide has a couple effects. First, it elevates “the ministry” to the point where its members stand somehow higher than the laity. On the one hand, being a teacher or elder is a call, and it is a grave task to gently and carefully lead God’s people. On the other hand, since not many men are even to aspire to such a position, calling everything else “secular” seems to lessen normal life.

    And yet normal life is exactly what most of us will lead. And this is part of the natural order. God, after all, did not originally create a pastor and teacher, but a gardener. God’s greatest creation, in whom lay His own image, worked the soil with his hands, managed entire ecosystems with his wisdom.

    And yet we despise manual labor.

    Later, as society had need, God inspired artisans and musicians. If these tasks are so secular, why is it that God had a hand in bringing them forth into the world?

    Which brings to mind the idea that dividing life into sacred and secular categories might just tempt us to believe that only the sacred must be submitted to Him, while the secular might perhaps remain under our own authority, to do with as we please.

    Jayber Crow encountered this divide in his own experience:

    But for as long as I could remember, I had been hearing preachers tell in sermons how they had received “the call”; this was often the theme of Brother Whitespade and the many visiting preachers who spoke at The Good Shepherd. Not one of those men had ever suggested that a person could be “called” to anything but “full-time Christian service,” by which they meant either the ministry or “the mission field.” The finest thing they could imagine was that an orphan boy, having been rescued by the charity of the church, should repay his debt by accepting “the call.”

    Taken to its logical conclusion, this divide has many disastrous consequences. It permits missionaries to devote their lives to unreached people groups while sending their own children off to boarding school. {As the church appropriated the family’s tasks of training children and passing the faith from generation to generation, family lost its position as a “sacred” institution and so was subsequently cast off as a secular hindrance.} It allows women feel spiritual while attending multiple Bible studies, but burdened by the doing of dishes, the washing of laundry, and the many other tasks that, once upon a time, Thomas More declared to be sacred.

    Once, the world was seen as a great whole. Indivisible, it stood in glory, infused with much meaning. Laundry wasn’t just laundry. It was a sacred rite, an expression of love, submission, service. Cooking food wasn’t just cooking food. It, too, was love, and also nurture, caring, kindness, and warmth.

    Declaring most of the world to be secular has emptied it of much of its meaning. And because it is empty we seek stimulation not just through entertainment, but the endless parade of church activities that cause to feel that our lives have spiritual significance.

    But they already do have spiritual significance, for the people in our lives are spiritual beings. We ourselves are spiritual beings. And our daily activities are, just as they were in days of old, infused with meaning. After all, it wasn’t women’s Bible studies that were declared to be spiritual worship. It was presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice. A living, breathing, sacrifice.

    As Jayber Crow discovered, we really can be called to a supposedly secular task:

    Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber.

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  • Reply Jeana April 8, 2008 at 6:52 am

    Amen. Beautifully said.

  • Reply Brandy April 8, 2008 at 3:49 am


    There is one Thomas More quote that comes immediately to mind because my husband posted it in our kitchen once when I was feeling discouraged. It is still there!

    “The ordinary arts we practice everyday at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.”

    There are a couple others that I remember vaguely, but I would have to go find them. 🙂

    I will definitely devour Hannah Coulter when it arrives! So many good folks giving good reviews…I think I can’t go wrong reading it. 🙂

  • Reply Carmon Friedrich April 8, 2008 at 3:43 am

    Do you have a quote from Thomas More…his remarks about the mundane jobs?

    Thanks for this post…wonderful thoughts and so true. It was the reformers who rescued the idea of “calling” for all men (it would be interesting to talk about whether it applies to women, in light of their calling within the home). But those evangelicals who owe so much to the reformers, are returning to what was rejected in the way the clergy was elevated above the laity in the Roman Catholic church.

    I second the recommendation for Hannah Coulter.

  • Reply Brandy April 7, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Ellen, I must say that some of this stems from observations I made while I was the assistant to the Dean of Residence Life in college. I saw many of the disipline cases float in and out of my office, and some of them were children of famous Christian speakers, pastors of megachurches (or little churches), heads of nonprofits, and missionaries. Some of them displayed obvious signs of neglect and a yearning for parental love and/or approval. Others just seemed to have hearts hardened by years of a parent’s ministry being more important than the family. And others were simply neglected–they misbehaved because no one ever bothered to train them! Granted, at 18, 20 years of age we are supposed to obey of our own accord because we are “adults,” but there was still a lot of aftermath from their upbringings to be dealt with.

    I have never read Hannah Coulter! But it IS on my PaperBackSwap wish list. However, my place on the waiting list is somewhat like your waiting for The Thirteenth Tale…I think it’ll be a while! 🙂

  • Reply Ellen April 7, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Amen and amen. Girl, you are a brave one. I was shocked when I discovered that many missionaries send their kids to boarding school. Go for it! Have you read Hannah Coulter? I liked it a lot better than Jayber Crow. Less dark in tone. Try it!

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