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Jayber Crow to Pastors

In his novel, Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry gives a significant critique which pastors ought to hear.  One need not agree with Berry at every point, but we ought to hear our critics to see if there is truth (even partial truth) in what they are saying. The main point here is not the youthfulness of the pastors, but their failure to pay attention to “place,” to recognize the particularity of a certain place and people, their beauties and tragedies, their strengths and weaknesses, their customs and traditions.

It is too easy to speak in generalities (as described below) without engaging the real, specific people in front of you. You need school or training to help you engage the text well, but then you must learn your own people. Fruitful ministry will take place not as we merely pass “through” or “over” the communities in which we minister, but as we take time to actually live there.

The preachers were always young students from the seminary who wore, you might say, the mantle of power but not the mantle of knowledge. They wouldn’t stay long enough to know where they were, for one thing. Some were wise and some were foolish, but none, so far as Port William knew, was ever old. They seemed to have come from some Never-Never Land where the professionally devout were forever young. They were not going to school to learn where they were, let alone the pleasures and the pains of being there, or what ought to be said there. You couldn’t learn those things in a school. They went to school, apparently, to learn to say over and over again, regardless of where they were, what had already been said too often. They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works—although they could tell you that this world had been made by God Himself.

What they didn’t see was that it is beautiful, and that some of the greatest beauties are the briefest. They had imagined the church, which is an organization, but not the world, which is an order and a mystery. To them, the church did not exist in the world where people earn their living and have their being, but rather in the world where they fear death and Hell, which is not much of a world. To them, the soul was something dark and musty, stuck away for later. In their brief passage through or over it, most of the young preachers knew Port William only as it theoretically was (“lost”) and as it theoretically might be (“saved”). [emphasis added]

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