Wendell Berry and the Beauty of Membership

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[Editor’s Note: I met Matt McCullough a few years ago when I joined a tiny group that meets each week to read “books we should have read but haven’t.” Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of reading through a lot of great books with Matt and he’s become a good friend. One of the books I’m most proud to have introduced him to is Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Matt’s a pastor at Trinity Church here in Nashville and he’s also a fine writer. I commend to you the following post and urge you to pick up a copy of Jayber Crow if you’ve never read it.]

Once each quarter I teach a new members class for people interested in joining our church. It’s become one of my favorite responsibilities as a pastor. I’m a believer in church membership, no question. But I’ll be honest: every time I teach the class I cringe a bit along with my audience at some of the things we discuss.

Concepts like authority, exclusivity, and discipline just don’t sound right on a pre-reflective, aesthetic level. They evoke a yuck factor ingrained in us by the often unnoticed influence of our Western culture—literature, film, music, pop psychology—and its celebration of the unfettered individual. (Chapter 1 of Jonathan Leeman’s The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love is helpful for tracing out examples of this influence.)

I know that some of these ideas have always been distasteful to fallen humans. Self-denial is nauseating to the self-centered. That said, I don’t think we’re guilty of ear-tickling if we look for counterbalancing images, images that make sensible the beauty that’s in a community defined by the goals of membership. And to that end I’ve really come to appreciate the world created in the novels of Wendell Berry.

Retraining Our Tastes

Berry is not the sort of author to whom you turn for help crafting your church’s statement of faith. His works aren’t the right genre, and he isn’t the right author. But novels are especially well-suited for retraining our aesthetic tastes, for putting flesh on ideas that otherwise may remain sterile and abstract.

Set in an isolated Kentucky farming community called Port William, Berry’s works portray the beauty of a bounded life, a death to the options of Elsewhere, the embrace of a concrete place and its people. It’s no accident that Jayber Crow, my favorite of Berry’s novels, is subtitled The Membership of Port William. Like all common graces, a community fostered by the willing limitation of one’s horizons can turn idolatrous, breeding an insularity Alan Jacobs has recently described as unchristian. And it’s also true that there is a darker side to small town life. Those familiar with the works of William Faulkner will find Port William to be an ideal world by contrast. And yet Berry’s novels are especially useful for illustrating the liberating submission that’s always involved with membership.

In Jayber Crow, Berry’s characters show what it is to belong to a community, by which I mean more than the welcome and affirmation typically communicated by the word today. To belong to a community is to be at its disposal, to have given over all you have to be used for whatever your community needs. It is to be implicated substantively, not just sympathetically, in the ups and downs of a place and its people. It is a submission of yourself—your identity, your interests, your ambitions—to the needs of those to whom you’re bound.

The book’s heroes reject the notion that you make your own identity rather than receive it. They know and embrace who they are through their connection to things larger than themselves: their community, the land, the march of history, the mysterious purposes of God. They find joy, peace, and freedom in accepting their subsidiary status.

JayberCrowCoverBarriers to Belonging

One of the barriers to this sort of belonging, of course, is the selfish ambition that dwells deep in all of us. Rather than submitting ourselves to community, ambition drives us to subordinate all things to our personal gratification or our relentless effort to build a name for ourselves. Berry’s villains in Jayber Crow depict this impulse vividly. They’re not the sort of villains who steal, kill, and destroy. They’re characters like Cecilia Overhold, a woman who marries into Port William from the upper crust of the town next door and can never forgive “the failure of the entire population of Port William to live up to [her] expectations” (209). She’s described as a woman who “thought that whatever she already had was no good, by virtue of the fact that she already had it” (209); she lives as if “there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have” (210). In the midst of a vibrant, gracious, and happy community she is discontented, angry, and lonely.

Troy Chatham is perhaps even more to the point. His character emerges in detail as a young farmer who rejects the old ways, never imagining that “the reference point or measure of what he did or said might not be himself,” never belonging to the place but convinced the farm exists “to serve and enlarge him” (182). Throughout the story, Chatham leverages the present for the future in his all-consuming desire to “be somebody,” using and abusing all the resources he could claim in service to his exalted self-image. He is a man who utterly fails to recognize his limits or his dependence on what is outside of and bigger than himself.

Jayber Crow is a nostalgic book, and—for all its beauty—a sad one. The world it describes is for the most part a lost world. It was held together by traditions no longer valued and an isolation no longer possible. Which is to say much of its staying power rested on personal preference for its traditions and to some extent an ignorance of alternatives.

Pale Reflection

Bound in time, Berry’s world offers but a pale reflection of the local church ideal, a community where members’ submission to each other is rooted in the message of the gospel and the power of God’s Spirit. Against his redeemed community, Jesus has promised us, even the gates of hell are no threat.

But Berry’s stories bring to life truths at the heart of the community we’re aiming for when we emphasize church membership. A thriving, covenant-shaped local church requires precisely the sort of self-abnegation Berry celebrates and is opposed by the same self-exaltation he portrays in all its ugliness.

Too often we try on new churches like we try on new clothes and for much the same reason. We’re looking for style and fit, for what meets our needs and makes the appropriate statement about who we are. We put our churches in service of our desire to be somebody, and our commitment doesn’t outlast the better options of Elsewhere. But this posture—beside its offense to the cross—leads to self-absorption, restlessness, and isolation.

By contrast, there is freedom in coming off the market. There is sweet rest in belonging to one people, for better or worse, and there is the opportunity for displaying costly, Christlike love. We’re called to die to our narrow interests and to what we might hope to enjoy or become on our own. But we’re called to a truer life in our identification with Christ and his body on earth. On the terms of 1 Corinthians 12, we must embrace our status as a mere hand, ear, or foot, helpless apart from the other members and happy so long as Christ is exalted and the body is thriving. This is boundedness, for sure, but it’s liberating, and it’s beautiful.

[This article was originally printed at 9Marks. Jayber Crow is available in the Rabbit Room store.]


13 Comments

  1. Loren Warnemuende

    This is really timely. I’m passing it on to my husband and some other church friends; it’s been interesting and painful to see a decrease in new attendees wanting to become members in our local churches, and I think this identifies one of the root issues. Good stuff.

  2. Brian

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t see that Wendell Berry can be used to support the kind of top-down, authoritarian church structures that 9 Marks promotes. And to assert that it’s selfishness that drives peoples hesitation to join is a slap in the face to all those abused under those kinds of structures.

  3. S.D. Smith

    This is excellent. Beautifully written and spot on. Thank you, Matt. Humble (servant) leadership and selfless union is plainly central to the Faith, from Christ our Head, to us all in the body, whether hands or eyes. Thank you for these eloquent and faithful observations.

    Brian, I’m sure there’s a lot of pain behind your words and I’m so very sorry for that. Abuse of power is a painful, often horrific thing. I know it’s more complicated than this, but I would submit that bad authority and abuse is not a good reason to abandon the plain purpose of God in humble, real authority and real, organic unity. Membership is a good design of God, perverted by men, yes, but the danger of rejecting it is profoundly high, and can be rooted in modernity’s mad cult of self. God be with you as you hope in him. Peace to you.

  4. Judy

    In recent months I have read both ‘Jayber Crow’ which instantly became a favourite, in part I’m sure, because the focus is on the way community nourishes its members, and ‘The Pastor’ by Eugene Petersen which tells the story of his decades long leadership of a single church community. He speaks powerfully to the importance of Christian community, while being perhaps more reflective about the ways in which it is difficult. It is well worth reading.

  5. Laura B

    Lovely post, and timely. We’re now faced with so many choices, it’s nice to opt out of church shopping.

    But I can’t help but think of ole’ Jayber himself, who kept a safe distance from the local church, preferring his own brand of private worship and walks in the woods. Church ladies scared him. (I think they scare me too.)

    I’ve been struggling with the to-dos heaped upon my head from the pulpit and those Sunday school whiteboards — it’s a bit much for a recovering over-the-top to-doer. Even though we say we wholeheartedly believe in grace, I’m hearing otherwise in subtle ways. Sometimes I want to join Jayber and just enjoy God.

    That being said, my, um, seat is planted firmly in the same pew and has been for nine years. Where else am I going to go? I’m sticking. I can walk in the woods on Sunday afternoons.

  6. Jonathan

    I love Wendell Berry’s vision and “Jayber Crow” in particular.

    So the concept of mutual submission is very significant. Unfortunately, in many local church contexts, the mutuality seems to be only theoretical. The vision and direction for what that particular church is flows from the “king pastor” or from his cabal. The people are expected to commit to that or leave.

    This is in contrast to Port William’s identity, which emerges from the bottom up, from the membership; it is not imposed by a single leader or a small group of leaders.

    If “the community” is just code to mean “the pastor” or “the elders” or “the staff,” then to invoke Wendell Berry is to misappropriate him.

  7. Brian

    S.D. Smith,

    Thank you for the kind and thoughtful response. I do agree that authority properly practiced can be a good thing. I suppose my reaction was based on two things :

    – One, as other people have noted, is that I don’t see the kind of community Berry writes about to be supportive of the authoritarian structure promoted by 9 Marks. So it seems to me that he is being co-opted for a specific agenda – even if not wittingly on the the part of the writer. And that makes me a tad upset.

    – Two – This type of authority can easily be abused as seen in the recent events involving SGM. Now, I am not trying to implicate any particular group or person. It’s just that sometimes my hot button gets pushed and this happened to be one of those times.

    Blessings, and Peace to You

  8. SD Smith

    Brian,

    I hear you, brother. The SGM abuse allegations are horrific and just the worst sort of evil one can imagine. I have been sick over it (and I have no personal connection at all). And there is something to the charge that invoking Berry to support the model of leadership/membership we see in the New Testament may be amiss. While I won’t claim to speak for the author of the post, I think this bit is key:

    “Berry is not the sort of author to whom you turn for help crafting your church’s statement of faith. His works aren’t the right genre, and he isn’t the right author. But novels are especially well-suited for retraining our aesthetic tastes, for putting flesh on ideas that otherwise may remain sterile and abstract.”

    I agree that a church seeking fidelity to Scripture would be unwise to go to Berry for particulars on church leadership or membership. He’s not that guy. Nor is Berry “authoritative” on many things, while much appreciated. For instance, I’m writing this on a computer and he would not approve of that. I’m OK with that. Likewise, his character Jayber is not a model to be imitated in many respects, maybe especially his attitude toward the church and the Bible, where he seems to settle for his own version of truth, for his own prejudices, when confronted with parts he finds difficult. I would submit that, while understandable, this is more like the problem than the solution.

    But there’s so much truth to Berry’s idea of membership which is applicable to the idea of a body in unity. I think that’s what the author intended, or maybe that’s just what I read into it. I am another one who is (sadly) guilty of bringing a lot of baggage and prejudices to the table. And this vulnerability is precisely why it would be a nightmare for me (and my family/community) if I took up the “church in the woods with my own brilliant meditations” banner. That is a sad business, I think, and is why I believe it is nowhere to be found in Scripture. Rather, we plainly see the emphatic opposite over and over.

    Americans are peculiarly keen on “private religion” and famously can’t get along about much. Submitting to flawed, but faithful authority can be a beautiful and humbling thing. It was certainly created to be such, though men do pervert. (And please do escape such perversions, quickly.) But men pervert parenthood and we still need good parents (also necessary/good authority there). Men pervert membership, but we still need it. Desperately.

    I think the author might mean that many people get the “rule” about being under authority and in membership (maybe 9Marks people, if we are judging those brothers), but that Berry gives the heart a way to understand it that just saying “you ought to” can’t. Even in some error and sometimes defiance, the model of the Port William membership (maybe better shown in Hannah Coulter) is a beautiful thing, and rouses us with an aroma from the New World we are being recreated for.

    I hope that makes sense, my brother. Peace to you.

    Sam

  9. Matt McCullough

    I’d like to first say thanks to the Rabbit Room community for giving this erstwhile lurker the opportunity to contribute. And thanks to those who have commented on my little article; receiving comments in such a forum is a fairly new experience for me and it’s really encouraging.

    Here I’d like to respond briefly to Sam and Brian’s conversation. I really appreciate Sam’s words on the importance of humble, servant leadership in the local church context. In the context of this blog, I’ve got nothing to add on that front. Brian, I’m not sure what you mean by “authoritarian church structures.” It seems you have some associations with the site for which I originally wrote the article. This isn’t the place for me to pry into those associations, but I’m unfamiliar with any authoritarianism in 9Marks literature and I know next to nothing about anything SGM related. All I’ll say, following Sam, is that authority like all God’s gifts can be abused, turned idolatrous and self-serving, and in every case God sees it, hates it and will judge it. God help us.

    That’s all I’ll say on church leadership, not because I’m uninterested but because, first, I don’t want to carry the conversation further from what I understand to be the interests of this blog and, even more, because my article says nothing about leadership authority. I believe I use the word authority once in the open, as an example of a topic related to church membership that’s hard to swallow for most all of us. But beyond that the article focuses not on church leadership but on church membership. It’s about submission not in the do-what-you’re-told sense (though sometimes this can be important and life-giving). Rather, it’s about submission of ourselves–what we want, what we could be, what we have–to each other, willingly limiting our options for the good of the body. It’s submission in the sense that I submit to my wife when I marry her and die to other options. (Though, if I’m honest, it’s not like others were lining up for the privilege.) It’s about belonging to each other and healthy local church community depends on it. I’m not sure what passage in the article evokes top-down authoritarianism, though I’m willing to be shown. I wonder, Brian, if you’re reading my piece uncharitably.

    To bring the conversation back around to the Rabbit Room wheelhouse, I’d like to offer a friendly pushback against the claim that I’ve misappropriated Berry’s work or, to borrow Brian’s word, “co-opted” Berry in service of an underlying agenda. The suggestion of misappropriation seems to imply that Berry writes with a narrowly didactic purpose more akin to a Kendrick brothers movie than the aims of the great novelists. In fact, given the harsh “notice” commencing Jayber Crow (you guys know the one), I’m tempted to argue this protectivist take on what one may or may not legitimately appreciate about Berry’s work belies an even deeper misappropriation. I’m not a fiction writer; I don’t have that kind of genius. But my sense is that the great ones would be more insulted at the notion that their stories have a sharply defined point they’re aiming at, a moral if you will, from which the reader is not permitted to deviate. And that they’d not be surprised in the least, perhaps even gratified, to see that their stories help put flesh on other ideas their readers care about. To my mind, one of the things that makes great literature so rewarding is its ability to inspire analogy, to bring to life ideas that exist in the minds of readers even if not imagined by the author himself/herself. Sure, I could see using Berry to extol the virtues of Hitler’s Germany would be to misappropriate him. But I need help seeing where my article is doing anything like that.

    To sum up this last point and bring an end to this exorbitant and self-indulgent comment, let me insist I didn’t intend to suggest Wendell Berry wants you to join a church. What I’m suggesting is that for me at least the world of Port William brings to life something like the community envisioned by the “one anothers” of the New Testament. It portrays the beauty of the bounded life–of a joyful, self-giving, self-abnegating identification with a concrete place and the needs of its people. And if we aimed at something like this in our local churches–something even greater, in fact–we’d all be better for it. And the all-satisfying goodness of Jesus would be even more clearly displayed among us.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to converse. Grace and peace.

    Matt

  10. Brian

    S.D. Smith & Matt,

    Thanks for the comments and the friendly push back. I think this has gone further afield from the purpose of the RR than I intended it to. Suffice to say, I think that any further comments would not add anything to what has already been said. What positions have been stated are stated clearly enough for anyone to understand. Peace to you both.

    Brian

  11. Tony Heringer

    Matt, Sam, Brian,

    Thanks for the sort of thoughtful talk I come to this site to read and engage in. As an elder at a local church all you guys are hashing out are thoughts I “wrassle” with regularly. I am going to ruminate on this further and check out Crow. I know I’ve tried one of the books in the series before and it didn’t resonate. I am a fan of the fans of Berry, so I am going to give it another shot. If nothing else, I can glean from the inspiration he invokes here.

    Be God’s,

    Tony

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