The Problem of Belonging: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (6)

When it comes to friendship, to a confidence of our place and belonging to a group, all of us have at least one toe in Middle School. The sense of being outside looking in is ubiquitous enough that it has its own acronym (FOMO). In a speech delivered to a young adult audience in 1944, C.S. Lewis referred to it as the quest for “the inner ring,” and had this to say about it:

 ” I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

“Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

Whether by fear or by conscious choice, Jayber, the bachelor barber of Port William, Kentucky, describes himself at several points as an outsider, even after he has cemented his place in the social structure as gravedigger and caretaker for the local church. He takes his position very seriously — in spite of his claim to be “by nature a lazy person” (159) — wearing the mantle of responsibility like a vocation.

Ever a contradiction, Jayber confesses to a feeling of being “outside even when inside,” while, at the same time, claiming to be possessed by a deep love for The Membership and describes poignantly how this love became clear to him through a dream he had while napping in a back pew:

“I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any farther) . . . I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there . . . [and] I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.

“When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears.” (165)

The Professionally Devout

With his theological bent toward universalism (161), Jayber’s issue may have been doctrinal as well as social, but it is his position as an “outsider” in the church that make his observations so valuable — in my opinion. Like most small churches, the Port William assembly had endured a succession of young and inexperienced clergymen who are looking for the next step in their resume development. I feel sorry for any pastor who has to face a congregation who “prefer(s) to hear what it has heard before.” However, with a glass-half-full mentality, Jayber finds the good even in a bad sermon being preached from “the mantle of power, but not the mantle of knowledge.”

“In general, I weathered even the worst sermons pretty well. They had the great virtue of causing my mind to wander. Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons.”

The same thing happened to C.S. Lewis during a boring sermon one Sunday morning at Holy Trinity Church in Headington, and the idea for his book, The Screwtape Letters was born from the imaginative overflow.

Jayber notes, once again, the insistence of the faithful in splitting the world into “sacred” and “secular” categories, a “religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world.”  He seems to be most astonished by it here in this land of “good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs.” Living close to the land breeds a love for the particular which seems to be expunged by walking into the nave.

As much as Jayber manages to miss, theologically, his thoughts on death and resurrection are thought-provoking:

“. . . I am mystified as anybody by the transformation known as death, and the Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not seen.”

The Port William Zephyr

Taking possession of an old green Dodge sedan, Jayber enters into an uneasy relationship with progress. He enjoys the freedom of traveling to Hargrave for dancing, drinks, and carrying on with Clydie. However, examining his response to the freedom that comes with speed, he was abashed to find himself succumbing to the same impatience he despised in Troy Chatham:

“Ease of going was translated without pause into a principled unwillingness to stop.”

Jayber’s love for Mattie and his resentment of Troy’s role in her life gets interspersed with Jayber’s ponderings on farming, land management, and the effects of “progress” on farming, all learned from his ties to Athey, but clearly conveying William Berry’s thoughts and voice on the topics.

What Do You Think?

Was anyone else puzzled by the figure of speech describing Uncle Stanley Gibbs?

“[He] had no more sense of privacy than a fruit jar.”

Looking at my abundant canning jars, all clear glass, I’m concluding that he meant a fruit jar would not afford much privacy as a dwelling.

Back to Jayber’s on-the-job thoughts on the dead: 

“The people [in the graves] had lived their little passage of time in this world, had become what they became, and now could be changed only by forgiveness and mercy.”

Rendered changeless by death, the people who live in our memories still, in some odd way, require our mercy, our forgiveness, for while it cannot, ultimately, change who they were or who they allowed themselves to become, it most certainly will change me. This is particularly true if I can join Jayber in the wanting for a “heart as big as Heaven.”

May we find that we, too, are “moved by a compassion that seem[s] to come to [us] from outside.” Could this be one of the benefits of reading good fiction? 


I found these three chapters to be the most difficult to write about so far because they cover so much territory. If I left out the theme that stood out to you, or if you feel that I missed the point entirely, be sure to let me know in the comments.

And, as usual and customary, you are welcome to share blog posts (or comments) with your insights on all things Jayber or Port William.

It appears that we have already crossed the half-way point, so thanks for hanging in there!

Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32


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59 thoughts on “The Problem of Belonging: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (6)”

  1. I’m enjoying reading these little snippets about the book. I agree- I think that fear of being left on the outside is common to us all, and I have also had a few occasions where my best thoughts have come during boring sermons or talks!


  2. Dear Michele,
    Oh yes, I agree with you that Jayber’s continual expression of “being on the outside” while yet feeling love & compassion for those around him, shows the longing buried within him to come inside, and to belong. I had some of the same feelings this week that I had with our friend Orual last spring! I found myself wanting to close the book, and say, “Well, if that’s the choice you’re going to take, I cannot bear to read any farther!” But of course, I didn’t stop–especially when the Lord showed me my more of my own versions of “looking for love in all the wrong places.” So, here’s my own post:


    1. Are you old enough to remember Ruth Buzzy from that horrible old show where she dressed up in a dark dress and beat people she disapproved of (pretty much everybody) with her handbag? As I was looking over my notes from this section, I sounded like her, because I was SO disappointed with the way Jayber managed his love life. “Jayber, my friend, you are better than this!” I hadn’t made the connection with Orual, but I see it. (She will always be with us!) Looking forward to reading your post!


      1. Oh yes, I remember Ruth Buzzi’s character quite well! I had a few of those purse-hammering moments myself this past week! Thanks for giving me a good chuckle tonight! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Michele, I must applaud you for being so good at finding a positive angle to expose. I didn’t have a lot of patience with Jayber this week. My post is up; it very nearly turned into a rant in my response to what seemed like to much of Berry putting thoughts in Jayber’s head…

    I guess I honed in on the Reflections of a church-goer section…feeling that Jayber was an outsider because he completely missed the reality of the gospel and the true nature of Christianity. Perhaps it couldn’t be helped–the church may have been side-tracked into a false duality between the sacred and the secular in his time…

    I did take away a different sense of his accusation of this being a congregation that preferred to ‘hear what it has heard before’. I thought of this as a good thing, a trait of a conservative audience who considered ‘Tell me the old old story’ an adequate theme for their faith. Whereas Jayber liked the preachers that had read other books and questioned faith and had new ideas. I associate this with liberal thought and the introduction of false ideas into Christianity, such as for instance universalism. Funny how we heard that differently. It no doubt says something about our own gifts in the Body ( : I’m always sniffing out rats and you are always on the lookout to bless ( : Thanks Michele!


    1. That IS funny how we interpreted Jayber’s words so differently. I get exasperated here in my little part of the world with a certain cross section of believers who are very suspicious of anything but the King James Bible, any worship song written after 1937, and any thought about the Bible (or anything else) that . . . they haven’t heard before. As much as I love “the old old story,” I get queasy over a culture that can’t bring Christianity into the 21st century without being grumpy over it.
      I would much prefer to think of the Port William fellowship as a group of believers who want to hear the truth, and maybe Jayber’s reference to the lack of knowledge of those young whippersnappers in their pulpit is what they objected to.
      Jayber is so tied to place and really affectionate about the church building. I can’t imagine napping on the floor of my church, but then, I’m not much of a napper.


      1. There is a little historic Anglican church in our town that I could imagine napping in. It has such a quiet, safe and cozy air about it. I used to go sit in the pew and have some quiet when we first came to town and I had no home yet. They don’t make churches like that anymore. And few are the churches with their doors open to passers by…
        And yes I see where you’re coming from. Not everything ‘new’ is false teaching or compromise! And we can get ‘grumpy’ over the unholiest things! Thanks for the clarification. ( :


  4. On a lighter note, I just love Berry’s figures of speech… ‘no more sense of privacy than a fruit jar’ so funny! That is so not me!
    And “Aunt Beulah could hear the dust motes collide in a sunbeam” !
    How does he think of these things?! I am thankful that he does; they offset his more serious rants (and keep me reading)…


    1. I’ve been wondering if these are things he heard from “his people” growing up. I get a kick out of some of the things I hear Mainers from older generations say, and I’m afraid we’re all becoming so homogeneous in our expressions now because of the influence of media (shall I go off on a rant over this . . .?).


      1. Oh yes, please do!!! And do record the Maine-isms for the day you write your own memoirs ( : Also, you’ve now reminded me of something. Have you come across books by Ruth Moore? There are several, written in the 40’s and 50’s. I found one in a musty missionary library and it was a Wonderful example of the use of colloquial language. She had an excellent grasp of her part of Maine. You might quite like them. And now I’m going to go searching for all the ones I’ve missed..


      2. No, I’ve never run into Ruth Moore. (I checked Amazon to see if any titles jogged my memory, but no.) I’ll have to look her up. Ralph Moody has one of his book’s set in Maine (The Fields of Home) and we read it out loud to the boys at least once. All of us still hoot over the grandfather’s figures of speech. I do think these little rural pockets of civilization can produce some real characters with imaginative and colorful speech.


  5. I too find it strange that Jayber seems to have a tender affection and trust for his neighbors that they don’t necessarily share toward him…Could it be that he sees them through the eyes of the child he was when he left? But they didn’t have him for his growing up years so he is to them an outsider still. Small towns can be very hard to ever really belong in, and unfortunately sometimes the same can be said of small churches…But here I go off into a negative. Save me Michele!! ( ;


    1. I wonder, too, if Jayber held himself aloof a bit, listening, but not sharing, feeling the pulse of the community but guarding his own tender heart. I suppose a child who got bumped around as much as he did in our present day would be monitored for all kinds of things including attachment disorder. His love for that community seems to be as great as his love for the individuals. I’m reading chapters 20-23 (I think) right now, and find it interesting that he is functioning in at least one of those chapters as a narrator who doesn’t even appear in the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think you know that I am captivated by Jayber and what messages I sense in the process of the unfolding story. I think the point about being an “outsider” and how it is presented is very skillful on Berry’s part. Many of us experience that feeling at some point (or many points) in our lives, but others may not see us that way. How we experience relationships internally based on what we are hoping for or sense may be quite different than it appears to others. That makes the feeling no less valid. My clinical hat reminds me that it goes back to the understanding of attachment and how we develop our sense of attachment in infancy with our mother and then others. Given Jayber’s early childhood (loss of parents, etc.), his experiences and sense of them makes a great deal of sense to me. I cannot help but wonder at the depth of Berry’s possible understanding of attachments due to the depth of his character development of Jayber.

    His early experiences with loss and grief and no family would have a profound affect on shaping the lens he would view all of life, relationships, and God.

    His response to his church experience does not trouble me. I am one who enjoys beloved common themes and hymns, but I would not want to be confined to them when so many rich, powerful worship songs and choruses have been written. I would not describe myself as liberal at all, but I love the richness of the worship of my church where the worship may flow easily from worship songs and choruses into choruses or verses of hymns accompanied by either a worship band or full orchestra. I love a rich message based in truth of scripture in varied voices from different churches I have known, but I also have seen the dangers of a pastor who preaches more from a cultural book or ONLY some current fad with a grounding in scripture.

    As you know, my post yesterday reflects on Jayber so I will include the link:

    I have at least one more post reflective from Jayber…maybe two.🙂 Have a blessed day, my friend!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good to get your counselor perspective on Jayber. And your worshiper perspective on his thoughts on the church. In some ways Jayber is not good for me because of and on throughout my walk, I’ve been a bit cranky about the church gathered. I do see where he is coming from, but, I also realize that he and Wendell do not necessarily have all the puzzle pieces in their right places in order to make a true judgment.
      At any rate, even if for no other reason that I am practicing grace with a fictional character so that it can spill over into my real relationships, I’m glad we’re reading Jayber together!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t always read with my clinical counseling hat on, but Jayber’s life, words, and story bring all those aspects of my life that were there for more than 25 years back into my understanding of his character. I think being a part of more than one church over my lifetime with very diverse cultural roots, serving in many capacities including on staff where I saw both the pew side and the pulpit side daily close-up results in little shock in his view of church, especially when his early life wounds are taken into account. In my counseling practice I have seen clearly how often our early life experiences result in a lens that can distort who God is and how He operates. I’m always glad to be reading a book with you!!❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I was glad to see you note that Jayber missed things theologically, because I thought so, too. One instance is his dislike of preachers preaching against “the world” and always taking it to mean the physical world and not understanding it. I’ve heard many a sermon against worldliness, and not once has the physical world been meant (though some preachers take their definitions of worldliness much farther than I think the Bible meant.) And, of course, the universalism and dislike of separation by doctrine and creed, as if doctrine and creed don’t matter (one of my soapboxes is the importance of reading the Bible not just for comfort and warm fuzzies, but for doctrine). I enjoyed your thoughts and Linda’s in the comments concerning what was meant by the people “prefer(ing) to hear what it has heard before.”

    His contradictoriness seems most evident in his caring so much about the town and the people, yet always considering himself an outsider. I either missed or have forgotten why he thought of himself as an ineligible bachelor in Port William. I was disappointed in his carrying on with Clydie (and wondered why all his musing about religion didn’t seem to touch his morals).

    I’ve wondered if his storyline about Athey and Troy throughout the book, and especially in chapter 17, was almost a parable on how he thought things went wrong in the changes in agriculture from the preWWII era to the modern one, the urge to “ask of the land all it had,” as Troy did, as opposed to Athey’s “improving his land; he was going to leave it better than he found it.”

    I’ve finished the book now but can’t decide whether to go ahead and review it or wait til the read-along here is over. I do enjoy going back over the chapters each week and reading yours and other comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was great to bump into you over at Linda’s place this morning. I’m slow in answering comments because I was canning apple butter until late yesterday — after a day with the three year old grand boy. I feel much older than my 55 years this morning!
      His thoughts on his ineligibility spring from his low income as barber, and also, I think, his low opinion of his appearance mixed in with his tendency to walk on the “wild side” with his “worter dranking” parties, etc.
      Yes, I think Athey and Troy are a microcosm of the bigger agricultural picture in the U.S. I’ve read only just the tiniest sample of Berry’s non-fiction, but he laments at length the use and mis-use of land and soil in our history and present practice.
      Whatever you decide about when to review the book, I will read your thoughts with joy and eagerness. So glad that you’ve been along for the ride!


  8. Forgive me but these chapters did not endear me to Jayber. I guess because his humanity became even more evident than the night spent at the Grandstand.

    I’m still hung up on this idea of belonging and can’t help but see Jayber’s story more as “the problem of not belonging.” I wonder if he really wants to belong, except in the world of the barber shop. I think he likes the IDEA of belonging but doesn’t do much to endear himself to the community except for providing haircuts to the males of Port William– I agree it could be fear. He’s had great losses in his life, will there be more? If he belongs, but doesn’t belong he’s not invested and the pain will not be as intense. Or does his position as an outsider in a small town, make it so he can’t belong? Since he was there as a child and then gone it’s hard to know for sure.

    The fact that Jayber wants to go to church so all the ladies can brag about his work shows another side of his humanity, as does the trips to Hargrave. His soliloquy about the church and life as a Christian in that church was a bit offensive to me. He displays a universalism except to the people in that church where he seems to judge their religion and their morality while out living life as he pleases. Do I dare to say that sadly, I believe that is a bit of a reflection on our culture. People on the outside with no understanding looking in and judging the gospel while they live for self. It was disconcerting and I couldn’t help but think that it’s probably a very good thing that he didn’t complete seminary and go into the ministry; although I’ve known a few pastors that don’t believe the gospel.

    I do believe a lot of these funny old sayings are disappearing. 25 years ago when I was working in a little town in West Tennessee one older lady that had been raised in the sticks had a ton of them. Some I had heard others I hadn’t. Of course I live in Missouri now, and that could be why I haven’t heard any of them recently. 🙂

    You’re right Michele, so much here to think about…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I had a hard time appreciating Jayber in these chapters as well. He just seems so inconsistent. And I’m sure all this tom-catting did not endear him to the upstanding citizenry of P.W., (which may account for some of his feeling of being on the outside looking in.)
      One aspect of Jayber’s internal monologues that I have really appreciated it that I’m challenged to really pin down my own position on some of the weightier matters of faith. It would be nice if a smart author like Berry was penning my own ponderings — so often I’m water skiing over the top of big stuff while spinning mental wheels over what to have for supper.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh Michele! LOVE that word picture!! So much matter zipping about in the mind and heart–like ‘water skiing over the top of big stuff while spinning mental wheels over what to have for supper’. I love for this reason the quiet of morning times when I can sit with pen and paper and ponder what’s going on behind the scenes in my heart and then bring it to the Word for a look and listen… It makes me value an author who has managed to put his heart in words on the page. This I find a challenge! Perhaps something to do with having a great deal more privacy than a canning jar!!
        BTW, and completely off topic. Apple butter! Do you use cider to start with or just apples? I love apple butter but have rarely made it…It’s such old-fashionedly yummy comfort food!!


      2. Yes, I cook the apples in apple butter and them put them through my little cranky thing. Then they have to cook down until they will “stand up” in a spoon, and after that I added the sugar and spices and let them simmer for a while. So yummy, and so like having a lovely smelling house. I am thinking that it will make nice little Christmas gifts.


      3. Whoops, yes, apple cider. In a 16 quart kettle, I used a quart of cider. Then 6 cups sugar, 1 T cinnamon and 1 t cloves. Very simple, really. Just finished lining the shiny jars up on my shelves in the furnace room where it’s too dark take a picture even tho’ I am tempted to do so, because I do love my shiny jars — when they are full. Not enough privacy when they are empty. 🙂


    2. Christy, I’m with you. Somehow the endearment is growing thin…He brings out all my inborn tendency to judge. I read this morning from Matthew 7…mind the log in your own eye if you mean to help your brother remove his splinter… hmm. A comical picture of a serious condition. I’m asking God today for vision to see the log and withhold premature judgments… We’re called to discern but not to condemn is I think what it is. A hard balance for me. I appreciate your comments above. And I believe you are right in suspecting Jayber’s aloofness is on account of his fear of being vulnerable to loss again…Also, the Gospel is hard to hear, for all of us, because it cuts to the core of who we are, and aren’t! without Jesus. It’s bad news before it’s good news. A stumbling stone to the one who refuses to hear the bad news… Glad to read your comments here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually took a picture of myself holding a log up to my eye as a visual for a blog post I made a while back. Very comical and VERY convicting.

        I do fear that oftentimes people see judgement in us when we’re not judging because, as you said, the Gospel is difficult to hear and it’s easier to blame the judgement of others instead of facing our own condition. I like how you put that “bad news before it’s good news”

        Michele, apple butter makes me miss our nearly dead apple tree! Our apples would never make it to butter though — a crockpot of applesauce cooked overnight served over granola on a cool, crisp morning topped with a little vanilla yogurt. Heavenly!


  9. I am loving hearing more about this book from both you and Bettie. From your own post and the other comments it sounds like God is using it to till and grow hearts too. Having fled the church and faith for 20 + years, believing I wasn’t good enough (which is actually truth – but one so often undermined by yeast infecting our churches which preaches good works as achieving salvation), I so empathize with this fear of not belonging. But in my case I couldn’t live with this “contradiction” you noticed in Jayber. In what I saw as hyprocrisy – doing good deeds, but stifling a deceitful and wounded heart. That’s why I left God and my faith.

    Now I’m learning, very slowly, that our accuser loves to make us feel unworthy by pressing us into our weaknesses – but ALSO that that’s where Christ works most powerfully if I let Him in 😊. For we are ALL not good enough or worthy in and of ourself – but thank our mighty God that we are not tethered to our failings, sins and unfaithfulness, but to His unfailing love, grace and faithfulness. I pray that we all begin to live more fully into that truth by the power of Christ in us. I believe, help my unbelief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such good and true thoughts, Anna, and certainly counter-cultural as you have noted. All our striving for significance and our godless methods of self-salvation fall away when we come face-to-face with the Real Thing — or I should say the Real Person of Christ who is our righteousness.

      It’s so good to hear from you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  10. belongingness is a basic need, more than chocolate and coffee together. and thus, the family of God. speaking on building community tomorrow in NV. flight delayed but will make it this evening, just in God’s time. prayers appreciated.


  11. Fascinating thoughts! You have quite the discussion going on here. I love this line—>They were just there . . . [and] I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me. Belonging – something we always strive for, sometimes grasp and other times it’s elusive.


    1. I love reading about your family, Mary. It seems to me that your folks did a good job of establishing in you a sense of belonging with them when you were a child. That’s a good beginning!


  12. Love the last part of the post about how even though someone is gone we need to forgive them and view them with mercy. For while it cannot change them, it changes us. So powerful. And a great reminder.


  13. Michele, I am not reading the book along with all of you but now have the book on my list to read 🙂 One line from a quote you share by CS Lewis was an answer to a question I have recently been asked and I am grateful to have stopped here to read. Blessings!


  14. Being on the outside while being on the inside..this I can relate to.
    Everyone wants to belong and usually blame others when they don’t even if they’ve never tried.
    The title caught my eye. I didn’t know that you were reading and blogging this book as part of a series.
    PS – sometimes a sermon isn’t necessarily boring it is that the mind wanders; it happens to me often and it’s where many blog posts are refined.
    Thanks for your thoughtful insight.


    1. Good to know that you are putting that time to good use! 🙂 And yes, we can’t blame the pastor for being boring when our minds are wandering. It’s just part of the human condition, I’m afraid.


  15. Michele,
    It’s interesting to me that you and Holley Gerth are talking about the same thing today! It’s also interesting to me that most everyone talks about not feeling accepted in those middle school/Jr. High years. Puberty really messes with more than our bodies, it messes with our minds. Not even those we thought were the “in” crowd felt confident. It’s sad when we don’t lose this mentality in Junior High and live with it through adulthood. God desires so much for us to live free. Thanks for your wise words again. Hope the study is going well.


    1. I hadn’t noticed the intersection of words, Sherry, but you are right! And yes, it’s sad when we carry around the middle school mentality while we’re also dealing with middle age issues. God never intended for us to be in that frame of mind in the first place, so it’s really sad when we get stuck there. Thanks for all you are doing to share truth and give light.


  16. I’m not reading the Jayber Crow book right now, but was very interested by your discussion.

    I do feel I get some of my best thoughts during sermons! (That is not a reflection on Pastor Jack!) Somehow hearing the word preached makes my mind think of the most amazing thoughts! I’m a note-taker at church, and I have to bracket the random thoughts and write them down separately from the sermon notes. They later become blog posts (Or at least some of them do.)

    All this talk of apple butter makes me hungry … and makes me miss my Granny who made apple butter every year and gave me some!


    1. I’m a note scribbler too, and it’s a good discipline for us to put our rabbit trails on hold and to attend respectfully to the Word that’s being preached.
      And I love apple butter, too — especially the aroma as it is cooking on the stove. Better than any candle!


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