Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Problem With Quotes

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that I rely heavily upon the writings and sayings of others. I frequently use the words that another has said or written as a jumping off point for exploring my own thoughts. Most of the time, I am confident that this is a fruitful method. Yet, I am also aware of the pitfalls of such an approach and have often witnessed problems with this technique in the writings of others; and so I know that it must also exist in mine. The basic difficulty lies in the fact that by taking one small snippet of a writer's thoughts, we run the risk of missing their meaning and perhaps interpreting their words in the opposite sense in which they were intended. For example, if one searches for quotes written by Wendell Berry in his book, Jayber Crow, you will find, online, a preponderance of quotes which support pessimism toward God or toward his existence. Here is an example of an often used quote that, at first glance, suggests that Berry is a proponent of atheism:

"Well, for instance," I said, "if Jesus said for us to love our enemies - and He did say that, didn't He? - how can it ever be right to kill our enemies?  And if He said not to pray in public, how come we're all the time praying in public?  And if Jesus' own prayer in the garden wasn't granted, what is there for us to pray, except 'thy will be done,' which there's no use praying because it will be done anyhow?" . . . He said, "Have you any more?"
"Well, for instance," I said, for it had just occurred to me, "suppose you prayed for something and you got it, how do you know how you got it?  How do you know you didn't get it because you were going to get it whether you prayed for it or not?  So how do you know it does any good to pray?  You would need proof, wouldn't you?"
He nodded.
"But there's no way to get any proof."
He shook his head.  We looked at each other.
He said, "Do you have any answers?"
"No," I said. . . . 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."[1]
The questions Wendell Berry's character, Jayber Crow, asks are typical of one who has had faith and then lost it. They suggest someone who is trying hard to believe in Jesus, but just can't do it. For those who like to draw quotes from Wendell Berry to suggest agnosticism, this is sufficient to prove their point that, it is not rational to believe in a God who answers prayer and interacts with His creation.

Jayber Crow says these words at a point that is one sixth of the way through the book. One has to go a full two-thirds of the way through the book to see the answer Jayber Crow gives himself. The answer, which shows a renewed faith in Jesus, goes like this:

"I finally knew... why Christ's prayer in the garden could not be granted. He had been seeded and birthed into human flesh. He was one of us. Once He had become mortal, He could not become immortal except by dying. That He prayed the prayer at all showed how human He was. That He knew it could not be granted showed his divinity; that He prayed it anyhow showed His mortality, His mortal love of life that His death made immortal. . . .  
If God loves the world, might that not be proved in my own love for it? I prayed to know in my heart His love for the world, and this was my most prideful, foolish, and dangerous prayer. It was my step into the abyss. As soon as I prayed it, I knew that I would die. I knew the old wrong and the death that lay in the world. Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart."[2] 
These are the words of a man who has found a renewal of his faith. These are the words of someone who will trust Jesus. The point is, one must consider the whole body of work before concluding the position of the author on this particular issue. One small, or large, quote does not fully represent the beliefs of Jayber Crow or, by extension, the beliefs of Wendell Berry. The bottom line, for both writers and readers, is that we must not be lazy about investigating the thoughts of an author. Truly substantiating a point may require a good deal more reading than most of us choose to invest. Becoming true scholars, knowledgeable readers, and connoisseurs of words will require a good deal more outlay of time; but, as good scholars will know, the investment is worth the reward.

Works Cited:

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.

[1] (Berry 2000, 53, 54)
[2] (Berry 2000, 253, 254)

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