“If I was freer than I had ever been in my life, I was not yet entirely free; for I still hung on to an idea that had been set deep in me by all my schooling so far: I was a bright boy and I ought to make something out of myself…”
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
In award-winning author Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, twice-orphaned Jonah searches for answers to the eternal questions: What is the nature of God? What is prayer? Is life a random series of disconnected events, or a linear, purposeful, meaningful path? These universal questions all converge upon Jonah’s more personal questions of identity: Who am I? Am I what I do? Do I, in fact, choose my profession, thus bearing the immense responsibility of making myself? Or am I born to a calling? Crow describes this undetected pressure to create an identity for oneself as a kind of subtle bondage. He finds its source in his education: “If I was freer than I had ever been in my life, I was not yet entirely free; for I still hung on to an idea that had been set deep in me by all my schooling so far: I was a bright boy and I ought to make something out of myself…” Berry’s words resonate for me. With my early schooling, I, like Crow, imbibed postmodern presuppositions of identity. Like Crow, I was encouraged to make something of myself. I was kindly told that I could be anything I wanted to be. With that optomistic rhetoric, I swallowed the damaging lie implicit within: that I must somehow make myself. This is one of the fundamental ideas education in the postmodern world propogates.
The idea of the individual’s responsibility to make something of oneself doesn’t resonate with what Jayber recognizes as the undercurrent of his life which, like the river that he studies and loves, carries him, bears him home and gives him a berth. This current Crow terms his calling. Although inaudible, he finds this hidden river traceable in retrospect and uniquely personal. Jayber discloses: “Now I have had most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was cut completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led.” This feeling of having been led flies in the face of the ideas Crow’s early schooling suggested to him. Far from choosing or creating his life and identity, Crow comes to believe he was born to it – born to discover it. Far from crafting an identity through carefully plotted action, Crow finds his identity on the river.
Postmodernism has as its foundational principle atheism, and the fullness of its philosophy hinges upon that monumental assumption. With no god in whom to ground reality, postmodernists struggle to define anything – self, society, good, evil, right and wrong. All things are subject to individual perceptions. Consequently, randomness, meaninglessness, and disorder threaten the postmodern philosophical world, threatening to tear even language itself apart. Communication is regarded as virtually hopeless since words themselves are seen, not as universal bulwarks representative of ideas that stand beyond individual men and communities, but as elastic constructs imbued with meaning only on a subjective, case by case basis by the individuals who use them. Obviously, by this definition, no cohesive story, no unifying themes, no subterranean current lends meaning to the individual’s life. Meaning must instead be created, crafted by individual actions, local consensus, political activism and rhetoric. Ideas have consequences. Ultimately, postmodern philosophy encourages individuals to go and make something of their lives, to create their own stories, the very suggestion of which insinuates that without their efforts, no story will exist. Everything depends upon their actions, their decisions, their understanding, their successes, their failures. Tremendous anxiety, guilt, and despair are consequent for some, overweaning idolatry and pride for others.
Berry’s Crow offers a different perspective. From his cabin on the riverbank, from his stationary prospect, he describes the river’s unceasing movement, bearing upon it the lives of all men, causing calamity and peace, turbulence and placidity alike. He tells the story of the river’s transportive, directive power in his own life, full of eddies and shoals, but equally replete with beauty and plenty. There in Port William, Jayber finds himself, at work in the community, at home in his small branch of the river. Like the flotsam he witnessed the river bear in flood stages, he sees himself as having been borne along to a rest in his community where he has become, like the other members of the what he calls the Port William congregation, a timeless fixture, not so much because of his work, but because of his person, his fundamental identity, and the relationships he has forged with others carried along by the current. Far from writing his own story, Jayber Crow discovers himself a mere character in his tale, the writing of which belonged to another. His story, in a sense, unfolds to him. In the timeless movement of the river, Berry’s Crow finds the answers to the universal questions, and with them he finds peace.
I would spare my children the unnecessary anxiety incurred by a postmodern philosophy. I would protect them from misplaced devotion. This is just another reason I homeschool. Home education offers a unique opportunity to ground our children in the fundamental presupposition of Christian theism. From this bedrock assumption, we are free to ask the universal questions together with our children, and to help them navigate the divine current to discover their own callings. Because there exists a God who has declared Himself in the incarnation, revealing His personality and loving predisposition toward man, we can assume a Great Story. Because He has authored a Great Story, we can assume His authorship of our little stories. Morality, ethics, beauty, and truth stand, unchangeable fixtures of the philosophical landscape. Words retain inherent meaning because of Jesus Christ, the living Word. The world, pregnant with life, pulses at His bidding, and in Him, all things hold together. The Great Story of Jesus is the current that bears humanity along, the author the Lord, and we His workmanship. In the river of God’s grace, we may, like Crow, discover lives of meaning and come to discover our personal identity, a sound mooring. Ideas have consequences; the end of this philosophy is peace, purpose, humility, humanity, and relationship.
Thank God for our house on the river. May it retain for us all of the philosophical beauty of Berry’s metaphor, and may our children find rest on its banks.