The Problem With Quotes

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
“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
He shook his head.  We looked at
each other.
He said, “Do you have any
“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
“I don’t know.  As long as
you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long
“I will tell you a further
mystery,” he said.  “It may take longer.”
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.
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.”
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
Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.

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

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