Teaching the Faith: A Lesson from the Cracker Barrel

If you have spent much time traveling along the southern interstate system, then you are undoubtedly familiar with a ubiquitous cultural landmark: the Cracker Barrel billboard. For those who like to indulge in such fare, the promise of a Cracker Barrel “just 38 miles ahead” is enough to stave off the hunger pains. I confess that I have passed up my share of restaurants, ignoring an ominous grumbling in my stomach, on account of such signs. They bear witness to a hope of fresh country cookin’ — not quite eschatological, but with chicken and dumplings that border on divine.

I worked as a server and chef at Cracker Barrel for five years, and during much of that time, I stayed busy cooking delicious food, bussing tables, and “pleasing people” — the company motto. When we weren’t “in the weeds” (as those in the service industry put it), I would often busy myself with mastering the famous Cracker Barrel peg game. Like the white tail deer mount and rifle that hang over every Cracker Barrel fireplace, the peg game has been a staple of every store since the first Cracker Barrel opened in 1969.

Today Cracker Barrel peg games are on every dining room table in every one of their more than 600 stores spanning 42 states. The game is deceptively simple, and its crude wood and variegated plastic pegs almost dare you to give it a go. It claims to be “a great way to test your I.Q.,” and who among us doesn’t want to know how smart we really are?

The object is to jump the pegs to remove as many of them as possible from the board. If you manage to leave only one peg, you’re a genius, two pegs left means you’re “purty smart,” leave three pegs and you’re “just plain dumb,” and nobody wants to leave four pegs, which makes you a bona fide “eg-no-ra-mus.”

It’s been over a decade since I worked for Cracker Barrel and the other day my partner and I stopped by for lunch with our six-year-old daughter. When my daughter asked me about the colorful pegs and wooden board perched prominently on our table, I explained the object of the game to her. Then I proceeded to solve the game very quickly, leaving only one peg.

Now, my daughter is well aware that I am not a genius and so she asked me how I was able to solve the puzzle so quickly. I explained that I had learned how to defeat the game years ago, when I worked there. But when my daughter asked me to teach her how to beat the game a curious thing happened.

I worked to explain how I had moved the pegs to leave only one remaining, and the minute I tried to explain it I was unable to solve the puzzle. I tried again. Again I was foiled. Though I tried again and again to show her how to successfully navigate the game, I was incapable of doing so. Eventually, our food arrived, and she turned to her chicken tenders, frustrated with the realization that her father might truly be an eg-no-ra-mus.

As I reflect upon this experience, I see a great similarity between the Cracker Barrel peg game and the Christian life. There is a difference between memorizing a set of moves (or slogans, or doctrines) and being able to articulate those moves to someone else. Further still, formulaic approaches to life’s complexities cannot withstand the test of genuine knowledge. I wonder if my experience with my daughter is somewhat indicative of a deeper truth: we only ever really know something when we can pass that knowledge along to others; maybe that’s why Jesus spent so much time in discipleship and why he urged his disciples to do likewise (e.g., John. 8:31, 21:15-19).

Like many arenas in life, the Cracker Barrel peg game is not cheat-proof. Shortcuts abound. Only by taking the time to understand — a deeper form of knowledge — can we say that we truly know something. Only when we are invested in teaching others to follow God in the way of Jesus Christ do we demonstrate our status as disciples (mathet?s, from math: the “mental effort” needed to think something through”).

Of course, this analogy falls apart when pressed too hard; anyone who can articulate the Christian life in seven or eight easy moves (or simple maxims, or essential truths) hasn’t sufficiently encountered the irreducible complexity of what it means to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, strength, and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Be wary of anyone whose fingers move too nimbly over the board of life, displaying with a wry smile how we too can act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. There is no shortcut to such a life, and the true test is not passed in memorizing simple steps. Authentic wisdom transcends patterns and paradigms but is able to discern a logic, a way of being, that makes the steps possible.