Seventy-five years ago (1939), John Steinbeck gave us his epic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Biblical title with some religious themes, and some of the best comments on religion we have in a novel. Poverty, immigration, prejudice, surviving a national disaster like the dust bowl (or not surviving). A family living on the edge with only each other to hold onto while searching for. . .America.
“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. . .His truth is marching on.” Empty words for many left with little comfort and long periods of suffering.
For a while I considered writing a book called something like, Steinbeck’s God. The way characters throughout his many books wrestle with religion and questions of faith and meaning give a lot of material for anyone in human service.
Here are some lines I marked a long time ago while active in jail and street chaplaincy:
“Tom looked at Casy’s waving toes. ‘Could ya come down from your thinkin’ an’ listen a minute?’ Casy turned his head on the stalk-like neck. ‘Listen all the time. That’s why I been thinkin’. Listen to people a-talkin’, and purty soon I hear the way folks are feelin’. Goin’ on all the time. I hear ’em and feel ’em; and their beating their wings like a bird in an attic. Gonna bust their wings on a dusty winda tryin’ ta get out. . . .
‘All along I seen it,’ he said. ‘Ever’ place we stopped I seen it. Folks hungry for side-meat, and when they get it, they ain’t fed. An’ when they’d get so hungry they couldn’ stand it no more, they’d ast me to pray for ’em, an’ sometimes I done it.’ He clasped his hands around drawn-up knees and pulled his legs in. ‘I use ta think that’d cut ‘er. Use ta rip off a prayer an’ all the troubles’d stick to that prayer like flies on fly paper, and the prayer’d go a-sailin’ off, a-takin’ them troubles along. But it don’ work no more.’
Tom said, ‘Prayer never brought in no side-meat. . .’
‘Yeah,’ Casy said, ‘An Almighty God never raised no wages.'”
. . .
Tom studied him with half-shut eyes and he put on his cap again. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘this ain’t no lan’ of milk and honey like the preachers say.'”
Listen to people and pretty soon you hear the way they’re feeling.
Beating their wings like a bird in an attic.
Rip off a prayer and all the troubles would stick to it. . .but it doesn’t work anymore.
Prayer doesn’t bring the food or the jobs, pay the bills, give land to live or end the suffering.
No matter what the politicians or preachers preach, this is not the land of milk and honey, not the promised land.
The truth-telling of one of our greatest writers!