Among the long list of things I love about living in California is the fact that I now know the land John Steinbeck called home for so long. His novels have done much to strengthen my faith.
As an avid reader and English major, upon first coming to faith in Christ, I often felt torn between two worlds that are often seen as polemically opposed: literature and Christian writing. Like many new believers, I began to shy away from the rich masterpieces that were not distinctly Christian or theologically sound (which cuts out a large fraction of fiction).
However, over the years, the Lord has drawn my heart back towards the broader literary world. My faith has only been strengthened as a result. Not all fiction will have such an effect on the soul, as there is enough trashy and God-diminising literature to fill an ocean; however, well chosen, carefully read literature can point us to the Truths of Scripture.
Fiction has a way of bringing truths we have grown overly accustomed to back to life. Recently, Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, has served to sharpen and strengthen my resolve to fight sin. Strange, I know.
Proverbs 16:25. There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.
James 1: 14-15. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Satan knows how to eat an elephant. One bit at a time.
I have shared this trifecta of truths with both myself and countless college students over the years. Yet, recently through the slow and insidious demise of Steinbeck’s Ethan Allen Hawley in The Winter of Our Discontent, these truths have come to life again, prodding me to more actively fight for truth and to stay the long course of the path of righteousness.
The book begins with Ethan’s heaviness on Good Friday. Having been strongly influenced by his God-fearing Aunt Deborah.
“Good Friday has always troubled me. Even as a child I was deep taken with sorrow, not at the agony of the crucifixion, but feeling the blighted loneliness of the Crucified. And I have never lost the sorrow, planted by Matthew, and read to me in the clipped, tight speech of my New England Great-Aunt Deborah.”
Ethan, a lowly store clerk at the grocery store, has fallen from old money and high status to a very simple life after his father lost their fortune. He is a happy man with a wife who adores him and two teenage children. In a town obsessed with success and advancement and comfort, he stands out as someone committed to doing things right when no one is looking, as someone who refuses to sell out to the almighty dollar and the relativity of ethics surrounding him.
The book follows the demise of Ethan Allen in a few short months. A condescending conversation with the wealthy banker, a complaint from his kids that they don’t have what everyone else has, a brush with a femme fatale, and a few unexpected opportunities to cheat in small ways were the troop of tiny tugboats that moved the freight liner of Ethan’s character in a different direction.
He slips into relative thinking and justification of actions that he had formerly known as fixed wrong.
“In business and in politics a man must carve and maul his way through men to get to be King of the Mountain. Once there, he can be great and kind – but he must get there first.”
In a “just this once until I can get my feet back under me” way of thinking, Ethan takes off his morality with the intention to put it right back on when he is back on his feet.
This chance of perspective begins small and contained, adding a little pep to his step and a little flavor to the monotony of righteousness. But throughout the unfolding of the novel, this relative morality becomes pervasive and takes over the once stalwart clerk.
Throughout the entire novel, the voice of Aunt Deborah and the Biblical truth she espoused, once loud, welcomed and celebrated becomes quieter and quieter until he can no longer hear it at all.
Throughout the entire novel, the warning of Jesus in Mark 8:36 echoed in my soul.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?”
It was too late for Ethan when he realized what he had done; however, watching his slow transformation, the Lord shored up my soul to fight hard for myself and my family and those in my flock.
We have so much to learn from fiction. May we see in the creativity of the master writers the hints of truth that point us to the Master of all time and history and art.