Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Mr Steinbeck Goes to Church

As I was tidying the library in the old manse on my day off John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley (the Nobel Prize winning novelist's account of his 1960 trek across America at age 58 (about the time the pic at left was taken), undertaken in a utility truck with a camper mounted on the back (christened 'Rocinante' after Don Quixote's mount) and accompanied  by his dog, Charley) fell to the floor, whereupon I opened it at this passage, would you believe:

"Sunday morning, in a Vermont town, my last day in New England, I shaved, dressed in a suit, polished my shoes, whited my sepulcher, and looked for a church to attend. Several I eliminated for reasons I do not now remember, but on seeing a John Knox church I drove into a side street and parked Rocinante out of sight, gave Charley his instructions about watching the truck, and took my way with dignity to a church of blindingly white ship lap. I took my seat in the rear of the spotless, polished place of worship. The prayers were to the point, directing the attention of the Almighty to certain weaknesses and undivine tendencies I know to be mine and could only suppose were shared by others gathered there.
 The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been a long time since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church. The minister, a man of iron with tool steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right. We didn’t amount to much to start with, and due to our own tawdry efforts we had been slipping ever since.
 Then, having softened us up, he went into a glorious sermon, a fire-and- brimstone sermon. Having proved that we, or perhaps only I, were no damn good, he painted with cool certainty what was likely to happen to us if we didn’t make some basic reorganizations for which he didn’t hold out much hope. He spoke of hell as an expert, not that mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well stoked-white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order.
 This reverend brought it to a point where we could understand it, a good hard coal fire, plenty of draft, and a squad of open hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me. I began to feel good all over. For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me."

From John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley (Penguin, 2000) pp60-61.

Upon finishing the passage I immediately thought of a sermon I once heard about 12 years ago which went to great lengths to stress that "God was not a head-kicker". I remain unconvinced of the thesis to this day, because I know that I daily need to have my head kicked - not literally, of course; what I mean to say is that I need to have the old Adam "kicked" out of me by repentance! I take it that's what Steinbeck felt too, "feeling good" upon hearing the Law after hearing too much mealy-mouthed "God is your pal" sermonising. Only the full-on, no holds barred preaching of the Law and the Hell our transgressing of it deserves can straiten us up and bring us to the point of true repentance.
Then I thought of CFW Walther's Thesis VI from his Law & Gospel: "In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness..."
The Vermont preacher certainly seems to have brought the Law to bear upon his hearers "in its full sternness", but whether he went on to proclaim Christ in his "full sweetness" as the answer to the terrified sinner's predicament we don't know, since Steinbeck doesn't tell us, apart from mentioning that the preacher "didn't hold out much hope" for his listeners' reform.
While Steinbeck writes that "the reverend brought it to a point where we could understand it", what exactly, I wonder, did the Preacher say that Steinbeck heard as a message of doom "if we didn't make some basic reorganizations for which he didn't hold out much hope"? Was the Preacher leading his listeners to acknowledge their spiritual poverty and deadness apart from God's enlivening grace? What a preacher thinks he says clearly is not always what is actually heard and digested by those in the pulpit, as every experienced preacher can attest; this ought to drive preachers to strive for ever clearer and simpler communication when the Gospel is presented - in matters of spiritual life and death there is no place for waffling or weaseling.Or was this Preacher at the "John Knox" church (doubtless Presbyterian) too far sold on Calvinistic total depravity after years of unrewarding pulpit labour, so that even Christ could not redeem a congregation so obviously of the unelect?
After winding up his account of going to church in Vermont in a somewhat ironic tone, Steinbeck does say he went to church every Sunday after that, at least whilst engaged in his trans-continental peregrinations, although he never again encountered a pulpiteer of the quality of the Vermont preacher, who "forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence". Whatever the initial impact upon Steinbeck of the "hellfire and brimstone" preacher at the John Knox church in Vermont was, it didn't take. Steinbeck wrote his doctor just before his death of heart failure some eight years later that he was convinced nothing of him would survive his passing. If John Steinbeck was indeed shaken to his core by the Law that Sunday morn, it's a great tragedy that he never heard the Gospel.  Preachers, take note: "the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness..." .  



David Cochrane said...

I think of the sermon; Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. This should have been titled; Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Preacher. There was no Jesus crucified for sinners either.

Jonathon Edwards did say turn to Jesus but for what was anyone's guess. This sermon is held up by many as a masterful one which should be emulated. Christ have mercy!

Mark Henderson said...

Yes, I thought of Edwards's sermon too, David.