In his new biography of John Steinbeck, Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck, William Souder portrays his subject as a hard-living writer who placed heavy demands upon himself and upon those around him. In addition to his relentless passion for good writing, he had a sporadic passion for vices. Among his passions was his deep abhorrence for any bully as is evidenced in his The Grapes of Wrath and the predatory bullying done by the California growers. Given his careless self-destructiveness, his friends often urged Steinbeck to modify his strong living:
Slow down, lose weight, watch your cholesterol, and remember, you’re not as young you used to be (351).
Steinbeck would have none of it. He responded to such advice:
For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain of yardage (351).
I am much taken with his contrast and juxtaposition of his “fierceness” and his notion of “a small gain in yardage.” I take the latter phrase to mean that he might live a bit longer if he took better care of himself.
But he refused to consider such small gains in “yardage” if it would require curbing his fierce living.
Without suggesting that anyone should emulate Steinbeck’s particular modes of “fierceness,” his defiant statement got me thinking about a sense of priority as is commended in the gospel narrative. Steinbeck’s statement reminded me of two statements credited to Jesus, even if they are very different from Steinbeck’s particularities. What follows here is a brief reflection on these two statements and their sense of life priorities.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites his listeners away from “gaining yardage” about food or drink or clothing or housing or “adding a single hour to your span of life” (Matthew 6:25-27; Luke 12:22-25). These are not, in his purview, proper worries. Better, he urges, to devote one’s energy to the “kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
The verb for this summons is “strive,” no doubt an alternative to “be anxious.” The summons is to be actively engaged in God’s future, and not to be distracted with personal worry. This dictum does not specify “Kingdom of God,” but of course his entire enterprise of teaching is an exposition of the coming alternative governance of God that is marked by generosity, forgiveness, and hospitality. That future cannot be given a blueprint, but can only be educed by story and specific act.
It seems to me legitimate to let Steinbeck’s “fierceness” be rendered as “striving for the kingdom” and his “small gain of yardage” as a measure for anxiety about food, drink, clothing, housing, and length of days. If we accept this equivalence, mutatis mutandis, then Jesus calls his disciples to a singular passion for “the kingdom” and away from more mundane anxieties. He said this to his disciples, in the sequence of Matthew, just after he had declared to them:
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24; see Luke 16:13)
This is an either/or as stark as the one Steinbeck had discerned. The “fierceness” to which Jesus calls his disciples is an elusive alternative society of neighborliness. In appealing to Steinbeck’s “fierceness” we may get a fresh notion of Jesus’ “passion.”
We readily speak of his “passion story” concerning his journey to the cross, and we convert Palm Sunday into “Passion Sunday,” by which we refer to his upcoming arrest, trial, and execution. If, however, we take “passion” in a more popular sense, we can see that Jesus had a peculiar passion for the coming alternative neighborhood and would not be distracted from it; he intends, moreover, that his disciples join in this passion with fierceness.
The other text that occurs to me from Steinbeck’s either/or is Jesus’ radical summons to discipleship in Matthew 16:24-28, Mark 8:34-9:1, Luke 9:23-27):
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they gain in return for their life? (Matthew 16: 25-26).
In this statement, Jesus juxtaposes “world” and “life,” a curious either/or. By “world” he refers to the available sphere of possessable objects … not unlike the food and clothing of Matthew 6. By “life” he apparently means the identifiable, fragile personal self in the image of God. Again the either/or is radical and uncompromising; we cannot have both.
The possession of the “whole world” leads to the diminishment of life: or in the words of the hymn, we become “rich in things and poor is soul.”
Both the either/or of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-25 and Matthew 16:24-28, and the either/or of Steinbeck of “fierceness” or “a gain of small yardage,” summons us to clear, critical thinking about the purpose of our lives. This deep either/or (an echo of Moses in Deuteronomy 30:20 and of Joshua in Joshua 24:14-15) permeates the biblical tradition. This deep either/or seems to me particularly pertinent in our society that is preoccupied with matters of safety, wellbeing, and longevity. And of course these matters have become even more acute with the pandemic.
But even without regard to the pandemic, our consumer culture has made our selves and our bodies into objects to be protected and cared for with demanding attentiveness. No doubt some of that attentiveness is normal and natural. If, however, we may judge from the endless ads on TV for cosmetic supplies and drugs, we might think that our society is obsessed with “small gains of yardage,” that our lives and our bodies might be extended a bit further in their beauty and power. This obsessive concern (that justifies the aggressive marketing of stuff we did not know we needed for our wellbeing) drives out any readiness for risk for the common good, that is, for the kingdom of God’s righteousness.
What is at stake in these uncompromising either/or statements in the gospel is the long-term purpose of human life.
One cannot and would not want to object, I suppose, to responsible, healthy self-care. But when it becomes a central preoccupation of our lives, as aggressive consumerism would have it become, then the work of the common good evaporates from our horizon.
I finish with a reflection on the first question of the catechism in which I was nurtured, The Evangelical Catechism of the Evangelical Synod of North America, an antecedent of the United Church of Christ. In the edition of the catechism that I memorized, the first question is:
What should be the chief concern of man? (11)
The gender specificity of course reflects the patriarchal assumptions of the time of the edition. The catechism has happily been freshly translated by Frederick R. Trost, The Evangelical Catechism: A New Translation for the 21st Century (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009). The answer in the catechism that I learned is this:
Man’s chief concern should be to seek after the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. The supportive texts for that answer given in the catechism are exactly the two I have cited:
Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:33).
For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life? (Matthew 16:26).
It interests me that in an earlier version of the catechism that begins with the same question offers a very different answer:
Man’s chief concern should be the eternal salvation of his soul.
The contrast of the two answers is stunning. It seems clear that this radical revision of the answer was under the impetus of the “social gospel,” in my ecclesial tradition represented in those days by the brothers Niebuhr. It is evident that the two alternative answers represent very different theological perspectives.
The more “pietistic” answer (“eternal salvation of the soul”) sounds a little like “a gain of yardage,” whereas to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness is a summons to a fierceness beyond one’s self. The contrast between the answers, of course, is not so sharp when the answers are situated in the context of German pietism that always understood that one’s salvation was deeply linked to God’s righteousness.
The question posed by the catechism belongs centrally to human consciousness. It is the overriding question of human existence.
It is, at the same time, a question peculiarly entrusted to the church (and its companion communities). We live in a consumer society that is every day offering an answer to the question, an answer that concerns “small gains of yardage.” But lives that pivot on such small gains of yardage do not yield any fierceness for justice, righteousness, compassion, or mercy, do not factor out into practices of generosity, forgiveness, and hospitality.
It is for good reason that the church, from the ground up, gives answer to the question in a way that refuses the answer of our culture. We sing hymns, pray prayers, study texts, and listen to good news proclamations in order to host the alternative answer of the gospel.
These disciplines are not in order to gain yardage. They are, rather, in order to inhale the fierceness that belongs to our true humanity. Steinbeck would have been completely impatient with the church’s attempt to sort this out. He understood, nevertheless, that the question posed by the catechism is an important one. He answered it with his fierce writing.
A major moment of that fierce writing that was for him a moment of fierce living came for Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. In that fierce book, he wrote nothing more humanely fierce than its conclusion, a conclusion that proved to be too fiercely bodily for the film version of the novel. In response to the sick, starving man they discovered in the rainstorm in the barn at the end of the story, Ma guides Rose of Sharon to fierce self-giving:
For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. The she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously (The Grapes of Wrath [New York, Penguin Books, 1939] 580-581).
The self-giving act of Rose of Sharon sounds like an echo of Matthew 25:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (vv. 35-36, 40).
This sick, desperate man was surely “the least.” Steinbeck, in his fierceness, has Rose of Sharon provide the hungry man with food from her body. The act of Rose of Sharon required her to turn away from any thought of “extra yardage” in order to perform her generous bodily fierceness, all for the sake of an unnamed neighbor.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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