John Steinbeck and the Church.From–Travels with Charley.

In Steinbeck’s book,”Travels with Charley.”In search of America,he shares an experience he had in visiting a local church in Vermont. 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 Rocinanate 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 larg 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- brimestone 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 enoug about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me.He put my sins in a new perspective.Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten,this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity.I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years,but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left.I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner,and I was going to catch it.

I felt so revived in spirit that I put five dollars in the plate,and afterward,in front of the church,shook hands warmly with the minister and as many of the congregation as I could.

All across the country I went to church on Sundays,a different denomination every week,but nowhere did I find the quality of that Vermont preacher.He forged a religion designed to last,not predigested obsolescence.

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One Comment on “John Steinbeck and the Church.From–Travels with Charley.”

  1. pastorinthewoods Says:

    I wonder how many lost people enter churches without ever hearing the extent of their sinfulness? Great quote! And the quote concerning deer hunting you sent me was funny also.

    I will have to look this book up.


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