Thursday, October 26, 2006

"East of Eden" by John Steinbeck

Just a note: Have received my first course grade. Pulled an "A" in Pastoral Theology with Dr. Steve Martyn (a wild and crazy guy with transcendent aspirations and pneumatic-ecclesial inspirations). Have yet to receive anything lower than an A-, to date, on a paper for any class, so we're still plugging along.

For my preaching class, I'm reading John Steinbeck's novel, "East of Eden". If you haven't read it, here are the "Buke Notes": Two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, live out lives where they deal with their need for love and the absence of it. Some (Liza Hamilton) approach things like a stoic, while her husband (Sam Hamilton) dream of how things could be, and those dreams fuel not only his sense of purpose, but also those around him. But all of them are injured, and the wounds and scars left behind help shape the course of their future.

The central character of the book is Kate, a woman who even from her earliest days discovers how to use people's (especially men's) need for love and intimacy to control and manipulate them. This leads her into a life of prostitution, and eventually as a madam of a house of ill-repute. What is interesting about her character, and the thing that I think led critics to say that she wasn't a believable character, is that Steinbeck makes it clear that Kate is born this way. She is evil personified, even to the point of eating meat like a dog/demon. She is given every advantage of loving parents who lavish love and affection upon her, and yet, she is, and remains, a thoroughly evil person (to the point of killing them in a house fire staged to look like an accident). Morally, she is convicted only once, by one of her twin sons (who she abandoned to their father literally on the day they were born) when she discovers that even though he is her progeny, has been born good. It's the only point of the book that she shows any kind of remorse for who she is, and exhibits even the mildest interest in protecting him from evil (him not knowing that she is his mother... she'd rather him believe that she is dead) which creates conflicts inside of her that ultimately lead to her own death.

So, here's the question.... are people born evil or good? Do some of us get an extra dose of original sin? Or, are the critics right? Did Steinbeck go overboard (he had just come out of a bad marriage and nasty divorce before writing the book) by making a person evil irrespective of their environment?

How you answer this question is important. You answer will effect your theology and your politics. It will determine how important you think secular and moral education is shaping the values of people. It will call into question the role sociological and economic factors shape people. It will determine if you believe that people who do evil things can be rehabilitated, or should be locked up (put to death?) for their crimes.

So, what do you believe about evil? Is it nature, nurture, or some combination of both (and what exactly do you think that combination is) that have condemned us to live "East of Eden"?

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