Echoes of Genesis | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Echoes of Genesis


WORLD Radio - Echoes of Genesis

Some believe East of Eden is John Steinbeck’s best work with Biblical themes throughout

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, June 4th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: And I’m Lindsay Mast.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: our Classic Book of the Month for June. If you love getting lost in a sweeping novel, reviewer Chelsea Boes recommends John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

MOVIE CLIP: Cal, listen to me. You can make of yourself anything you want. A man has a choice. That’s where he’s different from an animal. You won’t listen. You never listen.

CHELSEA BOES:That’s character Adam Trask speaking to his son, Cal, in a clip from the 1955 film adaptation of East of Eden. You might remember reading John Steinbeck in high school–works like Of Mice and Men or The Pearl. But don’t judge a book by its author. Written by John Steinbeck in 1952, our Classic Book of the Month is a sweeping family saga rich with Genesis parallels. In the following scene, we hear Cal (played by James Dean) demand to know about his missing mother.

MOVIE CLIP: Talk to me, Father! I gotta know who I am, I gotta know who I’m like, I gotta know–where is she? Truthfully, Cal. After she left, I never heard from her.

While Steinbeck wasn’t known as a devoted Christian, readers will see Biblical themes at work here. The story follows two sets of brothers–first Adam and Charles Trask and then Adam’s twin sons, Aaron and Cal. In this audiobook clip read by Mary Gladwin, Steinbeck frames the book’s conflict with a retelling of the Cain and Abel story.

AUDIOBOOK: The Lord was pleased with Abel’s offering, but not with Cain’s. And Cain was very angry. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? If you do well, you will be accepted. And if you not do well, you will sin. And your sin will try to rule over it, but you will rule over it. And Cain turned against his brother and killed him. The Lord said to Cain, where is your brother? Cain said, “I dunno. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

You may notice differences there from a trustworthy Biblical translation. Philip Bunn is a Christian and incoming assistant professor of Political Science at Covenant College. He says that East of Eden’s Biblical parallels break down fairly quickly.

BUNN: Like the conceit of the story is, well–What if you had a sort of Cain and Abel narrative where you had a father figure who's not like God, who's not good, who's not loving actually, who loves one son for bad reasons and rejects or spurns the love of the other son for bad reasons? And then what if, you know, in the Cain and Abel story, the murderous son wasn't able to actually carry out his murder?

Much of the brothers’ conflict revolves around the story’s villain–Adam Trask’s wife, Cathy. In particular, her evil machinations as the madame of a California brothel are terrible but fascinating.

That being said, I’ll add a warning. Violence and depravity can make East of Eden a distressing read. Offensive scenes aren’t usually graphic, though, and thoughtful Christians have much to gain by reading this American classic.

The book’s central question is, “Can man choose to be good?” That question alone is enough to engross any theology buff. And the question centers around the use of a single, Hebrew word in the Cain and Abel story: “timshel.”

BUNN: Cain is dejected and God comes to him and says that sin is crouching at the door and “you must rule over it.” There's some debate in the story about what that Hebrew word that's translated you must actually means, and the characters come down on the side of this word timshel meaning thou mayest, that it's a sort of open door, it's an option, that the cool thing about being human is that you have choice.

Bunn is a professor of political philosophy, so he enjoys this kind of debate. But you don’t have to totally agree with Steinbeck’s philosophy to benefit from the story.

BUNN: I'm reformed so reformed people have particular perspectives on this but i don't think that the sort of you know mystery of God's providence in human affairs necessarily cuts against the idea that we have this sort of really wonderful facet of our characters, image bearers of God, that we do have choices.

By affirming human agency, East of Eden is different from a lot of American lit because it frankly rejects cynicism. And this word Timshel is at the heart of that. Caleb and Aron Trask’s family may be broken–but that doesn’t mean they’re genetically bound to follow in their parent’s footsteps. They can make their own choices.

BUNN: East of Eden is head and shoulders above everything else he ever wrote. It's really a kind of like lightning in a bottle, Magnum Opus kind of situation. [cut to 21:38] If it's not, you know, a contender for the great American novel, it's at least in the ballpark of a good runner up choice.

Aside from the deep philosophical questions, East of Eden is just a joy to read. The prose is lean, direct, and beautiful and the dialogue reads like music. The story never slows but instead twists and surprises, horrifies and delights. The reader will find characters to love and admire, and a student of the Bible will feel echoes of Genesis in every section.

Our Classic Book of the Month for June, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, is a big investment of time. But read rightly, it will remind you that one life of kindness can reverberate into other lives and through generations.

I’m Chelsea Boes.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...