I used to think reading novels was a waste of time. I had so many questions and was impatient for answers. I now suspect that I was also swayed by that need adolescents have for certainty in a family setting where unpredictability was the rule.

My goodness, how wrong I was. A novel has a power to enchant. To draw the reader in to a story that is not theirs and whilst defences are lowered the characters are able to become mirrors, educators and guides. The best stories thus become textbooks of the human condition. I have been given so many opportunities to test out different ways of being without taking the risks myself. My favourite characters have embarked upon journeys I’d never considered and made choices and borne consequences I do not have to risk. Parts of me that were hidden to myself found themselves brought out of the shadows without adding to feelings of shame or guilt. The novel possesses a power unmatched by any other genre.

Of all the authors who have moved me, John Steinbeck has to come top of my list. I defy anyone to read Cannery Row and not be touched by Mac and his gallery of rogues. And it is East of Eden that began to unpick my deeply flawed, but heavily defended, theology of sin and redemption. I was tired of the Evangelical trick of stirring up guilt and then offering a shortcut to forgiveness and was open to a new way of seeing.

Without giving away enough of the plot to make you feel you don’t need to read the book, East of Eden is about character, choice and change. It is the book which Steinbeck himself said it took him the whole of his career to write, and at its heart is the struggle to understand why we do what we do, fail to become what we could be, yet carve out a life of meaning nevertheless.

At the heart of the novel is a single Hebrew word: Timshel. The literary device Steinbeck uses to deliver the word is a series of conversations between Samuel and his Chinese servant Lee:

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word ‘timshel’ – ‘Thou mayest – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not’”*

Following rules does not lead to wisdom or maturity because rules are blunt instruments that simply condemn us and do not help us understand our motives or our drives.* Likewise, summoning up strength of will to conform or perform because we fear humiliation or judgement is ineffective for the same reason that trying not to think of an elephant makes it impossible to erase the thought of an elephant from our minds.*

When Lee catches Samuel’s son fearing he might be predestined to follow the same path as his predecessors, Lee applies the same wisdom:

“You’ve got the other too. Listen to me! You wouldn’t even be wondering if you didn’t have it. Don’t you dare take the lazy way. It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don’t let me catch you doing it! Now – look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it – not your mother.”*

This is exactly the point Paul is trying to make in the book of Romans as he attempts to demonstrate that sin does not have to remain part of our human identity once all condemnation has been removed.* With forgiveness comes the opportunity to be truthful to ourselves, real with others and free to listen for invitations to live differently.

Or, as Steinbeck puts into the mouth of Abra at the end of his novel:

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”*

*1 John Steinbeck – East of Eden (Penguin Books, New York, 1992), 301.

*2 Matthew 23:4.

*3 Romans 7.

*4 East of Eden, 445.

*5 Romans 8.

*6 East of Eden, 585.

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About the Author

Craig Millward has been a Baptist minister for over 30 years and has extensive experience of the joys and challenges of church leadership.

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