Friday, April 3, 2015
To the East of Eden
"A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, is hard to read. It's full of sin, full of despair. The story that unfolds between its excellently-written pages is not happy and it's not safe. It is the dark story of a family living a cycle of wickedness. It is the tragic tale of Cain and Abel brothers lived out over again. It is the despair of a wretched woman choosing to fall farther and farther into the depths of depravity. It's an uncomfortable story about lost, sinful people. And the longer the sin lives, the more monstrous it becomes. The longer it lives, the farther it spreads itself. The land to the east of Eden was the land that the Lord gave to Cain. The east is the place of exile. To be east of Eden means that he has left the garden behind. It means his back is turned toward all that is good, true, and beautiful. It means he is an outcast, marked and alone. And that is the choice he has made.
But it is in the east that the sun rises. And so there is hope, even in the darkness, that he will see the light.
East of Eden is about that hope for this lost family. It is about the "hard, clean questions". It is about reaching a place where you must choose whether to throw out the monster or to become him. And those are the only two options because even the most passive of persons has things growing in their heart. Sometimes weeds, sometimes flowers. "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...Why, that makes a man great...He can choose his course and fight it through and win." We get to choose and we do not have to be our past. That is Redemption. It is throwing off the old self. This is especially glorious for the man, Adam, in Steinbeck's book, because he has lived, and loved, and suffered, believing there is no choice. He has borne the despair of watching his own son becoming Cain, and he believed there was no hope. But then he is told the complete story of that brother murderer for the first time, and he hears, for the first time, the importance of the words God spoke to Cain: "Thou mayest rule over sin", and he knows that it is true. There is a choice. And if Cain had chosen to repent his awful sin, he would have been loved and forgiven. If he had chosen the good, he would have been brought back home with great rejoicing.
But, as right and as wonderful as that might be, Steinbeck falls short. In the midst of all the words and ideas he has masterfully arranged into truths, he is missing the most beautiful word, the most beautiful Truth, of all. The word is Christ and the truth is that He washes away our wickedness with blood. "We have only one story," writes Steinbeck. "All novels, all poetry, are built on the never ending contest in ourselves of good and evil." He is right. This contest has formed all of history. Good or evil. Abel or Cain. Light or darkness. But there, Steinbeck's answer suddenly becomes hollow because the heart of man is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things. There he falls short because we are not alone in this contest. There he falls short because if we stood on our own before the almighty Judge, we would be convicted as infinitely guilty. There he falls short because the Son of God entered into the mess and became the mess for us. Instead of us.
Timshel. We mayest, indeed. But only when He wills. That is why there is ever hope. That is why we can ever find our way back home. That is why we may turn happily to the west, with the sun at our backs, and return to the garden. And that is why He will run out to meet us with a love that is stronger than we can imagine.