I’m a big fan of classic literature. In part, I appreciate the aesthetic beauty of well-written prose. But even more so, I love how a compelling story can pry its way into the heart and imagination of the reader. A complex message becomes digestible when it is served in the form of story.
I say this because I recently read “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and just finished “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Both novels are rich, beautiful fiction, full of riveting emotion. They are also replete with treasures of theological reflection.
Steinbeck’s novel borrows its name from—and is based on—the story of Cain and Abel, which is quoted in its entirety toward the middle of the book. To quickly recapitulate, Cain and Abel are brothers, the offspring of Adam and Eve. They simultaneously offer gifts to God—Abel gives the first of his flock of sheep and Cain gives part of his crop. God is more pleased with the gift from Abel, and as a result:
Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Why are thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ (King James Version) (emphasis added)
After hearing this message, Cain speaks with his brother and then kills him in jealous anger. The Lord punishes him, “and Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.”
The biblical story is moving in and of itself, but a conversation later in the novel deserves highlighting. Lee, a Chinese servant who is agnostic in faith, could not shake himself of this narrative. He brings it before several ancient Chinese scholars who spend days analyzing the story—centering their focus on two words: “Thou shalt” (in the King James Version). The American Standard Version translates these words: “Do thou.”
Why is this important? Lee explains:
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 back on the man. […]
Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. […]
It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness. […]
This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest.’
I disagree with Lee on one point… This is theology. God, in His grace, has given us the awesome power of choice. We find ourselves in neither Heaven nor Hell. We may be to the “east” of Eden, but we aren’t so far removed that we can’t see it on the horizon.
As my colleague Andrew Quinn writes:
Christianity holds that Truth is a road we must freely choose to walk, not a carefully-fenced trail where straying off course is impossible. Individual choice and agency may not make our spiritual lives simpler, but it makes them uniquely rewarding.
In other words, each of us has a responsibility, no, a grand opportunity to provide the world with glimpses of paradise. “Thou mayest” means that we matter, that what we do is incredibly significant. Each morning that we get out of bed, weakness, cowardliness, and laziness are no longer adequate excuses. “Thou mayest” is both a challenge and an invitation.
[pq]There’s a responsibility in being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air would be.[/pq]
There have been periods of my life when I’ve just floated through, as though my existence serves no actual purpose (much like Adam, one of the main characters in the novel). If that is you, wake up. Whoever you are, regardless of what you’ve done in the past, you matter. And you have a glorious choice. Thank God for it, and then use it wisely for good.
As Steinbeck writes, remember that “there’s a responsibility in being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air would be.”