Two Johns: Hagee and Steinbeck

Two Johns: Hagee and Steinbeck September 28, 2015

America is good at producing original personalities and at least two of them are named John: Hagee and Steinbeck. Steinbeck would have loved writing about Hagee. I don’t know if Hagee would enjoy Of Mice and Men. 

250px-JCH_at_Podium_croppedJohn Hagee is nobody’s idea of a careful theologian, but he is a well known, and in some circles, well regarded pastor. He presides over a mega-church ministry where by some strange twist of fate the next generation of leaders often have the name “Hagee.” Politicians on the right have sought his endorsement and he has built a large multimedia empire. He is an American original.

John Steinbeck is a near great writer with a book East of Eden that may be the closest text yet to the great American novel. His Noble Prize was criticized because many literature types did not think his total work merited the award. His work is a weird mix of 1930’s leftist thought, including a pinch more sympathy for Communism than might be healthy, and propaganda work for the Allies in World War II. He worked for the CIA in the Cold War. This blend of patriotism and leftist thought died with the Johnson Administration. He too is an American original.

John Hagee deserves more criticism than he is likely to receive from those whose criticism would bother him. He should stop making “scare tactic” announcements. He does real harm with these doom-and-gloom teaching series. We all know people who have made very poor personal decisions (selling their houses, taking kids out of school), based on fear mongering. Hagee also makes sure that his teachings are done in a way as to be unfalsifiable. He comes close to predicting apocalypse, but then backs down using weasel words. His predictions bring scandal to the church through the sloppiness of his scholarship and he makes claims about the Bible that even theologians in his camp find highly questionable. People are driven away from the Gospel by these harmful tactics. Finally, much product is moved and there exists more than a suspicion that the ministry moves from “crisis” to “crisis” in order to make money.

He also does good works through charitable activities and through his broader ministry.

Safe to say that outside of his small circle on the fringes of Evangelical and charismatic circles, John Hagee has limited influence. His works are not discussed in our schools and he does little to shape the national conversation. Even his mainstream ideas get little cultural traction because he looks and sounds “wrong” to mainstream culture. This is unfair, but this also limits the damage from his “blood moon” and other excesses.

The same cannot be said for Steinbeck. Whatever his merits as a writer, school children all over the English speaking world are tested on his work. For many students, he is the only writer they read from the period between the First and Second World Wars. His writing style has been criticized as a sermon mixed up with a novel . . . as if John Hagee had the talent to write his world view in a cultural critique. Hagee does not have Steinbeck’s talent, but Steinbeck is canonized as much for his views (soft leftism combined with Americanism) as his talent.John_Steinbeck_1962

Read more than one Steinbeck novel and you get used to the fact that he too is a preacher. Grapes of Wrath has a plot, barely, but it is vehicle for Steinbeck’s inchoate philosophy. Steinbeck likes justice and hates injustice. He does not want the poor put down and he dimly favors more government action, but he never quite says what he wants government to do. His novels back off (rightly I think) from Utopianism and Steinbeck is more concerned with the family and the individual than the collective.
Steinbeck would give students the impression that prostitutes were better people than most pastors and that piety in the Depression era was either nutty and oppressive or leftist and theology free. This doesn’t fit the people I knew from that era, but it does fit the contemporary intellectual prejudice, so Steinbeck’s stereotypes get a pass. This is less true with his somewhat offensive portrayal of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Here Steinbeck falls into similar stereotypes as he did with the religious and the Okies, but fortunately in this case, such stereotypes do get challenged and students are reminded that Steinbeck was no sociologist or student of Mexican-American culture.

The harm Steinbeck does as an American original is much greater than the harm Hagee does. Hagee is marginalized beyond his actual talent and influence. Steinbeck has been elevated beyond his actual talent or importance. Young adults may know nothing of Baptist piety from the 1930’s except what Steinbeck gives them and Steinbeck is bigoted when he isn’t ignorant on the topic. His infantile socialism deserves a hard challenge . . . Eisenhower’s America with her industrial machine wiped out the poverty he describes, not the government camps (!) he advocates.

He writes about Communism in the United States too generously. The Communist Party USA was a front for a foreign power that murdered millions of people and sought to overthrow the United States government. If my present students know anything about Communism, it is that some Americans overreacted and saw “spies” everywhere. Steinbeck is not the only reason for this, but there is no balance in Steinbeck.

God help the poor veterans’ organizations. They come off as fascist thugs in most pages of Steinbeck.
Here is my fear: we tolerate harmful errors in Steinbeck because of his literary talent and his “fit.” His wrong ideas are viewed with toleration and even defended or explained away as “not so bad.” Hagee is (sadly) given the same treatment in the fringe movements where he is a player. His “blood moons” hype will be papered over since he is on our team. This is wrong.

But it is just as wrong with Steinbeck and more dangerous: he continues to be given a huge role in American education. Students who are never given Fanny Crosby or told about R.A. Torrey get their view of the “old time” country religion from Steinbeck. The Yale educated Torrey, the father of fundamentalism, does not fit any elite stereotypes so he vanishes and Billy Sunday, and the Steinbeck stereotypes, are remembered.

Steinbeck is worth reading and Hagee is not. I am not calling for censoring Steinbeck as much as pointing out the great limits of someone liked by the American elite. His views are tolerated even when they shouldn’t be. This is more dangerous than any foolish “blood moon” theories of a fringe actor like Hagee.

American originals need hard scrutiny . . . even John Steinbeck.

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