I’ve always loved this line from Steinbeck (East of Eden) on the raucous brand of revivalistic Christianity that sought to “save” the American West.
Somehow it manages to be both an insult and a compliment.
They fought the devil, no holds barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable.
The churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time…
The sectarian churches came in swinging, cocky, and loud and confident. … The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. … And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.
they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt (East of Eden, ch. 19:1).
It is far easier to (1) see only the church’s stains, or to (2) excuse those blemishes without recognizing their full seriousness.
Steinbeck does neither.
In his view, even this prancing, fighting, farting form of frontier Christianity had value; because while the “players” were often misguided, there was enough truth and beauty to make the anthem recognizable.
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