I've found that I can never read just one book at a time. (That brings up a funny mental image, of me actually holding a book in each hand, moving back and forth between the books...) While this can get confusing when I read two novels at the same time (which I don't do very often), I've actually discovered that reading novels supplements my reading of non-fiction, especially philosophy or theology. A theme that is developed in a book on theology will stand out in the work of fiction.
For instance, I'm reading Colossians Remixed and I just finished Grapes of Wrath. Colossians Remixed approaches the letter to the Colossians with the fundamental assumption that we don't come to the text naked, but clothed in the culture we find ourselves in, which in turn affects our interpretation of the text. So in order to fully understand and live out the text, the reader must understand her surrounding cultuer. So the authors take us into the N. American mindset, which is characterized by two dominant and seemingly opposite themes. The first is the often discussed post-modern worldview which is aptly described as "carnivaleque" and a "mall culture" (24) where "anything goes" except an overarching unifying story (metanarrative) that everyone buys into. The unifying story is that there is no unifying story. The modern absolute confidence in the promise of the corporate machine has died to be replaced by discontent and a sense that nothing is left to be done (22).
Yet at the same time, a very different yet dominant worldview is thriving: globalization. Behind this is the idea (and reality) that all can be connected and through connection all can be solved...simply with the touch of a button. Modernity has extended itself into the optimism of a technological and network culture (27). Think about the ads for gadgets. Office Depot promises simplicity and efficiency. The iPhone will put everything in the palm of your hand. And under these advertisements is the hidden (or not so hidden) assumption that productivity is the greatest value. Hence, efficiency is important, because you can be more productive. My value is connected to what and how much I produce. So I consume in order to become more productive.
So these seemingly opposite worldviews are actually held together by many N. Americans. Post-modernity and globalization don't clash as much as they show our dedication (willing or unwilling) to an unfeeling force (consumerism). The authors point out that this dedication exhibits the same structure as a religion. "Progress is its underlying myth, unlimited economic growth its foundational faith, the shopping mall (physical or online) its place of worship, consumerism its overriding image, 'I'll have a Big Mac and frieds' it's ritual of initiation, and global domination its ultimate goal." (30) The authors poinantly remembered that George W. Bush's response to the attack on the World Trade Center was to tell Americans to show the nations strength by going out and spending money.
The most ridiculous aspect of consumerism is that it is callous to everything that stands in its way.
While reading this, I also read the story of the Joads, who are kicked off their Oklahoma land by a corporate giant during the Dust Bowl period. The Joads have farmed the soil for years as tenants, but machinary has proven to do the work of many men, making tenant farmers unviable options for the money hungry company to employ. The company wants profit more than meeting the needs of folks and caring for the land. This unfeeling nature is characterized best when the tractor operator is instructed to only plow in straight lines even if people and houses are in the way...so the tractor mows over houses, bumping them off their foundation...just to keep a straight line.
In the midst of this turmoil, fliers from California are advertising unprecedented opportunities to be found in their state. The ads lead to a mythological view of that land where oranges and graps are in such supply that they hang over the roads and can be picked anywhere.
There is an eerie similarity between their time and ours. People aware of the brokenness of the current system but hoping for somehting brighter and better, something advertisements are selling.
What strikes me about GOW and our time is a desire for some type of hope, some type of change. Even behind the postmodern malaise lies the realization that what is our reality isn't teh greatest possibility. Everything's been tried and found wanting, but the fact that we're trying anything at all betrays an underlying assumption (or maybe it's a hope or desire or longing) that something better is out there (or in here). So the Joads sell most of their belongings, pack everything they can onto a half spent car, and burn the rest of their history, all in their effort to get to California, the land of promise. If you've read the book, you know that the Joad's get to California to discover that there is plenty of fruit and cotton, but not a ton of work and where there is work the wages are unbearably low. The promised land isn't so promising.