Route 66 News

Religious imagery and “The Grapes of Wrath”

Frank Gifford of recently was interviewed by Susan Olasky of WORLD radio, which is part of a Christianity-based multimedia group.

Gifford explained how he found Christian imagery in John Steinbeck’s seminal novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” much of which takes place on Route 66 during the Depression:

WORLD radio also linked to this University of South Queensland page that lists the allusions to the Bible in “The Grapes of Wrath.” They include the Book of Job, Noah and the Flood, The Promised Land, and Jim Casy, Tom Joad and Rose of Sharon from the novel.

Interestingly, if Steinbeck indeed used the Bible in “The Grapes of Wrath,” it probably was little more than a literary device. Research over the decades indicates that Steinbeck was agnostic.

Gifford thinks the Route 66 community is missing out on an opportunity to market Route 66 to Christians via “The Grapes of Wrath.” He elaborated in an email:

In polling, 77% of the US population identifies as “Christian” and 34% as “Born-again.” The “Born-again” group alone is 100+ million people.  They’re already in America and could be persuaded to travel a family-friendly highway crossing the Bible Belt.
Biblical imagery in The Grapes of Wrath is not mentioned in road-related books or promotional literature.  (Can you find a single reference?)
A “faith journey” is not even considered in the massive Rutgers study.  But skiing, nightlife and gambling, among many other things, appear on page 201 of the Technical Report.
On page 205-06 of the study: the typical Route 66 travel group is older adults.  On page 234: the typical travel party has just 0.2 kids.  Christian families/groups could alter these demographics for the better.  Importantly, they likely would not alienate current users.  Every business/attraction along the road (except for bars and casinos) would benefit.
Since government promotion of a faith journey is restricted by the Wall of Separation, the burden falls on private groups and individuals.  The research has already been done and is easily accessed on-line.

Gifford added he’s a “non-believer,” which may give him more objectivity on the Route 66-religion issue.

Gifford may be right in saying Route 66 is missing out on such a market segment. But I’m skeptical whether such marketing can and should be done.

In more than eight years of daily researching Route 66 for this website, I’ve encountered very few religious allegories or discussions tied to the Mother Road. And most of those are peripheral, such as 66 books in the Bible. One notable example is Chuck Williams, a roadie who recently published a new version of his “Eternal Route 66” book that ties the Mother Road to biblical musings.

Whether it’s because of a lack of interest or it being a sleeping giant, joining Christianity and Route 66 aren’t high on folks’ priorities on the Internet.

If there’s a ripple metaphysically, it’s travelers (including non-Christians) seeing the road’s 2,400 miles and its twists, turns and dead ends as a metaphor for life.

What I’m trying to say is faith is too complex to think one could consistently shoehorn Route 66 into someone’s belief system. Having tourism centers taking such a delicate approach would be fraught with peril and might be counterproductive. If a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Wiccan finds a measure of personal enlightenment while traveling the old road on their own, that’s fine. But trying to force the issue likely would be foolish.

Your mileage may vary. What do you think?

(Image of the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ Ministries in Groom, Texas, by Gouldy99 via Flickr)


4 thoughts on “Religious imagery and “The Grapes of Wrath”

  1. Frank Gifford

    To be clear, I am NOT suggesting that state-run Tourism Centers do the promoting. This would violate church-state separation. The job falls to state Route 66 groups, businesses, authors, websites etc. There is no such restriction on us.

  2. Gary Alexadner

    So, by promoting a single religion (I mean, we’re not talking about targeting Hindu tours here.) we somehow make the road more inviting? This makes sense how?
    It’s not that I’m anti-Christian (although I can hear the comments, now), I just don’t see the benefit of promoting a specific religion, at the expense of all others.
    If you have a place and want to put out such material, it’s absolutely your right. But if it costs more customers than it gains, I won’t be surprised.
    (I envision a campaign like this would go over like gangbusters through the Hualapai lands.)

  3. Jen

    “What I’m trying to say is faith is too complex to think one could consistently shoehorn Route 66 into someone’s belief system.”

    I am a Christian and couldn’t agree with you more. Besides, things have more…hm…ability, I guess, to speak to people when they explore those things or places on their own. If a group wants to set up a faith-based stop on the Route, on their own, and draw customers in that way, more power to ’em, but somehow typing state travel centers or literature to it is just…no. Frankly, I think people are just better off by living the faith day-to-day. In my experience, that speaks volumes more than tracts or whatever else.

  4. KW

    I don’t think the issue is about promoting a religion, but rather about promoting Route 66 on the basis of references drawn from the Holy Bible found in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Mr. Gifford is suggesting marketing to Christians because the references in the novel are drawn from the Christian Bible, not the Upanishads or other texts that are sacred to adherents of other faiths.
    That being said, I am a devout Catholic and a frequent Route 66 traveler (born in Amarillo, grew up in OKC when cruising 39th St., aka 66, was the thing to do on the weekend, have lived in Sayre, OK right on 66 and Albuquerque, NM) and I find the idea of target marketing Route 66 to people of the Christian faith an odd concept. Perhaps I’m missing the big picture. My family and I enjoy traveling the old road to see the sights, meet people along the way, and, really, just for the sheer pleasure of driving on 66. We did make it a point to stop at the shrine to Our Lady of the Highways in Illinois, and enjoyed being there.
    That being said, my wife and I have discussed things that might be beneficial to Sayre, and we were wondering if anyone has considered an annual Grapes of Wrath conference. It could be run through SWOSU, there could be tours of the famous courthouse and of the area, readings, perhaps a staged production. Sayre was looking in need of a little boost the last few times I was through, and such an event might be a good draw.

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