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?