Losing “the Sperit,” Finding Christ: Unholy Foolishness in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath

The moral heart of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is the unsettled, unsettling wisdom of Jim Casy, a wildly compassionate, erstwhile preacher whose faith, like the hopes of so many in dustbowl Oklahoma, has died on the vine.

The film opens as Tom (played by Henry Fonda), returning from prison, happens upon his former pastor (played by John Carradine)

Tom: Why you’re the preacher!
Casy: Used to be. Not no more. I lost the call. But boy, I sure used to have it! I’d get an irrigation ditch so squirmin’ full of repented sinners I pretty near drowned half of ‘em! But not no more. I lost the sperit.
Tom: Pa always said you was never cut out to be a preacher.
Casy: I got nothin’ to preach about no more–that’s all. I ain’t so sure o’ things.

“I ain’t so sure o’ things.” At one point, Casy had been sure. He could preach and baptize, then. But somehow he lost the call, lost the “sperit.” Like Samson, he awoke one day to find his strength gone. And like St. Augustine, he found he had become to himself a land of difficulty (Conf. 10.25).

I ast myself—what is this call, the Holy Sperit? Maybe that’s love. Why, I love everybody so much I’m fit to bust sometimes! So maybe there ain’t no sin an’ there ain’t no virtue. There’s just what people do. Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice. But that’s as far as any man’s got a right to say.

His unsure-of-himself-ness shows itself again when the Joad tribe, resting in an overnight camp, first learns that California may not be the Promised Land they need it to be. After hearing one of the other campers recount his horrible testimony—he said he’d lost his wife and that his children had starved to death while he looked in vain for work—, Pa asks Tom and Casy if they think the story is true.

Casy: He’s tellin’ the truth awright. The truth for him. He wasn’t makin’ nothin’ up.
Tom: How about us? Is that the truth for us?
Casy: I don’t know.

Later, after they’ve arrived in California and discovered the hard reality, Casy tries to convince Tom to join the workers’ strike. Tom refuses, and Casy responds: “Got to learn, like I’m a-learnin’. Don’t know it right yet myself, but I’m tryin’ to fin’ out. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preacher got to know. I don’t. I got to ask.”

***

In his state of unbelief, Casy refuses to act the part of “the preacher.” Early in the first act, when Tom and Casy arrive at the family house, Tom handles the introductions:

Tom: This is Muley Graves. You remember the preacher, don’t you?
Casy: I ain’t no preacher anymore.
Tom: All right, you remember the man then.

When Grampa dies on the journey West, Tom asks him to offer a final prayer over the body. But he protests: “I ain’t no more a preacher, you know.” At last he relents, and offers the only kind of prayer he can give:

This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ jus’ died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, an’ it don’t matter much. Heard a fella say a poem once, an’ he says, “All that lives is holy.” But I wouldn’t pray for jus’ a ol’ man that’s dead, because he’s awright. If I was to pray I’d pray for the folks that’s alive an’ don’t know which way to turn. Grampa here, he ain’t got no more trouble like that. He’s got his job all cut out for ‘im—so cover ‘im up and let ‘im get to it.

Ironically, Casy’s uncertainty has put him in touch with his neighbors’ plight, those like sheep without a shepherd who “don’t know which way to turn.” Losing “the Holy Sperit,” and refusing conventional morality, has somehow made him more aware of what others have lost, what others are losing. His unsure-of-himself-ness empowers him to give himself to others, and for them.

When Tom defies a deputy who’s attempting to arrest a fellow worker on false charges, and then trips him so that he cannot shoot the man as he’s escaping, Casy offers to take his place. Al Joad, Tom’s little brother, wonders why Casy would do such a thing

Casy: Somebody got to take the blame. They just got to hang it on somebody, you know. An’ I ain’t doin’ nothin’ but set around.
Al: But ain’t no reason—
Casy: Lissen. I don’t care nothin’ about you, but if you mess in this your whole fambly li’ble to get in trouble, an’ Tom get sent back to the penitentiary.
Al. Okay. I think you’re a darn fool, though.
Casy: Sure. Why not?

The holy fools of the Christian monastic tradition are “unserious selves,” “practicing ignorance, intentionally making themselves foreign to themselves and others in order to expose the vanity and abusiveness of the status quo. They have no time to know if they are good or who they really are. Their lives are a secret even to themselves.”[1] Casy is at least an unholy fool.

***

He dies under a bridge. As the deputies approach, intending to arrest him and to break the strike, he raises his hands and his voice in protest: “Listen, you fellas. You don’t know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids.”

“You don’t know what you’re doin.’” He dies with Christ’s words on his lips, advocating for the least of these, for the poor of the land. Just because he had so long been unsure of himself, he recognized the blind cruelty of California’s police and wealthy landowners. He knew he didn’t know what he was doing—and so he recognized those who truly didn’t know what they were doing. In The Grapes of Wrath, as in John 9, it is the blind who see and only those who think they see are blind.

In the end, Tom muses to his mother: “That Casy. He might a been a preacher, but—he seen a lot a things clean. He was like a lantern—he helped me see things too.” The irony is intense. Casy is Christlike—but queerly so. In an awkward reversal of what Jesus says of himself in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk. 4.18-19a), it seems that Casy only comes to care for the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed after he loses “the Holy Sperit.” “Casy never recovers [his] lost faith.”[2] But it is not right to say that loss leaves him “bereft.” As Tom’s remark to his mother reveals, Casy lived and died as a “preacher.” Against all expectations, he fulfilled the calling he believed he had lost. His likeness to Christ was kept from him—and precisely because it was hidden from him, he could be like Christ for others. As his awareness of his own faith decreased, his actual faithfulness increased. Like the holy fools, he gave up on “holy living” and “being good,” and just in that way gave himself to the holy and sanctifying work of caring for “the least of these.”

I’m not arguing, of course, that The Grapes of Wrath means Casy to be taken as a holy or unholy fool. But I am arguing that it means for him to be the moral center of the story. I am arguing that it means for him to be taken as a kind of inside-out “Christ figure.” I am arguing that it wants us to see that his Christlikeness could come only in his insecurity, his unsure-of-himself-ness. And, finally, I am arguing that we have something to learn from this example. Perhaps, at times, some of us find and fulfill our purpose only by “losing” what seems to be our calling. (Think, for another example, of Simone Weil refusing to be baptized.) Casy’s story resonates not only with the holy fool tradition but also with our holy-roller tradition—the very one that he (seemingly) abandoned. We of all people should know that the Spirit is not so easy to escape. Even when it seems she’s departed, she remains. Through it all, she persists. The Spirit abides.

_______________________________________

[1] Andrew Thomas, “The Holy Fools: A Theological Enquiry,” PhD Thesis, University of Nottingham; available online: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/10797/1/The_Holy_Fools_A_Theological_Enquiry.pdf; accessed: February 18, 2018.

[2] Douglas Walrath, Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 275.

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Author: Chris EW Green

Associate Professor of Theology Pentecostal Theological Seminary

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