The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—The Religion of I Don’t Know

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In the story of the Joads, unlike the story of Job, the whirlwind comes at the beginning.

The Grapes of Wrath (the film based on the John Steinbeck novel) tells the story of a poor Oklahoma family whose way of life is literally blown away by the winds of the Dust Bowl. The combination natural/manmade disaster of the plains in the 1930s resulted from unsustainable farming practices that left the soil no longer able to withstand wind erosion during drought. Dust storms left farms no longer productive in the Oklahoma panhandle and elsewhere, forcing sharecropper “Okies” to flee the land they knew in search of better prospects somewhere else in Depression America. The name Joad is a barely veiled allusion that the suddenness and totality of the losses befalling this family find their comparison in the losses inflicted upon the character from the Bible.

Except that this film also echoes another ancient work, because Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is Job on an Odyssey. Holding together a nearly destitute family that includes elderly, children, and his pregnant sister, he drives them all across country by jalopy in a quest not toward home or even a new home, but toward the hope (a hope that decreases as they proceed toward it and learn more along the way) of wage-paying manual labor in California. But this story does indeed involve Job on the Odyssey-like quest, not Odysseus, because in this quest there is no sense of adventure or valor, just the desperation of declining options. Answering a remark about his bravery in setting out with failing truck across the southwestern desert, Tom says: “Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

The spiritual guide for this journey is Jim Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher who “lost the spirit,” by which he means he lost the feeling of conviction that what he was preaching has any worth. We first encounter Casy contentedly singing a song with the refrain, “He’s my savior.” It’s just that Casy no longer considers himself knowledgeable about that savior, nor about the Creator’s desire for him or others in this world. Late in the film, he says, “Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’. I don’t know it right yet myself. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preachers gotta know. I don’t know. I gotta ask.” I loved this character. I loved him because the soft-spoken Carradine plays him gracefully, but also because “I gotta ask” is where I find myself. In matters related to my Christian faith, I gotta ask, and in the face of those possessed of a feeling of conviction, the questions can come off as impertinent.

Carradine and Fonda as Casy and Joad
The Joads ultimately go the way of Jim Casy in regard to their hope about their own destiny. This is the victory the story gives them—freedom from the investment of desire and expectation in a particular outcome, meaning freedom from fear about that outcome, and freedom from despair if the hoped-for outcome doesn’t come. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) proves to be the strength of the family after Tom has gone. She sees him off when he must flee because he has become a fugitive after killing a man in self-defense. On their way without Tom to another job opportunity, reacting to other family members’ excitement over the promise of 20 days of work picking cotton, she says: “Maybe 20 days’ work and maybe no days work. We aint got it ’til we get it.” But there is no despair in this, only acceptance. She goes on:

“Pa, a woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta—well, in jerks. Baby’s born or somebody dies, and that’s a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that’s a jerk. With a woman, it’s all in one flow, like a stream—little eddies and waterfalls—but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it thata way.” 

She is contrasting a man and a woman, but she is describing just as much the arrival at a faith like Casy’s, a faith of “I don’t know.”

This, too, is reminiscent of the biblical book of Job. I’ve been writing about Job in previous posts. The book of Job is most significantly a book about a change in religion—a change in human understanding and expectations regarding God. The friends of Job in this book view God through the lens of earthly reward and retribution. God rewards those who are faithful to him, and God brings loss and hardship to those who displease him—that is their view. But the problem is: Job has been faithful to God, and Job is suffering. The religion of Job’s friends ultimately fails.

God appearing in a whirlwind at the end of the book of Job reveals a different religion to them. He asks 66 questions about the nature of the world and the means of its creation, to not one of which is Job or anyone present able to give an answer.

In the whirlwind, there is God. The religion of “I don’t know” has mystery at its heart, but not absence. Casy still sang of his savior. The religion of “I don’t know” finds its solace in the faith that God does know.

Job Has a Christian Message

Job was rich and healthy when he was obedient to God. God then allowed his health and his riches to be taken away.

Later, in the gospels, Jesus would make clear, “In this world, you will have trouble.” He said this to his disciples, the ones following him. In short, following Jesus does nothing to take trouble away.

Many who doubt God bring attention to the problem of suffering. They are missing the bigger problem: prosperity. If God allows someone who believes in him to do well, then what is the basis for belief?

God himself ought to be the motive for obeying God. God himself ought to be the reward for seeking God.

Job’s life was pruned down to get to this very point, to show this. We do not live within a rewards system. We live within a cosmos at the heart of which is our Creator.

Does Satan Appear in the Story of Job?

In his commentary on the book of Job, Hebrew Union College professor John Walton argues that Satan does not appear in the book. Or at least he does not necessarily appear. Walton says we have mistranslated the term hassatan in Job chapters 1 and 2 into the well-known proper name. A more fitting translation would be “challenger.” In other words, rather than Satan visiting the court of the Lord, what we see instead in Job 1-2 is simply an unnamed heavenly figure who is given license to address and question the Lord. This figure might be Satan, but the text offers no confirmation of this. Thus, there is not necessarily any component of evil or malice in the suffering that befalls Job.

Does this change to the set-up of the story change our sense of Job’s meaning?

Answer: This change actually serves to highlight the meaning that the set-up itself offers.

Because we are human beings fearful of suffering, we get caught up in this aspect of the story of Job and assume that this is what the story is about. In fact, the “challenge” that the challenger offers in Job 1-2 is not literally concerned with suffering. That is not the issue at stake. The issue at stake is instead the more problematic matter of pleasure, of comfort. Job is faithful, the challenger points out, but isn’t he simply faithful because he enjoys his comforts and his pleasures? If so, then the reason for Job’s faithfulness is Job himself, not God.

This point is frequently lost. The book of Job is frequently misrepresented and misconstrued as a work offering explanation and solace to those who suffer. But sufferers searching its text for that explanation or solace will not find it. Most of the text of the long work consists of assertions that are wrong, as the various characters assert their faulty explanations for Job’s predicament. Then, when God himself appears at the end, he has much to say, but he does not give Job any explanation for what has happened to him.

The book of Job is instead a work that argues against something far more than it argues for something.

The book argues against the position that we ought to see our misfortunes as punishment by God and our riches as favor by God. Neither is true. That is not what God is about; that is not how he runs his universe. The challenger was pointing out that, by making Job happy and rich, God was leaving room for Job to assume that this principle of reward-for-faithfulness really is the way the world works. The challenger was pointing out that God had left this false idea unaddressed in the way he ordered events. Thus, though Job faced trials within the book of Job, he was not the one being put on trial.

Job: A Dialog


THE SCENE:

Job was a prosperous and happy man, and he was obedient to God. Satan said: If I make him suffer, he will turn from you.

God said: I give you permission. 

Satan took Job’s wealth and family from him, replaced his health with disease, and reduced him to utter misery until he was filthy and sitting in a heap, scratching his sores with pottery shards.

Three friends came to find him in his state: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. A young man was with them, too. They all came and sat with him for seven silent days until the silence was broken.

Job
It would have been better for me if I had never been born.

Eliphaz
God is just. To lament is to forget this. He is just disciplining you, but in the end he will take care of you because you are faithful.

Job
I don't have infinite capacity to keep hoping; this is so much more that I can bear that I wish to die. If this is discipline, what have I done to bring it?

Bildad
If you earnestly seek God, if you are pure, he will fix this.

Job
God and I are not in an argument, as if this was man to man. He has made a judgment out of a context only he understands. There is no appeal I could make that he doesn't already know I’m able to do. Whatever capacity I have to make an appeal is because he gave it to me! And right now I have no such capacity. I am beset by what God has done to me, and there is nothing I can do.

Zophar
You are refusing to see what God has for you in this. Open your heart and surrender to him, instead of judging this experience as undeserved, and you will be at peace and no longer know the suffering of this.

Job
It is easy for those who are not suffering to say there is a meaning in suffering. And anyway, here I am asking: God, what have I done to deserve all of this?

Eliphaz
Who are you to say these things? What we are saying is what the elders and those before us have always believed.

Job
You are turning against me because you do not want to admit what I now know about God.

Bildad
The unrighteous man does indeed come to suffering.

Job
I stand on the knowledge that I have done nothing to merit this. In the midst of all this, still I will recognize God when I see him in the flesh. Beware: You are calling me unrighteous in my suffering because it flatters you and saves you from having to wade into my suffering with me.

Zophar
No, this is the way the world has always been. God sees that the wicked men suffer.

Job
Never mind me—look at the world. Are the wicked really suffering? Is what you are saying observably true? (No, it is not. The wicked are untroubled.)

Eliphaz
God does not owe you an answer for your suffering; it doesn’t help him if you are corrected. I will answer: Your wickedness is as great as your wealth once was, because this is the wealth you withheld from others. Admit this, turn to God, and you will know peace.

Job
How do I turn to him? Where is he? I thought I was following in his ways and I still think this. Suddenly I am suffering. Where is God’s teaching to us even in the ways he does deal with the wicked? They go down to the peace of death and are forgotten just as everyone else.

Bildad
What could you even say to make the claim you are justified before one such as God?

Job
I know only this: I am innocent. I will not repudiate that knowledge just because I am suffering, and I have been given the fate suited to wicked men. God, if I have done something against you or your ways, show me.

Elihu
I am young. I’ve been sitting here listening to you older men, but I can’t keep my silence anymore. Job, you say God is unjust in letting you suffer? God is gracious in all the transgressions he overlooks and all the comfort he provides. You say God is not answering you? You are not listening to the ways in which God speaks.

God (to Job)
You say you have a question for me. Here are my questions to you....

Job
“I had heard rumors about you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

God (to Eliphaz)
I am angry with you and your friends. Job spoke the truth about me as best he knew it. You falsely claimed understanding of me you do not possess.

FADE OUT.

The ending of life defines the quality of life. The worst suffering Satan can inflict comes to an end, and Job saw God within it.

The Answer is 66 Questions

The most obvious objection to belief in God has apparently always been an obvious objection. I can say this because one of the very earliest books in the Bible is dedicated to addressing that argument.

The objection is this: If God is good, then why does he allow bad to happen?  If God is just, then why does he allow innocent people to suffer?

The book of the Bible addressing this question is Job. Dating the book is impossible, because there is not enough historical context within its writings to confidently anchor it in time. It was written something like 3,000 years ago, and quite possibly it was written before the books attributed to Moses were written, including Genesis. The questions the Book of Job addresses are that fundamental and that old.

Summarizing the book is difficult. It is an epic involving no physical passage, but instead a journey through arguments and ideas. A group of friends surrounds a suffering man, Job, and in their conversation they seek to both console him and guide him by exploring different explanations for his suffering.

Many of the explanations rely upon or swerve near to this premise: Job is suffering because he has sinned against God in some way of which he is not aware.

Job rejects this premise. His response repeatedly insists on this point: He has not sinned; he has been as obedient to God as he could be. If God is just, where is his justice?

God joins the conversation at the very end of Job, in one of the most dramatic scenes in scripture.

God’s answer refutes the friends’ premise along with the very foundation of their spiritual assumptions. In essence, God’s answer refutes their religion. The Creator is NOT authoring the events of this world as a means of reward or punishment for those who please or displease him. Such is not the nature of this world and such is not the nature of God.

God does not connect to retribution. That is not the means of knowing him.

Rather, God connects to wisdom. The workings of his plans, and what he understands about his plans, are vastly greater than we are able to know or even define with our questioning.

God appears to Job and his arguing friends as a whirlwind. In entering the conversation, how can he communicate the understanding that is missing to humans who can’t even understand the understanding?  How can he communicate the vastness of the unknown unknowns?

He does this by asking questions. In the climactic passage of Job, God says, essentially: “You are trying to analyze and critique my choices with your questioning? Well then, I have some questions for you....”

There are about 66 questions in all. The tally actually depends on which questions the reader includes in this line of argument and also depends on where the punctuation is placed. There is no science in the questions, as that was not their purpose. That is, there is no meteorology (hail is not kept in a storehouse) and there is no zoology (Behemoth and Leviathan do not exist). Instead, God was speaking to a group of ancient men by coming down to the level of what these men knew or thought they knew. If he spoke to us, he would step down into our flawed understanding in just the same way.

In the biblical text depicting the scene, the questions all flow together. I have not previously seen the questions anywhere listed out, as though to itemize all that God cared to mention regarding what he knows that human beings do not. To appreciate the size of God’s answer to the idea that he ought to conform to our expectations, consider that any one of the 66 questions would be a reasonable retort.

Adapted from Job 38-41, here is what God asked.

Something Else About “The African Queen”

As part of my 20th Century Film Project, I just posted an article about The African Queen.

One other point to observe about this movie: Nowhere does the film see any conflict between Rose Sayer’s (Katharine Hepburn’s) calling as a missionary and her desire to attack a German gunboat during World War I after the Germans invaded and cleared the African village where she and her brother had ministered.

I believe the expectation today would be that a character presented as a missionary ought to be entirely a person of peace, without any thought to attack, even as a counter-offensive. That would be my expectation. If this movie had been made today, it would have required at least a line of dialogue to explain or at least highlight the seeming contradiction between Sayer’s faith and her violent aim.

But no such line of dialog exists in The African Queen. The audience at the time apparently did not need or expect this.

The time of the film’s release was 1951. Even though it was a movie about World War I, it was shown to people just several years past World War II. Presumably, everyone in the theater therefore had squarely confronted war and its various moral choices, in many cases because they held someone dear who had gone to war. And presumably, everyone in the theater also knew or was aware of a religious man or clergy member who had joined the war alongside other citizens.

I realize that this will be an ongoing theme as I continue to watch these movies. Watching the films of the 20th century will consist in no small part of seeing stories that are shaded to various degrees by the long shadow cast by World War II. Just four movies into the project, the shadow of this war can already be seen across two of them.

The African Queen (1951)—Hope Aims Downriver

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Charlie Allnut was doing all right. The character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart owned the boat after which the movie takes its name, The African Queen. We find him at the beginning of the film contentedly making a life for himself by delivering mail and supplies up and down the Ulanga River in German East Africa (now Tanzania). He was always sweaty, his clothes were always dirty, but life was good. Then along came a woman: Methodist missionary Rose Sayer, portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. She watched as German soldiers destroyed the village and drove away the villagers to whom she and her brother had ministered. She watched later as this act led to her brother dying in despair. Whereas Allnut wanted to flee on his boat and hide from the German soldiers now moving aggressively among them (that is, he wanted to wait out World War I), Miss Sayer had a different idea. She aimed to strike a blow against this enemy. And she lured Allnut into this aim, first playing on his politeness, then winning his full commitment to her and to her costly and perilous plan.

In that plot synopsis that filled the preceding paragraph, we can readily see the turning point. “Along came a woman.” How many stories go this way? In the Bible, in Genesis, the very first story involving human beings seemed to go this way. How many lives of would-be Charlie Allnuts go this way as well? Or, more accurately, seem to do so? Because in fact there is something more than this going on.

Sayer’s plan was to use Allnut’s boat to liberate a downriver lake from German control, by ramming the gunboat patrolling the lake with explosive charges mounted on The African Queen’s hull. In short, her plan involved taking the very means and context of Allnut’s comfort and consuming it to achieve her ends. The story becomes even more familiar still! Allnut/Bogart went along with the plan at first only because it was a direction in which to head, a way to placate her. He thought the apparent impossibility of navigating the river and its rapids to reach the gunboat-patrolled lake would dissuade her. Significantly, though, it did not. So as they progressed, as they survived and made it through rapids, he began to be moved by the power of what they were able to do together. And just as significantly, he knew something about that former life of contentment. He was aware of something about that life, even if he didn’t admit it to himself.

Hepburn and Bogart as Sayer and Allnut
What he knew was this: That life he formerly enjoyed was going to be lost anyway. Eventually, the rickety boat would fail. Eventually, he would become too old to keep on doing battle with its steam engine to keep it moving. The engine might explode. And before all of that, the Germans might discover him and seize him. As he made clear in his argument for hiding, the soldiers coveted his boat for what it contained, the supplies and hardware that their commanders far away would be slow in sending them. In short, what we have is not ours indefinitely—and frequently, it is not even ours for very long.

Meanwhile, Sayer/Hepburn began to show Allnut the way to overcome seemingly insurmountable failures. That is, she began to show him his capacity to overcome them. The boat’s shaft and propeller were damaged in a collision. Deep in the jungle, with no access to a forge or machine tools, repair of these items seemed impossible. But was it? She helped him challenge his doubts and fear, bringing him to the realization that, for forging, all he really needed was a bellows. He could combine this with local fire-making methods he had seen. And after forging—heating the shaft and straightening it—he was able to passably weld the blade. All of this took time given the poor resources in the wilds, but through encouragement, she kept him patiently at it, a bellows for the flame of his own flickering courage.

It is striking that she is presented to us a missionary, as one led by faith. Her hope makes no sense otherwise. Allnut/Bogart is of this world, and thus caught in the world’s futility. Since this world is entirely finite, it is no wonder that he, or any of us, succumb to expecting that its successes will prove too scant and our aims will fail us. But Sayer/Hepburn is aware of something larger. Her outlook reminds me of a quote I once copied into my notebook out of a far different story, the science fiction novel Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright. In this book, the character Raina speaking to her love Montrose says:

“Our options are to act as if the unknown will bring us evil, which is the response called fear; or to act as if the unknown will bring us good, which is the response called hope. The first response is certainly self-fulfilling; the second may be.”

We all know the real-life vessel for which The African Queen is a symbol. In a million different real-life stories, the quest two people have been caught up in, the rickety boat they are steering together, is a shared life, a life of mutual devotion, possibly with children and most certainly with unexpected problems, the aim and the challenge being to see it all through into the children’s adulthood and into the trials of old age.

Hepburn and Bogart’s plan fails in the end, sort of. Their boat doesn’t make it all the way. The veiled analogy of the film has its veil torn off at the end of the story when the two, now lovers, appeal to the German ship captain to pronounce them husband and wife just before he places the nooses on their neck to execute them.

They do not die. The movie gives us an improbable happy ending. I am OK with that. The story arc of the Bible delivers an improbable happy ending as well.

And these two characters deserve to have their story vindicated. After all, the story began so simply, so unassumingly. The story began with the heroine asking her hero, essentially, “Can’t we just go downriver and do the impossible?”

[PS. It didn’t make it into the post you just read, but I also thought of something else about The African Queen.]