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Early in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, a preacher named Jim Casy explains his calling and conversion to a new kind of social gospel:
"I says, 'What's this call, this sperit?' An' I says, 'It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust, sometimes.' An' I says, 'Don't you love Jesus?' Well, I thought an' thought, an' finally I says, 'No, I don't know nobody name' Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people. An' sometimes I love 'em fit to bust, an' I want to make 'em happy, so I been preachin' somepin I thought would make 'em happy.'"
These words are relevant to future struggles of the migrant workers depicted later in the book. The relevance of Casy’s words includes the following:
- Casy has adopted a kind of religious calling that distinguishes him from traditional, conventional preachers of the Christian religion. Such traditional preachers were often seen as representatives and defenders of the very persons who helped oppress migrant workers. Rather than serving the institutional church, with which he has no affiliation, Casy instead serves his own conscience and, through such service, also tries to serve people who are unfortunate and downtrodden. He tries to live by the spirit of Christianity rather than according to its mere letter. He tries to serve less by preaching and teaching than by his active, individual example.
- The fact that Casy identifies the spirit of religion with “love” suggests that to him doctrinal and denominational differences between or within religions are less important than what they have in common, which he associates with charity in the fullest senses of that word.
- It’s important to note that Casy says he loves “people,” not groups. In other words, he tends to think of “people” as individual persons. After all, he doesn’t say that he loves “the people” (a phrase with definite political overtones); instead, he says he loves “people.”
- Casy does not stress that he loves “Jesus”; rather, he stresses that he loves “people,” whom Jesus (according to Christian theology) came to redeem. Casy’s focus is not on a figure who might be identified with the remote past or with some supernatural realm; instead, his focus is on loving actual human persons in the here-and-now.
- Casy’s words will later seem ironic when we see how brutally he is treated by the forces of oppression. Jim Casy has often been seen as a symbol in the novel of Jesus Christ, as even the initials of his name would suggest. Like Jesus, Casy preaches a doctrine of love and, like Jesus, he dies a brutal death as a result. By depicting Casy’s violent death, Steinbeck may be implying that more practical, worldly means will be necessary if the struggles of the migrant workers are ever to prove successful.
Something extra: The Grapes of Wrath invites attention from the point of view of Marxist literary criticism. Marxist critics believe that the ideal purpose of literature is to help change and improve society, partly by depicting abuses of economic and social power and thereby arousing resistance to such abuses. Casy is an intriguing figure in Steinbeck’s book. His presence in the book suggests how much social progress might be achieved if everyone embraced Casy’s views. However, his vicious murder at the end of the book may suggest that a simple gospel of mere love is not enough if the struggle of such persons as the migrant workers is to succeed.
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