On preachers, knowledge, and certainty

“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.”

Many of you who do not know me personally may not be aware that I am currently enrolled in a college education program preparing for a degree in English education (6-12). As a part of my studies, I am taking a survey course in U.S. literature from 1900, and the material for this course steered me in the direction of John Steinbeck’s classic work The Grapes of Wrath and to an interesting quote in the 1940 movie adaptation of the book.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, a brief synopsis: the book follows the plight of the Joads, a sharecropper family pushed off their lands as a result of the Depression and the “dust bowl” that gripped U.S. agriculture in a vice during the 30’s. Tom Joad is the protagonist who is primarily followed in the story, and he spends some time at the beginning of the novel with a former preacher by the name of Jim Casy. There are many things that could be said about Casy relevant to this blog – for instance, he is largely considered to symbolize religion in the work, supported by his shared initials with Christ, his former profession, and the fact that he stands up for the weak and oppressed as a moral activist of sorts. Instead, I want to look at how he is portrayed in the movie adaptation of this work.

One of the turning points of the movie comes when the Joad family goes to work at a peach farm that is exploiting other “Okies” by paying them incredibly low for their work. Tom runs into Casy outside the ranch where many Okie families were picketing the ranch’s low wages, where Casy explains to Tom the importance of not taking the jobs for the sake of their people. In explaining this, Casy lets out the quote given at the beginning of the entry, a thought-provoking commentary on the perception of religious clergy.

It is of course not true that this perception is universal, but I think it interesting enough to stop and think about for a moment. Why should we esteem unwavering knowledge in clergy? Do we do this without thinking? For those who think there is a degree of deserved respect in someone’s ordination or position, consider why that would be the case. Is it because they have some pipeline to God that the average layperson does not? Is it because they have been trained at religious disciplines? These ideas seem to be difficult for me to reconcile with my personal convictions about God, knowledge, and belief itself.

So, rather than tell you, the reader, what I think, I want to leave this open-ended: Can preachers ask questions? Is there a problem if so? And most importantly, what kind of a worldview can one have without questions?

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