In a few moments I shall walk my paper across the green and hand it in well before tomorrow's deadline. It feels very good to have everything out of the way.
Just in case my readers were excited with the previous post, here is another sample of what I do here. It's shorter if that's an consolation--though I full do not expect anyone to actually read it all :) And to all a Good night.
Critique of a Faith: Black Christianity and Modernity
In contrast to the antebellum and immediate post-bellum period, the advent of the civil rights era brought with it alternative models of black religiosity. These worldviews did not necessarily include the traditional elements and beliefs of Christianity which had buttressed black religious life and provided a nexus pf community. In this essay, I will compare and contrast the writings of James Baldwin and Octavia Butler to explore three major themes in this latter portion of the course. First, I examine the limitations of black Christianity, exploring Baldwin and Butler’s critique of its communal conversion experience and the demands it places on personal morality. Second, I revisit the relevance of black Christianity in light of modernity and social change, arguing that Baldwin and Butler find it particularly ill suited to mitigate contemporary issues of theodicy. Finally, I explore the viability of black Christianity amid emerging worldviews, analyzing the positions of Baldwin and Butler, which suggest black Christianity’s salience depends on answering questions of God’s existence and realness.
Limitations of black Christianity
On the more interesting limitations of black Christianity explored by Baldwin and Butler deals with the limited nature of the communal conversion experience. Activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. utilized this communal nature as a battle cry in rallying the black community to arms against segregation. In his renowned “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King states of the black church, “They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the south on tortuous rides for freedom,” (King 1999, p.532). In rallying the churches to his cause, King was able to use the religious community as a key instrument in the struggle for social justice.
In contrast, Baldwin and Butler critique the black church for the very communal nature King praised. Beginning first with Baldwin, he writes, “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father…not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late,” (Baldwin 1981, p.11). From the first lines of Baldwin’s book we see the elements of critique forming. In these remarks, Baldwin makes two indictments on the black church. The first is that the communal nature of the church lends itself toward shallow faith. We see this in John’s assumption that he was going to be a preacher only because it was expected by his religious community. The second indictment is that the leadership of the black church was unreflective. John, a potential church leader, gave no serious consideration to his future leadership role. Later, when John seriously considers whether or not he wants to lead, his feelings toward the church are ambiguous and mixed.
Lest the issue of John’s conversion seem unresolved, Baldwin is sure to include the command-control nature in which John embraced belief at the novels end. He writes, “And his father looked on him. His father’s eyes looked down on him…stripped him naked, and hated what they saw. And as he turned, screaming…all departed from his vision as though he had gone blind,” (Baldwin 1981, p.196). This selection describes the conditions under which John Grimes came to belief. Baldwin’s critique is that his conversion is anticipated. There was no real choice in the matter because the black church and the black community expected his leadership ascension. Moreover, John’s father, a minister, mandated his cooperation for the benefit of the community. In this way, the communal nature of the church is critiqued because there is no personal adjudication of belief.
Similarly, Butler’s character is also pressed to make a religious decision for the sake of her community. Butler writes of Lauren Olamina, “Tomorrow is our birthday—my fifteenth and my father’s fifty-fifth. Tomorrow, I’ll try to please him—him and the community and God,” (Butler 1993, p.3). Here, Lauren references her religious expectations passed down from her father, and the community he leads as a pastor. This conversion is limited, however, because it is only an outward attempt to pacify her community. Lauren writes of this effort:
“At least three years ago, my father’s God stopped being my God. His church stopped being my church. And yet, today, because I’m a coward, I left myself be initiated into that church. I let my father baptize me in all three names of that God who isn’t mine any more,” (Butler 1993, p.6).
Butler’s critique is very clear. The communal nature of the black conversion experience is shallow and a hindrance to the development of individual religiosity. Unlike John Grimes, who converted in deference to his community, Lauren Olamina’s conversion is anything but deferential. While she accepts her outward attempt to pacify others, she inwardly rejects the God of her father. Like John she tries to please her father, but her conversion is empty.
Another interesting limitation of black Christianity explored by Baldwin and Butler is the emphasis it places on personal morality. Baldwin’s character Gabriel embodies this emphasis and the complexities it presents. Baldwin writes, “So he had fallen: for the first time since his conversion, for the last time in his life…Fallen indeed: time was no more, and sin and death, Hell, the judgment were blotted out. There was only Esther,” (Baldwin 1981, p.126). In this instance, Gabriel struggles with the sexual limitations placed on him by his religious beliefs and his resultant sin of infidelity with Esther. The message Baldwin delivers is that the natural feelings of sexual attraction are met with intense moral strictures within the worldview of black Christianity. Here, the protagonist’s father, a leader in his community, struggled openly with the moral demands of his beliefs.
But the struggle is not limited to this—Baldwin’s critique goes further. He writes, “And Gabriel, scarcely believing that John could have become so braze, stared in wrath and horror at Elizabeth’s presumptuous bastard boy, grown suddenly so old in evil…then he said, soundlessly, with his lips: “kneel down,”” (Baldwin 1981, p.150). In this brief exchange as the characters kneel before the altar, it is evident that in addition to struggling with his own morality, Gabriel also struggles with his own hypocrisy. For Gabriel, his presumptive heir apparent represents his opportunity to seek moral perfection by prosecuting the sins of his step-son with a vengeance. In Baldwin’s view, the tension between Gabriel and John Grimes embodies the author’s personal grappling with the high moral demands of black Christianity, and the inevitable failure of mortal man who can not meet its tenants and expectations.
Butler’s critique of black Christianity deals with similar issues of personal morality. She writes, “Keith had to confess what he had done this morning at church. He had to stand up in front of the whole congregation and tell them everything, including what the five thugs had done to him,” (Butler 1993, p.81). Here, Butler objects to the black church and its function as a forum for communal adjudication of personal sin. Keith’s confession was less an effort to teach him a personal lesson, and more an attempt to reach the community who would learn from his mistakes (Butler 1993, p.81). This trend is also seen in her treatment of sexuality. She writes:
“Best of all he took a lot of uncomplicated pleasure in my body, and I got to share it with him. It isn’t often that I can enjoy the good side of my hyperempathy. I let the sensation take over, intense and wild. I might be more in danger of having a heart attack than he is. How had I done without this for so long,” (Butler 1993, p. 238).
The open gratification Lauren takes in sex with Bankole is interestingly juxtaposed with the attempt to demonize Keith before the community. The obvious contrast, and the heart of Butler’s critique, is that Christian salvation actually perpetuates black humiliation, while wanton sin is more pleasurable, right and in keeping with natural human instinct.
The relevance of black Christianity
A second, major theme of the course was the re-visitation of black Christianity’s relevance in mitigating contemporary issues of theodicy. Baldwin and Butler address the issue in very different ways. Baldwin’s exploration of theodicy is very much related to issues of social justice. He writes, “Richard ain’t robbed no store,” she said. “Tell me where he is.” “And I tell you,” he said, not smiling, “that your boyfriend robbed a store and he’s in jail for it. He’s going to stay there too—now, what you got to say to that,”” (Baldwin 1981, p.169). In this account of Richard’s dealings with racist police, Baldwin is careful to note the absence of Divine intervention. In this excerpt, readers are presented a situation in which Elizabeth, an innocent victim, endures not only this, but Richard’s suicide, despite a God who is supposed to be good, and just. This passage in particular resurrects the antebellum notion of Christianity being the religion of the master—not the slave. It makes use of the metaphor in that Elizabeth’s boyfriend is falsely incarcerated despite the northern promise land in which it is set. Baldwin’s critique is that as a worldview Christianity is no longer well suited to advance social justice.
Butler’s treatment of theodicy deals less with such concrete issues as racism and instead explores conceptually the consequences of socio-economic depression. Of the people surrounding Lauren’s neighborhood, she writes, “Crazy to live without a wall to protect you. Even in Robledo…They’re desperate or crazy or both. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous,” (Butler 1993, p.9). In his lucid analysis of Butler’s text, Peter Stillman notes that Butler’s world is a reversal of the contemporary American experience. Instead of a United States that is dominant in the world, Canada is a haven of sorts given the internal divisions seen in the chaotic environment of Lauren’s neighborhood. Rather than people controlling their government, multinational corporations dominate American life leaving those outside the walls to scour for scant resources (Stillman 2003, p.18). Stillman adds that the opportunity for survival and betterment are gone from this America as “the traditional American route of individualism is closed almost entirely,” (Stillman 2003, p.18).
As articulated in the text and by Stillman, Butler’s world represents the absence of social justice. Her critique of black Christianity is that the basic tenants of the Protestant work ethnic are no longer practicable. The problem in Butler’s world is that the worldview of Christianity is obsolete. There is no getting ahead for the oppressed because of systemic challenges toward betterment. In essence, her critique is that God no longer cares to help the poor and oppressed who serve him, and that the only help one can expect is that which they provide themselves.
The viability of black Christianity
For Baldwin the viability of black Christianity depends on its ability to reconcile the need for the realness of God with everyday life. In his novel, Baldwin weds this issue to the problems he sees in social justice. Returning to the latter half of the citation made earlier, “She crumpled at once, hiding her face with one thin hand, and Aunt Florence moved to hold her up…then Roy sat up, and said in a shaking voice: “Don’t you slap my mother…you slap her again, you black bastard, and I swear to God I’ll kill you,” (Baldwin 1981, p.48). God’s realness is critiqued within this text. That God is seen as distant—not necessarily real or even interested in this tragedy—indicates the divorce of the Divine from the temporal. Put differently, in order for God to be real and to have a meaningful role among the lives of black people, the onus of responsibility is placed on the black church to account for these instances which conflict with logical conceptions of God’s being. This charge is no small task as Baldwin conflates the hypocrisy of church leadership with his critique of the church itself. The church leadership whose responsibility it is to make God salient is itself part of the problem. Alternative worldviews such as those expressed by Father Divine more directly addressed these types of issues. Viewing the issue theologically, Father Divine said, “The realness of god is mad real in your realness, and the realness of God is hid from you in your untruthfulness and in your unrealness,” (Major Jealous Divine 1999, p.478). Forthrightly the issue of God’s absence is attributed to the congregant. The problem is not that God is un-real but that untruthfulness prohibits individuals from experiencing him.
Butler, on the other hand, openly rejects black Christianity and its long term viability. In her novel, the notion that black Christianity is sustainable unquestionably dies when Lauren’s father disappears. In its place, she develops the notion that God is change as an alternative model. Butler writes, “God is change, and in the end, God does prevail. But we have something to say about the whens and the whys of that end,” (Butler 1993, p.265). Dear and Flusty analyze this Postmodern view through analysis of the environment which led to Lauren’s conclusion about God. They argue that the City of Los Angeles is a city with out definition—with no singularly identifiable characteristic (Dear & Flusty 1998, p.53). Bereft of identification, the world of Butler’s Los Angeles melds the postmodern absence of identification with the absence of God. Without a Christian God to impose order, the city itself becomes a haven for the undefined. This is seen in the very faces of the pyromaniacs who burn life and property to satiate their desire for fire. It is further striking that in the Dear and Flusty analysis, God is replaced with the "privatopia." Goodness and security yield to the empty presence of the absence of God. Rather than worshiping a static deity, Butler replaces God with the walled-community, a privatopia, where walls protect and secure. Eventually, these too fall toward the end of the novel. But what actually falls is not the community itself but the last vestiges of God as an omnipotent, omniscient being. This is replaced with Lauren’s instinct to survive and adapt to change, hence the notion that god is change. This view is affirmed by Jerry Phillips who argues that “As an exercise in utopianism after the end of utopia, Parable of the Sower aligns itself with both prophetic and postmodern values (Phillips 2002, p. 299). In conclusion, Butler’s position is that black Christianity as a worldview has already ceased to be relevant. God is no longer existent as such in her postmodern outlook. Instead, Butler’s message is that it is better to adopt the new God of change, than to allow conditions to worsen and forfeit the determination of your own life. In short, the absence of God means that the black Christianity is no longer relevant to the postmodern world. No where is this more poignantly demonstrated than in the final scene when Lauren flees. As the village burns, there is no realness of God—only the God of change who exacts his will as drug users and the faithful die and burn alike.
In sum, the writings of Baldwin and Butler offer much to the discussion of the limitations of black Christianity, its relevance in light of modernity and social change, and its long term viability amid emerging worldviews. Although their answers are not necessarily complimentary toward the black church, their perspectives offer a useful critique of religiosity and lay bare the raw emotions of a culture and people engaged in the process of self-definition and personal evaluation. Their critique forces individuals to re-consider the consequences of radical social change. While their view may be a bit myopic in its skepticism of religious belief, it does offer genuine questions of God’s realness and the ability of the church to meet the needs of its members. This introspection invites a reflective dialogue for religious institutions to consider as they move toward re-defining the role of the church in contemporary society.
Baldwin, James., Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Dell, 1981.
Butler, Octavia E., Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner, 1995.
Dear, Michael, & Flusty, Steven. “Postmodern Urbanism.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 88.1 (1998): 50-72.
Divine, Major Jealous,1936. “The Realness of God to you-wards…”In African American Religious History, a Documentary Witness. edited by Milton C.Sernett, 478-486. Durham: Duke, 1999.
King, Martin Luther, 1963. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” In African American
Religious History, a Documentary Witness. edited by Milton C. Sernett, 519-534. Durham: Duke, 1999.
Phillips, Jerry. “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction. Spring/Summer, 35.2/3(2002): 299-311.
Stillman, Peter. “Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler’s Parables.” Journal of Utopian Studies. 14.1 (2003): 15-21.