We human beings now have the power to exterminate ourselves; this seems to be the entire sum of our achievement. We have taken this journey and arrived at this place in God’s name. This, then, is the best that God (the white God) can do. If this is so, then it is time to replace Him -- replace him with what?
--James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Octavia Butler was one of the few African-American speculative fiction writers in a field that has been historically dominated by white men. Her contemporary fiction incorporated and re-affirmed the Black experience, while articulating visions of a future that addressed both hopes and concerns of the Black community. During the latter part of her career, Butler critically interrogated the role of religion in American society. Contrary to the dominant characterizations of the theological resonances of Butler’s fiction being indicative of New Age spirituality, her novels, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of Talents (1998), continue the tradition of Black theology’s call for civic responsibility and social activism. Through the creation of Earthseed, Butler’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, negotiates heightened class and racial antagonisms, the destruction of local communities, and government corruption. Her spirituality is essential in confronting and overcoming the harsh reality of twenty-first century America. Her spiritual revelation and anointing offers an alternative to the social, cultural, and spiritual nihilism that surrounds Lauren’s community of Robledo: mankind’s eventual conquest of the stars. And, this alternative future is based on understanding the teachings of Earthseed: God is change and each individual is responsible for change. Or, as Jacques Derrida succinctly argues, “[r]eligion is responsibility or it is nothing at all” (Acts of Religion 2).
Like Black theology, Earthseed operates in the larger theater of history. However, this is not the realm of the passive bystander; rather, it is a realm of subversion and signification that leads to self as well as social empowerment. Thus the “change” offered by Earthseed is not a call to save oneself, but a messianic call to redeem the world. However, the discourse of white academics has largely ignored the influence of African-American faith and spirituality in Butler’s fiction. By doing so, critics such as Rebecca Wanzo, Catherine Albanese, and Peter Stillman have inadvertently minimized not only the revolutionary and historical impact of the Black theological tradition but also they have overlooked valuable insights that Butler’s fiction provides about the use of religion as a means of self empowerment in the resistance of oppression.
Wanzo argues that “Earthseed: The Books of the Living reads as one of the New Age books that rapidly gained popularity in the 1990s and the post-millennium” (81). Similarly Albanese articulates, “[T]he classical New Age tradition depend[s] upon a notion of ‘flow,’ that meaning of New Age spirituality ‘must be grasped in metaphors, descriptions, and cultural practices that literally flow, go with the flow.’ The notions of flow and impermanence play a role in Earthseed, as does an end-times aura that informs most New Age philosophy” (306). While Wanzo and Albanese provide valid analyses of Earthseed as indicative of New Age spirituality, these critics ignore historical connections of Earthseed to Black theology. Even more problematically, critics have investigated and explored Earthseed as religion, while neglecting to question Butler’s use of Black theological traditions. Critic Peter Stillman contends, “Earth seed is a religion, a belief system, and a world view. It begins as Olamina’s responses to the problems in Robledo. Many in her father’s generation (and hers) wish to restore what had been or to hang on to what they have, but Olamina sees that her neighborhood, city, and country are in the midst of a long-term, irreversible transformation. Her father’s Christian God does not speak to her in this changing world, where people’s prayers go unanswered, God’s mercy is mocked by private power and ecological decay” (25). Earthseed offers a God and religion of change actively involved in the world through a reliance on and investment in human agency as well as autonomy.
Although Stillman rightly contends that Earthseed is a religion that embraces a changing world, his argument obscures the connections between Earthseed and the Black theological tradition. Earthseed’s God is not a new creation but, rather, derives from Black theology and as such inherits key theological elements. Psychologist Silvan Tomkins argues that God "is a derivative construct. Man first conceives the ideal of himself as all-powerful because he has wants which he cannot entirely fulfill. He wishes to live forever, but he cannot. He wishes to experience perpetual joy, but he cannot. Nor can he ever defend himself entirely from distress, from shame, from fear, from hostility" (72).
Tomkins’s critique of God as being a product of wish fulfillment is essential to an analysis of Earthseed’s relationship to Black theology. For the Black church, God has been constructed and conceived of as an agent of social change, an avenger of social injustices, and a supreme being that desires the liberation of oppressed peoples. Additionally, the Black Church is not a monolithic entity, but, even in light of historical, geographical, and socio-political movements of disparate African-American spiritual traditions, some key and similar ritual practices remain consistent. Similarly, Lauren invents a God that not only explains the chaos of the world but also is an agent of liberation, social change, and action: a God that empowers self as well as communal liberty. Thus, like the gospels, Earthseed does not advocate for a socially passive faith in which adherents blindly and obediently wait for heavenly rewards. Instead, it is a call to action: a belief that people can change their earthly fate as well as the destiny of the world through direct action.
In 1970, James Cone was the first theologian to place Black theology in a historical context as it emerged from the systematic challenges of American racism. Hence, Black theology works to end socio-political distortions of religion and God as a means of achieving individual or national power. To this end, Black theology argues in favor of creating a society based on social equality and justice through the use of four key tenets: first, the Black experience -- a life of humiliation and suffering; second, Black history; third, revelation -- God has revealed himself and his will throughout human history acts of human liberation; and, fourth, tradition -- participation in the theological traditions of Christianity (Cone 31-34). Cone also argues that Black theology
is unreservedly identified with the goals of the oppressed and seeks to interpret the divine character of their struggle for liberation. "Black theology" is a phrase that is particularly appropriate for contemporary America because of its symbolic power to convey both what whites mean by oppression and what blacks mean by liberation. However, I am convinced that the patterns of meaning centered in the idea of black theology are by no means restricted to the American scene, for blackness symbolizes oppression and liberation in any society. (5)
The church has operated not only as a religious center of the community but also as a site of the community’s socio-political consciousness. Black theology is thus a theology of subversion. The extension of blackness as symbolic of anyone’s desire for liberation highlights a call for social activism that saturates the rhetoric and practice of the Black church. At its core, Black Liberation theology is about social change through individual responsibility.
For many African-Americans writers, Black theology is essential in developing socio-political and psychological strategies in resisting racial injustices as well as violence in the United States. As Manning Marable observes, “Black Christianity, as well as the totality of the Black religious experience within America, cannot be understood outside of the development of white racism and capitalist exploitation” (318). Black theology resists socio-economic disenfranchisement, while playing a significant role in affirming the righteousness of the African-American struggle. And, as Robert A. Bennett contends, “Black Theology, therefore, carries on a traditional role of helping to shape and to articulate those expressions of faith that already exist, and in the Black experience, awareness is already an affirmation, a response in faith to God’s providential hand in the natural order as well as in the course of human events” (135). Consequently, Earthseed re-positions God from being outside of the natural order to being within the natural world. In this sense, God re-affirms peoples’ hope, while encouraging self-agency in confronting a state of political and eco-collapse.
The re-articulation and re-defining of God in Earthseed counteracts human suffering and humiliation through a doctrine of self-reliance. According to James H. Cone, “There can be no black theology which does not take seriously the black experience -- a life of humiliation and suffering” (23). Lauren is a young Black woman dealing with the dangers of the world in a state of ecological and economic collapse. Her experiences as an African American are central in the creation of Earthseed’s theology and its attempts to provide security as well as hope in a world looming on the verge of an abyss. Lauren’s life of suffering begins in Robledo, located twenty miles outside of Los Angeles. It is in this walled community that we not only learn that Lauren is suffering from the disease of “hyperempathy” that causes her to both physically and psychologically feel the pain of others (Sower 11), but readers also learn about the constant threats of violence, destruction, and death posed by the outside world, those making Robledo, according to Lauren, an “island surrounded by sharks” (Sower 44). In effect, Robledo represents the Black urban condition. And, similar to the historical conditions of African Americans in urban ghettos, Robledo is constantly in danger of being attacked from the outside and lacks the necessary resources to be completely secure as well as self-sufficient. Even the Christian faith of Lauren’s father cannot change the circumstances of the citizens of Robledo.
Although Lauren presents Earthseed as a rational response to socio-economic collapse, Earthseed still contains the wishes and desires of her traumatic childhood. According to Erich Fromm, religion arises from childhood experiences and the subsequent inability to cope with “outer and inner forces.” He writes:
Religion arises at an early stage of human development when man cannot yet use his reason to deal with these outer and inner forces and must repress them or manage them with the help of other affective forces. So instead of coping with these forces by means of reason he copes with them by "counter-affects," by other emotional forces, the functions of which are to suppress and control that which he is powerless to cope with rationally. (Fromm 11)
Similar, to the development of the Black Church as a response to fear, powerlessness, and shame caused by American racism, Earthseed is a faith that hinges upon the ability and desire of the individual to work toward enacting social change in the face of extreme adversity. In a broader sense, white American Christianity has failed to justly deal with the African presence in the United States. Instead, numerous white American theologians taught counter to biblical traditions of fraternal love and embraced politics of power through preaching of racial difference as a threat to God’s covenant with America.
The theological responses of some white northern and southern denominations demonstrated defensive attitudes towards racial difference, ranging from segregating churches to refusing to oppose the injustices of slavery. Thus white denominations deliberately maintained the existing racial and social order of society (McKivigan and Snay 10-11). Contrary to white theology’s indifference in terms of applying the Christian principles of love, hope, faith, and charity in addressing racism, the Black church actively developed responses to racism, which re-affirmed the African-American experience, while espousing a doctrine of liberation (Marable 318). And, Butler, who was raised in a strict Baptist household, understands the Black theological tradition of liberation. Her texts use Black theology to draw attention to the importance of spirituality in the politics of liberation. Thus, the God of Earthseed is not an other-worldly deity that is heaven-centered; rather, it is a this-worldly faith that serves to repress Lauren’s and her followers’ feelings of fear, shame, and powerlessness with a religion that empowers autonomy and self-agency (see espeically Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya). Ultimately, Earthseed confronts legacies of oppression and human suffering.
Earthseed: The Books of the Living reveals Lauren’s divine revelation and anointing. In the Black theological tradition, she has been anointed by God and entrusted with a special mission to save humanity. Lauren’s revelation of divine truth continues a theological tradition that both engages and subverts Christian messianism. Historically, Black theology has viewed African Americans as God’s chosen people destined to fulfill the democratic promises of the nation. This tradition is evident in the words of other African-American theologians, such as Martin Luther King Jr. who indicts the white Church for failing to end segregation: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” (85). His call for social activism undermined white society’s justifications for refusing to challenge Jim Crow laws in the South on the grounds that breaking the law was an immoral act. For King, the world could only be changed through the willingness of others to act selflessly in confronting social injustices.
Similarly, Lauren uses Earthseed to articulate a call for social action that demands “learning,” “planning,” “doing,” “teaching,” and “reaching” out to other people (Sower 294). Through Earthseed, Lauren develops a network of mutuality between her and Earthseed’s followers that mediates a physical and spiritual space of resistance to oppression and exploitation. Lauren’s God of change empowers individual choice and social activism as a means of countering the horrors of her society. She teaches:
We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God. In the end,
we yield to God.
We adapt and endure.
For we are Earthseed.
And God is Change. (Sower 18)
The acceptance of change forms the foundation of Earthseed. Through Earthseed, she defines change as the acceptance of one’s circumstances as an opportunity to control one’s destiny. Lauren’s spiritual insight positions her in a transhistorical theological debate of faith versus works that has overshadowed much of Christian history.
Earthseed stands in stark contrast to her father’s Baptist faith that promises rewards of the afterlife through faith and endurance of human suffering. In this system, God removes individual responsibility by replacing it with divine providence. Lauren describes her father’s God by re-narrating the book of Job and asserts: "That Old Testament God doesn’t violate the way things are now... Bang, bang! Seven toys fall dead. If they’re yours, you make the rules. Who cares what the toys think...Toy children, like Job’s children, are interchangeable...But what if all that is wrong? What if God is something else altogether?" (Sower 16).
Ironically, this is a God that does not act to end subjugation or eliminate various forms of oppression produced to maintain social hierarchies. Mr. Olimina’s God, like the God of Job, fails to offer any form of immediate earthly relief for humanity. Instead, people are God’s playthings subject to His whims and desires wrapped neatly in promises of eternal reward for suffering. However, Earthseed espouses a vision of an ambivalent God that is part of the natural order, but, at the same time, shaped by collective free will. Lauren articulates this point by defining God as an ambivalent force of change:
God is neither good
God is Power.
God is Change.
We must find the rest of what we need
in one another
in our destiny. (Sower 245)
The God of Earthseed is not concerned with heavenly reward. Rather, this is a God whose ambivalence forces people into accepting responsibility for their circumstances. Earthseed also creates mutuality between individuals and community through an understanding of personal destiny being linked to the fate of the outer world. In this sense, both are capable of change and redemption through the hard work of individuals attempting to transform their environment as well as socio-economic circumstances.
The juxtaposition of Lauren’s and her father’s views of God reveals a traditional dichotomy of the Black Church: other-worldly versus this-worldly. Mr. Olamina’s faith is other-worldly, focusing on his and other people’s inability to change the world, while waiting for a messianic leader (Presidential candidate Donner) to serve as an avenging angel who resurrects American exceptionalism as a force against man-made and natural catastrophes (Sower 20). However, Lauren offers an alternative of a this-worldly faith that urges personal involvement in the immediate and earthly needs of mankind’s survival. For her, God is not only change but also God is defined by desires that address and attempt to resolve suffering. She articulates:
We give lip service to acceptance, as though acceptance were enough. Then we go on to create super-people -- super-parents, super-kings and queens, super-cops -- to be our gods and to look after us -- to stand between us and God. Yet God has been here all along, shaping us and being shaped by us in no particular way or in too many ways at once like an amoeba -- or like a cancer, Chaos. (Sower 26)
Her father’s other-worldly faith views God as a “super-parent,” providing rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience, while never demanding that persons actively recognize that they control what happens to them. Lauren believes the destructive pattern and cycle of the father/parent relationship between God and people can be broken by recognizing self-autonomy. Lauren writes the following:
A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God. Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s prey. (Sower 31)
By negating the politics of victimization with a doctrine of self-agency, Lauren creates a clear distinction between the other-worldly faith of her father and the this-worldly doctrines of Earthseed. She provides a clear choice of either divine intervention or engaging in social action to enact change. More importantly, the idea of being a partner with God ends the parent/child relationship, calling to the forefront a relationship of equality. The ending of the fraternal relationship with God parallels the social goals of Earthseed. Lauren’s religious system rejects notions of eternal infancy by replacing it with a goal that people, much like Earthseed, should work toward becoming responsible and embrace independence versus being dependent on a God that may or may not act in their best interest.
For Lauren, the transition from physical and psychological dependency comes to fruition through her journey up the I-5 and helping to found the Earthseed community of Acorn. Furthermore, Lauren’s journey to the safety of Bankole’s property up the I-5 re-enacts traditions of the African-American jeremiad. African Americans “ingeniously adapted their rhetoric of the jeremiadic tradition, which was one of the dominant forms of cultural expression...Their use of the jeremiad revealed a conception of themselves as a chosen people, but it also showed their clever ability to play on the belief that America as a whole was a chosen nation” (Moses 31). With the border to Canada closed and the possibility of leaving the United States gone, Earthseed’s destiny of taking root among the stars symbolizes the jeremiadic tradition and the last hope to end personal suffering. Butler writes, "We are Earthseed. We are flesh—self aware, questing, problem-solving flesh. We are that aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing, Earthlife preparing to fall away from the parent world. We are Earthlife preparing to take root in new ground, Earthlife fulfilling its purpose, its promise, its Destiny" (Sower 151)."
Similar to other African-American religious leaders, Lauren is re-telling the Moses myth. She positions herself as a prophet who will take her people to the Promised Land, but will not be allowed to enter (Talents 406-408) -- a Promised Land that simply cannot be only hoped and prayed for, but a Promised Land of the stars gained through the collective work of the Earthseed community (see Deuteronomy 32: 48-52).
Similar to the Black church, Earthseed has three organizational principles: decentralization, segmentation, and reticulation. According to Hans Baer the spiritual faith of the Black church is a non-hierarchal organizational structure. Baer argues, “Decentralization has to do with the decision making, regulatory functions of the movement. Segmentation has to do with the social structure -- the composition of parts that make up the movement as a whole. Reticulation has to do with the way these parts are tied together into a network” (43). Earthseed is not based on having central leadership. And Acorn’s ceremonial worship service -- called "gatherings" where members quote Earthseed verses, sing familiar spiritual hymns, and pray -- binds the community together with a shared destiny and view of the world. As noted by Cone, “Black culture consists of the creative forms of expression as one reflects on history, endures pain, and experiences joy. It is the black community expressing itself in music, poetry, prose, and other art forms” (Cone 27). The decentralized structure of Earthseed creates equality in the community of Acorn. Each follower has the freedom to express his or her spirituality through forms they are comfortable practicing.
For example, one of the key forms of African-American spiritual expression is “call and response.” Traditionally, call and response is the interaction between speaker and audience. Literally, the audience participates in the preaching and shaping of the sermon and service. Call and response creates an interactive experience between speaker and audience to create a sense of commonality and mutual experience. The continuation of the call and response in the gatherings further reveals Earthseed’s connection to Black theology. Lauren describes these gatherings: “Others repeated in soft voices, ‘God is Change. Shape God.’ Habits of repetition and response have grown up almost without prompting among us” (Talents 58). For Lauren’s followers, Earthseed and Acorn compose a real community that provides at least a “semblance of security,” “the comfort of ritual and routine,” and “the emotional satisfaction of belonging to a ‘team’ that [stands] together to meet challenge when challenge [comes]” (Talents 63).
In the Parable of Talents, we encounter a distorted form of Christianity bent on exploiting religious, class, and racial differences in order to restore the global prominence of America: the Church of Christian America. Its leader, Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, preaches a religious doctrine that envisions America as God’s chosen nation. Jarret’s vision and destiny can only be accomplished through the elimination of cultural as well as religious difference. His merger of faith with nationalism uses racism, classism, and xenophobia in an attempt to reclaim the divine provenance of God. During one of his Christian American sermons, he shouts: "Are we Christian? Are we? We are God’s people, or we are filth! We are God’s people, or we are nothing! We are God’s people! God’s people!... Why have we allowed ourselves to be seduced and betrayed by these allies of Satan, these heathen purveyors of false and unchristian doctrines? These people...these pagans are not only wrong. They’re dangerous" (Talents 88).
At first glance, this vitriolic rhetoric seems to demonize religious difference. However, the Church of Christian America participates in a continuation of seeing difference as a threat to the nationalistic enterprise. Historically, extreme evangelicalism fused with nationalism has classified the other as a threat to democracy, economic prosperity, and America’s sacred covenant with God (see Randy Sparks). Or, as succinctly explained by Benedict Anderson, “The fact of the matter is that nationalism thinks in terms of historical destinies...N-----s, are, thanks to the invisible tar-brush, forever n-----s; Jews, the seed of Abraham, forever Jews, no matter what passports they carry or what languages they speak and read” (Gil149) The merging of religion and nationalism is predicated on the exploitation, as well as the exacerbation, of difference, which has led to continual history of racial atrocities and genocide.
From America’s early Christian beginnings to present day, white Christianity has existed in a state of contradiction between a history of slavery, genocide, and racism versus a doctrine of brotherhood and acceptance as taught by Jesus Christ. Marable argues, “The tensions created by the ever-increasing contradiction between white spiritual rhetoric and white politics established the parameters for white consciousness and faith throughout our history. These spiritual contradictions were only resolved, in part, through the pursuit of Black Christianity” (318). Similarly, for Lauren, Earthseed is a psychological and spiritual coping device used to resolve spiritual contradictions between her emerging faith and the chaotic politics of the outside world. Counter to the Church of Christian America, members of Earthseed believe difference is a source of strength that adds value to the community (Sower 196). Again, Earthseed participates in an African-American understanding and manipulation of Christian mythologies by subverting the xenophobic and ideological vision of the Church of Christian American. But, more importantly, Earthseed does not seek to reclaim the past or promise an afterlife. Rather, as Lauren’s estranged daughter, Asha Vere, attests:
In Earthseed, there is no promised afterlife. Earthseed’s heaven is literal, physical -- other worlds circling other stars. It promises its people immortality only through their children, their work, and their memories. For the human species, immortality is something to be won by sowing Earthseed on other worlds. Its promise of is not of mansions to live in, milk and honey to drink, or eternal oblivion in some vast whole of nirvana. Its promise is of hard work and brand-new possibilities, problems, challenges, and changes. (Talents 47)
The this-worldly spirituality of Earthseed shifts the focus from individual reward and immortality to the physical and psychological needs of humanity. In this scheme of reasoning, the life of one individual only gains importance and ultimately immortality by contributing to society as each person embraces new challenges and possibilities.
In the Parable of Talents, Butler yet again uses biblical scriptures to frame Lauren’s story. According to Cone, “Black theology is biblical theology. That is, it is theology which takes seriously the importance of scripture in theological discourse. There can be no theology of the Christian gospel which does not take into account the biblical witness” (Cone 31). Interestingly enough, both novels end with Lauren's use of Christian parables to explain and justify the actions she has taken in order for Earthseed to survive. Thus, the parables are used to reveal Lauren as a prophet and a symbolic messiah. Although Earthseed is a new and emerging faith in the novel, Earthseed still articulates -- or re-articulates -- pre-existing Christian mythologies to alter the course of human events. First, the “parable of the sower” foreshadows Earthseed’s eventual emergence as a viable religious faith. In the biblical story of the Sower, a man planting seeds repeatedly fails to find fertile ground for his crops. The seeds are eaten by animals or fall upon rocks. At last, some of the seeds land on fertile soil and bear “fruit a hundredfold” ( see St. Luke 8:5-8). After traveling through the dangers of the wasteland between Robledo and Bankole’s property, Lauren’s followers bury their dead with a ceremony that will become the first ritual of the community. She says, “I have acorns enough for each of us to plant live oak trees to our dead -- enough to plant one for Justin’s mother, too. I’m thinking about a very simple ceremony. But everyone should have a chance to speak. Even the two little girls” (Sower 327). This ritual of planting trees in remembrance of the dead demonstrates Earthseed’s transformation from being personal faith to a religion (see Orlando Petterson). Lauren says to her followers, “Then we buried our dead and we planted oak trees. Afterward, we sat together and talked and ate a meal and decided to call this place Acorn” (Sower 328). After awhile, this ritual becomes a staple of the community that binds followers to Lauren’s religious movement, reminding them of what they have lost and of what they hope to achieve. The community of Acorn is the fertile soil in which Earthseed is planted and from which the fruit of a new religious faith is born.
The emergence of Earthseed as a religious faith occupies the center of Acorn as a community and, eventually, the chaotic world that it is attempting to change. Therefore, the symbolism of the oak trees fuses the impermanence of Earthseed’s doctrine of change with a religious permanence that will reach far beyond their life spans. According to Mircea Eliade, “[C]ommunication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi: pillar (cf. the unviersalis columna), ladder (cf. Jacob’s ladder), mountain, tree, vine, etc.; (d) around this cosmic axis lies the world (=our world), hence the axis is located ‘in the middle,’ at the ‘navel of the earth; it is the Center of the World” (37). Throughout the text, Earthseed functions as a new axis mundi destabilizing, de-centering, and subverting the stranglehold that Christianity has had on American society’s dealings with issues of oppression. The displacement of Christianity and the centering of Earthseed solidifies Lauren’s position as a prophet, while signaling the importance of Acorn to the survival of Earthseed.
The Parable of Talents also fulfills Lauren’s prophecy that the “Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars, after all, and not to be filled with preservative poisons, boxed up at great expense, as is the revived fashion now, and buried uselessly in some cemetery” (407). Similar to her first novel, Butler ends the story with biblical scripture the “Parable of Talents” (408). In this parable, a master gives one servant five coins, another two, and the last servant one. The first two servants work to increase and multiply what they were given, while the last buries his coin in the ground, believing his master to be a cruel man. And, the master responds by rewarding the faithful servants who increased their wealth and chastising the slothful servant (see Matthew 25: 24-30). Traditionally, this parable conveys the necessity of one’s obedience to God by working for the good of His kingdom here on earth. The positioning of the parable at the end of the text demonstrates Lauren’s fulfillment of her pre-ordained destiny. And, even as she attests to her ingenuity at working to have Earthseed survive long-term, “I have buried it in the ground, I have buried in the coastal mountains, where it can grow at about the same speed as our redwood trees” (Talents 21). Lauren has worked to the best of her ability to change the world with talent, inspiration, and insights given to her by God.
Nevertheless, as much as Earthseed embodies elements of the Black theological tradition, it possesses a potential for the narrow-minded evangelicalism that led to the socio-political missteps of American Christianity. Specifically, Butler confronts the possibility of Black theology developing into a nationalistic creed through its over investment in the realm of politics. Likewise, she warns of the inescapability of religion mingling with nationalism and becoming a threat to revolutionary possibilities of liberation. Through Asha Vere, Butler’s audience reexamines the long-term viability of Earthseed as a religious faith. And, like Wilson Moses's contention about the Black theological tradition, Earthseed contains the potential for developing into a zealous and self-righteous faith. He writes, “The paradox of African American history is that much of our social progress has been driven by the same zealous, narrow-minded, self-righteous Protestantism that has so often worked against us. The problem for the future is to discover whether or not a social reform movement can function outside the hotbed of Protestant evangelicalism that, for better and for worse, has been its environment for over two hundred years” (238). From Robledo to Acorn, Lauren is obsessed with teaching Earthseed and recruiting followers to ensure its survival.
Asha Vere provides a detailed description of Lauren’s single minded focus by writing that her mother “was giving her attention to her other child, her older and best loved child, Earthseed” (Talents 379). Moreover, Asha Vere reveals Lauren’s final emergence as a messianic figure. She writes: “THEY’LL MAKE A GOD of her. I think that would please her, if she could know about it. In spite of all her protests and denials, she’s always needed devoted, obedient followers -- disciples -- who would listen to her and believe everything she told them. And she needed large events to manipulate. All gods seem to need these things” (Talents 1). In the end, Earthseed becomes connected to American national and world destiny doing what the Church of Christian American could not do: return America to a spiritual destiny. But, at the same time, Earthseed repeats the mistakes of the religious past by offering a new mutation of faith, a replacement of social teachings with a new idol: Lauren. The ministers for Earthseed, the “shapers” (Talents 397), demonstrate a slippage of their faith from a decentralized structure to a hierarchal structure that actually treats Lauren as an idol to be revered (Talents 395-99). And, perhaps, in the future this rigid structure will lead to zealousness.
Lauren’s act of writing and the mass production of Earthseed: The Books of the Living embrace the unchangeable (Talents 128). In other words, Earthseed as a religion of impermanence strikes a balance between this-worldly problems of the twentieth-first century and the other-worldly problems of humanity by becoming the unchangeable and infallible word of God. The shift of Earthseed to a hierarchal structure correlates with its transformation from a young girl’s personal diary to becoming a sacred text. On the one hand, Earthseed: The Books of the Living presents a religion centered on the doctrine of change. On the other hand, the transformation of Lauren’s diary into religious text signals an emergence of spiritual and socio-political permanence. And as a sacred book, Earthseed represents the turning point of personal faith transitioning into a ritualistic religion. Post-colonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha contends that the book in the colonial enterprise signified “the triumph of the writ of colonialist power” (107). He argues:
The discovery of the English book establishes both a measure of mimesis and a mode of civil authority and order...As a signifier of authority the English book acquires its meaning after the traumatic scenario of colonial difference, cultural or racial, returns the eye of power to some prior archaic image or identity. Paradoxically, however, such an image can neither be "original" -- by virtue of the act of repetition that constructs it – nor "identical" – by virtue of the difference that defines it. (107)
Bhabha’s assertion that the book intersects with “civil authority and order” and derives its meaning from traumatic difference can be extended to the analysis of Earthseed. The spiritual and cultural authority of Earthseed’s teachings stems from American society’s conflict with racial, ethnic, and religious differences. And, much like the English book, Earthseed: The Book of the Living exists in a paradox that negates originality through its connection to Christian traditions, while not being identical to Christianity by defining God as change.
Finally, in the end, Lauren’s spirituality, carried from infancy in Robledo to the adulthood of stellar colonization, looks to the past as much as it looks to an ever-changing future. Similar to the Black theological tradition, Earthseed’s doctrines of change, social activism, self-reliance, and responsibility signify a return to the religion of Christ through the use of myths and symbolism that is at the heart of African Americans’ resistance to oppression. Orlando Patterson contends that "Christianity is not the religion of Christ...Not a single statement he made anticipated such a creed, or even less, a church. Many of his most authentic sayings suggest that he believed and practiced just the opposite of what was eventually preached, made, and destroyed in his name...By reclaiming the nonsacrificial religion of the original Jesus movement, the revitalized Afro-American Christianity ushered in a political revolution in America not unlike the revolution that Jesus sought for his own colonized ethnic group" (XVI-XVII).
The connection between Earthseed and traditions of Black Liberation theology re-affirms social activism as a valid force to be used against oppressors. If anything, Earthseed is a messianic doctrine of individual, social, and civic responsibility perpetually bound to the destiny, as well as redemption, of the world through contesting socio-political and economic disenfranchisement.
It is thus fitting that Lauren’s jeremiad ends in the scriptural tradition of Moses. Lauren will not live to reap the fruits of her labor; rather, the promise land is for her followers and their progeny. And, as she watches the first star ships being loaded and sent out to colonize space with some of the former citizens of Acorn, her final words speak the loudest, “I know what I’ve done” (Talents 407). The children of Earthseed, much like the children of Abraham, inherit new worlds (see Genesis 22:17). But Lauren is aware of the awful truth that memories of degradation, exploitation, and anguish cannot be so easily erased. And, as characterized by Derrida, religion “does not pacify or appease anything, not a single torment, not a single torture. It will never silence their memory. It could even worsen the terror, the lesions, and the wounds” (Monolingualism of the Other 11). In the end, Earthseed has survived and altered the course of human history; nonetheless, the traumatic memories and experiences of Earthseed’s followers from Robledo to Acorn will travel with them to the stars.
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