Religious Teachings: Didacticism in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Geneva B. and Marilyn S.)

Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower engages with readers by unravelling her unique religious beliefs over the course of the novel. Her character’s personal development is closely linked with the development of her own religion. Earthseed is based in the recognition of the importance of change. God is change. Everything, including this God, changes and is shaped. Lauren writes, “God can’t be resisted or stopped, but can be shaped and focused…we can rig the game in our favour if we understand that God exists to be shaped, and will be shaped, with or without our intent” (Butler 25). According to Lauren, this provides followers of Earthseed the motivation to act in ways that shapes this change for the better, as she writes, “Belief initiates and guides action – or it does nothing” (Butler 47). Butler’s Parable of the Sower does more than entertain and shock us with the winding story it contains; it also offers us a message meant to encourage us to take responsibility for ourselves, our communities, and the world we live in. In essence, she encourages us to act in order to prevent the advent of a world like the one she creates in the pages. As such, Butler offers a strong didactic quality throughout the novel, which intends to teach the reader the importance of individual responsibility and social activism using this budding religion as a vehicle for her message.

In the article, “The Anointed: Countering Dystopia with Faith in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of Talents”, Clarence Tweedy argues that “Earthseed’s God is not a new creation, but rather, derives from Black Theology” (2). He goes on to describe the ways in which this belief system expects individuals “to work toward enacting social change in the face of extreme adversity,” which is undoubtedly visible in Lauren’s philosophy (3). Black theology was created as a means to avenge social injustices and liberate oppressed peoples by placing the ability for change in the hands of the individual, rather than in the hands of God (Tweedy 2). Again, this reflects a key tenet of Earthseed, which is the idea that change is unavoidable but it can be shaped into a change that is good and beneficial if enough effort and forethought is put in. Lauren claims, “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 295). Tweedy states: “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” (1). In the face of adversity, Lauren’s Earthseed advocates for a call to action.

Providing stark contrast to this view is “her father’s Baptist faith that promises rewards of the afterlife through faith and endurance of human suffering,” which Tweedy notes, promotes “a God that does not act to end subjugation or eliminate various forms of oppression produced to maintain social hierarchies” (4). As was the case with Lauren’s family and community in Robledo, simply hoping for the best and/or praying to a God without taking individual responsibility for change will not lead to the change with the most desirable outcomes. When Joanne betrays Lauren’s secret plan to run away, Lauren writes, “This is just more denial: A dumb little game of ‘If we don’t talk about bad things, maybe they won’t happen’” (Butler 61). When the people in Lauren’s life took this approach, due to a constant veil of denial, her community was violently destroyed along with its inhabitants. Conversely, Earthseed is based entirely on the view that “God is change” (Butler 17) and that change is “the only lasting truth” (Butler 3). In order for change to occur in favour of an individual, rather than simply praying to a God that will act in any manner, whether its is in favour or not of the individual, an individual must act in ways that will facilitate the desired change. Earthseed aims to change the oppressive situation an individual endures by relying on that individual and their community to take charge of the change and shape it to their benefit.

The world in which Lauren lives is rampant with misery and suffering, which, though faced by all people, still maintains certain racial hierarchies that have defined Western society for centuries. The protagonist’s identity as a Black woman and the struggles she and other Black characters face represents the adversity and oppression faced by Black individuals in the United States, such as slave labour and centuries of discrimination and inequality. In fact, the novel deals with slavery directly, as several of its characters escaped indebted labour, especially slavery, before joining Lauren’s group. This is a poignant example of the inequality that Butler means to address through Earthseed. Black Theology’s “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” (Tweedy 2). The connection Butler creates to preexisting Black Theology through Lauren’s creation of Earthseed, and her advocacy for equality is especially relevant given Butler’s position as a Black woman working in the white, male dominated genre of speculative fiction at the time (Tweedy 1).

Butler uses Earthseed as a didactic vehicle throughout the novel. In the same way that religion has always been used as a method of teaching and educating large groups of people, Butler uses Earthseed and its links, both in comparison and contrast, to preexisting theologies to teach her reader the importance of responsibility and action. That is, taking responsibility for the actions we do or do not take, and the outcomes that will inevitably follow. Systems of faith, such as Black Theology and Earthseed, which call on “human agency” (Tweedy 2) and individual responsibility, often emerge as a reaction to a negative and oppressive situation. Butler’s description of Earthseed demonstrates to her readers, whom may not have had to deal with such adversity faced by the characters in the Parable of the Sower, and therefore may not recognize their ability to affect change in their favour, that it is crucial to take responsibility and take action before it becomes harder to affect change, such as in the dystopian society depicted in Butler’s novel. It also encourages the development of a community that has this value at its core, so that beyond just individually working to shape change for the better, we are able to work together to achieve Lauren and Butler’s vision. Through Earthseed, Butler continuously demonstrates the necessity of actively engaging with behaviours and shaping change into a better, more equal community.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. Though Butler did not intend Parable of the Sower to be Young Adult literature, does the didacticism qualify it to be considered YA? Why or why not?
  2.  In the context of the Parable of the Sower, do you agree with the idea that Earthseed and Black Theology completely differ from Lauren’s father’s Baptist faith? In what ways are they similar or dissimilar?

 

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner, 2007. Print.

Tweedy, Clarence W., III. “The Anointed: Countering Dystopia with Faith in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of Talents.” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present), vol. 13, no. 1, 2014.

 

7 thoughts on “Religious Teachings: Didacticism in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Geneva B. and Marilyn S.)

  1. Concerning your second question, all three theologies have their differences, however I believe that they do share some core principles. Earthseed derives from the idea that the only constant thing in life is change. We must adapt to change and for that reason god is change. Everything is meant to depend solely upon our own efforts to understand our surroundings and attempt to surmount it. Lauren and the group demonstrate this ability as they try to survive in their harsh environment. Black Theology, also comes down to working to the bone in order to incite change, especially while facing difficulties. Their god is similar to a commander who inspires his followers to fight for what is right. It’s a perfect belief system to have when fighting oppression. The representation of Baptism through Lauren’s eyes is one with an all knowing god who passed down laws and who must be followed without ever being questioned. To someone like Lauren who believes that change is the essence of life, such a religion is not suitable for her. Such a religion does not ask to be adaptable, instead it demands devotion and faith. Her religion and black theology laid against the perception of Baptism could not be any more different. Baptism is seen as being passive while the other two are active. In my opinion, only on the surface can Baptism, as well as any religion that requires worshipping a superior being, be seen as passive. At the base of Baptist belief is the idea of withstanding suffering and hardship through faith. This implies that having only faith and never taking action will not allow one to attain the rewards of the afterlife. Having faith in God, is not meant to encourage people to simply hope for the best and not take responsibility. On the contrary, having faith is supposed to make the faithful stronger, it is their faith that is supposed to help them persevere through challenges that are thrown their way. As I was reading the book, I completely acknowledged that Earthseed and Baptism have a lot of differences. Yet, I also believe that both, as well as Black theology, are meant to inspire their devotees to rise through hardships and changes. Earthseed through adaption, Black Theology through fighting for justice, and Baptism through faith.

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  2. Thank you for the insightful analysis of didacticism in Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In response to your first discussion question:

    While Butler may use Earthseed as a didactic vehicle throughout the novel, Earthseed itself materializes through self-discovery. Lauren makes several references to how she does not learn Earthseed, but rather discovers it. The fact that she does so in a didactic environment, as the daughter of a minister, emphasizes the conflicting nature of her process.

    Dr. Green-Barteet identified in class that Lauren, the narrator, remains nameless until quite far into the novel. As Jeremy pointed out, this focuses the reader on the message of the story as opposed to who is telling it. This also challenges a fundamental concept of didacticism: the emphasis on teacher versus student identities.

    In “Contemporary Dystopian Fiction for Young Adults”, Basu, Broad and Hintz suggest that “one of the strongest sources of appeal for young adult dystopias […] is the unequivocal clarity of their message.” I think one of the elements that separates Parable from YA is the layered complexity of its message. While Butler may employ didacticism to convey her message, she appears to simultaneously subvert its principles. I would argue that this disparity calls the reader to independently formulate an opinion on the value of didacticism itself, which contradicts the philosophy. Clearly not so clear.

    Hence, in response to your question I would suggest that Butler’s treatment of didacticism exemplifies the layered complexity of Parable’s message which supports classifying the novel as non-YA.

    Would love to hear other opinions.

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    1. Adam, I would definitely agree that the didacticism in Parable of the Sower challenges student and teacher dynamics. A lot of Lauren’s development as a leader is about her figuring out how to educate and guide people in ways that are not overtly didactic. In particular, I was struck by the scene where she and Harry debate over how trustworthy she is after keeping her hyperempathy a secret, and she emphasizes his ability to decide for himself if he wanted to continue his journey with her or leave. He responds by calling her a manipulative bitch, which made me think about how uncomfortable we often are in society when we are not told explicitly what to do. Like Professor Green-Barteet brought up in class this week, we do things like raise our hands in class discussion because it is what we are conditioned to do and there is a sense of stability that comes from another person having control over us. There are a bunch of moments in the book where people express skepticism over Earthseed. In this way Butler creates room for the novel to make a commentary on the evolution of religion and the relationship between free will and authority. However, I don’t know if I wholly agree with you that Parable of the Sower’s message isn’t clear. I do agree that it is multilayered, but I think the blog post has done a beautiful job of highlighting the main tension of the novel: much of the world is not in individuals’ personal control, but we have an ability to shape and influence the world if we educate ourselves on the ways certain groups are systemically oppressed and work in community to combat that oppression. Earthseed does become a didactic way for Butler to give readers insight into how to survive under brutality and hardship. I think perhaps Parable of the Sower is just a rare example of didacticism done well. Young adult fiction authors today could definitely take note of the way Butler creates opportunities for the characters to critique the core principles of Lauren’s belief system and leave room for different interpretations of the values at the heart of the book.

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  3. Concerning your first discussion question, I think it’s less about if the didactics helps with quality the Parable of the Sower to be a YA literature in so much as it reinforces it. I think there are a number of other factors that would make Parable of the Sower a YA piece of literature such as the age of the main character, contemporary issues of poverty, racial outbreak, climate change, identity, rebellion, sex and drugs etc. I think the nature of the novel wouldn’t be as effective without the didactic qualities since it would be very difficult to address all of these national concerns without trying to find a way to cope with them. Earthseed is all about evoking change which means that everything about the world is constantly reworking itself and would further call for instruction or direction. I think this type of belief has the potential to really resonate with a YA audience since change in the world and fighting for what you want is common in the younger generations so that life on earth is livable for years to come. So therefore I don’t think the didactic elements are solely the only thing that considers Parable of the Sower to be a YA piece of literature, but a good example of how it could be. I think without the underlying informative messages about hope and change, the novel would be extremely dark and hard to identify with across multiple demographics.

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  4. In response to the first question, I do believe that didacticism allows Parable of the Sower to qualify as a young adult novel. Yes, there are some extremely tough and graphic moments within the novel, but there is a large presence of hope within it. Lauren is a natural leader; she recognizes her gifts and beliefs and acts on them. Her religion, Earthseed, is all about change and hope in that. These morals can act as a lesson to the younger readers. Through all of her hardships, Lauren is able to persevere and remain true to herself and the other followers of Earthseed. This is didactic because she is acting as a teacher to those within the novel and those reading it. Lauren is showing everyone how to be a strong leader and stand up for what you believe in, which resonates with a younger audience because the teenage years are notorious for angst and discovering of oneself. These crucial years are where most basic ideologies and other beliefs are formed, and the majority of these can last a lifetime. As said in another comment, this is an area where young readers can relate to Lauren. Her will and power are inspirational and set an example for individualism in the worst of circumstances. Without this didactic element, I do not believe that Parable of the Sower would be considered a young adult novel, for it would simply be too dark for readers below a certain age. Some chapters are very graphic in dealing with physical violence. Another aspect that is very shocking to readers is the year it takes place in. The story of Parable of the Sower takes place roughy ten years in the future: making it a possible reality for readers. This is a disturbing reality to the most seasoned reader, so having it classified as to be appropriate for young adults is not accurate. However, the aspect of hope and the searching for a better life in the novel is what makes this appropriate for younger audiences. This adds a light and willful tone to the otherwise dark narrative.

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  5. Your post made me think about the religious teachings we’ve seen in other novels in the course, specifically Delirium. I think it’s interesting to look at the different ways religion is depicted in dystopian fiction.
    Within both Parable of the Sower and Delirium, religion is used to encourage individual responsibility–one for social change, the other for conformity. Lauren’s Earthseed religion provides a means of empowerment, resistance, and survival in her society. The lack of order and reliability of her government requires some kind of structure, making Earthseed a necessary and vital part of the journey she and her group make to establish a new community and social order.
    In contrast, Delirium has an effective institutional structure in place, which maintains order primarily through propaganda combining religious and scientific teaching. religion in Delirium acts as a tool meant to encourage conformity and acceptance of the social order. The Book of Shhh teaches people to believe in a system of oppression, at their own expense, supposedly for their own good. Individual responsibility in this case means self-regulating adherence to the laws.
    While both texts encourage individual responsibility, Parable of the Sower is encouraging this for the goal of change led by Lauren, while Delirium uses it as a point of stagnation, allowing Lena’s character to then oppose the values that inform the Book of Shhh and its effects on society. Ultimately, Parable seems to be valuing religious teaching and the positive change it can instigate, while Delirium seems to be critical of religion, or any organized system of belief and thought (even those based in science) and the fanatical effects it can have on believers. However, despite the opposing representations of religion, didacticly both novels are encouraging individual freedom, one through change and one through love.

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