Book Note: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”

Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower (reprint. 2019; New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993). (Amazon; Bookshop)

[There may be minor spoilers in this post but nothing that’ll give away the essence of the narrative in either The Parable of Sower or The Parable of the Talents.]

As I read Octavia Butler’s prophetic, sci-fi dystopia, The Parable of the Sower, I found myself encountering a variety of emotions. I was unnerved because it seemed like Butler was almost a seer. I was hopeful because even in the midst of desperate situations, her characters show how humanity can survive and find new meaning. I was challenged because the hope she offers isn’t one of divine intervention but instead one where we are our hope, for better or for worse. I was intrigued and provoked because my religious studies-obsessed brain had the opportunity to ponder the emerging religion of the main character: Earthseed.

The narrative of Sower begins in 2024. It centers on a seventeen-year-old named Lauren Oya Olamina who lives with her family in a walled neighborhood compound while the world outside—her world being near Los Angeles, CA—has collapsed. Climate change has brought drought to California that makes it nearly uninhabitable. As we learn in the first part of the sequel, something known as “the Pox” has pushed the United States to the brink of collapse with the various states closing their borders to one another. We even learn that Olamina’s father, a history professor, and Baptist preacher, sometimes teaches using his computer and sometimes has to go to campus—which sounds a lot like Zoom-hybrid teaching to me! This is taking place in the midst of an economy that’s collapsed, in part, into debt-slavery where people are owned by corporations. When you shift over to The Parable of the Talents, written in 1998, there’s a candidate for the presidency who has the slogan “make America great again” and he’s connected to violent Christian Nationalists. It’s a little too close to our actual timeline (though Talents begins in 2032).

In response to the apparent collapse of civilization, Olamina beings to create a new religion called “Earthseed”. It’s as if process theology, Black American Christianity, and Buddhist and Daoist ideas were thrown into a blender and served in the context of environmental collapse and the legitimate question of whether humans need to consider space exploration for a home other than earth. There’s a lot going on there but it’s beautiful and challenging, and thought-provoking.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot, so I’ll end with two comments:

  1. As I learned from the CrashCourse video discussing the book (don’t judge me, CrashCourse is legit!), SciFi can be divided three ways: (A) What-If?; (B) If-Only; (C) If-This-Goes-On. Sower is definitely (C). Sower warns us that if certain elements of our society don’t change, there will be trouble. You can tell Butler lived in California but her foresight is unnerving. I lived in California in the 1990s and 2000s as well and only briefly began to think about climate change after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. (Which one of my more conservative colleagues has cited as evidence that global change isn’t worth the panick, so not sure whether to blame Al Gore or just the role of our current forms of partisianship for creating that talking point!) Of course, to my defense, I was a pre-teen when Sower was published…but still, I don’t remember many adults taking climate change as seriously as Butler did and Butler, while slightly ahead of schedule, seems to have been more in tune with the consequences of climate change than many of her contemporaries realized three decades ago.
  2. I’m obviously very open to synchristic religion. In fact, anyone who claims to be orthodox this or orthodox that will get a skeptical eye from me because I’m sure that any form of religion you practice has been mixed with something that your religious ancestors would have considered necessarily “other” (which is why binaries like “Jewish-Hellenistic” or “Christian-Pagan” seem to be massive oversimplifications in my mind). While I’m not saying that “EarthSeed” should be a real thing —since I’m, in fact, quite skeptical that space exploration won’t be anything other than what we’re seeing now with Bezos, Musk, and other billionaires playing with their space toys while the rest of us have to deal with the real problems and limitations of our planet—I do think that Christianity can borrow from Daoist, Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhi, et al., thought and it would make Christianity healthier and more adaptable to the world in which we live. So, there may be something to Tamisha A. Tyler’s article “Lauren Oya Olamina: Theologian of Our Time” that’s worth our consideration if we want our religion(s) to evolve in the twenty-first century.

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