Environmental Concerns and Religious Beliefs
Environmental issues affect everyone, and the decision to stop the abuses society contributes to the environment is one every person must make. One can decide to continue to live as if there is nothing he or she can do to improve the conditions of the environment, or one can decide to stop abusing our planet and begin to make lifestyle changes to preserve the environment. Octavia Butler decided to write her novel The Parable of the Sower (1993) to show her readers how the continued neglect of our environment can have life-threatening consequences. In an interview with Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report,” Butler said that one of her goals for writing this novel was to write what she called a “cautionary tale”: a novel that would caution its readers about the ways in which society is “ignoring what we’ve been ignoring, doing what we’ve been doing to the environment, for instance, here’s what we’re liable to wind up with.” Butler later comments in the interview on her own awareness of global warming and the politics of education and how she felt that many people were ignoring this issue because “nothing was going to come of it tomorrow” (Gonzales and Goodman).
Scientists have spent a tremendous amount of time analyzing what one can do to help stop the effects of global warming, and analyzing the information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site may inform students of the steps that he or she can take to stop climate change. According to information provided by the EPA’s Web site, climate change or global warming results from “changes in the sun’s intensity or slow changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun; natural processes within the climate system … [and] human activities that change the atmosphere’s composition and the land surface” (http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/index.html). Butler, concerned about the effects of global warming, realized the tremendous effects people were having on the environment, and writing her novel could send a message to her readers of what could happen if they do not act now. Allowing students to research the effects of global warming before reading this novel would allow them to see the realm in which Butler viewed the world and how the behavior and attitudes of a complacent society could be devastating to the world in which we live.
Butler’s desire to warn her readers about global warming is just one lesson she teaches in The Parable of The Sower. Butler also emphasizes the need for society to be more tolerant of others who not only look different, but who also have different religious beliefs. In the novel, protagonist Lauren Olamina desires to create a new religion instead of accepting the religion of her father. The novel suggests that it is necessary for its characters to create a new religion instead of relying on society’s existing religions to emphasize the importance of tolerance and how intolerance can be just as devastating to our society as global warming is to our environment. In an interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio, Butler stated that “tolerance, like any, aspect of peace, is a forever a work in progress, never completed, and if we’re as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned.” By allowing Lauren to develop a new religion Butler demonstrates how society should be tolerant of one another’s beliefs even if they do not agree with them.
Lauren’s position as a prophet or visionary who denounces the beliefs of her father may be troublesome for some students who are accustomed to believing and accepting the religious beliefs of their elders. Teachers may find it beneficial to discuss the reasons why Lauren accepts the “Earthseed Religion” and how she finds hope in her ideology. Lauren’s belief that “God is Change” allows her to be in control in shaping her destiny, as she writes in her diary: “God will shape us all every day of our lives. Best to understand that and return the effort: Shape God” (Butler 220). By shaping God, Lauren is allowing herself to exercise the power she needs to shape and change her future. Bryan Aubrey notes that Lauren’s beliefs are not as new and as different as our students may be inclined to think. Instead Aubrey states that “its central idea, ‘the only lasting truth is Change,’ was expressed over two-and-a-half thousand years ago by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whose famous phrase was ‘All is flux; nothing is stationary.’” Lauren’s religious ideas can then be seen as a mixture of the beliefs of many historical spiritual influences. Sandra Govan writes in “The Parable of the Sower as Rendered by Octavia Butler: Lessons for Changing Times” that “Butler has Lauren take kernels, nuggets, fragments, or strands, from a variety of other religious faiths, as well as Christianity, to shape the new religion she espouses. Intertextual references appear in Sower directing readers to a closer reading of their Bibles, and to various other world belief systems."
As U.S. citizens we have the right to practice our own religious beliefs, and Butler’s novel notes that every religion is just as relevant and valid as another one. Stephen Potts notes in the interview “‘We Keep Playing the Same Record’: A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler” that Lauren hopes to bring back a sense of communal purpose and meaning” by relying on the philosophy of Earthseed and that her religion was a set of beliefs that allowed her to survive in chaos and gave her hope for the future. Lauren wrote in her diary that she “believe[s] in something that [her] … dying, denying, backward looking people need” (Butler 25).
II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO
Butler’s characters have a lot to teach us about tolerance and acceptance and how important it is to protect and restore our environment through an analysis of how they overcome their conflicts. In this novel, Butler has created a female heroine who faces conflicts within herself, among her family and friends, against nature, and the overall society she tries to escape. The success of these conflicts resides in the fact that Lauren must defeat her oppressor and convince those around her that her belief in Earthseed can led them to a better life. Peter Stillman notes that Lauren’s character exhibits behaviors that ensure that her conflicts will resolve in her favor. Stillman states that Lauren "cultivates trust and community" while "taking calculated risks" as well as being tolerant of other ethnic groups and genders (23 -24). Lauren's determination to accept people regardless of ethnicity or religious beliefs enables her to survive among her enemies. Lauren realizes that in order to live in a hostile environment you must look for solutions that will help erase the damaging effects of environmental abuses as well as be instrumental in building the Acorn community.
Lauren's internal conflict is battle she faces with her hyperempathy, and how she cannot let it destroy or weaken her against her physical enemies. Lauren also faces the conflicts within her own familial structure, such as her father's religious beliefs, her relationship with brothers Cory and Keith, and her friend Joanne's betrayal, which are resolved by distancing herself from those she once loved and trusted. However, Lauren's conflicts do not end once she has become separated from her family, because she has to survive among the Pyros and savages who are filling the streets and despite the infernal blazes of fire and the scarcity of water. According to Jerry Philips, Lauren's success in her conflicts is possible because "she understands that only by working through the contradictions of the world does one move beyond them" (303). Lauren has to quickly identify the conflicts and to search through them for the resolution.
In Parable, Butler devises and carefully crafts a futuristic, dystopian world. Butler also creates people (characters) who simply react to or perpetuate the world in which they live. Lauren seems to be the only character, besides her father, who is intrinsically motivated to attempt to make the world a better place with regard to religion, the environment, and interpersonal relations. In keeping with the premise that Butler utilizes Parable to make a statement, one could argue that the importance of the characters lies in the fact that if dystopia is the effect then the characters are the cause. Each character is a mirror reflection of any given real, live person. To begin to prevent this dystopian world in real life, people must analyze the human characteristics, qualities, and traits of the characters in hope of learning how individuals in a society can strive together to create a better world.
One cannot overlook the fact that Lauren chooses her companions discriminatingly. She invites those who are of use and who possessed certain qualities to join her traveling party—ultimately to become Earthseed. It behooves any serious reader of the novel to take a closer look at the characters who make the cut to Earthseed, the novel’s utopia, and who are denied access and why. The personalities, characteristics, and traits of the characters Lauren accepts into Earthseed are important because they are in direct opposition to the personalities of minor characters from her old community like Mr. Moss, Mrs. Sims, the Dunns, and even Keith.
When analyzing the major and minor characters it is also important to think about the author’s purpose when creating these characters. In “Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction,” Gregory Jerome Hampton and Wand M. Brooks quote Butler: “‘I write about people who do extraordinary things’” (71). It is important for students to explore the qualities, abilities, purposes, and creation of the major and even those little known minor characters from Parable. As students delve deeper into the being of Butler’s characters they will gain more meaningful insight into not only the characters themselves but also Butler’s reasons for creating these characters as they are in the novel.
Meg Chittenden, author of “10 Wise Thoughts on Characters,” offers strategies for creating characters. Some of the more important strategies that this veteran writer discusses are “mak[ing] each character distinctive, hav[ing] each character talk in his or her own particular voice, build[ing] each character a little at a time as you develop a story, us[ing] names to characterize, giv[ing] your characters some kind of history, and us[ing] only the most important characters’ viewpoints” (24-25). Butler admits in an interview with Charles H. Rowell that she first created a “cast list” (62) in Parable of the Sower in order to keep her characters straight. However, when looking at the “cast list,” as Butler called it, one can see the above listed strategies at work. The main characters Lauren, Harry, Zahra, Travis, and Natividad are all distinctive. Likewise, they all possess or adhere to the above strategies. It is important for students to understand that the characters that Butler devised were carefully crafted and all serve a purpose specifically related to one another and the story as a whole.
III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS
Clearly, the most enduring aspect of Butler’s Parable of the Sower is the futuristic world that the author creates and its relevance and resemblance to our present. In “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” Jerry Phillips quotes Lewis Mumford’s idea of the author as the creator. Mumford asserts that “‘the writer is still a maker, creator, not merely a recorder of fact, but above all an interpreter of possibilities’” (qtd. Phillips 299). Butler, as Mumford suggests, has created a window through which the reader can view a futuristic world that could possibly exist and stimulate awareness of current issues that will affect our future. Also, Butler has intuitively created a dystopia in which the environment and religion, on which people depend, have been rendered inept. The characters’ responses to this dystopia allow the reader to contemplate how we humans and our behavior are integral parts of our surroundings (environment), beliefs, and values (religion). The power to create a better world—utopia—is directly linked to the will and longings of the characters and in this case the author, as the supreme creator, as well.
The economic, environmental, political, racial situations of Parable are so powerful because the reader can relate these situations as the results of the world’s current problems. Butler’s society introduces to the reader unthinkable situations that are disturbingly real because, according to Parable, they are in an embryonic stage. World issues such as global warming, abuse of natural resources, racism, drug abuse, and violence have gone unchecked to the point that Lauren Olamina’s world is in utter chaos. People are no longer able to travel freely, live unaccosted, or work for an American dream.
However, creating a possible future is not a novel idea. Various artists from a myriad of fields attempt to project what the future would be like. For example, filmmakers also attempt to predict possible futures. The Wachowski Brothers, creators of the popular Matrix series, envision a futuristic world in which machines rule and use humans as slaves. Thinking they have found a solution to their immediate problems, the humans cause a chain of undesirable events by “scorching the sky” (The Matrix Morpheus). In the series, humans do not think beyond the present and as a result they suffer in a dystopian environment. The enduring understanding to be gained here is that ill-conceived ideas lead to downfall.
Similarly, Butler’s Parable conveys her vision of a future world where, as in that of the Wachowski brothers, people are destructive, and they are slaves. They are slaves to their environment in that they rarely leave their walled-in communities. According to Lauren, people would be “crazy to live without a wall to protect [them]” (Butler 10). Moreover, the people in Parable are slaves to their fear. People are fearful of thieves, persons of a different race, and fire.
Sharing thoughts, feelings, or solutions to today’s pressing issues is beneficial to students of any age group or academic level. Students who read Parable should, at the very least, leave the text with a sense of warning. It is important for students and teacher to discuss what can be done now to avoid any such future as the one Butler lays out. It is clear that Butler is urging the reader to consider the state of the world as it is and what the world could become. However, the immediacy of Parable seems not only to warn the reader of the dangers of the current course of society but also to compel the reader to take action in order to foster a better world.
Looking at the differences between Lauren’s old community and Earthseed would be beneficial for students because it allows them to trace the steps Lauren/Butler took in order to form a better world. Peter Stillman points out in “Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler’s Parables” that Lauren builds a community of “trust and close personal ties” (16) as opposed to her old community. Generally, the steps taken to form Earthseed are in response to all that Lauren sees that is currently wrong with the world (23). Moreover, Lauren endeavors to “learn everything [she] can while [she] can” (Butler 58), and she uses what she learns as experience that guides her steps.
In Lauren’s old community the family units “look inward” and are “concerned with their own members” (Stillman 19). Before his death, Lauren’s father sees the need for the families to work together as a unit, as one community. Yet, these families are never able to achieve the level of a “mutually supportive community with common purposes and the ability to generate or mete out charity or justice” (19). In a sense, Mr. Olamina effectively paves the way for Lauren to create Earthseed in that his attempts to pull their community together and the shortcomings of various citizens provide Lauren with guidelines and insight as to how not to create a utopian community, thus constituting the basis for Lauren’s decisions in creating Earthseed.
The idea of a better future or utopia is another enduring aspect of Parable. Interestingly, neither Lauren nor Butler presents a clear-cut answer for the reader of how to build a better future. The reader is left with ideas. One senses that Butler intends for the solutions to the problems she addresses in this novel to come from all persons. The short-term answer in the novel is the building of a “mutually supportive community” (Stillman 19). An ideal point of discussion for students would be the final scene of Parable of the Sower of the memorial ceremony and the new beginning of Earthseed and hope for the future.
Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at http://www.ascd.org.
Butler, Octavia E. The Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993.
Chittenden, Meg. "10 Wise Thoughts on Characters." The Writer 120:3 (2007): 24-25.
Gonzalez, Juan, and Amy Goodman. "Interview with Octavia Butler: Science Fiction Writer Octavia Butler on Race, Global Warming, and Religion." Democracy Now!: The War and Peace Report. 11 Nov. 2005.
Govan, Sandra. "The Parable of the Sower as Rendered by Octavia Butler: Lessons for Our Changing Times." Femspec 4:2 (2004): 239-258.
Hampton, Gregroy Jerome, and Wanda M. Brooks. "Octavia Butler and Virginia Hamilton: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction." The English Journal 92:6 (2003): 70-74.
Phillips, Jerry. "The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower. Novel: A Forum on Fiction 35 (2002): 299-311.
Potts, Stephen. "Interview wiht Octavia Butler: We Keep Playing the Same Record." Science Fiction Studies 23:70 (1996): 331-338.
The Matrix. Dirs. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Laurence Fishburne. 1999.
Rowell, Charles, and Octavia E. Butler. "An Interview with Octavia E. Butler." Callaloo 20:1 (1997): 47-66.
Stillman, Peter G. "Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler's Parables." Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies. 14:1 (2003): 15-35.
Simon, Scott. Interview with Octavia Butler. United Nations Racism Conference. National Public Radio. 8 Jan. 2003.
Re Gena Brown of Whiteville, N.C., is an English teacher at West Columbus High School who is pursuing her master of arts in English education at UNC-P. Thomasania Craft is an English teacher at Purnell Swett High School in Pembroke, N.C., who is pursuing her master of arts in English education at UNC-P.