Study Guide

Parable of the Sower Religion

By Octavia E. Butler

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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 let 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. (2.1)

Many people stay with the religion they were raised in. Not so Lauren: at about age twelve, she ceases to believe in the Baptist God she's been taught about by her father. Yet she continues to go along with the ceremonies of her father's religion—and she calls herself a coward for it. Is it really cowardice? After all, she's only fifteen, and she doesn't have much control over her life. Was it a good idea for her to go along with the ceremonies, or would it have been better if she spoke her mind?

A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. And nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel in control of. (2.43)

Here Lauren is differentiating her own beliefs from popular beliefs held by others, specifically the ideas that 1) God is an authority figure, and 2) God is nature. The first view is based on hierarchy, the notion that some beings are superior to others (in this case, at the very top is the Big-Daddy-God outranking everybody). The second view, that God is nature, can be found among many different groups, including the American Romantics. Even the way some people think about evolution—like the idea that it explains everything about everything—kind of comes close to being a religious belief.

Some say God is a spirit, a force, an ultimate reality. Ask seven people what all of that means and you'll get seven different answers. So what is God? Just another name for whatever makes you feel special and protected? (2.44)

Just think of how many commercials tell you that you'll be a better, happier, more empowered person if you purchase whatever they're advertising. Lauren is kind of wondering if religion is the same thing. If so, God becomes the name for whatever it is that makes people feel special and safe. But Lauren is aware of how her society is falling apart, and she wants people to recognize and deal with that very lack of safety. So, sometimes, change isn't a God that helps you feel special and protected. Sometimes life just isn't very safe.

In the book of Job, God says he made everything and he knows everything so no one has any right to question what he does with any of it. Okay. That works. That Old Testament God doesn't violate the way things are now. But that God sounds a lot like Zeus—a super-powerful man, playing with his toys the way my youngest brothers play with toy soldiers. Bang, bang! Seven toys fall dead. If they're yours, you make the rules. Who cares what the toys think. Wipe out a toy's family, then give it a brand new family. Toy children, like Job's children, are interchangeable. (2.49)

Yeah, the Old Testament is pretty violent in parts, and that God, Yahweh, doesn't like a lot of questioning. Note how when Lauren becomes a sort of spiritual guru herself, she, in contrast, welcomes dissent (18.82). Compared to the Old Testament, Lauren's is a very different model for how education and community building should work.

Maybe I'll be more like Alicia Leal, the astronaut. Like her, I believe in something that I think my dying, denying, backward-looking people need. I don't have all of it yet. I don't even know how to pass on what I do have. I've got to learn to do that. It scares me how many things I've got to learn. How will I learn them? (3.46)

Lauren is really concerned with successfully conveying her knowledge to others, and she feels frightened by the difficulty of learning how to do that. It's maybe surprising that factors outside of herself—the final invasion and collapse of Robledo, above all—are mainly responsible for a lot of the evolution Lauren eventually undergoes.

In other words, Lauren doesn't simply stay in her bedroom her whole life pondering and writing in her journals to come up with some written-down solution. Her world changes dramatically: it's out of her control, and she's forced to grow up and adapt primarily as a result of that. Sometimes you just have to get flung into a changing situation in order to grow.

I've never felt that I was making any of this up—not the name, Earthseed, not any of it. I mean, I've never felt that it was anything other than real: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation. I wish I could believe it was all supernatural and that I'm getting messages from God. But then, I don't believe in that kind of God. All I do is observe and take notes, trying to put things down in ways that are as powerful, as simple, and as direct as I feel them. (7.6)

This is an attitude commonly expressed by fiction writers, including Stephen King in his memoir On Writing. Lauren's vibe is that she's discovering the truth, exploring its territory, and not just making it up, not just inventing a fictional religion. Of course, it's paradoxical that this attitude reaches us today through the medium of a fictional novel.

I'm going to go through my old journals and gather the verses I've written into one volume. I'll put them into one of the exercise notebooks that Cory hands out to the older kids now that there are so few computers in the neighborhood. I've written plenty of useless stuff in these books, getting my high school work out of the way. Now I'll put one to better use. Then, someday when people are able to pay more attention to what I say than to how old I am, I'll use these verses to pry them loose from the rotting past, and maybe push them into saving themselves and building a future that makes sense. (7.11)

In this passage, Lauren describes her plans to advance and spread her religious ideals. But she's hitting a pretty big wall: people won't believe a teenager much. For a lot of people, an adult white male in a business suit is automatically more persuasive than someone like Lauren, a female Black teenager. Here she's hoping to just wait it out until she gets older. But when Robledo collapses, she no longer has that luxury, and she must press ahead, regardless of her age.

I've finally got a title for my book of Earthseed verses—Earthseed: The Book of the Living. There are the Tibetan and the Egyptian Books of the Dead. Dad has copies of them. I've never heard of anything called a book of the living, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover that there is something. I don't care. I'm trying to speak—to write—the truth. I'm trying to be clear. I'm not interested in being fancy, or even original. Clarity and truth will be plenty, if I can only achieve them. If it happens that there are other people outside somewhere preaching my truth, I'll join them. Otherwise, I'll adapt where I must, take what opportunities I can find or make, hang on, gather students, and teach. (11.51)

Here Lauren considers the nature of her unique work, as well as her plans for it. Primarily, she wants to tell the truth in plain language. Sometimes in real life, people say we should speak truth to power, literally meaning that we should address ourselves to powerful people such as those in governments and corporations. But here, Lauren seems more interested in speaking truth to people—the ones she meets day to day, or whoever might read her Earthseed verses. She thinks she might join up with others or gather her own students. Her idea isn't to go confront KSF in Olivar and speak truth to them, since they are the powerful. Instead, she wants to build her own community.

"It sounds too simple, you know." [...]

"I mean it's too...straightforward. If you get people to accept it, they'll make it more complicated, more open to interpretation, more mystical, and more comforting." [...]

"All religions change. Think about the big ones. What do you think Christ would be these days? A Baptist? A Methodist? A Catholic? And the Buddha—do you think he'd be a Buddhist now? What kind of Buddhism would he practice?" He smiled. "After all, if 'God is Change,' surely Earthseed can change, and if it lasts, it will." (21.25-31)

These are many of Bankole's objections to Earthseed, which we get toward the end of the novel. He thinks that if people come to find faith in Earthseed, they'll change the religion in ways Lauren might not approve of. If you really want to see where this goes, be sure to read the book's sequel, Parable of the Talents, and check out the plans Octavia Butler had for further books.

"How serious are you about this?"

The question drove me deep into myself. I spoke, almost not knowing what I would say. "When my father ... disappeared," I began, "it was Earthseed that kept me going. When most of my community and the rest of my family were wiped out, and I was alone, I still had Earthseed. What I am now, all that I am now is Earthseed." (21.33-34)

What is it that would drive a teenager not only to create her own religion, but also to find success in spreading it and migrating far away as a refugee? It seems Earthseed functions as a sort of organizing principle for Lauren, something she can hold on to in times of crisis and find meaning and guidance in. That's what religion or philosophy is for a lot of people, of course, but it's unusual for someone to develop her own system. However, it doesn't seem like Lauren just did it for fun; rather, she was driven to do it in order to simply survive what she was experiencing.

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