Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Octavia Butler and the Parables (part 9; Parable of the Talents)

Octavia Butler's Parable series

The novel continues as Olamina--while still searching for Larkin--begins to rebuild Earthseed by converting and teaching people not just to be followers but also to be teachers themselves. 

Olamina gains a partner-pupil, Belen Ross. Belen argues that Olamina needs to focus on what people want and then explain how Earthseed will help them achieve it. Olamina begins proselytizing again, not with words alone but also with deeds, and teaches others to do the same. Earthseed begins to grow and years later, in the words of Larkin, it grew into “an unusual cult”:

It financed scientific exploration and enquiry, and technological creativity. It set up grade schools and eventually colleges, and offered full scholarships to poor but gifted students. The students who accepted had to agree to spend seven years teaching, practicing medicine, or otherwise using their skills to improve life in the many Earthseed communities. Ultimately, the intent was to help the communities to launch themselves toward the stars and to live on the distant worlds they found circling those stars (340).

It wasn’t until Larkin was 34 (~2067) that she realized that the now-famous Olamina was actually her birth mother, and they finally met. When a blood test confirmed that they were mother and daughter, the person administering the test said to Olamina, “I had heard . . . that you had a daughter who was lost. And now you’ve found her” (358). But, unlike the parable of the Prodigal Son, the child and parent this time remained unreconciled. Once Olamina learns of Marcos’s deception, she is unable to forgive him, and Larkin is too devoted to her Uncle Marcos to accept Olamina’s rejection of Marcos.
Olamina, at age 81, finally witnesses her Earthseed dream coming true. Members of Earthseed depart in shuttles for the stars, and Earthseed begins to fulfill its essential purpose, according to Olamina:

It will force us to become more than we might ever become without it. And when it’s successful, it will offer us a kind of species life insurance (352). 

The novel ends with Olamina saying, “I know what I have done,” and then it includes the full text of the parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30. Olamina had used her talents; she had been a good and faithful servant; the rewards were sure to come as Earthseed fulfilled its Destiny.

Butler herself explains what this hopeful ending symbolizes for her. Olamina realizes that the Earthseed people who are traveling into space into "paradise" will face significant problems. Probably many of them will die; problems of the human condition travel with them, but she hopes that the difficulties of surviving on another planet will enable them to grow into something better. People will have to work together—and avoid the “worst behaviors”—in order to survive. So, Butler says, this novel about the dangers of global warning and abuses of power reflects her own hopefulness for the human race (Francis 2010: 185). The book, like many of Jesus’ parables, is openended; it is up to the readers/hearers to respond.

Butler started a third novel in the Parable series, Parable of the Trickster, in which the people who went to other planets became homesick. But after many efforts and false starts, she gave up. A review in the The Los Angeles Review of Books by Gerry Canavan puts it this way:

And there Butler left it. The long-promised third book, Parable of the Trickster, never arrived.

Last December I had the improbable privilege to be the very first scholar to open the boxes at the Huntington that contain what Butler had written of Trickster before her death. What I found were dozens upon dozens of false starts for the novel, some petering out after twenty or thirty pages, others after just two or three; this cycle of narrative failure is recorded over hundreds of pages of discarded drafts. Frustrated by writer’s block, frustrated by blood pressure medication that she felt inhibited her creativity and vitality, and frustrated by the sense that she had no story for Trickster, only a “situation,” Butler started and stopped the novel over and over again from 1989 until her death, never getting far from the beginning.

My own analysis of The Parable of the Talents remains unfinished, because by the time I worked through the second volume of Butler' series, I realized that I would only have room to include an analysis of the first volume in my own book, so my in-depth analysis stops with the first volume (see previous posts)--a volume I recommend highly.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Octavia Butler and the Parables (part 8; Parable of the Talents)

Octavia Butler

Reminder: These entries contain spoilers about Octavia Butler's books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. In addition, almost none of the material from the posts about Parable of the Talents will appear in my reception history of the parables book.

This is the next to the last blog post about Butler's series:

Olamina and her followers are now prisoners in the “Camp Christian Reeducation Facility” (formerly Acorn), and the children of Acorn have been sent away. Not only is Olamina’s missionary dream of building other Earthseed communities like Acorn apparently ended—much like some aspects of the parable of the Sower or the Mustard Seed or the third servant in the Talents—but the existence of Earthseed itself is threatened. Earthseed appears to be “stamped out” in its infancy, before the “one small seed” could grow and spread, including the “Destiny” of taking “root among the stars” to ensure its survival and the survival of human beings themselves (161-165). Olamina, however, even in the midst of her enslavement and suffering, still has faith that although “Jarret’s Crusaders have strangled Acorn” to death, “Earthseed lives and will live” (195).

For the next seventeen months, Olamina and other survivors live as slaves in the new “Camp Christian,” as “Jarret’s Crusaders” who captured the camp seek to “educate” them and teach them to “behave as decent Christians” (184). And, of course, these “Christian” crusaders themselves betray virtually all tenets of Christianity (e.g., they sadistically torture and rape their “heathen” prisoners). Many of the Acorn prisoners, such as Bankole, do not survive their harsh treatment and torture. Yet, through all this, Olamina realizes that many of her captors are “decent, ordinary men,” who believe in what they are doing but power has corrupted them; they have been convinced that punishing people like Earthseed “is right and necessary for the good of the country” (211; cf. 238). As Butler herself notes:
I don’t write about good and evil with this enormous dichotomy. I write about people. I write about people doing the kinds of things that people do. And, I think even the worst of us doesn’t just set out to be evil. People set out to get something. They set out to defend themselves from something. They are frightened, perhaps. They set out because they believe their way is the best way to perhaps enforce their way upon other people. But, no, I don’t write about good and evil (Francis 2010: 164).
On February 26, 2035, a flare of lightning destroyed the control center for the slave collars that enslaved the prisoners, so they were able to kill their “teachers” (232), cut off their slave collars, burn what remained of “Camp Christian” (so that it could no longer be used as a reeducation camp), and escape (236). The members of Earthseed broke into smaller groups, and those who had children taken from them, like Olamina, started an often-futile search to find them.

Ironically, while still at Acorn, Olamina had discovered that her own brother Marcus, whom she thought was killed years before, was alive. She rescued him from slavery, but he could not agree with her new religion, so he left Acorn, and eventually became a high-ranking and very famous minister in Jarret’s Church of Christian America, taking the name his adoptive parents had given him, Marcos Duran. As Olamina searched for Larkin, she also made contact with her brother Marcos, but he continued to reject any connection with her. Unbeknownst to Olamina, however, Marcos had located Larkin only two years after Acorn was captured, and he never told Olamina that he had done so. This deception led to a final breach between them, once Olamina found out. Marcos had also revealed himself to Larkin when she, at the age 19, came to hear him preach. In addition, Marcos deceived Larkin by telling her that both her mother and father were killed at Acorn many years before (317).

In the meantime, as Olamina searched for Larkin, she began rebuild Earthseed by converting and teaching people not just to be followers but also to be teachers themselves. As Larkin writes, in retrospect:
She needed a different idea, and, in fact, she had one. She knew that she had to teach teachers [in order for Earthseed to survive]. Gathering families had not worked. She had to gather single people, or at least independent people—people who would learn from her, then scatter to teach and preach as, in effect, her disciples (319).
Part of the key to recruiting and teaching teachers is that belief alone will not “save you”:

Are you Earthseed?
Do you believe?
Belief will not save you.
Only actions
Guided and shaped
By belief and knowledge
Will save you.
Initiates and guides action—
Or it does nothing (313; cf. Matt 25:31-46; James 1:22-25; 2:14-26).

On Wednesday, I will post the conclusion to my discussion of Butler's Parable series.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Octavia Butler and the Parables (part 7; Parable of the Talents)

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents

Note: If you plan to read Parable of the Talents it would be best not to read this post and the following posts, because they contain a few spoilers. Also, if you plan to read only one of the two books in the series, you should read Parable of the Sower, not just because it is the first of the two volumes but also because it is the better of the two books.

None of the following will appear in the reception history of the parables book; it has already been cut because of word count.

Continuing the discussion of Parable of the Talents:

In a way similar to how the persecution of the early Christians in the Book of Acts served as a catalyst for Christianity’s spread “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), the spreading of Earthseed was ultimately spread by persecution and an attempt to eliminate the new religion. The persecution stemmed from followers of presidential candidate and Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret. Jarret was also a pastor of his own “Church of Christian America,” and he called for a return to “Christian America”: In his words, “America was God’s Country and we were God’s people and God took care of his own. Now look at us. Who are we? What are we? What foul, seething, corrupt heathen concoction have we become?” (84). He continues:
Why have we allowed ourselves to be seduced and betrayed these allies of Satan, these heathen purveyors of false and unchristian doctrines? . . . These pagans are not only wrong. They’re dangerous. . . . They are the natural destroyers of our country. They are lovers of Satan, seducers of our children, rapists of our women, drug sellers, usurers, thieves, and murders! (84).
Olamina notes that someone like Jarret becomes an option for people when they “are frightened and just plain tired of all the chaos. They want someone to do something. Fix things. Now!” (30). That fearfulness opens the door to Fascism, and it also spelled the end for the tiny Earthseed community of Acorn. As Olamina writes in her journal: “It shouldn’t be so easy to nudge people toward what might be their own destruction” (143).

Olamina is still certain that the community is building something good at Acorn, something that will grow and spread (45-46), but eventually, in order to evade the “specialize-grow-die” evolutionary path the human species faces on earth, Earthseed must spread to other planets:
We can be a long-term success and the parents, ourselves, of a vast array of new peoples, new species . . . or we can be just one more abortion. We can, we must, scatter the Earth’s living essences—human, plant, and animal to extrasolar worlds: “The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars” (48; cf. 65, 249, 293, 321-322).
Earthseed is not a religion that provides the “comfort” of speaking of an eternal heaven that awaits. Instead, Earthseed’s heaven:
Is literal, physical—other worlds circling other stars. It promises 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 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 (49; cf. 143-144).
Although Earthseed’s foundational belief is that God is Change, God can be directed, focused, and shaped—even slowed or accelerated—in various ways. Earthseed is not a religion of consolation in God, a god who is “utterly indifferent,” according to Larkin (49), but the Earthseed community itself provides consolation, as this verse from Earthseed: The Books of the Living indicates:
God is Change,And in the end,God prevails.But meanwhile . . .Kindness eases Change.Love quiets fear.And a sweet and powerfulPositive obsessionBlunts pain,Diverts rage,And engages each of usIn the greatest,The most intenseOf our chosen struggles (47).

Thus Olamina, in spite of their dire situation, believes that what human beings have broken, they can mend (102). That philosophy is severely challenged, however, when Jarret is elected as president of the United States, and tensions continue to rise. A few months after Jarret takes office and two months after Olamina and Bakole's daughter, Larkin Beryl Ife Olamina Bankole was born, Acorn is attacked and taken over by supporters of Jarret, who rename Acorn, “Camp Christian Reeducation Facility.” The children of Acorn are sent away to “good Christian homes” to families who will “re-educate” them. Larkin, for example, is adopted by the Alexander family and renamed Asha Vere Alexander (201). The adult members of Acorn who survive the attack are enslaved—including the use of virtually unremovable “slave collars” that punish offenders painfully and severely and keep them in perpetual servitude.

The next post will talk about how Olamina and others escape their imprisonment and what they do afterward. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Octavia Butler and the parables (part 6; Parable of the Talents)

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents

Whereas Butler’s Parable of the Sower functions as a cautionary tale of where society might be heading if current trends continue, the second novel in the series, Parable of the Talents, offers some ideas about how to solve those problems. But Butler argued that she wasn’t proposing solutions; instead she looked “at some of the solutions that human beings come up with when they’re feeling uncertain and frightened, as they are right now” (Francis 2010: 132).

Butler saw most everything as political in one way or another; she noted, in fact, that the female protagonist Lauren/Olamina in Parable of the Talents says, “to be human is to be political,” basically represents her own viewpoint. She observed that such fictional works as The Turner Diaries or the anti-Semitic The Protocols of the Elders of Zion have had much negative influence upon society (whereas the books of Ruth and Job have had a positive influence). So her works incorporate political emphases; the primary theme of Parable of the Talents, for example, is an examination of how a country can turn Fascist (Butler researched Nazi Germany as a prime example of that happening). Other aspects of the novels, including modern slavery and global warming, came from Butler reading the news (Francis 2010: 202).

The two novels are obviously interconnected. Both, Butler noted, serve as warnings about the dangers of global warming and, in the words of Bankole in Parable of the Talents, such problems that were “caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems” (14). In addition, both are cautionary tales about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and its involvement in politics—one catalyst for Butler was Pat Robertson’s 1991 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Butler saw a major contrast between the fundamentalists’ involvement in politics and Lauren’s use of religion as a tool “for transforming.”

Each chapter of Parable of the Talents also begins with verses from Earthseed: The Books of the Living, but it breaks from the pattern in Parable of the Sower of relying solely upon Lauren’s narration and perspective. This novel offers perspectives from three different voices: a few excerpts from a memoir by Bankole (Memories of Other Worlds) and numerous journal entries from Olamina (beginning with a journal entry on September 26, 2032—the fifth anniversary of the establishing of the Acorn community—and ending with one on July 20, 2090). Each journal entry from Olamina, however, is preceded by extended comments by her and Bankole’s daughter, Larkin.

The book begins by letting readers know that they will indeed being encountering very different perspectives, because Larkin is no fan of her mother or of Earthseed:

I have wanted to love her and to believe that what happened between her and me wasn’t her fault. I’ve wanted that. But instead, I’ve hated her, feared her, needed her. I’ve never trusted her, though, never understood how she could be the way she was—so focused, and yet so misguided, there for all the world, but never there for me. I still don’t understand.

Larkin assembles this book, she says, because she believes that she can never understand herself until she begins to understand her mother (8).

Both Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents end with a complete text of the parable after which they are named. Parable of the Talents, however, also includes the parable explicitly early in the narrative, where Olamina relates a dream about her life when she was 14 or so, when her father was still alive. In her dream, Olamina’s father is preaching a sermon on the parable of the Sower. The dream turns into a nightmare, because Olamina turns to see her mother—who died when Olamina was born—sitting beside her, but her mother refuses even to acknowledge Olamina’s presence. Olamina cannot even move in her dream; all she can do is listen to her father preach about the parable from Matthew 25. Olamina observes:

My father loved parables—stories that taught, stories that presented ideas and morals in ways that made pictures in people’s minds. He used the ones he found in the Bible, the ones he plucked from history, or from folk tales, and, of course, he used those he saw in his life and the lives of the people he knew. He wove stories into his Sunday sermons, his Bible classes, and his computer-delivered history lectures. Because he believed stories were so important as teaching tools.
. . .
My father was a great believer in education, hard work, and personal responsibility. “Those are our talents,” he would say as my brothers’ eyes glazed over and even I tried not to sigh. “God has given them to us, and he’ll judge us according to how we use them.”

In the dream, her father then preaches about the faithful servants in the parable who were rewarded, but when he gets to the punishment of the “wicked and slothful servant,” where “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt 25:29), it happens: Olamina’s mother disappears, then her father, step-mother, and all her brothers are taken away, and her house is “ashes and rubble around” her (20). Her nightmare reflects the reality of her loss of family over five years earlier, and it also serves as a warning to work harder, to learn more, and to persevere. A few pages later, Olamina notes that her “talent” is Earthseed, but she realizes that she in Acorn—her settlement with approximately 60 people in the remote hills of northern California—is more like the servant who buried the talent in the ground than the ones who multiplied their talents: “And although I haven’t buried it [Earthseed] in the ground, I have buried it here in these coastal mountains, where it can grow at about the same speed as our redwood trees” (25).

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