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Phoenix by Steve Jurvetson CC BY-NC 2.0
Literature and Political Theology

It First Must Burn: Expanding the Spiritual Lens of Change in Parable of Sower’s Earthseed

Reconsider the concept of change in your spiritual journey.

In order to rise

From its own ashes

A Phoenix




–Earthseed: The Book of the Living

I met Octavia E. Butler in April 1998; at the time, I was barely 22 years old and a month from graduating from college. I had discovered Butler two years earlier. Her novel Mind of My Mind was required reading for my Black Women Writers course. And after that moment, I consumed everything that she had written.

During Butler’s talk, I sat in a half-empty auditorium of about a hundred people. The scattered seating provided me a direct sight line. I was transfixed on her every word. I still remember her voice, her mannerisms, her presence. Afterwards, at the book signing, I handed her my copy of her novel, Wild Seed, to be signed. I couldn’t find the words to tell her what her work meant to me. I muttered something about wanting to be a writer. She wrote inside: Write on! A simple and clever phrase of motivation and inspiration for the many writers she must have commonly met. And for a Black writer, evoking the expression “Right On!” of the 1960s and 70s, connecting to memories of Black power and pride. The moment was over before I had time to digest it. I had lost her gaze and my moment of attention had passed. She was signing the next book.

My autographed copy of Wild Seed. Signed April 1998.

My academic career as a scholar has been shaped by that anti-climactic moment with Butler; I want to prove to her how important her work is to me. I publish and present on topics related to Butler. My work in Black Feminism is largely influenced by her characters, essays, and interviews. However, in this essay, I want to share how Butler’s work, especially the Parable of the Sower, has impacted my spiritual journey.

Figure 1. My autographed copy of Wild Seed. Signed April 1998.

Butler’s Spiritual Influence on Me

Several of Butler’s early novels, especially Kindred (1979) and Wild Seed (1980), invest significant time critiquing the weaponizing of Christianity and the hypocrisy of its practitioners. However, she also embraces Christianity’s importance to her family. In the anthology, Conversations with Octavia Butler, she explains in her 2000 interview with Charles Brown, “Religion kept some of my relatives alive because it was all that they had. If they hadn’t had some hope of heaven, some companionship in Jesus, they probably would have committed suicide, their lives were so hellish…When they were in pain, when they had to go to work even though they were in terrible pain, they had God to fall back on, and I think that’s what religion does for the majority of people…They use it to keep themselves alive” (186).

While Butler often critiques Christianity, she understands it as the moral center from which she operates. She explains, “I used to despise religion. I have not become religious, but I think I’ve become more understanding of religion. And I’m glad I was raised as a Baptist, because I got my conscience installed early. I have been around people who don’t have one and they’re damned scary” (Brown 187). Moreover, I would also argue that having that moral center gave her a starting point to explore and question how Christianity functioned in communities she occupied as a working-class Black woman.   

I was raised in a Christian family similar to Butler’s. Faith has been an armor and support for generations of my bloodline that have endured systematic racism. Yet, when I reached my 30s, I was seeking something missing in my faith practice. Butler’s questioning provided me the space to question the role of Christianity in my life while respecting the role of it in my mother’s and extended family’s lives. Butler provided the vocabulary to talk with my family while I negotiated a different spiritual path.

For eight years, I have been a practitioner of the ancient Yoruba spiritual system called Ifá, which originated in southwest Nigeria. Carried from West Africa through the Middle Passage of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Ifá knowledge and rituals were secretly maintained by enslaved Africans and their descendants, which sustained Orisha communities. Practices continue in West African diasporic religious traditions such as Isese, Vodun, and Lucumi.

In Parable of the Sower (1993), the protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina is also probing elements of her spiritual upbringing. She is the daughter of a Baptist preacher. While she respects her father and the comfort Christianity has provided to her community, as a teenager she begins to question how Christianity functions in her life.

Change Starts with Fire

In Parable of the Sower (1993), ten days after her eighteenth birthday, Lauren’s home and the rest of Robledo, a walled community located on the outskirts of Los Angeles, are attacked, looted, and burned to the ground. Her neighbors, people she has known her entire life, are dead in the street. In the chaos of the nighttime attack, she is separated from her family. Lauren is alone and must protect herself in a dystopian California where ecological failure, poverty, and deep class divides have made murder, rape, theft, and arson shockingly commonplace.

Fire is a prominent symbol of destruction in the novel. Among the most terrifying bearers of it are people known as “paints,” so called because they “shave off all their hair—even their eyebrows—and they paint their skin green or blue or red or yellow” (110). They are addicted to the drug Pyro, which makes the acts of lighting a fire and watching it burn entirely euphoric, so they indiscriminately set fire to whatever is available: both inanimate material and people. Lauren’s brother Keith explains, “Sometimes [paints set] a campfire or trash fire or a house fire. Or sometimes they grab a rich guy and set him on fire…Sometimes the paint likes the fire so much they get too close to it. And their friends don’t even help him…it’s like they were f—g the fire, and like it was the best f–k they ever had” (111). This description of fire for the reader creates a discomforting binary of agonizing death and orgasmic pleasure. It is unsettling to consider both feelings side by side and readers will also burden themselves with shame that does not weigh down the paints.

Before Robledo’s destruction, Lauren spends years preparing for the moment when the violence of the outside world would crash through her walled community. She teaches herself survival skills, stashes emergency packs, makes plans to journey north, and begins writing the verses of the new spiritual system she calls Earthseed. She explains, “I intend to survive” (58). All the skills are practical. In fact—even creating Earthseed is practical to her.

Earthseed grows out of Lauren’s frustration with her father’s version of God: “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” (15). When she considers the book of Job, Lauren imagines, “a super-powerful man, playing with his toys the way my youngest brothers play with toy soldiers” (16). In response to her theological questioning, she begins to write verses at the age of twelve. At fifteen, she names the religion, Earthseed.

Fundamental to Earthseed is the belief that “God is Change, and in the end, God prevails. But God exists to be shaped. It isn’t enough for us to just survive, limping along, playing business as usual while things get worse and worse. If that’s the shape we give to God, then someday we must become too weak—too poor, too hungry, too sick—to defend ourselves. Then we’ll be wiped out” (76). In Lauren’s perspective, faith requires taking an active role in your existence. You do not just pray for change and wait. Waiting and passivity may lead to your demise. You must be an active agent. Embracing this perspective of faith may require the destruction of your current viewpoint. A new perspective is reborn.

Spiritual Influences on Earthseed

Butler read widely across a variety of spiritual systems to create Earthseed. She was a detailed researcher—often taking years to synthesize ideas into plots, characters, and settings. She discusses her process in her interviews. And I found supporting evidence in her archive; there are hundreds of pages of journal notes, novel drafts, note cards, college coursework notes, and newspapers clippings indicating her persistent curiosity about various religious traditions.

An example of the Eastern and African influence in the novel is that Lauren chooses the title of Earthseed’s sacred text Earthseed: Book of the Living based on the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead (125); both books are funerary texts that guide the bereaved, the dying, and the dead through practices of death and rebirth. Additionally, in an anonymous interview included in the 2000 reissue of the novel, Butler explains she modeled the structure of Earthseed verses on the Tao Te Ching (336)—a classic Chinese text considered foundational to Taoism; English translations of the 81 very short chapters are generally 2 or 3 brief verses.

Butler was especially attracted to Buddhism. This was her touchstone for the concept of change: “…in Buddhism, change was also very important, although in a different way. To put it simply, in Buddhism, since everything is ephemeral, we can avoid suffering only by avoiding attachment because all things to which we might become attached are bound to pass away” (336). Therefore, I suggest that Butler was drawn to a perspective of change grounded in life’s cyclical nature of death and rebirth and a well-known representation is the Phoenix dying and emerging once again from the ashes.

As described above, Butler’s perspective on Christianity was complex and she was respectful of how important it was to her family’s mental survival and understood how humans may use religion for good. Her novels also observe how Christianity is weaponized against the vulnerable. In Earthseed, readers are exposed to both the light and dark aspects of practicing a spiritual faith, and this revelation is itself empowering:

God is neither good

nor evil,

neither loving

nor hating.

God is Power.

God is Change.

We must find the rest of what we need

within ourselves,

in one another,

in our destiny.

-Earthseed: The Book of the Living (245)

There is a coolness and detachment in this verse that accepts the cruelties of life. Yet, there is also a call for you and your chosen communities to harness the potential to support each other amidst these cruelties.

One of Butler’s further frustrations with religion is that because it serves as a kind of crutch, humans are not more often guided by their own moral compasses. She explains in a 1980 interview with Rosalie Harrison, in the anthology in Conversations with Octavia Butler, “In some ways, I wish we could outgrow religion; I think at this point it does a lot of harm. But then, I’m fairly sure that if we do outgrow it we’ll find another reason to kill and persecute each other. I wish we were able to depend on ethical systems that did not involve the Big Policemen in the sky…It would be nice if we would police ourselves” (9). In other words, it is frustrating that most cultures—and the human beings that inhabit them—operate under the threat of punishment for doing bad instead of operating from their moral center.

For me, Butler’s references to West African spirituality in the novel are particularly significant. Lauren’s middle name is taken from Oya, an Orisha, or a spiritual entity in the Yoruba religion Ifá, and Butler describes Lauren’s namesake as “unpredictable, intelligent, and dangerous” (338). Lauren is all of these things. People who defy social norms and seek to change common ways of thinking are often labeled with those three words.

In Ifá, Orisha are prayed to (among other reasons) for support in something you seek or want to improve in areas such as career, family, or personal growth. Some priests and practitioners will warn you: do not pray to Oya unless you are prepared for her swift, unpredictable, and possibly destructive action. In other words, do not call upon Oya unless you are ready for all that must be destroyed to create significant change.

For me, then, the practices of reading and prayer provide an opportunity to accept possible destruction as a companion to profound transformation. When I need to find my strength to embrace the true challenges of change, I can pray to Oya, I can read Lauren’s story, or I can return to studying any of Butler’s writings.

The Fierce Urgency of Butler’s Future is NOW!    

As literary works of speculative fiction, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) thrust us into an all-too-near future, offering a haunting perspective on what our world could entail by the year 2035. In 2024, however, Butler’s Parables are no longer mere imaginative forays into the future.

Political Theologians: Lauren Olamina and Ramakrishna Paramahansa

Dismantling institutionalized religion by empowering the masses.

It First Must Burn: Expanding the Spiritual Lens of Change in Parable of Sower’s Earthseed

Reconsider the concept of change in your spiritual journey.

Ecowomanist Parables: Ecowomanist Ethics and Praxis in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

In an era of systemic collapse, we need radical ecowomanist theory for survival and liberation.

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