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Literature and Political Theology

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.

The December 2022 release of the eight-episode FX/Hulu Original Series Kindred starring Mallori Johnson and Micah Stock brought the work of award-winning novelist, Octavia Butler, to a wider and more popular audience. The FX/Hulu series follows up on the success of Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (2018) by Damien Duffy (Adapter) and John Jennings (Illustrator), which became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and won the 2018 Eisner Award for Best Adaptation from Another Medium. In 2020, Duffy and Jennings also published Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, which won the 2021 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story or Comic. With the success of these graphic novels and the broad reach of the television series, perhaps the producers at FX/Hulu will be compelled to follow up with an original series based on Octavia Butler’s Parables.  

To my mind, a Parables television series could not be more timely, relevant, or urgent in these times of increasing economic precarity and political extremism. Perhaps a new FX/Hulu series based on the Parables would beckon millions of viewers to heed the urgent warnings penned by Octavia Butler nearly thirty years ago. Despite the decisions of these networks, those of us concerned with questions of political theology, broadly understood, must take seriously the urgency of Butler’s prophesies, as recorded in her literary classics.

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. With the opening scenes of Parable of the Sower set in this year, Butler’s future is upon us. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the fierce urgency of Butler’s Parables is no longer in the future, but NOW!

In these novels, Butler offers us a stern warning concerning the political machinations of right-wing conservative Christian nationalists and their co-conspirators, whom she names “Christian America.” She warns of a society that is marked by, among other things, calculated assaults on public education, an increasingly privatized society characterized by corporate greed and relentless economic exploitation of labor that results in vicious modes of debt-slavery, and an erotic life of racialized and sexualized violence against the most vulnerable, especially, poor Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and their children.  All these horrors, of course, are justified through an insidious political theology that envisions and enacts a violently repressive social order, thinly veiled as peaceful and pious patriotism.

The Parables and Public Education 

In the opening pages of Parable of the Talents, one of the central characters, Taylor Franklin Bankole, husband of the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, reflects upon the societal descent into the dystopian nightmare, referred to as “the Pox” or “apocalypse,” that he witnesses in his lifetime. Among the laundry-list of various effects of this socio-political realityincluding climate and other environmental crises Bankole lists crises in education and economics. More accurately, he suggests that these and other social problems were ones that were created and exacerbated by his generation’s refusal to deal honestly with such problems before they reached the level of crisis. Concerning the plight of public education, Bankole notes, “I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive” (4).  

Indeed, in Butler’s Parables, public education has become all but non-existent, and “civilized” society has not survived. No longer available to the masses for free, education has become privatized. The government considers public education a “failed experiment” leaving education to religious institutions or large corporations. In “company towns,” corporations provide instructional tracts that are essentially training programs for a labor force bound by debt to the specific corporation that sponsors the “education.” By design, student-employees incur inordinate amounts of debt, which is nearly impossible to repay, thus forcing them into a coercive and exploitative relationship with their employers. Eventually, education itself becomes indistinguishable from, and an instrument of, bondage and slavery. By the end of Talents, the violent right-wing militia group, Christian America, has taken those deemed “heathen” or “un-American,” most of them poor, captive in “reeducation camps,” while referring to themselves as “teachers.” Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist of the Parables and founder of the democratic religious community, Acorn, which is taken captive by Christian America, laments, “They will break us down, reshape us, teach us what it means to love their country and fear their God.” (184). This colonizing curriculum runs directly counter to the egalitarian ethos of Olamina’s Acorn, where education is considered essential to creating a spiritually mature religious community committed to social equity and a sustainable environment.  

In Octavia Butler’s commentary on Parable of the Talents, she explains that her perspective on education developed across the Parables was deeply influenced by the growing “contempt for public education” during the 1990s in conjunction with “enthusiasm for the building and filling of more and more prisons” (415).  

The Parables and Economic Exploitation 

Of course, Butler’s literary critique of the interplay between prisons and public education is also integrally linked to her critique of the creation of precarity through economic exploitation. By the end of Parable of the Sower, Butler describes the creation and confinement of “debt slaves” who are economically and socially bound to companies that not only refuse to pay living wages but also create and control the modes of currency, which could only be circulated within the company’s own coercive economy. Desperate wage workers, with only access to limited amounts of “company scrip” and never cash, are charged rent for the substandard housing “provided” by the company, and are forced to pay for food, clothing, and other basic necessities with company notes that can only be spent at the company store. In a scenario that begins to approximate a futuristic version of antebellum slavery, though not racialized in the same way, “debt slaves” are disciplined, traded, sold, separated from their families, and children are held accountable for the unpaid debts of their parents to the company in the event of the parents’ death, disablement, or desertion (288).  

By the second novel, Parable of the Talents, the exploitative practices and power relations between corporations and those beholden to their control give way to a carceral logic that reintroduces modern forms of enslavement.  Talents explores the horrors of enslavement born of economic exploitation, precarity, and political violence through characters such as Emery Mora. Mora’s children are sold away from her when she becomes a “debt-slave” to an agribusiness corporation that underpays her in company scrip and overchargesher for company-provided food and shelter to keep her drowning in ever-increasing debt. This debt will eventually become the rationale for selling away her two young sons. Having escaped debt-slavery with little more than her life, she is subsequently re-enslaved, along with her two daughters, by the political group, Christian America, in a “reeducation camp.” Because of her fierce desire to provide care for and remain in “possession” of her remaining children, she is doubly bound to the exploitative practices of her new state-sanctioned enslavers. This makes Emery Mora a literary example of what political theorist, Joy James, refers to as a “captive maternal,” or “one who is tied to the state’s violence through their non-transferable agency they have to care for another.” (https://sites.williams.edu/jjames/captive-maternals/). Joy James has explored what she calls “captive maternal love” in Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, and I would argue that the same logic holds for characters like Emery Mora, and indeed, for the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, in Butler’s Parables (James, 2015).

The Parables and the Erotic Life of Racism 

Such state-sanctioned violence against “captive maternals” and other vulnerable populations is on full display in Christian America’s reeducation camps. To be sure, there is far more than the indoctrination of piety and patriotism at work in these sites of suffering, which are sanctified by the state. As I have written elsewhere, Parable of the Talents describes the perverse interplay of politics, power, and pleasure at work in the reeducation camps (McCormack, 2021). In short, “teachers” in the reeducation camps derive considerable pleasure from the abuses wrought upon those they hold captive. This is especially the case for the male teachers who derive sexual pleasure from the women whom they “lash” into submission through digitized “slave collars.”  But these “lashings” are only the most extreme, and obvious displays of such sexualized abuses of power. There are also many instances of more mundane, and everyday occurrences, of what literary and cultural theorist, Patricia Sharron Holland, describes as “the erotic life of racism,” or the intersection of the personal and political dimensions of desire in quotidian acts of racism (Holland, 2012, p. 9). We might think of “the erotic life of racism” as the affective libidinal charge at work within the white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist power relations at play within the Parables, and within our own worlds. Indeed, Lauren Olamina describes her reeducation camp, Camp Christian Reeducation Facility, as at once a “university of pain,” where she and others held in bondage are subject to all manner of everyday violations of their bodily autonomy, and a site of pleasure for her captors. The domination and violation of Lauren’s Black, female, body bring pleasure to her captors (mostly white and male), whose “desire” for the religio-political conversion of her soul is always already shot through with a simultaneous sexualized desire to produce painful convulsions in her flesh. It should be noted that the “erotic life of racism” at play in Camp Christian stands in sharp contrast to, and perhaps as an intentional negation of, what Brianna Thompson describes as the “erotic pedagogy” or the “physical embodiment and enactment of the equitable, reflexive, and interconnected world Lauren wants to create through Earthseed.” (Thompson, 2021, p. 183). Thompson sees in Olamina’s Earthseed religion, practiced in the community of Acorn, an “erotic” pedagogy of loving transformation that is embodied through intimate forms of “reflexive touch.” Thompson writes, “bodies touch as touched beings who cannot interact without becoming a part of a relation that alters them.” (Thompson, 2021, p. 194). Thus, “although Lauren initially shapes women by holding them, she is shaped as she embraces them, in effect being changed by them as she changes them.” (Thompson, 2021, p. 194). Such an “erotic pedagogy” is the antithesis of the pornotropic power displays at work in the eroticized slavery of the reeducation camps.   


As I was completing the edits for this essay, Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) created headlines with his recent assaults on public education. DeSantis blocked the implementation of the College Board’s newly constructed Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course, arguing that the course violated state law and that it “lacked any educational value.” Moreover, DeSantis has threatened to dismantle Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs in Florida, arguing that these programs, and not the injustices they seek to correct, are “racist.” Readers of Octavia Butler will be all-too aware that the “anti-woke” “cultural wars” rhetoric of DeSantis and other right-wing politicians sounds much like the fascist rhetoric of Butler’s Parables set in 2024. 

Indeed, DeSantis, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, calls to mind Butler’s fictional presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, in Parable of the Talents. While the inflammatory rhetoric of Jarret is more akin to that of former President Donald J. Trump, currently the frontrunner in the field of G.O.P candidates, Trump, DeSantis, and others who share their ideological agenda threaten to bring about the kind of dystopian society that Butler warned about—one in which the dismantling of public education, the increasing economic exploitation of labor(-ers) by corporations, and the erotic pleasures of racialized and sexualized violence by men in power is legitimized by a politics of white Christian nationalism. It is evident that politicians like DeSantis have had a chilling effect on public education, causing teachers to fear political repercussions for teaching critical perspectives on race, class, gender, and/or sexuality. DeSantis and his ilk are well aware that such curricular and administrative interventions could lead to the strengthening of progressive movements to create a more equitable and just social order. As such, these teachings are deemed “radical,” “communist,” “un-American” and worse. Indeed, it is not too hyperbolic to compare the kind of “patriotic” pedagogy encouraged by right-wing ideologues to the intentions of the Parables’ reeducation camps, where the end game, to reiterate Lauren Olamina’s harrowing reminder, is to violently “teach us what it means to love their country and fear their God.” 


Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993.

______________. Parable of the Talents. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1998.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

James, Joy. “Captive Maternal Love: Octavia Butler and SciFi Family Values,” in Feminist Writing and the Emergence of Feminist Theory, Robin Goodman, ed. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015.

McCormack, Michael Brandon. “The Violence of Making America Great Again: Religion, Power, and Vulnerable Bodies in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents” in God is Change: Religious Practices and Ideologies in the Works of Octavia Butler. Edited by Apara

Thompson, Brianna. “Erotic Pedagogy in Parable of the Talents: Freedom and Community Through Touch,” in God is Change: Religious Practices and Ideologies in the Works of Octavia Butler. Edited by Aparajita Nanda and Shelby Crosby. Philadelphia: Temple Uni

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.

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

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