Lola Rose: Religion vs. Nature in Things Fall Apart & Parable of the Sower: A Comparative Analysis
As the ongoing challenges of the climate crisis in modernity continue to arise, the incorporation of ecological concepts in literature has facilitated scholarship in restoring harmony between living organisms and their physical environment, bringing attention to the threats that face the natural world. Thus, it is made apparent that the study of interconnectedness in nature must be paired with an understanding of human nature to fully grasp the belief systems that bind or divide humanity. The most widely accepted belief is that of the omnipotent. Creating an image of the divine arguably allows society to understand and rationalise the potential future threats to the ecosystem. In Parable of the Sower (Butler:1993) and Things Fall Apart (Achebe:1958) both Butler and Achebe employ themes of the divine through various religious concepts to address how spiritual agency effects the protagonist’s physical environment. In Parable of the Sower (Hereafter referred to as Parable) the protagonist, Lauren, rejects traditional understandings of the divine in favour of her newly formed religion, Earthseed. Unlike traditional conceptions of a supernatural God, Earthseed posits that belief can be used to change one’s environment by recognising the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world. This spiritual truth is seen as the source of the religion’s power. For Lauren, the key concept of divinity is the belief that God is not necessarily benevolent, but rather malleable. As such, she sees God as representing change itself. This idea challenges traditional understandings of divinity and allows for a more ecologically minded perspective. Butler’s questioning of the authority of a single, Western deity in her work aligns with similar attitudes expressed in the novel Things Fall Apart (Hereafter referred to as TFA). The novel focuses on the spiritual power of nature as seen through the traditional culture of the Igbo people, as well as the protagonist Okonkwo’s struggle to preserve their faith in the pre-colonial era of south-eastern Nigeria. By highlighting the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world, both works challenge traditional understandings of divinity and offer alternative perspectives on spirituality. Through this portrayal of the effects of British colonial rule and Christian missionary efforts in Nigeria, Achebe illustrates the damage that these forces inflicted on the environment and traditional way of life of the Igbo tribe. As a result, Achebe highlights the dangers of attempting to impose external beliefs and values on a culture and its natural surroundings. This essay will focus on how the fixed static of the divine and the ascending hierarchal nature of Christianity created divisions between humanity and nature in both Butler’s and Achebe’s novels. By comparing Lauren and Okonkwo’s responses to change, this paper will conclude by exploring if the status quo needed to be adapted to better serve the needs of both communities in their current environments.
The concept of the Chain of Being was developed by Western thought to create a hierarchical order of beings and non-beings. This framework placed the omnipotent at the highest rank, with God as the creator of all other beings. In turn, this hierarchy created a power dynamic between humanity and nature, with humans being seen as superior to the natural world. From a platonic perspective, the Chain of Being was thought to orient humans towards ‘a transcendent reality above nature toward which the human soul journeyed back to the divine’ (Grim and Tucker 2002:46). This religious ideology established a dichotomy between nature and culture, allowing humans to perceive themselves as sharing spiritual attributes with God and removing themselves from any connection to the wild or undomesticated aspects of nature. Christianity, with its emphasis on a hierarchal understanding of the divine, was able to gain power and influence in Western thought by suppressing ‘indigenous nature-based religions’ (Grim and Tucker 2002:50). Through this arrangement, humans in the west were able to see themselves as separate from and superior to the natural world. This section will explore how Parable and TFA challenged traditional western power structures though their exploration of ‘ecological interconnectedness’ (Gates: 2021). By applying this, it will analyse how both authors employed ecological mechanisms to warn readers of the effect humanity’s intrusion holds over the future biosphere.
A cautionary example of this threat can be exhibited in Butler’s novel Parable. Through its anti-utopian portrayal of ‘ecological disaster, economic devastation, and degradation of the public sphere’ (Morris 2015:271), the novel offers a dystopian vision of the dangers facing the future climate. Set in 21st century America, Butler uses the concept of social inequality in the corporate world to illustrate the potential consequences of humanity’s actions on the environment. Nature is personified through the character of Lauren to demonstrate how the creation of her religion, Earthseed, has the power to bring balance to her chaotic environment. Lauren challenges traditional understandings of divinity by rejecting the idea of a single, all-powerful deity and expressing scepticism towards the dominant Christian faith in her community. Through her exploration of these ideas, the novel offers a critique of the hierarchical power structures that exist within religious systems and suggests alternative ways of understanding the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Although Lauren was raised in a Christian household, she rejects this faith early in the novel, stating that the Baptist God her father preaches for is a ‘God who isn’t mine anymore’ (Butler 2019:7). For Lauren, the traditional concept of an unseen, all-powerful God is not credible and offers no real hope of escape from her hostile environment. This rejection of Christianity serves as the foundation for the development of her own religion, Earthseed. The verses of Earthseed are displayed within Lauren’s fictional religious text, The Book of the Living. When Lauren first introduces her religion, she states that ‘We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe. Godseed is all there is – all that Changes’ (Butler 2019:73). By referring in each verse of Earthseed that ‘God is change’ (Butler 2019:3), Butler challenges traditional western religious ideals that establish hierarchical power structures that separate humanity and God from the natural world. By rejecting these hierarchies, the novel suggests that traditional religious structures need to be dismantled to understand and address the ecological disasters that result from the disconnection between the divine and the environment. By offering this perspective, the novel encourages readers to consider the ways in which religious beliefs and practices can impact the condition of the environment. Earthseed challenges the dogmas of traditional faith by replacing the concept of the omnipotent with a diffuse sense of the divine that is present in every living and non-living organism. The shared purpose of this belief system helps to promote ‘ecological self-consciousness’ (Morris 2015:277) by pursuing a ‘universalist goal’ (Morris 2015:271). Through her recognition of the destruction of the environment and the turmoil within her society, Lauren understands that traditional religious ideologies need to be modified to meet the present needs of the land and its inhabitants. In exploring these ideas of interconnectedness within religion, Butler raises questions about the extent to which nature can be seen as a site of divinity. Thus, demonstrating the impact it can have on the environment, compared to the traditional western concept of a single all-powerful God.
Whilst Parable envisions a future environment that is beyond repair, TFA explores the impact of Christian missionary control on the environment from a post-colonial perspective, focusing on the ways in which it affected the Igbo society of Nigeria in the late 19th century. Unlike the Christian belief in a divine creator, the Igbo people did not have a concept of a single, all-powerful deity. Instead, their spirituality was based on the idea of a divine power that arose from the symbiotic relationship between nature and humanity. By focusing on the idea of interconnectedness, the Igbo society rejects the notion of western power, as they are unable to accept the idea that the populous must obey only one God. Instead, their belief system reinforces a more ecological understanding of the divine, with power being distributed among multiple gods and goddesses who represent different facets of the natural world. The following section will compare the religious ideologies in both novels and evaluate their effects on the natural world. It will then explore how the remote source of power found in Christianity contrasts with the local and particular beliefs in TFA, and how these concepts reflect in the doctrine of Earthseed.
Posthumanism questions the understanding of the Self as ‘fluid, contingent, and as contesting and rending the hierarchical binaries of nature/culture, self/other, male/female, human/nonhuman’ (Heffernan 2003: 118). This approach rejects the dominant perception of the human being as Christian, white, and male, and instead encourages a more fluid and inclusive understanding of the self. Achebe’s novel confronts this dominant force by exploring how western society has positioned the ‘nonhuman’ (in this case, black and unchristian individuals) as ‘unnatural, and therefore Other’ (Achachelooei 2021: 121). Whilst Lauren embodies a post humanist perspective that advocates for change to ‘revive her dead society’ (Achachelooei 2021:120), Okonkwo advocates for fixity to maintain the traditional Igbo religion. Through this stance, Okonkwo attempts to protect his community from being proselytised by Christian missionaries who sought out to conquer the land. Achebe’s use of language in TFA suggests that religion and nature are intertwined and essential components of life for the Igbo community. By establishing a connection between the divine and nature, the novel links the Igbos’ ideology directly to the doctrine of Earthseed. This is because Lauren sceptical attitude towards Christianity suggests that mainstream religions do not provide answers to the pressing environmental issues faced by Lauren and her community. Therefore, the creation of Earthseed is driven by the desire to promote ecological thought through the interconnectedness of living and non-living beings to ensure survival. In TFA, this idea is presented in a different form as the Igbo people live in an agricultural society that relies on the natural resources of the land in order to maintain good harvests. The ‘serve the earth attitude’ that is made apparent in this novel demonstrates that it is pertinent to apply it to ecocritical approach (Kumar 2021: 12). Through their dedication to the divine, the Igbo people illustrate this idea, as they believe that their crops will perish if they do not appease their gods. The earth goddess, Ari, is seen as the ‘the source of all fertility’ (Achebe 1958: 26) and so serves as a reminder that ‘the worlds of the human and nonhuman, living and dead, must cooperate for the best outcome’ (Savoury 2014: 254). For the Igbo people, the natural world is seen as both a source of spiritual power and a provider of material benefits. By challenging the anthropocentric view that places humans above nature, Achebe instead promotes an anthropocosmic view that advocates for a more equal and interconnected relationship between humanity and the natural world.
During the middle of the novel, Okonkwo commits a crime against the earth goddess by accidentally shooting a clansman. The clansmen exile Okonkwo, stating that they live in peace to ‘honour our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops will not grow’ (Achebe 1958:29). By punishing Okonkwo for his sin against the earth goddess, the clan acknowledges the interconnectedness between humanity and the natural world, and the importance of maintaining a harmonious relationship to ensure the success of their crops. Thus, provoking ecological mechanisms that suggest divinity and nature work as joint forces. As a result of his crime, Okonkwo is exiled from Umuofia and forced to move to his mother’s native village, where he witnesses the arrival of white missionaries. Through their arrival, Achebe presents an apocalyptic scenario that contrasts with the post-apocalyptic imagery of Parable. The presence of Christian missionaries is used to demonstrate the destructive effects of their colonial control on the political structures, religious beliefs, and social customs of the Igbo people (Okoye-Ugwu 2013: 158). By examining the ways in which tyrannical control supplanted indigenous tribal culture, Achebe illustrates the destruction of African society’s unity. Okonkwo’s resistance to new political and religious orders is rooted in his fear of losing his position in society. As he watches his clan succumb to the power of colonial ideology his sense of betrayal is captured in the poignant line: ‘Now he had won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart’ (Achebe 1958:166).
Despite the tribal culture being one that endorses ecological thought, Okonkwo’s internal struggle to accept change results in his own suicide. One possible interpretation of Okonkwo’s tragic fate is that his ideology, which prioritises personal achievement and status over communal harmony and environmental stewardship, is ultimately self-defeating. Okonkwo’s own narrow understanding leads him to reject the tenets of the tribal religion, which emphasises the interconnectedness of all beings and the importance of respecting and preserving the natural world. Lauren’s belief system in Parable, contrasts to Okonkwo’s ideology as Earthseed promotes ecologically and socially conscious thinking. Unlike Okonkwo’s concern with his own success, Earthseed, emphasises the need for individuals to work together to improve their environment. This collectivist approach is reflected in Lauren’s lack of personal gain or reward, as she is motivated by a sense of responsibility and compassion for others. Okonkwo’s egoistic ideology contrasts with Lauren’s altruistic belief system and thus illustrates different responses to change and progress. Therefore, despite the Igbo religion espousing an ecological worldview, Okonkwo’s crimes against the Gods demonstrate how he favoured personal reward over distributed benefit, whereas Earthseed in Parable actively cultivated an ecologically conscious mindset.
Thus, it can be concluded that Parable and TFA both challenge traditional understandings of divinity and offer alternative perspectives on spirituality that align with ecological principles. In Parable, by presenting Earthseed as a non-hierarchical religion that connects God and humans to the natural world, Butler rejects the power structures that are imposed through the western concept of an all-powerful God. In TFA, Achebe’s portrayal of the effects of British colonial rule and Christian missionary efforts in Nigeria illustrate the consequences their force inflicted on the environment of the Igbo tribe. Through the portrayals of religion and nature within the novels, both Achebe and Butler highlight how religion can affect the environment in the face of ecological disasters. Okonkwo’s strict adherence to the traditional Igbo system ultimately resulted in his own downfall due to his lack of understanding of the interconnected nature of his society and his prioritisation of his own interests above those of the community. Laurens faith in Parable contrasts to this as the ecological principles of interconnectedness in the religion earthseed placed a crucial role in shaping her future and maintaining the unity of her small group of followers. Both protagonists therefore demonstrate the different ways in which individuals can respond to the challenges of change and progress and illustrate the consequences of prioritising personal reward over communal harmony. Thus, promoting principles that recognise and consider the influence humanity has over the future environment.
Lola Rose, February, 2023
Achebe, Chinua. 1958. Things Fall Apart (London: Penguin Classics)
Achachelooei, Mohammadi Elham. 2021. ‘The Past and ‘Discontinuity in Religion’ in Octavia Butler’s Parables: A feminist Theological Perspective’. Journal of Language, Literature and Culture. vol. 68, no.2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/20512856.2021.1935492?scroll=top&needAccess=true&role=tab [Accessed 9th December 2022]
Butler, Octavia E. 2019. Parable of the Sower. (London: Headline Publishing Group)
Grim, John and Mary Evelyn Tucker. 2014. ‘Ecology and Religion’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion. vol. 82, 2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24488063. [Accessed 9th December 2022]
Gates, Louise Sarah. 2021. ‘Ecological Interconnectedness: Entwined Selves, Transcendent and Immanent’ Roots, Routes and a New Awakening. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-7122-0_5 [Accessed 9th December 2022]
Heffernan, Teresa. 2003. ‘Bovine Anxieties, Virgine Births, and the Secret of Life’ Cultural Critique. No.53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354627 [Accessed 9th December 2022]
Kumar, Singa Bandana. 2021. ‘An Ecocritical Interpretation of “Things Fall Apart”’. Multidisciplinary Journal of Language and Social Sciences Education. Vol. 4, no.1. https://journals.unza.zm/index.php/mjlsse/article/view/598. [Accessed 9th December 2022]
Morris, David. 2015. ‘Octavia Butler’s (R)evolutionary Movement for the Twenty-First Century’ Utopian Studies. vol. 26, 2.
Okoye-Ugqu, Stella. ‘Going Green: An Ecocritical Reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart’ Okike: African Journal of New Writing.
Savory, Elaine. 2014. ‘Chinua Achebe’s Ecocritical Awareness’. PMLA. Vol. 129, No.2. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24769456#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 9th December 2022]
Said, Edward, 2014. Orientalism (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
This section: Lola Rose: aspiring writer
Filed under: Lola Rose: aspiring writer
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