Theology from Alice Walker

Alice Walker’s masterpiece, The Color Purple, suffered from being made into a movie. Not only did the movie shy away from the sex, religion, and politics and Disney-ize the story, but people thought the movie told the whole story and never read the book. Wow, did they miss a lot.

Here’s an example. It’s the climax, for goodness sake, the turning point, the chapter that has Celie finally getting free of her demons, one of the biggest of which was the stern, anthropomorphic God as imagined by many of us.

This chapter shows how a truly knowledgeable writer can discuss any subject in simple, accessible language. In this case, Walker makes more sense more efficiently than virtually all the credit grubbers infesting scholarly quarterlies.

The chapter opens with the huge step of Celie no longer writing letters to God but to her sister, whom she hasn’t seen in years but hopes is still alive. She writes of telling her friend Shug that she has lost her faith. She misses God, who now seems to be gone even from church and paying no attention. Shug, who has a history with men and booze and nightclub gigs, astonishes Celie and us with her theological persuasion.

Shug asks whether Celie has ever found God in church, because she (Shug) never has. “Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not to find God.”

This is just the first time we hear a version of the line from Luke’s gospel, where he quotes Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is within you,” a sentence worth many days of meditation.

Then Shug asks Celie to tell her what God looks like, and she describes the classic European image, much like Leonardo’s Sistine ceiling. Shug quite rightly condemns that image as invented by white people and as an obstacle to constructive prayer.

Speaking of appearance, Celie mentions that her sister once said Jesus’s hair is described in the Bible as being like lamb’s wool, which is a reference to The Apocalypse of John, or Revelation. This hallucinatory allegory describes a vision of Jesus with white hair like wool. We do know Jesus wasn’t Caucasian like the models used by European artists. He was a Palestinian Jew and probably had curly or kinky hair and olive skin, like the stereotype of a Middle Eastern terrorist. He certainly terrified the governor, who decided he had to have Jesus executed.

Enough detour. Shug gets to her second iteration of that great line from Luke: “Here’s the thing, …The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit.”

And Shug, notice, wisely insists on God as It. Wisely because assigning gender to God automatically assigns genitals and sexual desire, which regresses us the Ancient Greek and Hindu pantheons.

Celie asks, reasonably, what God looks like, then. “Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’re found It.”

Shug describes her progression away from the distant man upstairs to a God-in-us (the InsideGod!) who is truly spirit: “My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I know that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.”

Celie is shocked that sexual pleasure isn’t dirty but made and blessed by God. “But more than anything else, God love admiration.” And here’s the source of the book’s title, when Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

And what does God do when that happens?

Shug explains that God simply makes something else, to try to please us back. God wants to be loved, just like everything It created. Just like us.

Who Preaches Terrorism?

“Do not deviate from [the Teaching] to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.”

“They answered, “…Any man who flouts your commands and does not obey every order you give him shall be put to death. Only be strong and resolute!”

“The total who were [slaughtered] that day…came to twelve thousand.”

“They cut down their populations with the sword until they exterminated them; they did not spare a soul.”

“Thus says the Lord…Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”

“O Lord, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe your adversaries. I feel a perfect hate toward them; I count them my enemies.”

Where’s this from? ISIS? The Taliban? Quotations from the Qur’an cited by Boko Haram?

It’s the Bible. Yes, the Holy Bible, as Christians call it.

I’ve heard priests thunder that Christianity is not a cafeteria religion, that you can’t choose what you like and ignore the rest. Fortunately for the priest, those burning pants were extinguished by the lack of oxygen under his cassock.

It’s not that simple.

If you’re socially immature, you might like the absolute moral certitude of these quotations. The Qur’an has similar passages. Some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists, acting on them, have been giving religion a bad name for centuries. Welcoming the ammunition, ethical atheists publish books proving that there is no God and that religion is a source of evil.

Meanwhile, the more grown up thinkers realize that real faith requires critical vision, and that belief is blind. They choose not to recreate chimp societies but to imitate Jesus. This man is revered by all three faiths for reiterating and exemplifying the Abrahamic religions’ underlying principle: compassion. Jesus really went back to the roots.

The primitive Jews of the quotations above hadn’t learned true, universal compassion. Nor have the followers of so-called radical, or fundamentalist, Islam. Nor have so-called Christians who would bomb all Muslims back to the Stone Age.

But mature readers of the Bible and the Qur’an see the above quotations as the primitive relics that they are and instead seek out passages that support the practice of compassion. As the famous Talmud story ends — I’ll paraphrase to preserve the intent of the Hebrew — Whatever is hateful to you, don’t do it to anybody else. The rest [of the Torah, Talmud, etc.] is commentary, which you must go and study.

Fundamentalism can be truly evil, but compassion can feel truly dangerous. Not many of us can be as fearless as, say, Sister Megan Rice in speaking truth to power and abstaining from violence, even in self defense.

It’s complicated. Go and study.