Lauren Oya Olamina: Theologian of Our Time
By Tamisha A. Tyler.
At the beginning of 2020 I wrote a tweet that stated, “The Parable Series by Octavia Butler is your required reading for 2020. You think Handmaids Tale got close, you ain’t read nothing yet.” I did not anticipate how well that tweet would age. If the last two years have taught us anything, it has taught us that adaptation and change are as consistent as they are unpredictable. Between the natural disasters, a global pandemic, and global civil unrest, the days are heavy and (like Marvin Gaye) make us want to holler and throw up both our hands. Often, it is times like this that make us turn to our religious and spiritual communities (if we have them). And while spirituality can help us navigate troubling waters, many of our leaders are left questioning how they will care for communities under duress while trying to stay afloat themselves. Navigating uncertainty while also trying to curb societal pressures to have a theological answer for atrocities natural and human made can leave leaders with few resources to offer, and people looking to them for answers with little hope.
But what kind of leader do we need during a time of so much loss and unanswered questions? Who are the spiritual leaders that help us navigate the shadowed terrain of our own hopelessness? There are some who tell us to be brave, or to hold onto a God that works things for our good. Others remind us of the internal shadow work we must do through meditation, or the external justice work that is how we love our neighbors. There are even those who attempt to condemn our behavior, insinuating that the current state of the world is because of our non-belief or disobedience. (We don’t listen to those folk.) While most of these words are comforting, I want to argue that there is one leader that can speak more fully into our current situation that anyone else. That leader is Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: Lauren is not a real person. And you would be technically correct. She is a product of the brilliant imagination of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. Butler writes the Parable Series (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents) under the “if/than” category of speculative (science) fiction, which basically means if we continue the trajectory we are on now, this is the type of world we will end up with. Other notable science fiction novels like Handmaid’s Tale also fall under this category. Butler’s acute attention to political and religious corruption, the wealth gap, and growing ecological crises in the late 80’s and early 90’s led her to write about not only what kind of world we would inherit, but what it would take to survive that world and create something different, something better.
And the person who would lead us to something better; a teenage androgynous looking black girl with a disability who dresses like a man for her own survival, cares for those in her community through teaching and sharing her newly found religion, and who survives by any means necessary. Lauren shares her thoughts via journal entries, and in doing so allow us to see through her eyes, offering shrewd insight into the world from her home in Robledo in 2024. The daughter of a Baptist preacher and professor, Lauren begins our journey by rejecting her father’s Christian God in place of what she calls the God of Change: “all that you touch you change/all that you change changes you/ the only lasting truth is change/God is change.”
Lauren’s god is not one to be worshiped but one to be shaped. If God is change, then we as humanity have an opportunity to participate in that change by shaping god:
We do not worship god
We preserve and attend god
We learn from god
With forethought and work
We shape god
In the end, we yield to god
We adapt and endure
For we are Earthseed
And God is change
As Earthseed, our job is to attend and care for the land and each other as we navigate a world of uncertainty. By placing the shaping power in the hands of humanity, Lauren calls us to remember our own agency in a place where nothing seems to be within our control. We do not wait on God to do something, we act, we shape. And in doing so God acts. This may sound dissonant to some Christian readers, who may adhere to an unchanging God who moves on our behalf. As a Christian, I deeply believe that there is much truth here, but I also recognize what Lauren is teaching us. Lauren does not sugar coat the realities of her world (which look too much like our own). Instead, she leans fully into that change and adapts. And in doing so she finds God. She does not reject her identity, nor does she let anyone else limit her based on who she is. She leans into who she is and uses it to aid her survival. And when she encounters those in need, she uses her hyper-empathy (which is seen as a disability), and all that she has learned from her father, as compassion and strength.
Two years into a global pandemic and Lauren’s 2024 is looking more like our immediate future than I’d like to admit. In an American context where billionaires are creating alternate universes and attempting to buy and build cities, where a California drought may leave us without water sooner than we think, and where American Evangelical Politics are still trying to Make America Great Again, we need a spiritual leader who will be honest about the realities we are facing, and what we can do about it. Lauren Oya Olamina may not be the Theologian many want, but there is no doubt that she is the Theologian we need.
Tamisha A. Tyler, MDiv, is the former Director of ARC: Art Religion and Culture and PhD candidate in theology and culture. Her work establishes methodologies in the field of Theopoetics, situated in the work of Octavia Butler. Tamisha is also cofounder of Kinship Commons, a company that resources worship cultivators of color. A dynamic speaker and facilitator, she teaches in the areas of culture, community, and art, and works with several organizations including Level Ground, Feminism and Religion, and currently serves as a faculty and board member of Grunewald Guild. We’re not working, she enjoys good food and good friends, karaoke, and travel.