Monday, August 17, 2015
In a sentence: A strong African woman casts off the restraints of a slave’s religion, challenges whitey’s gods, and pushes through to a way of life that is more natural, productive, and happy.
It doesn’t take long for nearly every intelligent author in the course of their career to weigh in on the one topic most try to avoid until they have had at least a small amount of success under their belt. The question of religion and of God are nearly inevitable in an author’s career, and I enjoy the challenge of searching/waiting for works which reveal authors’ best kept biases and most petty/profound insights. Sometimes I am devastated by the inanity and childishness of the reveal, and other times I am deeply moved and persuaded that there is more to the author than her works generally exhibit. Either way it’s entertaining.
So I was excited to stumble upon a work of George Bernard Shaw that performed quite well on this front. Mr. Shaw has thrown his hat in the ring of authors who have spoken out quite bluntly about God and religion, and he pulled no punches. Not only did Shaw tangle with millennia of Christian tradition—a.k.a. ‘God’—in the epilogue of the book, but he also slammed his atheist brothers and sisters for presuming to banish transcendent ‘meaning’ groped for in a mythos, and castigated agnostics for not committing either way and thinking to sidestep the question altogether (“mere agnosticism leads nowhere”). This much was made explicit only in the essay at the end of the book about the failure of modern Christianity, severed as it is from its original context and embellished and contorted in order to fit two millennia of evolving sensibilities and changing environments. But the beginning and middle of the book didn’t make the final comments any easier for the faithful to swallow.
Shaw’s heroine, called ‘the Black Girl’ throughout, is a smart, strong, African woman with as healthy a glow to her spirit as to her earth-strong skin and body. She was, in Shaw’s words, “a fine creature, whose satin skin and shining muscles made the white missionary folk seem like ashen ghosts by contrast.” And with this social commentary on the rooted superiority of African blood, body, and brain compared to the ‘ashen’ feebleness of their western ‘saviors’, the author sets up a contest between his protagonist the Champion of religion—namely, God. The Black Girl had been converted to Christianity by a sad, single missionary woman who had found no satisfaction in her life, and the Black Girl decides to go travelling through her jungle to see if she could find the real God of the Bible that the missionary had depicted. She strides off into the jungle, her knobkerrie in hand (a sort of club with a knob-tip used in hunting and battle), naked and shameless as the earth who mothered her.
Throughout the story she meets with different versions of the God of the Bible, each representing a successive stage of god-progression from blood-thirsty Lord of Hosts, to the God of Job and Micah, to the ascetic and passive Jesus who speaks of a kind of love that consumes individuals for the sake of the collective and frees no one. She debates with each of these gods, and ultimately moves on in search of a more perfect deity that offers more answers.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is when the Black Girl discusses God with a few enlightened westerners, and is told by one of the more honest ones that it were best that the Africans—who were “stronger, cleaner, and more intelligent”—not be taught to believe in the “simple truth that the universe has occurred through Natural Selection, and that God is a fable.” Why would this behoove the Westerners to teach? In the words of one pale-thing, “It would throw them back on the doctrine of the survival of the fittest…and it is not clear that we are the fittest to survive in competition with them...I should really prefer to teach them to believe in a god who would give us a chance against them if they started a crusade against European atheism.”
And there Shaw has put it about as succinctly and potently as he could. The Black Girl has felt the bottom of Christendom, and is ready to break out of the religious labyrinth that had been designed for the Third World by Western imperialists (though I don’t believe that the suppression of Third World freedom by Western religious controls is necessarily a conscious thing in all cases, but I wonder if white faithful folk would change their tune if they weren’t the saviors, and felt more in need of the saving). The Black Girl finds no theology which could deliver to her the perfected essence of the imperfect, traditional, Christian God with its heterogeneous limbs, faces, and purposes. The God she seeks doesn’t exist, and she ends up marrying a good Irishman who believes that “God can search for me if he wants me” (not bad terms to be on with God, if God is good that is). She later becomes a mother, reflects on the futility of wasting her life making assumptions about God and chasing mirages, and in the distraction of living her life and taking care of her family and children, completely loses interest in the search for a God whose absence didn’t ultimately affect her much. Later, after she had raised her children, she considers again taking up the search. But “by that time her strengthened mind had taken her far beyond the stage at which there is any fun in smashing idols with knobkerries.”
A brilliant little ending for a brilliant little book about the triumph of humanity over a few of its stubborn and isolated beliefs. It’s not that Shaw had no appreciation for Christianity—“at worst the Bible gives a child a better start in life than the gutter”—but he urged his fellow Sapiens to put behind them the cruder elements of a faith that must be outgrown, and make progress in the search for what William James called, “the More, and our union with it.” He knew the danger of a closed mind, and when one or more people are not willing to move forward and question tradition, things like Christian religion and the Bible become a little more than an impediment to growth—“[if] we cannot get rid of the Bible, it will get rid of us.”
Now all I need is to find me a knobkerrie and crack some ignorant skulls with it. And…I have learned nothing.