Encountering God in 'The Color Purple' | Sojourners

Encountering God in 'The Color Purple'

We’re a couple taking on Emma Watson's #feminist reading list together. Here’s what we’re learning.
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We’re a long-distance millennial couple participating in Emma Watson’s feminist book club and writing about it. To read along with Emma, Olivia, and Kurt, start here.

The shortest month of the year also held the most amount of time together for us, for one reason or another — meaning we had a lot of time in transit to read or listen to February’s book, The Color Purple. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and feminist pioneer Alice Walker calls this novel “the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness,” and it has long been accepted into the canon of formational feminist literature.

For us — a white, heterosexual, Lutheran couple who grew up in four-member households — The Color Purple was an insight into a very different reality: that of black women in the Jim Crow-era South who redefined family, faith, and feminism. Here is a snippet of our conversations regarding our own faith journeys and relationship to each other and to the Earth.

“Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It. But what do it look like? I ast. 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 is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.” —The Color Purple

Olivia Whitener: During summers working at camp, one thing we did together was draw who we thought God is. The campers and I would draw anything from stars in the night sky to pictures of their friends and family to copies of images of God they had seen in paintings. Then, like Celie and Shug Avery in this passage from The Color Purple, the campers and I would discuss together how God should not always be thought of as an old white man. That image of God is limiting for those of us who cannot identify with such a figure. When you think God looks like a person who represents oppression, danger, or injustice, you don’t want to have anything to do with that God. When you broaden the scope to say God is in everything and everyone, then everyone, including me and Celie and my campers, has a part of God’s light inside us.

Kurt Houwen: In that same passage, Shug continues to explain her spiritual awakening, describing how she laughed and cried upon realizing that she is a “part of everything.” For her, finding God in trees, birds, air, and eventually other people was a release from boundaries — particularly the boundary of a masculinist worldview.

Connecting with nature was a major step in finding the love of God. Alice Walker encountered “That Which Is Beyond Understanding But Not Beyond Loving” in nature, and that’s one of the main commentaries on faith that she presents here.

Olivia: But I also think — and maybe these are my own theologies and experiences entering into my reading of Alice Walker’s work — that The Color Purple is ultimately about relationship with other people and discovering love in unexpected places after believing it doesn’t exist. For me, God is present in the people around me, and I think that for Celie, the same comes to be true even if Alice Walker doesn’t identify with Christianity as I do.

Kurt: Yes! I agree on both counts! (That you're reading that into it and it is there, too.) “Discovering love” is definitely there, it's just not so clear cut. It’s messy. But the emphasis on relationship with others is in the story explicitly! It gives the story its spice.

Olivia: Well, and relationships are messy...and require a lot of forgiveness, which you see unfold in the book. I think we also see that to understand a person and to love them requires being able to sit down with a person to hear their story. And to listen to someone else’s story, you must first identify that they are a human with a story to tell, and a story that matters.

Kurt: You see that especially with Celie and her husband Mr._____. Celie was subverted and conditioned by her father and then her husband to believe she had no dignity and that she could not really bring about any good consequence. The best she could be was an inanimate thing —so she embodied a tree whenever he would beat her or use her, commanding herself to “make myself wood.” The Color Purple shows us the negative ethical implications of what happens to human beings when we force them to be the way we want to represent them.

Olivia: And what’s worse is that objectifying others is still such a reality in this country and not just something of the time that this novel is set. For women, for people of color, for those with physical and mental disabilities, for Americans who speak other languages — we have a history of treating them like objects, and it has led to many instances of negative self-worth and in many cases cycles of unhealthy behavior. It’s all systemic, and I appreciate Alice Walker zooming in on one family to illustrate that cycle of objectification and depression and all of the effects of that. But as readers of this novel, we have to see it as beyond itself.

Kurt: Looking even further into what it means for Celie’s liberty to be linked throughout the book with the liberty of nature, The Color Purple also speaks to how we, non-Native Americans, view nature as something to use — either because of dutiful or consequential motivations. But we must let Nature be — let Nature whisper its truths to us, rather than have us decided what we want it to be.

Olivia: That message is especially mirrored in the portions of the book describing the colonization of the African villages in order to build rubber factories. Walker does an excellent job of drawing connections across intersections of abuse in this novel: from domestic violence to slavery to abuse of land to injustices in the law to spiritual limitations. And she does it so poetically.

Our Ratings of The Color Purple:

Olivia: 5 out of 5. I think this is essential reading for every person I know. It’s more than a feminist novel, but rather a novel that we all should read to gain a better understanding of the interconnectedness of all these justice issues.

Kurt: 4.5 out of 5. I really enjoyed the book! The characters were extremely diverse and helped to speak the grittiness of the social environment they lived in. Personally I really appreciate The Color Purple because it is a good narrative to help interrogate social artifacts, social structures, and social relations to beings in general.