What the Church can Learn from Octavia Butler | Sojourners

What the Church can Learn from Octavia Butler

Image via Pip R. Lagenta/Flickr 

A student once asked Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler, “Do you really believe that in the future, we’re going to have the kind of trouble you write about in your books?”

The student was referring to Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, published in 1993 and 1998 respectively but took place in 2024 and 2032. The books are near future dystopias in which an extreme wealth gap exists between the rich and the rest. In these stories, drug abuse is rampant, illiteracy is the norm, the government is in fascist shambles, infrastructure in disrepair, and the onslaught of climate collapse is made harrowingly manifest.

Butler replied, “I didn’t make up the problems. All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.”

This answer is more relevant today as we live through a global pandemic. But as we live and die through COVID-19, churches can engage a similar speculative futurist theological imagination.

Speculative futurism isn’t mentally escaping into a future that is either far more dystopic than our present or far more utopic than we should expect — nihilistically leaning into our sense of dread and doom or engaging an escapist fantasy that all will be better some day and calling this ungrounded vision “hope” can both be momentarily comforting. A speculative futurist ecclesiology looks at every fault line exposed by this pandemic alongside every gift and grace it illuminates. Then imaginatively give those fault lines, gifts, and graces about 10-20 years to grow in order to to speculatively examine their potential for both disastrous consequence and for human flourishing in a near future scenario.

You’ve seen the fault lines clearly enough, each with a history that precedes the pandemic — privileging of profit for the rich over the bare survival of the multitude; racial and economic disparities and systemic injustices; the nation’s deep political divides that are rising to new levels of vitriol; government leaders publicly disparaging the recommendations of scientists.

Just before the coronavirus captivated the world’s attention, we saw climate scientists warn us that we have until 2030 to take drastic action to avert climate catastrophe by reducing global net CO2 levels by 45 percent. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists also moved the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds till midnight over threats to human survival including nuclear war, climate change, and cyber (mis)information warfare. And before COVID-19, we watched Australia burn.

These are the disasters. Then there are the gifts and graces of this hour.

What is your church finding it’s really good at during this pandemic — things that are bringing life to you and your community?

You may be keeping the food insecure in your community fed. Maybe you’ve discovered gifts at holding people together in cyberspace when you can’t be together physically. Perhaps you’ve stretched your capacities for interfaith collaboration and solidarity to address your city’s gravest concerns.

Likewise, you may be recognizing some ministries you’d like to be better at and have potential to grow into.

Now spend some time asking: How can we build on these capacities and gifts in a near-future world that develops along the fault lines of our present? What are the embodied feelings we experience in response to this pandemic that will be exacerbated by the extension of these fault lines? Anger, fear, despair, impatience, defensiveness, and fatigue come immediately to mind. Given these, what practices of care do we need to cultivate in order to promote the flourishing of love, awe, wonder, joy, patience, defiance, persistence, and a deep sense of belongingness?

Now you’re getting closer to a composite picture of the church the near future needs you to become.

In order to be faithful in this hour, we can’t lie to ourselves believing that things are so bad that they can’t be changed. Nor can we believe that things will inevitably be better sooner or later. Either is tempting to believe. Neither is true.

At the end of Butler’s conversation, the student asked for her answer to all of the problems she presents in her novels.

“There isn’t one,” she replied.

“You mean we’re just doomed?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers — at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

In a way, that response makes our task a little less daunting. Each of our churches doesn’t have to be the answer to all of our future problems. A speculative futurist imagination invites us to discern our way into how each of our churches will cultivate one or two of the thousands of answers the future will require of us.