The last time I tried reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I was too young for its explicit scenes of abuse. It terrified me, and I burnt it in the backyard after just a few pages.
I bought a new copy soon afterward, knowing I might one day be able to handle and benefit from it. This week I allowed myself the pleasure of picking anything I wanted from my bookshelf. After years of waiting, I started to read The Color Purple, the book my father wrote a paper on in college, and which my mother said isn’t fit for man or beast.
It was captivating. Iloved its manner, its pace, its plot, and its people. I knew from the tales of others’ experiences that it told the truth about sexual abuse making you dead inside. The book profoundly portrayed shame, silence, and utter relational confusion.
The novel is composed mostly of letters to God, the only safe person the downtrodden protagonist, Celie, can relay her troubles to. The tale is a wrestling match with the identity of the Maker of the universe. That could not be clearer.
I read quicker than usual because Walker told a good story with truth—until I hit about the middle of the book. The sudden introduction of a homosexual relationship between Celie and the traveling blues singer Shug Avery felt like a monumental betrayal to me. How could Walker think homosexuality would lend broken Celie the life she lacked? The book hinged on the relationship between the two, one of the only redemptive and affectionate experiences in Celie’s whole life.
The book hit me at the right time, on the very week my pastor’s sermon camped in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
We remind ourselves not to single out any listed sin as worse than the rest—since rebellion against God is just that, whatever form it takes. But Paul was not afraid to speak to the ancient problem of homosexuality. He did not misunderstand. Better, God was not afraid to speak. God did not misunderstand the tangled webs of relationships, abuse, inclinations, and affections when he told us that homosexuality was wrong.
Among moments of true human value, pleasure, and grit, The Color Purple had an expansive but vacuous thesis. It rested on a redefinition of God—the most harmful of fictions. God had no gender (they called Him “It”), no rules, and no purpose except the amorphous, wishful, and spongy inclusion of Himself into everything.
“That’s so not profound,” said my fiancé, when I described the book to him. After his high school crush turned out to be a lesbian and a close friend came out as gay during high school, he thought long and hard about how to approach homosexuality. His conclusions deliver the substance the argument often lacks. He wrote:
“Christians have been asked if they believe that homosexuals deserve to go to hell. Truth is, Christians believe that everyone deserves to go to hell—themselves especially. … Christ knows how we’re born. And He gives us all the same command: ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:7). We’re literally asked to die to ourselves and our desires (Galatians 5:24).”
The Color Purple excelled in describing the human wound—and I would advise anyone to read it who can do so in good conscience. But its solution was a Band-Aid to a corpse. It asked the naïve question, “How could God oppose my nature?” when it should have asked, “How does my nature oppose God’s?”