f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: <em>God: Stories</em>—Baldwin's God-less "Exodus"

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

God: Stories—Baldwin's God-less "Exodus"

Today we tangle with one of the more provocative writers of the 20th-century. James Baldwin, a key figure in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, is as well known for his series of autobiographies (of which I’ve read Notes of a Native Son) as he is for his fiction. A quick search for a biographical sketch online uncovers the fact that at 14-years-old Baldwin was actually a preacher at the Fireside Pentecostal Baptist Church. Later he made a notable split from the church (partly because he was openly homosexual), but the themes and images of his upbringing are still an important part of his work.

Exodus from his Gospel-named novel Go Tell It On the Mountain is the story of Florence, a young black woman down south post-Civil-War who is raised in the shadow of her mother’s God.

Bathsheba, Florence’s mother, was a slave, born on a plantation and brought up bathed in the promise of deliverance.

For it had been the will of God that they should hear, and pass it, thereafter, one to another, the story of the Hebrew children, who had been held in bondage in the land of Egypt; and how the Lord had heard their groaning, and how His heart was moved; and how He bid them wait but a little season till He should send deliverance. She had known this story, or so it seemed from the day that she was born.
This is not a God who means much to Florence. She and her brother are children of Bathsheba’s old age and, as Baldwin writes:

Many of the stories her mother told her meant nothing to Florence, she knew them for that they were, tales told by an old black woman in a cabin in the evening to distract her children from their cold and hunger. But the story of this day she was never to forget….
The story Bathsheba tells is of the freeing of the slaves from the plantation and the moment that this delivered slave walked out through the plantations big gate never to return.

Florence needs her own deliverance. Her heart’s desire is to walk out the family’s cabin door, leaving behind the life of bitter poverty and utter lack of hope. What God is there, though, that promises that deliverance? Is it the same God of the Hebrew children and the Exodus? Is God even a part of this deliverance?

It’s a core question for any writing of faith. Christians worship one unchanging God, but we are only able to worship Him in part. We try, through our lives, to fathom the heights, depths, and grandeur but in the end it’s only the tip of the iceberg. In the end we often take comfort in worshipping and understanding Him in the way that makes the most sense. For some, we see a deliverer. Or a healer. Or a comforter. Or a king. It’s something writers need to define for their characters. They can’t worship in whole and so we need to know the part that they worship.

Or the part that makes no sense to them. Her mother’s faith means nothing to Florence. Her mother’s deliverance serves only to remind the daughter of her own claustrophobic life. And for her there is no biblical promise of relief. She sees on the need to take things into her own hands. Her exodus is simply one foot moving in front of the other, until she’s out the gate, delivered by her own will. No need for God at all.