Mama Day Essay, Research Paper
The concept of God, or any god, is one that has definite boundaries. There are many questions that arise concerning the nature of God, or even whether or not there really is one. The most common god in today’s society is “God”, the “Supreme Being” worshipped by Muslims as “Allah,” by Jews as “Yahweh,” and by popular Christianity simply as “God.” Generally, He is thought to be in the image of humans, and in most cases of worshipping this particular deity, He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. These beliefs, although they may be canon, are not the beliefs of every person that follows this god. There are many different ways to see and worship Him whom we will refer to simply as “God.” There are varied points of view on God expressed in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, and St. Augustine’s Confessions. Through these works, one may see several viewpoints on the same deity, prompting the question, “Who is God?” There is no definite answer to this query. Instead, as we will see, there are many definitions and assumptions that describe God, giving us a complicated and sometimes contradicting view of God.
In Mama Day, a novel detailing the lives of a closely-knit family on the island of Willow Springs, we can see God through the eyes of Mama Day, one of the main characters. Mama Day, whose real name is Miranda, views God as a passive deity. She does not feel that God intervenes with humans as punishment or rewards humans for things that they do. This conviction is clear in the story when a hurricane is coming and Miranda’s sister, Abigail, feels that she has done something to make God send a hurricane. To this Miranda responds,
Abigail, stop your foolishness. All God got in mind is to send you a hurricane? It ain’t got nothing to do with us, we just bystanders on this earth. Sometimes I think we was only a second thought-and a poor second thought at that (228).
Even though Miranda and Abigail are sisters and were probably raised similarly, they view God in two very different ways. While Miranda’s philosophy on God’s lack of intervention holds strong, she does believe God to be all-powerful. This is evident when she states, “The past was gone, just as gone as it could be. And only God could change the future” (138). Although Miranda does not think that what people are doing on Earth will affect what God does, she does believe that in the end God will hold each person accountable for what he or she has done. This can be seen on the Island of Willow Springs where Miranda’s thoughts are, “That’ll be her defense at Judgement: Lord, I called out three times.” Miranda thinks this after she knocks on Ruby’s house three times before setting her house up to get struck by lightning. This is a prime example of her theology. By preparing the house for lightning, she is controlling where the lightning goes, a feat that some people, such as her sister, would attribute to God.
Had Augustine, the author of Confessions, been there he would have likely believed that God caused the lightening. Augustine, in contrast to Miranda, believed that God had a purpose in mind for everything that happens on Earth. This is apparent when Augustine proclaims, “It was, then by your guidance that I was persuaded to go to Rome and teach there the subjects which I taught at Carthage” (Book V, Chapter 8). Augustine goes on to state his belief that God has sent him to Rome to convert him to Christianity. This is indicative of Augustine’s belief that everything that happens on Earth is God’s will. This is directly contradictory to Miranda’s view that is that God does not intervene with people while they are still on Earth. Augustine also depicts God as being merciful. This is clear when he refers to God as “God of mercy” (Book V, Chapter 9) and again when he proclaims, “God, let me acknowledge your mercy from the deepest depths of my soul” (Book VII, Chapter 6). Augustine sees God as having a purpose for everyone on Earth and as being merciful to all. He even states,
And yet Lord, even if you had willed that I should not survive my childhood, I should have owed you gratitude, because you are our God, the supreme Good, the Creator and Ruler of the universe (I 20).
Augustine views God as the “supreme Good,” the god that is merciful to all and helps humanity while they are still on Earth.
The picture we get of God from the Hebrew Bible is much different from Augustine’s depiction of God. While Exodus still portrays God as intervening in the Hebrews’ lives there are questions that may be asked about God’s mercy. In Exodus 7-12:42, God sends a set of plagues to the land of Egypt where the Hebrews, His people, are being held as slaves. Augustine would agree that this is one of His generous acts, as He is using these plagues to free His people. Augustine, however, may not acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptians. The plagues were directed towards these Egyptians and their pharaoh in an attempt to free the Hebrews. The tenth and most well known of these plagues was the killing of the firstborn of Egypt-the plague that has given us the holiday of the Passover. God’s omnipotence is definitely shown when the firstborn children of Egypt fall, but those of the faithful Israelites do not. Exodus 12:27 reads, “It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared or houses.” It is true that the Israelites have been glorified by this action of God, but what of the Egyptians? In this, a factor of God’s personality has been shown that does not quite match that of Augustine. God is vengeful and jealous. He resorts to killing the firstborn of Egypt, some of them innocent and just, simply to help free His people. One may ask the question, was it necessary? If God can move mountains and have the compassion and mercy that St. Augustine has given Him, was there not a better way of getting the Israelites out of Egypt?
Terence E. Fretheim, author of Exodus Interpretation points out that, “even with the joy associated with newfound freedom, Israel, like its God, voices no pleasure in the deaths of these persons” (Fretheim 140). This is true according to Exodus 12:29-36. neither the Israelites nor their God rejoice at the deaths of the Egyptians. It is also pointed out that, “it is appropriate to speak of judgment, and Pharaoh’s genocidal decision to kill all Hebrew baby boys” (Fretheim 140). When viewing the Passover with this perspective, it is hard to see God as anything but just to some extent when, in fact, God is “taking an eye for an eye.” In reading the previous selections from Fretheim one can see that the author’s view of God is that He is just and does only what is called for in the way of punishment.
Umberto Caussuto, author of A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, does not try to explain why God killed the firstborn of every Egyptian household. In refraining from such an analysis, one may infer that Caussuto believes that God is great enough not to be questioned on the matter of what he does. Caussuto seems more concerned with the idea of Pharaoh being completely humble. “and Pharaoh rose up in the night-the proud king is forced to rise from his bed at night (an unroyal procedure)” (Caussuto 145). Caussuto goes on to say that the pharaoh spoke “tersely and jerkily, in words [in the Hebrew} of one or two syllables only” (145). Caussuto therefore views God as being so sophisticated in his thoughts and actions that He is unquestionable. In these two interpretations of Exodus, and my own in the previous paragraph, it has been shown that as few as three people reading the same piece of literature interpret the literature very differently, especially when the literature deals with theology.
If all of these opinions of Gods’ actions and purposes are different, then it is no wonder that God himself is viewed differently by many people. I view God as being incomprehensible to anyone, no matter what his or her IQ or knowledge of anything is. I believe God is omnipotent and omniscient. While I cannot imagine God doing anything wrong, I often find myself questioning God. I agree more with Miranda than I do with Augustine in that people get what they deserve on Judgement Day-not on Earth. If I believed as Augustine does I would have to come up with the reason God has for allowing pedophile. I believe that while God could stop anything that happens on Earth he chooses not to because He wants to see what will happen naturally.
Augustine Confessions. Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, New York: Penguin Classics, 1967.
Cassuto, U., A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams, Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.
Fretheim, Terence, Interpretation Exodus. Lousiville: John Knox Press, 1992.
Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1993.