Toni Morrison, Theologian

Toni Morrison’s name at birth was Chloe Ardelia Wofford. “Toni” became her name when she joined the Catholic Church at age 12 and took her baptismal saint’s name from Anthony of Padua. (Morrison was her married name, the one she tried too late to avoid using on her first novel. That fact and many others below are from this interview with Terry Gross.)

St. Anthony is that popular guy whom people ask to intercede for them to find lost things. Far more importantly, in his life he was known for powerful preaching of the Gospel, and for his devotion (as a Franciscan, no surprise) to the sick and the poor. In 1946 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. How appropriate a saint for this author who continually wrote of lost things (and people) found, the sick, the poor, the despised, the abandoned, the crushed, the excluded, all brought into the light of a Love bright enough to expose every hidden thing.

For all that, however, it was maddening when Morrison died and several Catholic authors and bloggers claimed her as Catholic. Yes, she was formed by the Roman Catholic Church, but for Catholics (especially male and white Catholics) to claim her in that way was so wrong, not just for plenty of normal reasons that religions and ideologies shouldn’t claim people who don’t claim them. (Specifically, in the case of Morrison and others, sharing publicly that you like some things Pope Francis has said does not mean you embrace the Roman Catholic Church.) This was even more deeply wrong because it so went against her own voluminous work and its deepest themes.

And now, having lambasted others for claiming Morrison for their church, I will argue that she is a deeply theological writer. I do not just mean “spiritual” in some nebulous way, nor “religious.” She is indeed a writer of works both spiritual and religious, but more specifically she is a theological writer. She writes about God, about how God relates to people, about how people relate to people, she does it well, and she does it in ways that have the power to form other people’s lives and understanding of God and humankind. That’s a theologian.

After Morrison’s death I began reading one of her novels I had missed: Paradise, published in 1997. The following is just one passage which theologians, professional and amateur, would do well to reckon with. The characters Misner and Pulliam are two pastors, representing two factions threatening to split what was once a seemingly idyllic town. The setting is the beginning of a wedding, with bride and groom standing there at the front of the congregation as this scene unfolds:

Suitable language came to mind but, not trusting himself to deliver it without revealing his deep personal hurt, Misner walked away from the pulpit, to the rear wall of the church. There he stretched, reaching up until he was able to unhook the cross that hung there. He carried it then, past the empty choir stall, past the organ where Kate sat, the chair where Pulliam was, on to the podium and held it before him for all to see–if only they would. See what was certainly the first sign any human anywhere had made: the vertical line; the horizontal one. Even as children, they drew it with their fingers in snow, sand or mud; they laid it down as sticks in dirt; arranged it from bones on frozen tundra and broad savannas; as pebbles on riverbanks; scratched it on cave walls and outcroppings from Nome to South Africa. Algonquin and Laplanders, Zulu and Druids–all had a finger memory of this original mark. The circle was not first, nor was the parallel or the triangle. It was this mark, this, that lay underneath every other. This mark, rendered in the placement of facial features. This mark of a standing human figure poised to embrace. Remove it, as Pulliam had done, and Christianity was like any and every religion in the world: a population of supplicants begging respite from begrudging authority; harried believers ducking fate or dodging evil; the weak negotiating a doomed trek through the wilderness; the sighted ripped of light and thrown into the perpetual dark of choicelessness. Without this sign, the believer’s life was confined to praising God and taking the hits. The praise was credit; the hits were interest due on a debt that could never be paid. Or, as Pulliam put it, no one knew when he had “graduated.” But with it, in the religion in which this sign was paramount and foundational, well, life was a whole other matter.

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fasted to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO to supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives. This execution made it possible–freely, not in fear–one’s self and one another. Which what love was: unmotivated respect. All of which testified not to a peevish Lord who was His own love but to one who enabled human love. Not for His own glory–never. God loved the way humans loved one another; loved the way humans loved themselves; loved the genius of the cross who managed to do both and die knowing it.

But Richard Misner could not speak calmly of these things. So he stood there and let the minutes tick by as he held the crossed oak in his hands, urging it to say what he could not: that not only is God interested in you; He is you.

Would they see? Would they?

It’s impossible to name all the talents that made Morrison one of the best, but to me her greatest talent is the way that when she creates a character, she enters that character and sees through their vision, their perspective. Lesser writers warp their characters when they get inside their skin, stretching them out to match the author’s own shape. With Morrison, for all that readers have been taught that writers’ perspectives and their characters’ perspectives are not the same thing, her skill baits the trap for us to think that we now understand what Morrison herself believed, in this case, about the cross. We don’t.

Hopefully, however, we have been forced to question and possibly re-form once again what we ourselves do know. This is what the best theologians have the power to do.

Bonus: My pet (i.e., unsubstantiated) theory is that as Morrison wrote the above passage, she couldn’t resist a dig at a particularly virulent bestseller then topping the charts: Laurie Beth Jones’ Jesus, CEO.

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