God, religion and spirituality

Religion has been a powerful force in shaping the culture of the American South. Firmly based on a Western image of a white God (not found in the Bible), Christianity was the reason that many black communities were not crushed by their sufferings, yet scripture was used selectively in religious teaching to condition behaviour. (For more information, see The Color Purple: Religious / philosophical context.)

The Western image of God

In the context of ‘The Color Purple’, Walker represents the idea of religion as church- based Christianity, which, although situated in a black community in Georgia, has teachings essentially defined by white values.

Repression through religion

One reason that Celie does not allow herself to feel, or express anger to her abusers is because patriarchal religious teaching has been used to instil female obedience. Celie seeks to honour the biblical teaching to respect parents (see Colossians 3:20) and spouses (see Colossians 3:18). It is unlikely that she will have heard sermons about how husbands/fathers are to be loving, not harsh nor exasperating to their children (see Colossians 3:19; Colossians 3:21)! In a similar way, selective teaching from the Bible was used by slave-owners to justify slavery.

Celie holds on to her faith in God as the only one who cares about her situation in Nettie’s absence. However, even this is lost when she discovers that Albert has withheld Nettie’s letters and she accuses God of being asleep. This is easy to believe of a divinity made in the image of a white, patriarchal male.


As Celie grows up and her view of the world begins to change, she realises that her view of God and the Bible’s teaching has no relevance to her needs. Imagining angels in white with white hair and white eyes in attendance on a God who is white and looks like a bank manager offers no kind of relief from the difficulties of her life with an abusive husband.

Nettie’s letters help Celie realise that the image of God that white people have created is misleading and false. The real Jesus has hair which Nettie describes as ‘lamb’s wool’ (see Revelation 1:13-14; Revelation 5:13) and bears no resemblance to the white racial characteristics that both she and Celie have been used to. In addition Celie realises that her image of a grey-bearded old white man with blue eyes is little different to the authoritarian black men in her own life who have consistently failed her.

The cultural influence of church

In the community in which Celie grows up, the church is an important meeting place as well as an organisation that influences morals. For example:

  • Celie is beaten by Fonso for supposedly winking at a boy in church
  • Annie Julia is shot in the stomach on the way home from church
  • Harpo meets his future wife Sofia at a church service
  • Shug Avery is condemned for immoral behaviour from the pulpit by a church elder.

These instances already convey the way in which churchgoers were complicit in being both judgemental and hypocritical.

Initially Celie washes altar linen and cleans the church building, as a way of caring for its members. Although the teenager hopes to manage her difficulties with the help of God and church support, she gets little help from worshippers. It is obvious from her two pregnancies that her home life is not all that it should be, yet she receives no acceptance or practical help. It is not surprising that references to church life significantly diminish during the Celie’s narrative.

Religion in Africa

The religious belief of Nettie’s early years also alters when she finds a new interpretation of God in Africa. Nettie decided to work as a missionary believing that Christianity would help those the African-Americans patronisingly regarded as ‘downtrodden’. Yet Nettie and Samuel are too honest and sensitive not to see the real needs and feelings of the Olinka people. Like Celie, they change their attitude about the variety of forms that religion can take, encompassing, for example, the significance of roofleaf for the Olinka.

The gulf between structured religious expression and spiritual comprehension of God is signified in the novel by the distance between the patriarchal aims of the white missionaries in Britain and America and the beliefs of the African tribes, which are closer to Celie’s eventual panentheism. Nettie discovers that conventional images of the white Christian religion look incongruous in an African context. Instead she acclimatises to native culture and religious myths and sensitively includes Olinka death rites at Corinne’s funeral, whilst maintaining the central tenets of Christianity.

However, both she and Samuel recognise how compromised their missionary efforts are by the societies which send them and by the expansion of Western colonialism. The teachings of their faith are seen to be irrelevant when the identity and livelihood of the Olinka is threatened. By the time they return, disheartened, both Nettie and Samuel have explored a more internal expression of faith, less associated with religious structures, their spiritual journey similar to that made by Celie.

A journey of spiritual understanding

Alice Walker has described The Color Purple as a novel that examines a journey from conventional Christian belief to a more general spiritual interpretation of the nature of God. Walker identifies her own religious development as the inspiration for the novel and defines spirituality as one of the principal themes of the book. Celie’s changing attitudes to religion are an important part of her development, as she rejects the conventional beliefs and structure of the church in favour of something that in her eyes is much freer. Her sister Nettie’s religious belief also broadens.

Shug was rejected by the church and in turn Shug has rejected the false ideas that the church has tried to inflict on her. For Shug, God is not a male or a female but an ‘It’ and worship is enjoyment and awareness of the whole natural world, including human sexuality. Shug’s religion is the shared experience of beauty and an appreciation of the richness of life. She believes that God is benevolent and wants all of creation to appreciate the richness of life, signified in the title of the novel by the use of the colour purple.

Celie’s liberation occurs when she accepts this view, which enables Celie to assert her own independence and find her self-confidence. This is expressed in terms of two important things that she has learned from Shug Avery: the universality of God in nature and the enjoyment of her sexuality.

The God promoted by Walker in this novel is not personified. Being neither male nor female, white or black, it bears no resemblance to Western images of God as a white-skinned patriarch. Instead, as the novel concludes, God is addressed as ‘Everything’; a spiritual entity that is present in all living things, representing the essential spirituality of the universe and therefore needing no organised belief system or church structure.

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