Throughout A Lesson Before Dying, Grant, a Catholic living in a largely Catholic community, grapples with questions of religion. Although nearly all of his peers and family members are Catholic, Grant distrusts organized religion, at least as the people around him practice it. In large part, this is because Grant distrusts the concept of Heaven: the notion that all misery and suffering is strictly short-term, because good people will receive an eternal reward for their good behavior. He distrusts this concept because he sees it as a way of keeping the poor and powerless in line. As he tells Jefferson during a visit to the jailhouse late in the novel, white people are comfortable with the black community’s Catholic priest, Reverend Ambrose, because Ambrose, by getting his congregation to focus on their reward in the next life, encourages his congregation to be docile and accept their inferior position to whites in this one.
In a sense, what Grant distrusts isn’t religion so much as hope. (Grant actually says that he believes in God, but not Heaven.) And yet, while Grant’s logic seems sound, the novel portrays the impact of Grant’s distrust for Catholicism/hope very clearly: he lives a lonely, cynical life. Even as a schoolteacher—a job that would seem to require the hopeful belief that one’s students will grow up to succeed—Grant is cynical. He can’t think of a good reason why he’s still in Louisiana teaching, and thinks about how few of his students—if any—will go on to use the knowledge he’s teaching them. Even though it’s his job to change his students, Grant himself refuses to change—and rues his life.
A turning point for Grant’s understanding of religion and hope comes when Reverend Ambrose confronts him after Grant has given Jefferson a radio. Ambrose tells Grant that, in fact, Grant is the uneducated fool and Ambrose the educated man. While Grant thinks that he understands the truth, Ambrose does something far more sophisticated: he lies. Ambrose lies in his sermons, in his conversations with members of his congregation, and even when he talks to Miss Emma about Jefferson. Ambrose tells these lies because lies can have value: they can inspire hope and optimism, while also bringing momentary peace and contentment to people who are in pain. Grant comes to see how such hope and optimism can provide a strength that Grant himself doesn’t have: while Grant is too afraid to attend Jefferson’s execution, Ambrose does go, and reads Jefferson the 23rd psalm.
At first, Grant believed that religion and the belief in heaven was a kind of trick, designed by people in power to make the powerless accept their suffering. He begins to see that heaven, even if it’s not literally true, has a kind of spiritual truth: it brings people the strength to overcome their suffering. By the end of the novel, while he never admits to believing in heaven himself, Grant’s experiences with Jefferson and Ambrose have convinced him that hope and belief aren’t to be scoffed at: they bring people peace and strength, both the strength to endure injustice and, perhaps, to take the small, slow steps to bring about change.
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope ThemeTracker
Religion, Cynicism, and Hope Quotes in A Lesson Before Dying
“Suppose I was allowed to visit him, and suppose I reached him and made him realize that he was as much a man as any other man; then what? He’s still going to die. The next day, the next week, the next month. So what will I have accomplished? What will I have done? Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?”
It was he, Matthew Antoine, as teacher then, who stood by the fence while we chopped the wood. He had told us then that most of us would die violently, and those who did not would be brought down to the level of beasts. Told us that there was no other choice but to run and run. That he was living testimony of someone who should have run. That in him—he did not say all this, but we felt it—there was nothing but hatred for himself as well as contempt for us. He hated himself for the mixture of his blood and the cowardice of his being, and he hated us for daily reminding him of it.
“We got our first load of wood last week,” I told him. “Nothing changes,” he said. “I guess I’m a genuine teacher now,” I said. He nodded, and coughed. He didn’t seem to want to talk. Still, I sat there, both of us gazing into the fire. “Any advice?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”
There was no one thing that changed my faith. I suppose it was a combination of many things, but mostly it was just plain studying. I did not have time for anything else. Many times I would not come home on weekends, and when I did, I found that I cared less and less about the church. Of course, it pained my aunt to see this change in me, and it saddened me to see the pain I was causing her. I thought many times about leaving, as Professor Antoine had advised me to do. My mother and father also told me that if I was not happy in Louisiana, I should come to California. After visiting them the summer following my junior year at the university, I came back, which pleased my aunt. But I had been running in place ever since, unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it.
“I’m not doing any good up there, Vivian,” I said. “Nothing’s changing.”
“Something is,” she said.
I was not happy. I had heard the same carols all my life, seen the same little play, with the same mistakes in grammar. The minister had offered the same prayer as always, Christmas or Sunday. The same people wore the same old clothes and sat in the same places. Next year it would be the same, and the year after that, the same again. Vivian said things were changing. But where were they changing?
“Last Friday,” I continued, “was the first time, the very first time, that Jefferson looked at me without hate, without accusing me of putting him in that cell. Last Friday was the first time he ever asked me a question or answered me without accusing me for his condition. I don’t know if you all know what I’m talking about. It seems you don’t. But I found a way to reach him for the first time. Now, he needs that radio, and he wants it.
“Well, I guess I’ll be taking off,” I said. “Anything you want me to tell your nannan?” I had stood. Now he looked up at me. There was no hate in his face—but Lord, there was pain. I could see that he wanted to say something, but it was hard for him to do. I stood over him, waiting. “Tell—tell the chirren thank you for the pe-pecans,” he stammered. I caught myself grinning like a fool. I wanted to throw my arms around him and hug him. I wanted to hug the first person I came to. I felt like someone who had just found religion. I felt like crying with joy. I really did.
“Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth—and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.
“She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bleed from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ’Cause she never wanted you to see it. And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”
Jefferson continued to look at Paul, a long, deep look, and the deputy felt that there was something else he wanted to say. Murphy and the other deputy were still waiting. “Well,” Paul said, and started to walk away. “Paul?” Jefferson said quietly. And his eyes were speaking, even more than his mouth. The deputy looked back at him. Murphy and Claude did too. “You go’n be there, Paul?” Jefferson asked, his eyes asked. Paul nodded. “Yes, Jefferson. I’ll be there.”
Several feet away from where I sat under the tree was a hill of bull grass. I doubted that I had looked at it once in all the time that I had been sitting there. I probably would not have noticed it at all had a butterfly, a yellow butterfly with dark specks like ink dots on its wings, not lit there. What had brought it there? There was no odor that I could detect to have attracted it. There were other places where it could have rested—there was the wire fence on either side of the road, there were weeds along both ditches with strong fragrances, there were flowers just a short distance away in Pichot’s yard—so why did it light on a hill of bull grass that offered it nothing? I watched it closely, the way it opened its wings and closed them, the way it opened its wings again, fluttered, closed its wings for a second or two, then opened them again and flew away. I watched it fly over the ditch and down into the quarter, I watched it until I could not see it anymore.
“I don’t know what you’re going to say when you go back in there. But tell them he was the bravest man in that room today. I’m a witness, Grant Wiggins. Tell them so.”