In college, Gifty took a class on Gerard Manley Hopkins for her humanities requirement. Most science students took creative writing as an easy course, but she feared the self-disclosure writing might have involved. The professor was obsessed with Hopkins’s use of language. Gifty couldn’t understand the professor’s obsession, but she was moved by Hopkins’s life and struggles to reconcile himself with his faith. His letters inspired Gifty to write to her mother, although she never sent the letters. The letters alternated between being declarations of her belief in God, and of her belief in science.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a late Victorian whose conversion to Catholicism and subsequent choice to become a celibate Jesuit priest were in conflict with his romantic spirit and his poetic vocation. As a deeply religious man, yet one who struggled to integrate the various aspects of his life, Hopkins becomes a kind of example that Gifty can think with and use while she discovers and articulates her own troubled relationship to both faith and science. As part of this process, she remembers experimenting with trying on various personalities in letters home to her mother, alternately faithful and faithless to the religion of her childhood.
Nana, in contrast to the younger, believing Gifty, was conflicted about God. Gifty recalls how he hated their church’s youth pastor, P.T. P.T.’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the youth were heavy-handed. Gifty remembers this because when Nana graduated to youth group, she acted out in Sunday School until she was permitted to join her brother. She relished the superiority; she knew this privilege basically acknowledged her goodness.
Gifty’s conflicted feelings about religion as a teen and young adult mirrored Nana’s conflicted feelings when he was a teenager. But, for both Nana and Gifty, issues of faith were inseparable from the community of their church. Neither Nana nor Gifty liked P.T. and the form of “hip” religious culture he tried to promote.
P.T.’s desire to make God “hip” was aggressive. Gifty imagines him thinking Jesus was a club and that he was one of its bouncers. One day, Nana challenged this “exclusionary God.” He asked about a hypothetical remote village in Africa that no missionaries had discovered, and he asked if the villagers would go to Hell even though they hadn’t had the opportunity to be saved. With an insufficient caveat that God would have made a way for them to hear the good news, P.T. rapidly answers that if they hadn’t, of course they would be damned. This was a sign that he saw God as a prize only certain people deserved.
The episode in which Nana challenged P.T. over God’s nature is another key moment in Gifty’s childhood, tied to several themes that resonate with her still as an adult. First, P.T.’s response, his casual willingness to write off certain types of people—notably non-white, non-industrialized people whose experiences were so different from his own—illustrates the casual, systemic racism that surrounded Gifty and Nana as they grew up. But his impatience and quick answers also demonstrate a certain arrogant unwillingness to ask questions about his faith, and one of the things Gifty most appreciates about science is the way it doesn’t assume knowledge but asks questions and then tries to answer them.
Gifty was aware of the racism around her: the exploitation of hunger and suffering to get missionaries for Africa, even though poverty wasn’t purely a racial issue. P.T.’s lack of consideration for the hypothetical Africans was based on the belief that some people were subhuman, no better than dogs. After this, Nana stopped going to youth group.
Nana reacts to P.T.’s not-so-subtle racism by leaving youth group and stepping back from his faith. As a child, Gifty was still too invested in Christianity to follow him, even if P.T.’s exclusionary God made her feel uncomfortable. Instead, she redoubled her efforts to deserve her spot in the kingdom of God.