Just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998). I guess that means this blog is about 15 years behind the times which feels about right. And that’s the beauty of good literature, it’s always waiting to be discovered.
Anyway, a beautifully written review is here (without major spoilers and I’ll try to avoid any too in some musings below).
It’s the tale of the Price family; Nathan the zealous American Baptist missionary, with his wife Orleanna, and four daughters, Rachel, twins Leah and Adah and the youngest Ruth May. The setting is the Belgian Congo in 1959, just before independence and the rise of the Western-backed dictator Mobutu.
I got slowly drawn in, and once you persist and enter the family’s story you’re hooked (hopefully not by hookworm. As Adah remarks at one point, Africa has an astonishing number of ways of burrowing under your skin). It’s told in turn by each of the women; by Orleanna from the USA post-Congo, and by the daughters as events unfold.
Maybe the mark of a really good novel is that is stirs you up, whether emotionally, politically, spiritually. If that’s true, this is a really good novel (at least in my experience).
Emotionally, it’s a story of women and the impact of one man on their lives.
Roger Olson put up a great pot-stirring post the other day arguing that all the evidence is that women are simply better than men – better human beings and better a running things [A Modest Proposal for fixing the world: let women run it] .
Hard to argue with that sentiment after reading this book. Men – whether Nathan Price, Mobuto, President Eisenhower, make (and have continued to make) a heartbreaking mess of the Congo through violence, greed, corruption and cynical international politics.
Kingsolver draws her female characters with unflinching honesty; their humanity is believable, raw and complex (even, in her own way, the superficial Rachel). The emotional heart of the book is their life-long intersecting African journey(s).
Politically, all sorts of questions are left floating down the Congo. This is a story written out of a deep love for Africa; an Africa that Leah becomes part of. Her journey from American to African is a harsh pilgrimage of repudiation of the insatiable West’s exploitation, despoilation and destruction of Africa’s resources, cultures and dignity. In reverse, it is also a powerful critique of the superficiality and mindless excess of Western capitalist consumerism and individualism.
Spiritually, it is an angry, even bitter, book. “Tata Jesus is bangala!” preaches Nathan, too arrogant and thoughtless ever to understand that his disregard for the subtleties of Kikongo language means his words are heard as announcing that Jesus is the vicious poisonwood tree and not, as he intended to say, ‘precious and dear’.
Nathan’s god is indeed poison: a poison that each of the women in their own way spend a lifetime trying to get out of their system.
While I would want argue that Nathan was right that Jesus is ‘precious and dear’ (even if his pronunciation and life betrayed his words), it is undeniable that there is a lot of poisonous ‘Christianity’ around.
The Poisonwood Bible is a reminder that something horrible happens when Christianity is fused with power: whether Nathan’s destructive zealotry and control over those he should have loved and protected or when Christianity is used to sanctify nationalist and political agendas or when it becomes an individual leader’s power-trip.
For power used for selfish ends utterly and deeply contradicts the essential nature of Christian faith. It is profoundly unChristian in that it rejects the way of Jesus, the servant Messiah. It grieves the Holy Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
At its heart, power-distorted religion, is a form of idolatry; it trusts not in the foolishness of God which is victorious through the cross, but in human strength and force of will and the illusion of control that they confer. As in The Poisonwood Bible, It’s men who are most easily seduced by such power games.
Comments, as ever, welcome.