Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible (Jul-Aug 1998)

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by David Fleer
July – August, 1998

Barbara Kingsolver brings an expertise to her work as novelist that makes for detailed and enlightening reading. In her own words, “Three cheers for fiction writers who bother to get their facts straight. If there’s a special place for them in heaven, it needn’t be very large.” Kingsolver was trained as a biologist before turning to the vocation of writing. Her most recent novel, The Poisonwood Bible, brims with observant and rich detail of the lora and fauna of its primary setting, the Congo of Africa.

Kingsolver’s tale is of the Nathan Price family, Freewill Baptist missionaries to the Congo. Narrated in the voices of the five Price women, wife and daughters, the story begins with the family’s arrival in 1959 in the remote village of Kilanga. The terrors of wild animals, killer ants, poisonous snakes, malaria-infected mosquitoes, hookworms, crocodiles, and national political turmoil present challenges to daily life. While the Congolese have adapted to their enviornment, the missionary family finds their circumstances oppressive, but not as mind numbing as the denigrating character of their father and husband, the Reverend Price. Determined to plant his brand of Christianity in the Congo, Price converts no one and destroys the life of one and the faith of all the members of his family. An overbearing father, he either pays his children no attention or insults their being. Sunday meals are especially painful, “once he gets wound up in the pulpit he seems unwilling to give up center stage,” and tortures his family with unanswerable questions. The children are punished by copying by hand lengthy sections of Scripture and physical abuse. Five-year-old Ruth may describes her father’s punishment of an older daughter, guilty of the sin of pride. “He smacked her hard … She sat there holding the side of her neck … when she put her hand down you could see the bruise just as plain. It looked like Father was holding his hand in front of the kerosene light and making a shadow on her. But he wasn’t, he was in the other room a-reading his Bible.”

The Poisonwood BibleThe Reverend Price’s abuse of the Congolese is accomplished with similar hypocrisy and cutting irony. His emphasis on baptism is threatening to his listeners. Does he wish to feed the children to the crocodiles? His sermons are either irrelevant (they have nothing to do with rain), or incomprehensible. He shouts the benediction, “Tata jesus is bangala,” which without the proper intonation, means not “Jesus is precious,” but “Jesus is the poisonwood tree.” After neglecting his young and crippled children during a plague of ants, the Reverend Price “preaches God’s love” into the ears of one Congolese who paddles him and the children to safety. After a rare insightful revelation, “feed the belly and the soul will come,” Price, in redneck Georgia style, throws sticks of dynamite into the village river, and in a backward version of jesus miracle of the loaves and fishes, creates a “holiday of waste.”

What the reader early perceives in Nathan Price to be Christian Fundamentalism gone to seed, eventually shows itself to be unraveling insanity. The doctrines of Christianity are first depicted as inappropriate to the jungles of Africa but eventually become life threatening. In a debate with a syncretistic but culturally adapted former missionary to Kilanga, Price interrupts a comment on the inclusivity of the church with the retort, “In Christ!” as if to say “Bingo” and win the game. Yet, when word reaches the village that nearby missionaries have been sexually threatened and murdered, the Reverend stupidly responds, “The meek shall inherit [the earth].”

For an author who elsewhere argues, “Audiences now expect a good deal of accuracy in regional dialogue, setting and the portrayal of character,” Kingsolver lets slip some innacurate readings of Christian Fundamentalism. For example, Price preaches from the Apocryphal books (her plot demands the story of Bell and the Dragon). On another occasion, Price, an uncompromising immersionist, is last seen sprinkling the children of the village (perhaps a sign of his insanity). Kingsolver, nevertheless, creates a caricature of a destructive and oppressive religion. As Price’s wife and daughters tell their story from the Congo and beyond, their faith in God first wavers and soon crumbles under their father’s deconstructive presence. One daughter finally loses hope n both father and God when she realizes, “If his decision to keep us in the Congo wasn’t right, what else might be wrong?” In the end she proclaims, “I am the unmissionary … beginning each day on my knees … forgive me, Africa, according to the multitude of thy mercies.” So undone from her early faith, another daughter worried, “we came in[to Africa] stamped with such errors we can never know which ones make a lasting impression.”

This is not easy reading, especially at a time when so many in the fellowship of Churches of Christ are leaving. Many part for a different flavor of Evangelicalism, where piety or the worship experience or the exposure to self-help programs seem more authentic. But not all expatriates are heading to the right. Some are fed up for different reasons. They have abandoned the Church of Christ for private and solitary needs, like coffee and literature on the weekend. Some have turned to mainline denominations. The cynical voices of The Poisonwood Bible represent their feelings of abuse and abandonment.

I received my copy of The Poisonwood Bible as a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, a former member, in good standing, of the Churches of Christ. Her spirituality is now fueled and consoled through Kingsolver’s honest fiction. In the gift’s card she wrote, “Hope you enjoy it for no other reason than to recognize some people we’ve known.” I recognized the people, all right, but “enjoy” isn’t an apt term for such a troubling tale.

There was a genre of literature, popular a generation back, that celebrated the distinctive qualities of Churches of Christ; “Why I Left Lutheranism” or Batsell Barrett Baxter’s “When Your Church Has Left You.” For the last decade or so, I’ve anticipated a new wave of material, with the reverse title, “Why I left the Church of Christ.” I imagined the authors to now be associated with dynamic, large and Evangelical community churches. The Poisonwood Bible is a darker and more troubling flip side to happy Evangelicalism. It chronicles the destructive forces of Christian Fundamentalism.

If read as morality play, the novel is chock full of useful lessons. For example, “One should not allow religion to be co-opted by politics.” The Congolese fail to distinguish Christianity from democracy and finally vote out Jesus! Or, “Do not emphasize the unimportant.” Nathan Price’s first focus was the apparel of the village’s women. or, “One should be a good listener.” The Reverend never heard the wisdom offered from nearly everyone around. But, a deeper and more disturbing lesson lies beyond the morality tale.

Kingsolver’s expertise in this novel, alas, is not in the detail of the doctrines of the Fundamentalists, but in the faith-shattering pain of religion gone awry. If the reader of this journal should brave entering the world created by Kingsolver, he or she will certainly locate in the voices of the Price women friends and relatives now gone from our fellowship. More challenging and upsetting, however, will be the realization that in one’s own past lie vestiges of Nathan Price’s misguided and poisonous beliefs.

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