Friday, April 23, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver's a talented writer, that much is clear. And while my thoughts on the book are somewhat conflicted, the fact that I liked it is not.

Here's the premise: a Baptist missionary "heeds the call" of God and takes his wife and four daughters into the Congo jungle in the early 1960s. The novel recounts, in first person from the point of view of the daughters and wife, the details of their time there, and the changes that Africa undergoes in that time period and up to the turn of the century.

This is a hard book for a white Christian to read, for several reasons. The first is the depiction of Nathan Price, the missionary. He's the model of what a cross-cultural missionary should not be, and probably an accurate portrayal of a too-oft-repeated scenario in past attempts at ministering across cultural boudaries. Nathan carries with him the assumption that the culture he is entering is primitive, backwards, and inherently sinful. He confuses the gospel with his culture, blending the two as he attempts to minister to the people, trampling their values and knowledge in his arrogance. They are to him Heathen, and therefore cannot possess any knowledge that could be valuable. He, as minister of the gospel, is the one who must dispense the knowledge, ridding them of what they thought they knew and replacing it with what he teaches. Rather than attempting to bridge the gap between their knowledge and the truth (because every culture contains within it elements of the truth), he alternately dismisses or abuses their culture by playing off their superstitions one moment ("if you repent, Jesus will send rain") and accusing them of superstition the next ("Jesus didn't promise your child wouldn't die if you went to church").

The second reason I found this book hard is that it is yet another example of Western culture's abuses of an entire continent through colonialism/imperialism. The book is set at the beginning of African independence, when the Congo gained its freedom from Belgium. Apparently overnight, Congo became a free nation after generations of control by a foreign power. Suddenly they were expected to run an infrastructure and maintain government control without any prior experience. To make matters worse, the CIA worked to assassinate the freely-elected leader of the now-independent state, supporting a dictator in his place who oversaw the transformation of Congo into Zaire - violent, poor, and bloody. The meddling of Western power in sovereign governments, not to mention the motivation for doing so (being able to take the resources from these nations without profiting the citizens of the nation), should be heartbreaking to those of us who profit from it, either directly or indirectly.

But I think the thing that made this book the most difficult for me is the absence of Jesus. The name of Jesus is present frequently, at the lips of the good Reverend Price constantly, but Jesus - the King of Kings- doesn't show up once. "Tata Jesus is bangala!" Price tells his African congregants time and again, a phrase which his daughter Adah points out could have two meanings: either "Jesus is precious," or "Jesus is poisonwood (poisonwood being a particularly nasty poisonous tree)." We do not get the precious gospel - we get the poisonwood gospel.

Kingsolver is not a believer, and the redemption she attempts to weave into the ending of her book leaves me wanting more. She seems to end it with the idea that one should simply try to do a little good - the problems of the world are much too vast to be able to solve, so do what good you can: love your children, love your fellow man, and live honorably and generously. And maybe farm.

All good things, which I fully support (especially the farming bit - power to agrarians!). But this isn't enough for the Christian. Africa (and the world) needs the knowledge that all things are being redeemed to the way they were supposed to be, that Jesus is working all things into submission to Himself, that creation was made good, and is now in the process of being made into what it should be. Africa needs Jesus, more desperately than they need anything else. Kingsolver writes from the presumption that Nathan offered the only Jesus available and He wasn't enough - Jesus might work for Nathan but in Africa He doesn't make sense. What Kingsolver misses is that Nathan's Jesus and the real Jesus have very little in common. The real Jesus has exactly the remedy for Africa: salvation, shalom, the righting of wrongs.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, dear. You're so intelligent and good at critical thinking. Makes me feel mind-less. :)
    Oh that Jesus would make himself known to all nations and tribes and tongues. It's what we live for.