Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible
The Poisonwood Bible is a great discussion book.  It is well written, interestingly set in the Belgian Congo before, during and after the transition from a Belgian territory to a dictatorship when the country was lead by a self serving ruthless dictator, Mubutu and became known as Zaire.  The tale of this countries' people was spun using a fundamentalist baptist missionary family's struggles in a primitive village, Kilanga.

A sad event is foretold in the first chapter of the book.  The story then proceeds in the first person, told from family members, Orleanna Price and her four daughters, weaving you along subplots. All paths lead you to the sad event that will ruin everyone's lives.  This book is read the way one gawks at a car accident inclusive of twitching body parts, fire and blood.  The story spans their lives starting with their pilgrimage to the Congo as a young family in 1959.  It is interesting that there is no chapter where we hear the story told by Nathan, the father.

This was an exciting book filled with life and death moments. Learning about the hardships of surviving in Africa helps to broaden one's view of the importance of things American's take for granted, such as not being killed by the local wildlife and having not just good food to eat but enough food to eat.

It is a great book, so why should I follow this with more to be said?  To not mince words, this book was godless.  Well, perhaps worse than godless. Kingsolver needs to be certain that she has chosen the right side of the good and evil, believer and nonbeliever fence, as she has certainly taken sides.  I think that the true point of this book is to convey her idea that the missionaries in Africa are the real sinners.  That there is no God, the only salvation in life is ourselves, and forgiveness even from the regrets we experience in our own lives is only attainable through our own resolve to forgive ourselves.  With this is revealed the life of the true Atheist.  "The teeth at your bones are your own, the hunger is yours, forgiveness is ours." 

Why did she call this the Poisonwood Bible?  Only Kingsolver knows for sure, but I'll take a guess at this.  The poisonwood tree in the Congo is a pretty nasty tree that causes one to break out in horrible painful boils.  The Bible is a book of truth, when crossed by a poisonwood tree causes something quite horrible as per her tale.

Kingsolver makes it clear that the missionary work by the main character in this book, Nathan Price, was a horrible sin against the Congolese people. Granted, Nathan was a twit.  He was inflexible in light of incredible African diversity, making him truly horrible at communicating God's love to these people. At the end of each of his church services, he says "Tata Jesus is bangala", where the word bangala can mean precious but can also mean poisonwood, Kingsolver's joke on Nathan.

I've no doubt that there were many missionaries like him with good intentions of sharing their beliefs with other people but insensitive to the culture of the communities.  However, I believe God to be kind and loving of his creation (one caveat, this doesn't mean that we will not suffer and die, as this is part of our biological existence).  The belief in God's condemnation based on the fact you may be born in Africa instead of a Christian community somewhere else is clearly nonsense. God is greater than our own biblical interpretation, and the belief that God loves all of us, that God is faithful and that only God can judge is my foundation.  I see no reason that Kingsolver found the need to crucify God based on some men's narrow interpretation of the bible.

So, in that light, I found the book without soul.  However, Kingsolver is truly a Queen of writers.  My favorite book of hers is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a true tale of family gardening.
Animal Vegetable Miracle