Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

*I avoided major spoilers, but if you intend to read The Poisonwood Bible, you may want to read this post after the book.

I recently took a break from more serious reading and finished the novel, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a very engaging and worthy read about a domineering fundamentalist Baptist preacher who takes his wife and four girls to the Congo on a mission effort. It's also a commentary on the tragic consequences of U.S. intervention in Africa at both the individual and national level. The question of guilt must be addressed by the characters, haunting some and driving others to madness. It is written from the perspective of the wife as well as the four daughters. As one may expect, they meet great challenges and tragedy in their efforts to win the Congolese for Jesus. I was particularly interested in how each character's faith and religious beliefs were shaped over time by the interaction of their personality with life experiences.

I personally identified the most with the character Leah, who begins her journey to Africa with enthusiasm, eager to help her dad save souls, convinced he holds The Truth and is capable of sharing it with others. She continuously seeks her father's approval, but is given no recognition. Over time, his ineptitude becomes apparent, and she loses faith, both in him and in her religion. She transfers her devotion and love to her husband and to the suffering of Africa. She continues to be a spiritually minded person, but she trusts little in the Bible. Her father's ill-conceived interpretations and use of it as a weapon and punishment are the reason why. Instead, she follows the example of a former missionary who told her "When I want to take God at his word exactly, I take a peep out the window at His Creation. Because that, darling, He makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers."

I differ from Leah in that I was blessed to have a loving dad whose interpretation of the Bible encouraged rather than discouraged me from following it. However, I'm similar in a few ways. I, too, entered a mission field, convicted of the need to save others. I was overwhelmed by the thought that so many people had not been taught about Jesus and therefore wouldn't be saved. This eventually led to an evaluation of how I view scripture. I am still in that process and haven't given up on scripture, but I do find myself trusting in "creation" more to give me any understanding of God. Of course, what we understand of God through nature depends on the person doing the observing as well as what aspect of creation is being observed.

I found it interesting that another character, Leah's twin Adah, gave expression to my objection to the doctrine of hell, as I had been taught:
"Accoring to my Baptist Sunday-school teachers, a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation: admission to heaven is gained by the luck of the draw. At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month's ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Saviour as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth, and reward others for a privilege they did nothing to earn?"

A cynic at heart, Adah is never one to become idealistic or loyal to any ideology. She does grow restless and searches for some type of religion, ultimately settling on science. She studies and appreciates nature in a more detached, intellectual way than her twin. Her studies lead her to conclude that "God is everything" both "virus" and "ant." God values all life, human and non-human, and values a balanced existence of all organisms rather than primarily rooting for the survival of people.

If anyone has read the book, I'd be interested in other perspectives. Also, what does creation say or not say to you about the nature and/or existence of God?


  1. I listened to the first few chapters on audiobook just a week or two ago, but haven't had the time to pick it up again. I liked the writing though.

    The wonder of nature was probably a main support of my belief in God. There was probably a time when I saw it as persuasive proof of God's existence. Now, not so much, just a thing of magnificence and wonder, regardless of how it came into being. I generally think it is nature which makes my heart soar, not God through nature, but I am content to leave the source undefined.

  2. Creation definitely is a witness of God for me, even when I was still in science. The Bible often makes me doubt God. Often, Christians paradoxically make me feel like God is in my imagination. Hell is certainly one of the many issues I have. When someone says they were blessed, I think about all those that didn't have that blessing. Glass half empty kind of thoughts.

  3. Hi,

    I haven't read this book but on a totally different topic I read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" also by Barbara Kingsolver.... Highly recommend.

    I had a friend I used to work with years ago who had converted to Catholicism. He was a scientist and I remember his comment to another person I worked with about "symmetry in nature" and how this was impossible without God to make it that way. I still tend to think that there really has to be something driving the order to the universe- as a student of the sciences myself I was (and am) often awestruck at the complexity and delicate balance there is to life. It takes more energy to keep things in order than to allow chaos...

  4. atimetorend,
    I'm still working on the being "content to leave the source undefined."

    Like a Child,
    I'm right there with you. I too object to when people praise God b/c he helped them find their car keys while children go hungry around the world.

    I really enjoyed Kingsolver's writing style, so I'll have to check out more of her works.

  5. " too object to when people praise God b/c he helped them find their car keys while children go hungry around the world." That got a much needed chuckle out of me. As an aside, my mom always corrects me when I use the word lucky instead of blessed...it is frustrating at times, although I know they mean no harm.

  6. Here is the interesting thing about nature and God; I have noticed this in myself as well as descriptions from others. We tend to find God in the beautiful moments.

    A lovely sunset, a quiet walk through the woods, or uplifting scenery. In those times we feel “uplifted” (I put it in quotes due to vagueness and inability to adequately describe the feeling, although we all seem to have it) and think about how this could possibly come to be without some great unseeable force.

    Yet if there is such a God—it is a God of the whole package. Why is it we don’t see God when we watch children die of starvation? (Except maybe a passing thought one wishes God would take away what God hath apparently wrought!) Or see maggots crawling over a dead animal? Or leukemia? Or a pile of dog poo?

    What is it about our nature where we want to attribute what we consider positive effects to a supernatural being, yet do not equally find such a being in things neutral or negative? Shouldn’t we equally find (and FEEL) a God then?

    But we don’t. We find a god in a baby’s kiss—not their dirty diaper.

  7. DagoodS,
    I hear you about the selective approach we often take to seeing God in nature. For the sake of consistency, I have, as you have implied we ought, tried to make sense of God in light of all of nature, the lovely and the repulsive. The result is not a warm and fuzzy version of God Christianity often promotes nowdays. For the most part, I have given up praying, particularly for specifics, because God would appear to be more interested in maintaining creation as a whole, from maggots to humans, with life maintaining itself in rather brutal ways at times, than in blessing my particular life or the lives of specific others. If any passage in the Bible sums up my current view of the universe, it would be Ecclesiastes 3.
    1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

    2A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

    3A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

    4A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

    5A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

    6A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

    7A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

    8A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

    9What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?

    10I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.

    11He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.

    12I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.

    13And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.

    14I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

    15That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.

    16And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.

    17I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.

    18I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.

    19For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

    20All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

    21Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?

    22Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?

  8. Great Passage. Do I show my age when I hear Simon & Garfunkel in my mind every time I read it?

  9. I had to look it up to make sure I wasn't writing their song lyrics! I'm sure you would have called me out if I had included "turn, turn, turn" in the quote.

  10. That’s kinda funny. I saw the initial sentence on your blog front page where you said, “I had to look it up to make sure I wasn’t writing the song lyrics!” and the first thought that popped into my head was, “Having ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ would be a give away.” Upon expanding the full comment, I see you beat me to it!

    Naw, I wouldn’t have called you out. Simon & Garfunkel are just as illuminating as Ecclesiastes. (Of course the irony is not lost on me that Simon & Garfunkel copied a portion from a book that says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”)