Wednesday, December 01, 2004

I finally read "The Poisonwood Bible"

Call me contrary, but my kneejerk reaction to Oprah Book Club titles is generally to ignore them. (It's true, I read Christian fiction more than any other kind of fiction, but not exclusively by any means.)

At any rate, I've seen The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver everywhere from airport newstands to Wal-Mart, and heard great things about it, but never even had an urge to pick it up.

However,my sister Bev gave me her copy to read on the way home from Wyoming. I picked it up, and was hooked from the first page.

Kingsolver's writing is beautiful, powerful and lyrical, and she genuinely inhabits the voices of each of her narrators--whether missionary wife Orleanna Price or her daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Without question, Kingsolver is a singularly gifted writer and storyteller.

An unusual missionary story

The premise resonated with me on a few levels anyway, because it's the story of a Baptist missionary taking his family to a foreign land in the early 60's. This was my own situation as a child in the mid-60's, as my family uprooted from the United States and moved to Beirut, Lebanon.

However, a lot of things were different in my own case, as I'll mention later.

In the book, World War Two veteran Nathan Price takes his family to a remote, primitive village in the Belgian Congo, and proceeds to try to forcefully shove Christianity down the throats of the villagers, completely insensitive to their native ways and customs. Headstrong and bullying, Price also coldly disregards his family's safety and stubbornly stays in the village, even when his mission board urges him to leave and cuts off his stipend amid swirling political turmoil.

Kingsolver tells the story through the eyes of Price's family, alternating the narrative among his wife and four daughters.

Authentic narrative voices

Wife Orleanna tells her part of the story from the future, where she is living a safe distance away in her native Georgia.

Teen-aged daughter Rachel is vain, shallow and not too bright, as reflected in her numerous spelling errors and mixed up phrases like "my feminine wilds" and calling the marriage state "monotony" instead of "monogamy." Yet Rachel's easygoing humor, even in the bleakest of situations, makes her narratives some of the most fun to read.

Leah and Adah are twins, both highly sensitive and intelligent. Yet while Leah is whole, her twin was born with a birth defect that causes her to limp, and for some reason renders her voluntarily mute.

Leah worships her father and longs for his approval, but we see her view of her father changing as the story progresses. She is fair-minded, likable and insightful.

Meantime her twin Adah, living in a silent and highly imaginative inner world, is contemptous of her father and everything he stands for. She is obsessed with palindromes and Emily Dickinson poetry, and her narratives are among the most whimsical and poetic.

The five-year-old, Ruth May, also gets her chance at narration, and Kingsolver perfectly captures the mind of a small child.

We are prepared, but no less shocked, when the story careens to catastrophe.

I was glad that the book doesn't leave the family picking up the pieces of the tragedy, but follows them into the future as we see their lives unfold and how they are permanently affected by their experience in Africa.

However, I do have some problems with Kingsolver's view of Christianity and missionaries.

An unflattering view

I will admit I've seen my share of legalistic, bullying Baptist preachers, but Nathan Price is worse than anything I've ever seen. And as far as Christian missionaries go, I've had a great deal of experience with them. The vast majority are gentle, sacrificing souls who have devoted their lives to bringing Christ's love to others. They have done an immeasurable amount of good, much of which will endure for eternity, and they are true heroes of the faith, in my opinion.

[For another beautifully written but true story of missionary selflessness and love, read Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot. In fact, read just about anything by Elisabeth Elliot and you can't go wrong.]

As I read The Poisonwood Bible with its extremely unflattering picture of a missionary, I couldn't help but think of Elmer and Mary Deal. The Deals were missionaries to the Congo until the political situation forced them out, and they were missions professors at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, when I was a student there. As I understand it, they've since returned to the Congo as missionaries.

You could never meet sweeter, kinder or more loving people than the Deals...the polar opposite of Nathan Price.

My missionary father

As the daughter of a Baptist missionary, I also had to look at the differences between Price and my own father.

First of all, although you could have called my father dogmatic about some things, he would never have tried to force someone--much less an entire village--into converting to Christ. My dad believed that the Holy Spirit convicts people.

He also had a sense of humor and fun, loved his wife and children dearly, and would never have allowed us to stay in harm's way. In fact, political turmoil forced us out of Lebanon in June of 1967.

Some inaccuracies

Kingsolver gets a few other things wrong when it comes to Baptist preachers. First of all, I have never in my life met a Baptist preacher who thought the Apocrypha should have been included in the cannon of Scriptures, as Price does in the book, and to preach a sermon from the Apocrypha (as Price does) is something I have never heard of in my 48 Baptist years of life.

Also, I have never met a preacher, no matter how hardcore, who goes around spouting Bible verses in lieu of conversation. That's simply a cartoonish exaggeration of a minister.

I understand that Nathan Price had to be written as thoroughly detestable, since he is the genuine villain of the book. And detestable and despicable he is. But in making him so, Kingsolver also makes him one-dimensional, a cardboard cut-out caricature of a wild-eyed fanatic, without a shred of humor or loving feeling.

Would I recommend reading the book? Certainly. It's gripping, beautifully written, and ultimately uplifting.

I'm not naive enough to believe that Christian missionaries haven't made some serious mistakes in their well-intentioned efforts to carry out the Great Commission...and I happen to agree with what one of the characters says in the book: "There are Christians, and there are Christians."

May we all be the best kind.

1 comment:

Jan said...

My son had to read The Poisonwood Bible for school, so I read it too. Your review is spot on. Nathan Price represents a typical Christian missionary about as well as Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada) represents a typical American woman.

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