Friday, February 10, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

This is a literary masterpiece, both the writing and the story itself.

Written from 5 different perspectives: Orleanna Price, the wife of a Baptist missionary, and their 4 daughters, it weaves the story of their mission to the Congo in the 1950s and how it affects every aspect of their lives from that moment on.

I read it over 10 years ago and have recently read it again. Yet again I found it incredibly moving and somewhat exhausting to read. For the last third I could only manage a chapter or two a sitting.

Kingsolver’s writing is wonderful: her turn of phrase, her insight and her intelligence shine throughout the pages. Almost every chapter had something I could have written down as a quote to keep.  Her insights into religion, politics, race, Africa and America are wide-ranging and well informed.

Yet it’s devastating. Nathan Price, the husband and father is a fierce, fiery man, preaching hell-fire and damnation to all, never showing love to his wife, daughters or the people of Africa, and thinking himself absolutely correct in all matters of faith and the bible. In many ways he is a parody, yet a disturbingly realistic one.

With the setting in the Congo, we are given a picture of Africa which many of us are uncomfortable with: rife with corruption and greed, a puppet of the west, overwhelmed with poverty and desperation.

Just as I found The Rector’s Wife hard going from a personal perspective, I found this very hard reading as I thought more broadly about mission and how it interacts with other cultures.   We know many missionaries and they are nothing like Nathan Price; they are loving, caring people, devoted to the country they live in and its people, desiring to share Jesus with them in appropriate ways.  A book like this actually undoes much of that and there are many people who I hope never read it, for it would confirm in their minds already ill-conceived ideas about mission.

But as a fiction and a work of literature, it is wonderful.


Tamie said...

I read this book in our winter holidays last year. Even though Nathan Price is a pretty horrific character, I think your comment that he is realistic is on the money. These sort of stories are important to tell because much of missions in the past has been characterised by the same lack of regard for partners/children and by the same ignorance of culture or disrespect for indigenous knowledge.

However terrible, this is still part of missions history and I think it's important to own that, to repent of it and to work for change. And of course, there has been great change and we need profile that. But we also continue to hear high-profile western pastors speak against contextualisation. I think being reminded of the shame of our past is important to help us to guard against the tendency to assume that contextualisation is unimportant or an added extra.

Wendy said...

Thanks Tamie – those are helpful comments.