I have been wanting for some time to share some thoughts about Barbara Kingsolver’s amazing novel, The Poisonwood Bible. I realize that I am very much late to the party in doing so as it was published over a decade ago and has been widely hailed as a modern classic for years. But though I’m late to the party I did still want to show up for The Poisonwood Bible is one of the most remarkable novels I’ve ever read. This is not to say that I did not find some aspects problematic. Rather, I am saying that even in light of these areas I found this to be one of the most well-told, provocative, insightful, powerful, unsettling, and well-written books I’ve ever encountered.
The Poisonwood Bible is about a Baptist missionary family who is taken to Africa by their dominant and domineering preacher husband/father Nathan Price. The story is told from the perspective of the Price women: Nathan’s wife Orleanna and their daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. We never hear Nathan in his own voice but we do hear Nathan a great deal and, likely, a great deal too much.
How to describe this story? It is a story of one man’s descent into madness and the demons that drove him, of one woman’s story of survival in the face of her husband and the cultural and geopolitical quagmire that they encounter in Africa and, indeed, the world at large, and of four daughters’ experience of being children (of varying ages) in the midst of these powerful familial, religious, and cultural cross-currents.
Kingsolver’s decision to tell the story through the voices of the Price women turns out to be very effective. The development of each of their unique characters was nothing short of enthralling. By the end of the novel you feel that you know the quirks, the personalities, and the hysterical, irritating, and, at times, infuriating (i.e. Rachel) idiosyncrasies of each. I was especially struck by the character Orleanna, who emerges as a bruised, wounded, but ultimately victorious picture of courage and sheer grit.
I am a Baptist pastor who believes in missions, so the book simultaneously challenged and irritated me. It irritated me to think that the character of Nathan will feed into and bolster the worst possible stereotypes that some have of missionaries and perhaps especially of Baptist missionaries. I want very much to say that I have never met Nathan Price, though I offer two caveats: (1) I have met people with certain of his traits and (2) I do not deny that creatures like him exist. The history of missions is too clear to deny his appearance on the stage here and there. But, in my experience as a Southern Baptist pastor pastoring conservative churches in the South, not only have I never met Nathan Price, but I consider him to be monstrous, I consider much of his theology to be blasphemous and absurd, and I could not personally be in the presence of such a person long without giving voice to this. The people I know and go on the mission field with would say the very same.
Even so, there is Nathan Price in all of his offensive arrogance: the complete lack of consideration of the culture in which he was, the thinly-veiled disdain for the people he was, in theory, trying to reach, the maddening belief (seemingly) in mechanical baptismal regeneration, the sanctimony, the stupidity, etc. etc. I would say this to any who might come across this review after having read the book: yes, in the two-thousand year history of the Church despicable characters like Nathan Price have emerged far too many times, but please know that most of us are not only not like him but we recoil in horror at the sight of him. Furthermore, many missionaries over the years have done amazing work and been a great blessing to the lives of those to whom they have ministered. (And I gather, thankfully, from some of Kingsolver’s interviews, that she would not dispute this. She was herself the daughter of missionary parents and has made clear that this is not a story about them.)
Even so, I am glad that Kingsolver created Nathan Price. He needs to be seen. He is as much a walking cautionary tale as a walking contradiction. He is religion at its worst. He is, to put it mildly, anti-Christ, all the while claiming to be serving Christ. And, on a personal level, the depiction of such a character challenged me to make sure that I never fall into the kind of obscene pitfalls into which he fell. It also challenged me to try to view the missionary task through the eyes of those to whom we go and to ask, “What might I be doing that communicates disinterest in or disdain towards the actual lives of the people to whom I seek to minister?” That is not an unimportant question.
There is so much more than could be said about this amazing book. Its political message is worth hearing and its cultural insights are really fascinating. But, for me, the characters make the book. It is a story of a family. It is a gripping tale. It gets under your skin and stays with you.
This is a very very good book. I would say it is also an important book. In truth, I think it should be read in seminary missiology classes. Regardless, you really should read The Poisonwood Bible.