The Poisonwood Bible and Me

In Theology by Stephanie ChristiansonLeave a Comment

The Mark of a Good Book

If you asked me to recommend a theology book, it is quite probable that I will emphatically ask: “Have you read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace? No? You HAVE to. It’s a game changer!” So emphatic is this answer that I wrote a previous post about it here.

If you asked me to recommend a work of fiction, the answer could be C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water, or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (among many others). If you would ask this question today, I would without a doubt recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, not only because of the rippling and rhythmic prose, the fascinating character development, or the poignant foreshadowing and symbolism, but because this book is haunting.

The mark of a good book is the ability to make us ask big questions outside of our realm of experience. And has Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible ever done this for me: questions of missiology, culture, theology, economics, politics, sociology . . . this list could go on.

Inside Poisonwood

In Poisonwood, we are introduced to the Price family: father Nathan, mother Orleanna, and daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. The Price family has left their home in Georgia, where Nathan pastors a Baptist church, on a one-year missions term to Kilanga in the Belgian Congo. Nathan has great zeal to convert the local villagers to Christianity. He is a fiery man: unyielding, harsh, distant.

As you can imagine, this fiery Baptist preacher and the local residents of Kilanga don’t see eye-to-eye. At first, it is not so much of a clash as an inability to find any common ground, as numerous examples attest to. Upon arrival in the village, Nathan uses Genesis 19 to preach against the nakedness of the villagers. He desperately wants to baptize the locals in the river, but fails to hear their fears that children have recently perished in the river due to crocodile attacks. Even the land is at odds with Nathan, as he attempts to plant American seeds in Congolese soil, which are unable to grow and produce.

Perhaps the saddest example is Nathan’s ability to grasp the intricacies of the local language. While wanting to preach that Jesus is bängala, or dearly beloved, he ends up slightly mispronouncing the word and thus communicates that Jesus is the poisonwood tree, a dangerous tree that causes skin to itch, burn, and swell up.

Twists and Turns

In order to do justice to this novel, you really must read it yourself. The Price family’s life intertwines with that of their Congolese neighbours, and that of the newly independent nation as a whole. There is tragedy for both the Price family and for the new nation along the way. As the novel is narrated in turn by the Price sisters, each wrestles with (or ignores) her own complicity in the fate of their family and the fate of the nation.

There certainly is a political side to this novel, perhaps best summarized through the symbol of the parrot Methuselah. Methuselah was left to the Price family by the previous missionaries in Kilanga, and is eventually released by Nathan due to some choice vocabulary the parrot has picked up from his human neighbours. However, Methuselah doesn’t know how to be free, how to hunt, or how to hide from predators. He ends up roosting around the Price’s house until he is finally captured by a predator. For Kingsolver, Methuselah is a symbol of the Congo. As a newly independent nation, trying to move past a history of colonialism, the Congo is almost doomed from the start. And certainly as Western powers continue to covet the diamonds and precious minerals of this new country, a happy ending seems far out of reach.

Jesus is bängala

There are so many threads to explore in this novel, but I would like to focus on a missiological angle. The Christianity that the Price family brings to the Congo is clothed in Western assumptions. The Congolese people need to change their manner of dress, need to be taught the superior Western methods of raising crops, need to become white in order to become Christian. This is tragic. And this is not just a story, but a pattern that has played out so many times within history.

As a Christian, there is a part of me that wants to recoil at Kingsolver’s tale. The flat character of Nathan Price, the zealous preacher with no regard for anyone but himself, is a frustratingly negative and one-sided picture of Christianity being introduced to another culture. I want to emphasize that Nathan Price is not the definitive representation of Christianity. There have been times when Jesus has been introduced with care and compassion to another culture, without the added requirement of becoming white to become Christian. In these cases, the good and faithful servants of Christ have done well.

But Nathan Price is not purely a work of the imagination: he has had real-life counterparts throughout history.

And here is the tough part: when we cloth Christianity in our cultural assumptions and equate our culture and colour with pure Christianity, Jesus does become bängala, a poisonwood tree.

But this Jesus is so far from what we see in the Gospel narratives. First, we see a Jesus who is not Western, but rather a Jew from the Middle East. We see a Jesus who commands his disciples to take the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation. We see a Jesus who interacts with people where they are at, whether that is a Roman centurion, a Syro-Phoenician woman, or a leper. Yes, this Jesus does require repentance, a turning from the kingdom of sin to the kingdom of God. But I do not think this Jesus requires a turning from culture, from skin tone, in order to enter the kingdom of God.

So we have some big questions to ask missiologically. How do we present Jesus to people from other cultures? What is essential to the Christian message? What must be left behind in order to embrace Christ? What can be kept in order to embrace Christ? I am not here to offer a solution or an answer to these questions, but to alert us to the fact that these are real, important questions.

Canada 150

Last year, my country turned 150 years old. There were celebrations through the country honouring our past and hoping toward our future. There is a substantial stain on our country, though: Residential Schools. Indigenous children were removed from their families and placed in Residential Schools, where the goal was to remove their cultures and languages, in order to assimilate these children into broader Canadian culture. The government and churches worked together to accomplish this purpose.

In recent years, there have been apologies and attempts to reconcile Indigenous and settler relationships. And there are some amazing stories, full of hope, to be found: check out the documentary Reserve 107, a story of friendship and reconciliation between the Young Chippewayan band and settlers in Saskatchewan.

However, my country’s history pulls me back to The Poisonwood Bible. As indigenous children were removed from their homes, physically, emotionally, and sexually abused, and taught that their way of life was inferior, doesn’t Jesus become bängala?

This is tragic.

And here I am. As a Christian, how can I communicate who Jesus is to my indigenous neighbours, when so much damage and pain has been caused in the past? How can I show who Jesus is: the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the prophet who commands us to love nonviolently, the Saviour who offers a drink of the living water? This is Jesus. He is not bängala, the poisonwood tree, though we regrettably dress him in this manner sometimes. He is the dearly beloved one with arms outstretched on the cross, embracing the other, paving the way to reconciliation with God and with each other (see Volf, Exclusion and Embrace).

Yes, this is Jesus.

Author: Stephanie Christianson

Stephanie Christianson lives in Saskatchewan, Canada with her husband Austin, where they serve with Ranger Lake Bible Camp. She holds a MA in Theological Studies (Briercrest Seminary). Her research interests including Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies, nonviolence, divine violence, and the work of Miroslav Volf.