In the first few pages of this novel, set in Zaire from 1959 into the present time, I found two quotations that I liked a lot.
“I attempted briefly to consecrate myself in the public library, believing every crack in my soul could be chinked with a book.”
“The forest eats itself and lives forever.”
After that, the story took over, and I forgot to keep track of individual sentences and paragraphs. It’s the story of a missionary family in Belgian Congo (Zaire) who set out to convert the Africans to Christianity and of the way that Africa transforms each member of that family. Ms. Kingsolver’s use of words and phrases in this novel is beautiful. I also liked the way the story was told from differing points of view: the dutiful daughter who becomes more African than the Africans themselves, the oldest daughter who worships, not books, but rather material comforts, and the odd twin whose disability and intelligence give her the detachment and eccentricity to do something that will truly help the African people. Even the youngest daughter, the sacrificial lamb of the family, tells the story from her vantage point some of the time.
The father, the preacher in the story, is a caricature. White missionaries to Africa are almost always caricatures: clumsy, insensitive, argumentative, violent, and self-absorbed. These fictional Cartoon Missionaries are always unable to communicate, always sure that Christianity is synonomous with American culture, always convinced that all truth resides in themselves and their own ideas. Although there were and probably still are missionaries who approach the spread of the gospel (good news) in this manner, I’ve met many missionaries, Southern Baptist and other evangelical missionaries, and I didn’t find them, for the most part, to be culturally insensitive or arrogant at all.
In spite of this stereotypical villain, I enjoyed reading The Poisonwood Bible. Some of the ideas, philosophies and scenes within the novel have stuck with me. I’m, in fact, still thinking about the novel and its implications a month and a half after having read it. Some of those “sticky” thoughts:
Africa is a vast and complicated continent, and understanding even the culture of one country within that huge continent of more than sixty countries and many more people groups would be the work of a lifetime.
It’s not really possible to understand and become a part of a culture outside of your own —even with the work of a lifetime. However, I believe Jesus transcends culture and unifies Christians across cultural lines.
African Christians have much to teach us about how to follow Christ and how to live lives of simple discipleship and obedience. However, I’m not sure that anyone is listening. One group wants Africans to fit into Rousseau’s ideal of the “Noble Savage” and not to adopt Christianity at all, and another is still stuck in a less extreme version of what the preacher father preached in this book: “see what we (western) Christians can do for the poor benighted Africans.”
Sisters, even twins, can grow up to hold very different views of the world and to espouse very different causes and beliefs. Even so, they can’t completely escape the link that growing up in the same family, and perhaps heredity, gives them. Sisters are inextricably bound together in some ways by their past and their shared heritage.
I can’t forget the image of an army of ants moving across the landscape devouring everything in sight. Could an army of insects, literal or figurative, devour our culture someday and make all that we’ve said, written, and invented, irrelevent?