The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (New York: HarperFlamengo, 1998. 560 pp)
Born in 1955 in rural Kentucky, Barbara Kingsolver earned biology degrees from DePauw University and the University of Arizona. Beginning in 1985, Kingsolver began writing as a freelancer and author. Starting with The Bean Trees in 1988 and Lacuna functioning as the most recent bookend in 2009, Kingsolver’s works have been translated into more than two dozen languages and adopted into high school curriculum. Kingsolver contributes essays and reviews in many renowned newspapers and magazines. She has received numerous awards including, the national book award of South Africa, the James Beard Award, and the National Humanities Medal. Kingsolver lives on a farm in Southern Appalachia with her husband, Steven Hopp.
A Equals ~A
Philosophically speaking, cultural relativism is a myth. Defined as an ethical position praising the moral goodness of societal differences, cultural relativism stakes claim as a dominant worldview. Yet, the foundational premise of relativism is invalid.
More specifically, when someone states “cultural morals are relative – what is ethical in one society is not ethical in another. Thus, both positions can be held as equally moral.” However, such a statement requires universal footing. The position, “cultural morals are relative” is an absolute statement intended to govern humankind. But, the content of the statement assumes that all positions are relative. Therefore, such a position states, “a equals not a.”
At the same time, merely rejecting cultural relativism a priori dismisses some crucial elements surrounding this invalid assumption: the cultural relativist understands that his or her cultural mores are not necessarily the way life ought to be.
The Mission Field
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible illustrates the damaging effects of assuming that your way of thinking is the true way of thinking. This tome follows the life of Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary from Georgia, told through the lens of Orleanna Price, his wife, and his four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.
From the day the family arrives in Belgian Congo, cultural clashes become common place and a sense of impending tragedy settles over the pages. Nathan Price believes that the pagans need Jesus – an American Jesus to be specific. The natives of Congo, however, have lived in this harsh jungle for centuries, learning how to survive with the land.
Terrify the Children!
The differences in culture are no more pronounced than in Nathan Price’s continual desire to baptize the children of this African village.
“Then there is batiza, Our Father’s fixed passion. Batiza pronounced with the tongue curled just so means “baptism.” Otherwise, it means “to terrify.” Nelson spent part of an afternoon demonstrating to me that fine linguistic difference while we scraped chicken manure from the nest boxes. No one has yet explained it to the Reverend. He is not of mind to receive certain news. Perhaps he should clean more chicken houses” (214).
On top of misunderstanding the subtleties of the language, Nathan Price is incapable of understanding the cultural rituals of the land. From refusing to plant seeds in the correct manner, to urging the native people to dunk their children in alligator-infested rivers, the Reverend’s singular desire of salvation for the people reveals itself in a half-comical, half-tragic way.
Unable to connect with the locals, Nathan’s family falls apart while he does little to nurture their growth. In these ways, The Poisonwood Bible reads like a tragedy.
I couldn’t help but think of Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan while reading The Poisonwood Bible. In Christianity Rediscovered, Donovan narrates his time as a missionary amongst the Masai people in Tanzania. During his mission, Donovan rediscovers the gospel message as he learns the Masai culture.
Instead of phrasing the gospel in an American way, Donovan learns the subtleties of Masai culture first in order to phrase the gospel in a way that the people not only understand, but also can practice without divorcing themselves from an ingrained culture.
As such, Donovan learns that the gospel runs deeper than its Americanized form. In a way, Christianity Rediscovered and The Poisonwood Bible read as the polar opposite ways of spreading the gospel.
Although The Poisonwood Bible is a sad story about the ways a family falls apart on the mission field, Kingsolver writes well and approaches dense subjects with honesty. I recommend this book!