Last month I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I’d heard great things about her and about the book, and was intrigued by its plot summary. It proved to measure up to all I’d heard about it.
There were a few exceptions to the praise, however. I found some who saw no value in it, and some who cried “foul!” at the cliche Southern missionary pastor who sought to bend all of Africa to his will.
But that Southern pastor is precisely who I identified with the most.
Shocking, I know.
He’s the one you want to hate – the one who drives his family and an entire African village into the ground, the one who offends a culture and puts his family in grave danger, the one who never relents even when the end is neigh.
But if you strip away the specific circumstances he created and put his family through, what you are left with is a man who was lost if not in control of his own destiny.
Nathan the preacher had a worship dysfunction.
And really, don’t we all?
Don’t we all have our little idols to comfort us? To give us courage? To get us through? Don’t we all mold Jesus – just a little bit? – into something we want him to be? To do for us? Don’t we all?
As the story unfolds – and I’ll warn you now of the spoilers lying ahead – the reader and Nathan’s family simultaneously discover their missionary trip to the Congo was not only ill advised, but forbidden. During a time of political unrest, most Americans and Europeans were fleeing the country. But Nathan, a Southern Baptist preacher with four daughters forged ahead with his plan to baptize the savages despite warnings against doing so by the missionary organization he claimed to represent.
Nathan continues to insist the villagers get baptized, despite the translator’s tip regarding crocodiles in the river, despite Nathan’s misuse of a local word which translates literally, “Jesus is the poisonwood” – a wood that, when burned, will kill you if the smoke is inhaled.
Then one day, after a long drought in the land, it rains. It rains on the same day one of his daughters is laid to rest. While the villagers mill about, saddened by the loss but joyful in the rain, Nathan touches each child on the head, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
The picture of this scene is forever engraved on my mind. I will never forget the vision I have of the maniacal man in denial of his own defeat, who mind-tricks himself into believing he’d fulfilled his destiny while the remains of his family marches off into the jungle, deserting him.
Throughout the story I tracked with Nathan. I understood him – his need to push through, to ignore, to stay on course because dammit that’s the course he’d set.
I tracked with him through the lies, the denial, the rage, and through the pressing down of those who loved him most so he could rise to the top.
I am Nathan.
I watched in horror as the consequences of his actions played out, imaging my own children hating me, my own husband deserting me, my own reality deceiving me.
The Poisonwood Bible woke me up. It got my attention. Like the ghost of Christmas future it revealed a logical outcome of my tight-fisted will.
It was a beautiful book. But even more, a beautiful revelation.