The Gospel according to Barbara Kingsolver: Brother Fowles and St. Francis of Assisi in the Poisonwood Bible.
Kingsolver has described her novel as a "political allegory" intended to criticize European and American colonial and neocolonial intervention in Africa. (2) Through the alternating voices of her five central female characters, Kingsolver relates the gradual disintegration of the family of Reverend Nathan Price, a zealous, selfrighteous fundamentalist American Baptist preacher who in 1959 took his wife and four daughters from Georgia to the jungle village of Kilanga in the soon-to-be-independent Belgian Congo on a oneyear mission to convert primitive African heathens living in darkness. Recounting a year and a half of pestilence, disease, drought, floods, hunger, witchcraft, and finally the bloody political upheaval of Mobutu's American-supported coup and assassination of independence Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the novel catalogues the ineptitude and arrogance of Price as he confronts and attempts to change a people (and a culture) he does not understand and who do not particularly desire what he has to offer. In the process Price and his religion become stinging metaphors for an equally inept and arrogant American foreign policy driven by a similar patronizing, self-righteous zeal and xenophobic loathing of competing political and socioeconomic ideologies.
On more than one occasion Kingsolver has rejected the notion that her novel is antireligious, anti-Christian, or antimissionary. (3) Rather, while acknowledging that her central character is an "arrogant proselytizer" engaged in a form of religious activity that goes against her liberal principles, she quickly points to Brother Fowles, whose role in the novel she says is "to redeem both Christianity and the notion of mission ... to represent Christian mission in a kinder voice." (4) At first glance Fowles indeed seems the epitome of a contemporary liberal Christian: he is open-minded and respectful of other systems of belief, recognizing they, too, contain valid expressions of God's revelation to humankind; he does not proselytize, but rather engages in dialogue with the indigenous people among whom he lives; his ministry centers on advancing the work of the social Gospel, promoting such things as better health care, better nutrition (especially for infants), and better treatment of women in society; he approaches the scriptures with the tools, methods, and insights of modern biblical criticism; and he possesses a personal spirituality that is grounded in a near-mystical reverence for the natural world reminiscent (at least on the surface) of the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.
Yet, as admirable a character as Fowles is, a closer examination of his spirituality makes it difficult to call him a Christian in any conventional sense. His readiness to abandon the scriptures (even as interpreted with the tools of modern Bible criticism) as a primary source of revelation in favor of the immanent experience of nature, together with his pantheistic understanding of the nature of God (which mirrors Kingsolver's), clearly sets him apart from mainstream Christianity, whether it be Roman and Anglo Catholicism and all of their offspring, the many branches of Protestantism, the various streams of Eastern Orthodoxy, other Christian traditions, and even the panentheism of St. Francis. Simply put, Fowles's Christianity is not a religious faith, but an ethical code. It lacks any sense of God's transcendence, of the Bible as Good News, or of the salvific nature of Jesus's life and death: the Cross and the Resurrection are not part of the social message he preaches. He is neither a St. Francis nor a Mother Teresa, whose works were inspired by their faith. Rather, like Mohandas Gandhi, he is a good and principled person who embraces the ethical teachings of Jesus but not the religious faith His life inspired.
Predictably, the critical response to this novel has divided along political lines. Readers with left-of-center convictions have generally lavished praise upon it, (5) while those to the right-of-center have been far less approving. (6) A similar pattern can be seen among those readers more directly concerned with the religious aspects of the novel as well. For instance, writing for the National Catholic Reporter Judith Bromberg is sufficiently impressed by the novel's political and moral message to make it required summer reading for her high school students. (7) Elsewhere, in Commonweal Robin Antepara calls it a "wondrous epic" whose characters allegorically explore "different aspects of the American mindset," (8) and in Soujourners Liane Norman likens Kingsolver to "George Eliot, Tolstoy, and Dickens." (9) At the other extreme, writing in the Alberta Report Ted Byfield and Virginia Byfield scathe Kingsolver as yet another in a long line of agnostics peddling worn stereotypes of the "evil missionary." (10) Less myopic (but with greater reason to criticize), in Christianity Today Tim Stafford questions the veracity of Kingsolver's portrayal of Nathan Price, wondering if she in fact "has ever known a fundamentalist missionary." (11) Alan Neeley of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research similarly points to the many incongruities of Price and his situation, lamenting that the uninformed reader is likely to miss and therefore not question them. (12) Oddly, though these latter critics in particular (rightly) raise concerns regarding the legitimacy of Kingsolver's representation of evangelical fundamentalism, none questions the authenticity of the implicitly Franciscan roots of Fowles's spirituality. Yet it seems to me that among an increasingly secular and spiritually eclectic readership the highly admirable Fowles presents potentially the greater risk as a source for confusion regarding the nature of both Christianity and Franciscan spirituality than does the wholly unsympathetic Price, who is too obviously a stick figure to be taken seriously.
Politically and spiritually Kingsolver came of age in the intellectual atmosphere of the immediate post-1960s university campuses. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, feminism, and an emerging environmentalism and multicultural awareness all converged to breed, on the one hand, a skeptical questioning of the existing structures of political and social organization (along with the philosophical positions and assumptions underlying them), and, on the other, a greater interest in exploring radical politics and alternative non-Western systems of social organization and worldviews. Kingsolver, for her part, was certainly not immune. While a student at DePauw University from 1973 to 1977, she discovered Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique ("a book that changed my life") "and the writings of Karl Marx ("the scales fell from my eyes"). (13) In those years, she participated in the last of the great anti-Vietnam War protests, an experience she described as empowering, and also became active in social justice organizations. This activist spirit, in turn, has stayed with her in the ensuing years, encouraging her to take up a wide range of causes, particularly those concerning the native peoples of both the American Southwest that has been her home since the early 1980s and of Central America.
The influence of this heady, turbulent social and intellectual environment was not just on Kingsolver's politics, but on her spiritual worldview as well. Those same forces that conspired to cast suspicions on the basic structures of Western society were also encouraging interest in alternatives to the Western humanistic, scientific worldview. A scientist by training (BA in biology from DePauw, MS in biology and ecology from University of Arizona), Kingsolver's view is nevertheless not that of a purely materialistic science, devoid of spiritual insight. Rather, hers is a holistic view. In her essays over the years she has frequently contemplated the mysteries of the universe and of human nature reflected in such things as the behavior of crabs, the mothering instincts of a bear, or the communal organization patterns of orangutans, baboons, and macaques. With Thoreau she has marveled at the wonders contained in a seed, humbly discovering from it "the glory of knowing our place" in the universe. (14) Living close to the land in her adopted Arizona home, as she marveled at the gaze of a bobcat, the magnificent colors of vermilion flycatchers and western tanagers, the sleek movements of the desert roadrunner, and the maternal instincts of white-winged doves, she has discovered a need "as deep and intangible as religious faith, ... to hold on to the wild and beautiful places that once surrounded us." (15) And through her continued involvement in issues of social justice for Native Americans she has discovered a deeper affinity with their worldview and their forms of spirituality in particular. Their spiritual focus, she wrote in a 1993 essay, eclipses preoccupations with personal salvation typical of doctrinal religions like Christianity, and instead reflects on "matters of order in the universe. Religion of that kind can crack your mind open the way lightning splits a pine." (16)
Religiously, Kingsolver has described herself as a "pantheist." (17) Pantheism is not a religion in the sense of Christianity or Islam, with a particular set of dogmas that must be accepted. Rather, it is a religious attitude encompassing what Gracia Ellwood and Robert Ellwood have called "a family of views espousing total immanence--that is, the essential identity of the Divine and the world." (18) Pantheism includes a wide range of beliefs from essentially atheistic (or at least nontheistic) outlooks like Jainism and Buddhism, which E. R. Naughton says "fully identify the Absolute with the world," to Monism, which does distinguish between absolute and finite being but "reduces one to an illusion or appearance of the other," (19) and ultimately to such American phenomena as nineteenth-century New England Transcendentalism and the New Age spirituality that has flourished since the 1960s. (20) Because of the diversity of thought that the term covers, no single definition can therefore adequately describe all pantheists. Nevertheless, it is distinct from panentheism, which takes the view that the world exists in God, but God also transcends the world. Charles Hartshorne explains the distinction by stressing that pantheism literally means "all is God" while panentheism means "all is in God." (21) That is, pantheism emphasizes the immanence of God in the world and the total identity of the creator and the created. Panentheism, on the other hand, is closer to monotheism in that it recognizes the transcendence of God: while the world exists in God, God is not the world. (22)
There is a tendency among contemporary admirers of St. Francis to see him on the one hand as a simple romantic lover of animals and on the other as a pantheist. Admirers in the former group are usually more secular and, Edward Armstrong suggests, often miss the point that Francis's love for nature grew directly out of his "complete devotion to his Lord and Master." (23) Those in the second category, however, tend to approach Francis from a modernist spiritual eclecticism and in the process fail to distinguish between pantheism and Francis's panentheism. The latter, it seems to me, is the case with Kingsolver.
It is evident that Kingsolver intends Brother Fowles to evoke comparisons with St. Francis. For one, both his name (Brother Fowles) and his ornithological interests (he is a published authority on the subject, whose work has been supported by National Geographic) are clever allusions to the medieval saint who preached to the birds and declared in his Canticle of the Creatures the "brotherhood and sisterhood" of all creation. More to the point, like Francis, Fowles also finds God in nature. During his initial encounter with the Price women, for instance, he tells daughter Leah that when he wishes to hear God's word he "take[s] a peep out the window at His Creation. Because that, darling, He makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers" (PB, 248). Elsewhere, while involved in a scriptural discussion with Nathan, he confesses to being a "plain fool for the nature images in the Bible," because they speak so clearly to him in the African context of God's presence in the world (PB, 252).The beauty, complexity, and awesome power of nature are, for Fowles, both a manifestation and an unmediated, immanent experience of God's presence in the world. His is not merely some romantic's view of nature, awestruck by the beauty of a flower or the nourishing effects of a spring rain. Rather, he looks at nature with the eye of a scientist, much like Kingsolver, who has also written widely on topics related to the environment. What he sees in the complex interrelationships and interdependencies of the physical world is the connectedness of all aspects of creation.
Fowles's spirituality and worldview are representative of what Catherine Albanese has termed "nature religion." (24) Albanese defines nature religion vaguely, suggesting that the term might be applied to "beliefs and practices that involve turning to God in nature or to a nature that is God"; or, alternatively, to a type of religiosity in which "nature is the principal trope." (25) Barbara Downy suggests that, in its widest application, nature religion refers to any form of spirituality that "takes nature as its sacred center." (26) What distinguishes it from other types of religion, she adds, is its understanding of transcendence. Nature religion, she says, "can be constructed as a type of religion in which nature is the milieu of the sacred, and in which the idea of transcendence ... is unimportant or irrelevant to religious practice." If there is any consciousness of transcendence, it "tends to be lateral, rather than vertical. Spirits and deities are of this world rather than beyond it, and can be contacted through the natural world." (27) In other words, Downy suggests that nature religion posits the world of spirits and deities as coterminous with the material world; neither exists independent of the other, but rather each is subsumed in the other. If, then, nature is the "milieu of the sacred," it seems to follow, to me at least, that nature is not just the proper medium but perhaps the only medium through which humans can encounter the divine. Albanese suggests as much, noting that in nature religions the powers of nature are themselves sacred persons or deities, or emanations of a single creator-deity. (28) Nature spirituality, then, focuses on the daily experiences of life in the natural world as the primary, if not sole, medium of encounter with the divine.
This is the type of spirituality Fowles finds and admires in the native Congolese. For instance, the character speaks admiringly to Leah about the local people, telling her that he has "come to love ... their ways of thinking" about the world (PB, 248). Similarly he says to Orleanna that they are really "very religious," that "everything they do is with one eye to the spirit. When they plant their yams and manioc, they're praying. When they harvest, they're praying. Even when they conceive their children, I think they're praying" (PB, 246-47). What he is suggesting is that for these people the simple act of living their daily lives, of being a part of and participating in the natural order, is a religious act. Performing the daily tasks of planting and harvesting, of reaping the fruits of the earth, of participating in the act of procreation--in other words, of interacting with and being a part of the natural world--is in itself a form of communion with and participation in the divine. Their spirituality is, simply put, the type of "this-worldly" religion Downy speaks of; lacking is any notion of a transcendent being or any preoccupation with personal salvation or with immortality and life after death. (29) Rather, like the kind of Native American spirituality Kingsolver so admires, their focus and preoccupation is on what she calls "matters of order in the universe." (30)
At the same time, this nature-centered religiosity of Fowles and the Congolese is not romantic, but realistic. That is, its concern is not solely with beautiful sunsets or the wonders of birds in flight. Rather, it embraces the whole of nature, with its devastating power and cruelty as well as its tranquility and beauty. For example, Fowles remarks to Leah that the local people have "a world of God's grace in their lives, along with a dose of hardship that can kill a person entirely" (PB, 247). By this he means they are not oppressed by suffering, physical infirmities, death, or natural disaster, but accept all such occurrences as part of living. For instance, the village is peppered with characters like the one-eyed Mama Tataba (PB, 39), the legless Mama Mwanza (PB, 51), and the fingerless Tata Zinsana (PB, 53); individuals maimed, deformed, and infirmed by disease, accident, and natural disaster who seem neither bitter nor despondent over their misfortune. Rather, as little Ruth May observes, "They'll wave a stump at you if they've got one, in a friendly way" (PB, 53). Instead of lapsing into despair, they are grateful for the daily blessings nature provides and accepting of the suffering and hardships that come with being a part of that natural world. Unlike the Europeans, whom Kingsolver portrays as feeling compelled to dominate, to conquer, to control nature, they are satisfied simply to be part of it. Far from needing European religion to enlighten them or lead them to God, Fowles says, "they already knew how to make a joyful noise unto the Lord a long time ago" (PB, 247).
Like Fowles, Francis, too, was neither romantic nor naive about nature. Indeed, he understood and marveled at the interconnectedness of all creation, as the abundant stories and legends attest. Yet, he was also keenly aware of nature's violence and its destructive power. This, too, is attested to by such stories and legends as his confrontation with and conversion of the ferocious wolf of Gubbio ("Little Flowers" XXI, 38-41), (31) his cursing of a pig that attacked and killed a lamb (Bonaventure VIII.6, 353), and his own terror of "Brother Fire" when faced with the physician's white hot cauterizing iron (Leo of Assisi CXV, 290-91; also II Celano 166). (32) However, where Francis differs from Fowles and the indigenes he so admires is that Francis's focus is on the transcendent God.
For Fowles, nature does not simply point to God; it is God. This is hinted at, for instance, in the character's particular fondness for the section in St. Paul's Letter to the Romans dealing with the nurturing relationship between the root and branches of the olive tree (11:16-24, 28-29). Initially it seems he simply finds it a beautiful metaphor, asking Nathan if he too "get[s] the notion we are the branch that's grafted on here, sharing in the richness of these African roots" (PB, 252). Later, however, in his parting words to Orleanna the literalness of his belief becomes apparent. As she seems overwhelmed by the daily struggle to survive in an unfamiliar and seemingly hostile environment, he offers her encouragement by reminding her, "We're branches grafted on this good tree, Mrs. Price. The great root of Africa sustains us" (PB, 258). In her time of deep distress Fowles speaks not of the love of Creator for his creation nor of Jesus's promises of comfort and support to those who follow Him (Mt 11:28) and to be with us "always; yes, to the end of time" (Mt 28:20).33 Rather, Fowles directs her to look to nature. For him the natural world of Africa itself is the life-giving force. Recognition of this secret is one of the keys not only to surviving, but to blossoming. The indigenous people, he says, already understand this. Though affected by the hardships nature inflicts, they are not oppressed by such things as sickness or natural disaster. Rather, they accept them as part of the continuity of life. Nor do they see themselves as living in the midst of nature, but rather as being part of it. They have, in Fowles's words, "such an intelligence and the great feeling for the living world around them. They're very humble in their debts to nature" (PB, 252). Nature is, for them and for Fowles (and for Kingsolver, as well), not something to be feared but rather to be awed; it is not something to be conquered and bent to their wills, but something to be accepted in all of its ferocious beauty and majesty--and ultimately, as Albanese would say, something "over which humans, literally, have no control and before which they must bow." (34)
Francis, on the other hand, was always aware of the distinction between Creator and created, between himself as part of the natural world and the Heavenly Father. St. Bonaventure said that Francis recognized in everything in the natural world "the same origin as in himself " (VIII.6, 353). That is, he was completely filled with what Hilarin Felder described as "the consciousness of being a child of God, and this consciousness, in turn, led him to recognize all creatures--indeed all created objects, whether animate or inanimate--as his kin in one great family of God." (35) Leo of Assisi also noted that Francis, "wholly wrapped up in the love of God, discerned perfectly the goodness of God not only in his own soul, ... but in every creature" (CXIII, 289). Francis was not interested in birds or insects or rocks in themselves, but rather because, in the words of William Cook, they "helped lead Francis to a greater understanding and experience of the Father he shared with them." (36) Although Francis recognized his kinship with all creation, he neither saw creation as God nor as being an emanation of God. Rather, as G. K. Chesterton has suggested, while nature may be for Francis "a sister," it is nevertheless "a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved." (37) Chesterton's point is whereas pantheism equates God with nature, Creator with created, knowing only God's immanence, Christianity and Francis, on the other hand, embrace a transcendent God who is also immanent and therefore may be experienced through creation, but is nevertheless distinct as Creator. Leo of Assisi makes the point more directly, noting that Francis felt such deep affection for the natural world because God created the sun and everything else "for our use ... and therefore we ought specially to praise the Creator Himself for these and the other creatures which we daily use" (CXIX, 294). In the end, Francis loved nature not because it was God but because it was a gift from God, to be respected but also to be used. And it is this that sets him apart from Fowles (and Kingsolver).
If Fowles departs from Francis in his concept of the nature of God and the relationship between God and nature, he also departs from Francis in his attitude toward the Bible. Unlike Nathan, Fowles is not an inerrantist vis-a-vis interpreting the scriptures. One of the primary tenants of evangelical Christianity is acceptance of the absolute authority of the Bible. This translates at one end of the continuum as the literal inerrancy of the Bible as a source not only of religious and moral truth but also of factual and historic information. At the other end the Bible is understood as inspired by God but written by individuals whose understanding was limited by their historic, cultural, and environmental situations as well as their levels of scientific and technological sophistication; consequently it needs continuously to be reinterpreted to determine its relevance to new contexts often differing radically from those to which it was originally addressed.
Kingsolver has acknowledged being "largely unacquainted" with the King James Bible before she undertook the composition of this novel. (38) As part of her preparation, she said, she spent a great deal of time reading and rereading it in order to better understand the fundamentalist and evangelical faith of the Prices and to better perfect the rhythms of their voices, adding that she also found it "a really rich source" for plots and themes. (39) Her novel, in turn, is a magnificent testament of the extent to which she has mastered the Bible as a literary text. There are, however, occasional slips that clearly demonstrate her failure to appreciate it as a sacred text that has inspired faith for more than two millennia. For one, there is a tendency for the narrators to lump together a variety of Biblical stories--the Book of Job (PB, 97, 208), the story of Daniel and the lion's den (PB, 151), the miracle of the loaves and fishes (PB, 524)--under the single category "parable." (40) There is, as well, Nathan's penchant for preaching from the Apocrypha (PB, 59, 328-29), which is perhaps more problematic since he is supposed to represent the evangelical tradition. (41) Though each might seem minor miscues, they are indicative of a more fundamental misunderstanding on Kingsolver's part of the sacred texts and their significance, not only for Christians in general and evangelicals in particular, but also for Franciscan spirituality. And this misunderstanding is apparent in Brother Fowles's approach to the scriptures as well.
Both Price and Fowles demonstrate profound familiarity with the scriptures. For his part Nathan has apparently memorized the texts in at least two translations and can quote it almost at will. He is also thoroughly familiar with all of the traditional interpretations of the texts. Fowles has a similar familiarity with the texts and their traditional interpretations but his understanding is augmented by such tools of modern biblical criticism as cultural linguistics and anthropology as well as by the interpretive insights of contextual theology. For him the Bible is "God's word, brought to you by a crew of romantic idealists in a harsh desert culture eons ago, followed by a chain of translators two thousand years long" (PB, 247). Consequently, he realizes a great deal of knowledge is required regarding the situations in which it was produced and the original languages in which it was written. For example, he points to the logical (and practical) cultural origins for religious rituals such as foot washing described in the texts (PB, 247-48). He also makes use of careful linguistic analysis to illuminate difficult passages, noting for example that the ancient Hebrew word rendered as "camel" in English translations of Matthew 19:24 (also Mk 10:25 and Lk 18:25) could also refer to a coarse piece of yarn, rhetorically asking "which one did [the ancient writers] mean?" (PB, 248). Because there is room for uncertainty he is skeptical of authoritative interpretations, noting that over the years he has encountered "so many errors of translation, even quite comical ones" (PB, 251). (42) He is even prepared to dispense with "a lot of whole chapters" from the Bible that were perhaps meaningful in the desert culture of the Israelites but do not make sense in the African context (PB, 247). While this might initially seem heretical to a fundamentalist evangelical, as Nancy Ammerman points out, most fundamentalists today accept the idea that particular scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible, were addressed to people of a different age and need not apply to others. (43)
Fowles's unconventional interpretations of the Bible may be vexing to those who believe in literal inerrancy, but he is nevertheless within the bounds of mainstream Christianity. Even his use of cultural linguistics to illuminate difficult passages (if not his interpretations) is not at odds with fundamentalist approaches to scholarship. Where he does depart from both orthodox Christianity and from Franciscan spirituality is the higher authority he gives to the immanent experience of nature.
For example, in a passage I cited earlier, Fowles tells Leah that when he wants to "take God at his word exactly, I take a peep out the window at His Creation. Because that, darling, He makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers" (PB, 248). Placing the passage back in its context, Fowles here has been illustrating to Leah the difficulties of a literal reading of the scriptures. The astonished Leah responds to his confession by suggesting that "the flowers and birds and all, you mean to say that's your Gospel" (PB, 248). Fowles does not deny the veracity of her conclusion, but only laughs and suggests she must think him "a crazy old pagan," implicitly acknowledging that his methods and conclusions can only seem blasphemous from the perspective of the inerrantist tradition in which she has been nurtured (PB, 248). Though Fowles finds a great deal of truth in the scriptures, he nevertheless mistrusts them as an imperfect product of a revelation in a specific time, place, and cultural context that may be irrelevant to the African context, and in any case have subsequently passed through and been distorted by a "chain of translators two thousand years long" (PB, 247). His remarks to Nathan Price a few pages later, in which he confesses to being "a plain fool for the nature images in the Bible" that he finds "all so handy here, among these people who have such an intelligence and the great feeling for the living world around them" (PB, 252), confirm that for Fowles (and Kingsolver) the Bible is primarily a rich source of images that have in different times and places been employed to articulate the Divine presence. As valuable as the Bible may be for him, as a source of knowledge of God it is nevertheless secondary, and even inferior, to the direct experience of God's immanence in products of creation.
Francis, too, found God in nature, but as Cook suggests, for the saint every encounter with nature was "always mediated by what Francis understood about God and nature as related in scripture." (44) As I noted earlier, Leo of Assisi has said that Francis's love for all creation was rooted in the way it reflected for him the Word Incarnate as revealed in the scriptures (CXVIII, 293-94). Leo specifically categorizes how for Francis every object in the world took on a new meaning by the way in which it confirmed the scriptural references to Jesus and His salvific mission. For instance, fire and light are sacred for Francis not simply because they are part of the created world, but because Jesus is the "Light of the World" (Jn 8:12) and because He came to set the world ablaze (Lk 12:49). Water, in turn, is sacred because John (4:14) calls Jesus "the Living Water." Similarly, rocks are sacred because Paul (1 Cor 10:4) declares Jesus the rock from which Moses brought forth life-giving water, while elsewhere the Church also identifies Him with the rock of Psalm 61 (2-3; Psalm 60 in the Vulgate arrangement) upon which all are lifted up. Further, Jesus died on the wood of a tree, making trees sacred as well. Flowers, too, are sacred because Jesus is "the lily of the valley" foretold in the Song of Songs (2:1) and "the shoot" springing from the root of Jesse in Isaiah (11:1). Lambs also are sacred because John (1:29) declares Jesus "the Lamb of God"; worms, and therefore all lowly creatures, are also exalted because Psalm 22:6 calls the suffering servant "a worm and no man." What all of these illustrate is that for Francis, nature is a living scripture that does not supercede the written scriptures but rather manifests and confirms them. Unlike Fowles, who is always ready to "change a few words" to make the scriptures fit the immediate African context, or even throw away "a lot of whole chapters" when they cannot be so easily bent (PB, 247), Francis was so committed to the Word as to embrace it both literally and radically, preaching to the birds and the flowers as well as to his fellow human beings because, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus commanded that His disciples "proclaim the Good News" not to all people (as in Lk 24:47), but "to all creation" (16:18). Where Fowles' focus on the immanence of God in the natural world inhibits his ability to perceive the relevance of seemingly irrelevant scriptural passages in the African context, Francis's focus on the transcendent God enables him to find meanings previously unseen.
Brother Fowles disappears from the text shortly before the midpoint, but his presence remains thereafter in the impact that his "nature-Christianity" has on Leah and Adah. In the latter chapters, as the novel and the political upheaval in the Congo careen toward their inevitable conclusions, that which only hints at pantheism in the character's understanding of God and creation blossoms fully in the new religious sympathies of the twin daughters. For Leah, the transcendent God of the Christianity in which she was raised is ultimately replaced by "the passion of Brother Fowles ... who advised me to trust in Creation" (PB, 525). She is no longer shackled by the fears of the "tyrannical" God of her father, but rather sees God in the daily rhythms of nature, in the regularity of the rising and setting of the sun, the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly, the nesting habits of the birds, and the wonders of the trees sprouting from tiny seeds (PB, 525). For her, natural disasters, such as droughts followed by torrential rains, are no longer punishments but rather "rewards" for those with the patience to bend and flow with the vicissitudes of the endless circle of life (PB, 525).
Adah, in turn, eventually finds in science "a religion that serves" (PB, 409). For her, quite literally, God becomes "everything ... God is a virus. Believe that when you get a cold. God is an ant. Believe that, too, for driver ants are possessed, collectively, of the size and influence of a Biblical plague." (PB, 528-29). Adah's worldview has shifted from an anthropocentric universe, in which humanity stands at the pinnacle of creation, to one in which the universe is an organic whole. For her no longer are the cycles of nature perceived and understood in terms of how they positively or negatively affect humankind in general or specific human communities or individuals. Rather, everything is understood to exist in a complex of interrelatedness. Disease, epidemics, and natural calamities are all seen as nothing more than phases or stages of the cycle of life and the process, as Adah puts it, of nature "cleansing itself " from time to time (PB, 529). Ultimately for Adah (and for Leah and Kingsolver, too) God and nature become one. And it is in making this step that Kingsolver veers clearly into pantheism, and in doing so departs in a fundamental way from both Christianity and Franciscan spirituality.
Kingsolver is not the first writer to employ Christianity and missionaries metaphorically in the examination of a political theme. Among African writers in particular it is very common. Timothy Aluko, Mongo Beti, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, John Munonye, Dominic Mulaisho, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and many more have all done it before her, with varying degrees of success. In this novel Kingsolver tells a compelling story that (for the first two-thirds of the text, at least) matches any of these writers in artistry and sophistication. However, unlike an Achebe or an Ngugi, she tends to wear her politics on her sleeve to the extent that the politics eventually take over the narrative, turning what began as well-defined, complex, and compelling characters into stereotyped caricatures reduced to mere mouthpieces for rather worn and predictable political positions--all to the artistic detriment of the novel as a whole.
When approaching this novel, therefore, readers need to keep two things in mind. First, in Kingsolver's own words, it is primarily a "political allegory" intended to criticize European and American intervention in Africa. (45) To serve this end, fundamentalist evangelical Christianity is employed as the author's primary metaphor. It is highly doubtful that Nathan Price is, or is intended to be, an accurate representative of most Christian missionaries. To be sure, there were missionaries every bit as racist and ethnocentric as Price. One need only recall the role played by the Reformed Church of South Africa in seeking to establish a scriptural and theological justification for the government's apartheid policies. Elsewhere were people like Anglican bishop Walter Carey, whose writings in the 1950s sought to connect Kenya's so-called "Mau Mau" rebellion to the "perverse" nature of African spirituality and in the process justify both the colonial government's brutal suppression of the freedom movement and the maintenance of the social color bar that replicated South Africa's apartheid policies. (46) Thankfully, such missionaries were atypical. More common were individuals like John Colenso, (47) Walter Owen, (48) Arthur S. Cripps, (49) John White, (50) Carey Francis, (51) and Donal Lamont. (52) Their dedication to and solidarity with the African communities they served often brought them into direct conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities of the so-called mother churches back in Europe and with the settler communities and the colonial authorities of the territories in which they worked.
The second thing readers need to remember is that Kingsolver herself is not a Christian. She has described herself religiously as a pantheist, and has acknowledged little familiarity with the Bible prior to her preparations for writing this novel. She has, at the same time, expressed a preference for the type of nature religion most closely associated with traditional Native American spiritualities. Consequently, the reader needs constantly to maintain a degree of skepticism, particularly regarding the authenticity of Fowles as an accurate representative of either Christian faith or Franciscan spirituality.
Having stated these caveats, Kingsolver's novel nevertheless raises interesting and vital questions about the nature of Christian spirituality and its relevance to non-Christian, non-Western traditions. Since the nineteenth century missionaries have become increasingly aware of the relationship between culture on the one hand and religion and spirituality on the other. This awareness led initially to what Louis Luzbetak has described as strategies of "accommodation" in missionary approaches to evangelization. (53) Such approaches sought primarily to dress Christian beliefs and practices in the veneer of local culture. Unfortunately, accommodation was little more than well-intentioned ethnocentrism; authority to determine which elements of indigenous culture are and are not consistent with the Gospel has remained in the hands of the foreign missionaries.
More recently, contemporary missionaries and theologians are more aware of and sensitive to the culturally determined nature of Western Christian spirituality and traditional interpretations of the Gospel message. Unlike earlier missionaries and theorists, who saw non-Christian cultures as containing only "neutral" or "naturally good" elements that might be exploited to give Christianity in Africa and other places a local flavor, (54) today's missionaries recognize that God's presence and the germ of Jesus's message are already present in local cultures; the role of the missionary is therefore not to introduce it but to help non-Christians recognize Jesus already active among them. (55) What is called for, then, is not conversion but dialogue.
The importance of a novel like Kingsolver's lies in the fact that it points to some of the essential questions that need to be addressed as the world's great religious traditions come into closer contact and dialogue. These questions can be neither dismissed nor avoided. Nevertheless, the reader needs to remain critical. Characters like Brother Fowles indeed represent one important--and appealing--aspect of the Gospel message, namely the demands of the Social Gospel. However, the Gospel is not simply a moral code or a call to social action. For Christians it is also Good News, an invitation from a transcendent and loving God calling all people to salvation.
(1.) Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998), 255. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as PB.
(2.) Barbara Kingsolver, Barbara Kingsolver: Frequently Asked Questions (New York: HarperCollins. 2003), http://kingsolver.com/faq/answers.asp (accessed April 27, 2004).
(3.) Ibid.; also Kingsolver, interview by Michael Kransy, Talk of the Nation, NPR, December 13, 1999.
(4.) Kingsolver, Frequently Asked Questions.
(5.) For example, Millicent Bell likens Kingsolver to D. H. Lawrence and to Hemingway. See Millicent Bell, "Fiction Chronicle," review of Damascus Gate by Robert Stone, The Half-life of Happiness by John Casey, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, and Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz, Partisan Review 66, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 417-30, 424. John Leonard likewise dubbed her America's "own Lessing and our own Gordimer." See John Leonard, "Kingsolver in the Jungle, Catullus & Wolf at the Door," review of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, Nation (January 11/18, 1999): 28-30, 30. Ruth Conniff approvingly calls her "'a pinko who wants to change the world.' God bless her." Ruth Conniff, review of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, Progressive (December 1998): 39.
(6.) See, for example, Lee Siegel, "Sweet and Low," review of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, New Republic (March 22, 1999): 30-37. In one of the most damning reviews, Siegel dismisses Kingsolver as a purveyor of politically correct "Nice Fiction," the purpose of which (so he claims) is to advance "the amoral pursuit of virtuous appearance. ... The portrait of people doing evil things to each other, or of someone sick and dying, or of a person psychologically hurt, flatters the portraitist. It can enfold the writer in a mantle of invincible goodness. The artistic worth of the portrait fades away as an issue. What remains is the invaluable appearance of goodness" (31-32).
(7.) Judith Bromberg, "A Complex Novel about Faith, Family and Dysfunction," National Catholic Reporter (March 19, 1999): 13.
(8.) Robin Antepara, review of Swami and Friends by R. K. Narayan, Reading Lolita in Teheran by Azar Nafisi, and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Commonweal (June 17, 2005): 24-26.
(9.) Liane Ellison Norman, "Ignorance and Grace: Lessons from The Poisonwood Bible," review of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Sojourners 28, no. 2 (March/April 1999): 59-61.
(10.) Ted Byfield and Virginia Byfield, "The Evil Missionary," review of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Alberta Report/Western Report 26, no. 7 (February 8, 1999): 35.
(11.) Tim Stafford, "Poisonous Gospel," review of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Christianity Today (January 11, 1999): 90.
(12.) Alan Neely, review of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24, no. 3 (July 2000): 138.
(13.) Sarah Kerr, "The Novel as Indictment," New York Times Magazine (October 11, 1998): 55.
(14.) Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tuscon: Essays from Now or Never (New York: Perennial,  2003), 242.
(15.) Barbara Kingsolver, SmallWonder: Essays (NewYork: Perennial,  2003), 39.
(16.) Kingsolver, High Tide, 21
(17.) Denise E. Kasinec and Jean W. Ross, "Barbara Kingsolver," Contemporary Authors (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1992), 134:284.
(18.) Gracia Fay Ellwood and Robert Ellwood, "Pantheism," Contemporary American Religion, ed. Wade Clark Roof (New York: Macmillan, 2000), 1:509.
(19.) E. Russell Naughton, "Pantheism," New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2003), 10:825.
(20.) Ellwood and Ellwood, "Pantheism," 1:509.
(21.) Charles Hartshorne, "Pantheism and Panentheism," Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mirceu Eliadu (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 11:165.
(22.) Also see Ellwood and Ellwood, "Pantheism," 1:509; and E. Russell Naughton and Santiago Sia, "Panentheism," New Catholic Encyclopedia, (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2003), 10:820.
(23.) Edward A. Armstrong, St. Francis: Nature Mystic (Berkley: University of California Press, 1973), 6.
(24.) Catherine L. Albanese, Reconsidering Nature Religion (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2002), 1. Albanese first introduced the term in her 1990 study, Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Although the term in recent years has become associated mostly with New Age and contemporary Paganism ("Neopaganism"), more scholars today are seeking to recover Albanese's original broad application in their analyses of a wider variety of indigenous religious practices.
(25.) Albanese distinguishes "nature religion" from "natural religion," suggesting that the latter term refers to "religion of reason alone; or, in tandem with human reason" (Reconsidering, 1).
(26.) Barbara Jane Downy, "Nature Religion," Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, ed. Bron L. Taylor (New York: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005), 2:1173.
(27.) Ibid., 2:1175
(28.) Albanese, Reconsidering, 4-5.
(29.) Downy, "Nature Religion," 2:1175.
(30.) Kingsolver, High Tide, 21.
(31.) Citations for "The Little Flowers of St. Francis," Leo of Assisi's "Mirror of Perfection," and St. Bonaventure's "Life of St. Francis" are taken from The Little Flower of St. Francis, The Mirror of Perfection, The Life of St. Francis, (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1912), and are given parenthetically in the text. Roman-numerals (e.g. CX) and Roman-numerals. Arabic-numerals (e.g. CX.8) refer to the traditional chapter or chapter/paragraph arrangement. Arabic numerals following the comma refer to the page number in this edition.
(32.) Thomas of Celano is cited in Hilarin Felder, The Ideals of St. Francis of Assisi, trans. Berchmans Bittle (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press,  1982), 417.
(33.) Jerusalem Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1966).
(34.) Albanese, Reconsidering, 24.
(35.) Felder, Ideals, 414.
(36.) William R. Cook, Francis of Assisi: The Way of Poverty and Humility (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991), 52.
(37.) G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: Sheed and Ward,  1939), 189.
(38.) Quoted in Kim Campbell, "Barbara Kingsolver Gets Uncomfortable," Christian Science Monitor (November 19, 1998): 20.
(39.) Ibid.; also see Kingsolver, Frequently Asked Questions.
(40.) Some may argue that since the reference to the "parable of the loaves and fishes" is made by the "post-Christian" Leah there is nothing odd about it. I beg to differ. Someone raised in the sort of evangelical tradition that the Prices are supposed to represent would be keenly aware of the very specific meaning of the word "parable" in the context of Biblical exegesis, regardless of whether or not she still views the Bible as the Good News. More to point, though, is the fact that it is the "Christian" Leah, good daughter eager to please her preacher-father with her religious fervor, who in these earlier citations likewise misidentifies the stories of Job and Daniel as "parables."
(41.) The text makes it abundantly clear that on this point Kingsolver understands Price is an anomaly. At one point Adah refers to Price's efforts to get other Baptists "to swallow the Apocrypha" as his "one pet project" (PB, 59), while elsewhere Leah says that he "always stood firm" against the criticism of other preachers who dismissed the deuterocanonical texts as "the work of fear-mongers who tagged them on to the Old Testament just to scare people" (PB, 328). Kingsolver looks at the Bible with the eyes of a literary artist and is attracted to the potentials for her craft that its stories and rich imagery offer. In the story of Bel and the serpent, in particular, she found such a plotline. To make it available for exploitation in the novel she therefore inscribed a similar sensibility into her character, who we are told is enthusiastic for this story because of its potential to "scare the dickens out of [sinners]" (PB, 328). Unfortunately, Kingsolver fails to appreciate the degree to which this incongruity undermines the character's credibility as an Evangelical fundamentalist, for whom the authority of the Bible rests in its acceptance as the inspired word of God. Nor, apparently, does she see the contradiction in an inerrant literalist, who is also deeply suspicious of anything associated with Roman Catholicism (e.g. PB, 39, 59, 248, 250), embracing and even giving equal authority to texts endorsed only by the Roman and Orthodox traditions.
(42.) Seemingly to reinforce her point about the "corruption" of the sacred texts down through the ages, in the last part of the novel Kingsolver makes daughter Adah an amateur book collector whose interest is in old books "famous for their misprints ... Bibles, in particular" (PB, 533). There are, the character says, "dozens of these" that each in some way comically distorts the original text and consequentially calls into doubt the authority of any translation.
(43.) Nancy T. Ammerman, "North American Protestant Fundamentalism," Fundamentalism Observed, ed. Martin E. Martey and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.
(44.) Cook, Francis, 52.
(45.) Kingsolver, Frequently Askead Questions.
(46.) Walter Carey was a retired Anglican bishop from South Africa. In 1953, shortly after the outbreak of the rebellion, he published Crisis in Kenya: Christian Common Sense on Mau Mau and the Colour Bar (London: A. R. Mowbray and Co.).
(47.) John William Colenso (1814-83) was the first Anglican bishop of Natal. His policy of unconditionally accepting polygamous converts into the Church brought him into direct conflict with Church of England policy and earned him an excommunication, which was later overturned on appeal, though his efforts to find a suitable compromise on polygamy met with failure. See Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper and Bros., 1943), 5:327-28; and also Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian Churches (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1975), 31-32.
(48.) Walter Edwin Owen (1880-1945) was Anglican archdeacon in Kenya's Kavirondo region in the first half of twentieth century. According to Elspeth Huxley, he was known among the settler community as the "archdemon" because of his unequivocal solidarity with Kenya's indigenous population, his opposition to expanded settlement, and his constant intervention with the colonial government against exploitation (Forks and Hopes: An African Notebook [London: Chattus & Windus, 1964], 6). He also challenged fellow missionaries like John Arthur of the Church of Scotland Mission, who accepted the post as official representative of the indigenous people on the colonial council, saying Arthur only "represents European Missionary opinion and has no mandate whatsoever from the Natives." Quoted in Carl G. Rosberg and John Nottingham, The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), 111.
(49.) Arthur Shearly Cripps (1869-1952) was an Anglican missionary in Southern Rhodesia in the first half of the twentieth century. His opposition to European settlement, to exploitation of the indigenous people, and his practice of living in accordance with the same standards as his community of Shona converts earned him the scorn of the Rhodesian settlers and a reputation as a "race traitor." For a complete biography see Douglas V. Steere, God's Irregular: Arthur Shearly Cripps (London: SPCK, 1973).
(50.) John White (1866-1933) was a Methodist missionary to Southern Rhodesia in the early twentieth century. Like Cripps, his opposition to settlement and the exploitation of the indigenous people earned him the scorn of the settler community. He is perhaps best remembered for reminding his colleagues at the 1926 Southern Rhodesia Missionary Conference that the Christian message is "revolutionary," and its rightful place was on the side of African aspirations. See John Lonsdale, "Mission Christianity & Settler Colonialism in East Africa," in Christian Missions & the State in the Third World, ed. Holger Bernt Hansen and Michael Twaddle (Oxford: James Currey, 2002), 201.
(51.) Carey Francis (1897-1966) was the long-time principle of Alliance High School, the first and most elite school for Africans in Kenya. Following his retirement from Alliance Francis lived out the rest of his life teaching elementary school in Nairobi's Punwami slum district. For a complete biography see L. B. Greaves, Carey Francis of Kenya (London: Rex Collings, 1969).
(52.) Donal Lamont (1911-2003) was Catholic bishop of Umtali in colonial Southern Rhodesia. Because of his opposition to the apartheid policies of the colonial government (and later to the Smith regime and its unilateral declaration of independence), his policy of noncooperation with the security forces, and his humanitarian support for the liberation movement he was arrested and tried by the Rhodesian government for treason, stripped of his citizenship, and expelled from the country. For a complete background, see Donal Lamont, Speech from the Dock (Essex: Kevin Mayhew, 1977).
(53.) Louis J. Luzbetak, The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1988), 67-69.
(54.) Ibid., 67.
(55.) Ibid., 73.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Purcell, William F.|
|Publication:||Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
|Previous Article:||Gounod's Faust: opera of redemption.|
|Next Article:||Knowing what is "natural": Thomas Aquinas and Luke Timothy Johnson on Romans 1-2.|