The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible

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Themes and Colors
Freedom, Growth, and Coming-of-age Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Women and Sexism Theme Icon
Race, Racism, and Culture Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Poisonwood Bible, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion and Faith Theme Icon

As its title would suggest, The Poisonwood Bible studies the way that religion shapes—and at times imprisons—its characters. Nathan Price, the hypocritical patriarch of the Price family, is almost a mascot for all the ways that religion can go wrong. Yet the novel doesn’t condemn religion altogether (it is, after all, a book about missionaries who travel across the world to help the suffering). One could say that Kingsolver is offering two nuanced accounts of what it means to be religious: religion understood as a set of codes, rules, and regulations for human behavior, and religion understood as a kind of “faith”; i.e., a sense of mysticism, selfless love, and connection to others. By contrasting many different forms of belief, the novel comes to suggest that religion—or rather, “faith”—is an inescapable part of life.

One way to construe Nathan’s failure as a human being is to say that he’s so focused on the Bible’s specific teachings about prayer, baptism, etc., that he neglects the “spirit” of Christianity—its emphasis on love, compassion, and friendship. For example, he preaches to a host of Congolese villagers about the importance of baptism, and yet largely ignores his own children, presumably the people who need his love the most. Nathan is also arguably too focused on the supernatural, otherworldly side of religion, in the sense that by talking too much about Heaven and salvation, he ignores the concrete realities of life on Earth. Kingsolver also suggests that Nathan uses religion as an excuse for his own character flaws: because he’s a naturally boorish, arrogant person, he uses his religious training to condescend to people whom he regards as ignorant and “un-saved.” In all, the novel uses Nathan’s character to critique the dangers of religious fervor. Even if religion itself isn’t bad, it can always be a dangerous tool in the hands of certain people, because it seems to justify whatever actions they might take, no matter how cruel.

And yet The Poisonwood Bible definitely doesn’t argue that religion is always poisonous. Brother Fowles, Nathan’s predecessor in the Congo, is a kind, intelligent man, whose knowledge of Christianity vastly exceeds Nathan’s own. And yet where Nathan stresses a rigid, codified interpretation of the Bible, emphasizing rules and laws, Fowles favors an approach that encourages people to trust their innate sense of right and wrong. Because of his “loose” Christianity, Fowles is dismissed from the mission that sent him to the Congo. And yet we’re given every reason to believe that Fowles is a more successful missionary than Nathan—he seems to have made good friends with the villagers, and even marries one of them. Religion can be a powerful force for good, it’s suggested, especially when religion is treated as a personal, intimate relationship with the divine—in other words, as faith.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Kingsolver defines religion and faith more and more abstractly. The characters endure a great deal of tragedy and pain, and in their misery they turn to religion in its various forms. As Adah Price puts it, everyone needs to worship something; otherwise, life would be meaningless. For some, such as Adah, science can be a faith (pretty paradoxically!); for others, such as Orleanna, the Civil Rights Movement is what gives life meaning. As we see, these forms of faith provide people with a sense of peace and a belief in something greater than themselves, and thus they are much closer to Fowles’s religion than to Nathan’s, because they’re intimate, personal, and affirming. Above all, the novel argues that religion has the power to be a force for good or evil—but which one depends on the worshipper.

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Religion and Faith ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Religion and Faith appears in each chapter of The Poisonwood Bible. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Religion and Faith Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible

Below you will find the important quotes in The Poisonwood Bible related to the theme of Religion and Faith.
Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

God says the Africans are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah’s three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drowneded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham, and Japheth got on the boat so they were A-okay. Ham was the youngest one, like me, and he was bad. Sometimes I am bad, too.

Related Characters: Ruth May Price (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Ruth May Price, the youngest of the Price children, describes the attitude of her father, Nathaniel Price, toward Africans. Nathan has decided to bring his family with him to the Congo, where he plans to do Christian missionary work. In spite of his devotion to Christian evangelism, Nathan seems to have little respect for the African people he hopes to “save”—indeed, he says that inferiority and sin are in their blood. The Biblical story of Ham, which Ruth May summarizes here, says that Ham—the youngest of Noah’s sons—was a disobedient, dark-skinned boy. To punish Ham for his disobedience, God cursed Ham’s descendants. Over the centuries, Ham’s curse has been regularly cited as a justification for slavery and imperialism—people have argued that black people “deserve” their subjugation because God wants them to be punished.

Although Ruth May never explicitly says so, it’s clear that Nathan’s beliefs are bigoted and absurd. Ruth May doesn’t quite realize it, but she interprets the story of Ham in such a way that she seems to identify with Ham: she thinks of herself as a bad child. In other words, Ruth May takes a story that’s supposed to justify racism and cruelty to black people and interprets it as a story about identification and sympathy. 


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Book 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

“Nakedness,” Father repeated, “and darkness of the soul! For we shall destroy this place where the loud clamor of the sinners is waxen great before the face of the Lord.” No one sang or cheered anymore. Whether or not they understood the meaning of “loud clamor,” they didn’t dare be making one now. They did not even breathe, or so it seemed. Father can get a good deal across with just his tone of voice, believe you me. The woman with the child on her hip kept her back turned, tending to the food.

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Rachel Price (speaker)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Nathan and his family have arrived in the Congo. There, they’re welcomed into the Congolese village where they’ll remain for the next two years. Yet when Nathan is asked to say a few words to the villagers, his first instinct isn’t to extend his gratitude—instead, he uses his platform to rail against the Congolese way of life. Nathan attacks the villagers for their nakedness, implying that by refusing to wear clothes, the villagers are being sinful.

Nathan’s speech tells us a few things about the kind of man he is. First, it’s clear that Nathan is a strict, fundamentalist Christian: he has a rigid, unyielding understand of right and wrong—one that plenty of pious Christians would disagree with. Second, Nathan’s speech shows that he has no talent for leadership or politics—instead of trying to get the villagers on his side or show them any respect, he immediately treats them like naughty children. He’s so sure he’s right that he doesn’t care how many people he offends (and doesn't even care to learn the language of the people he's supposed to be "serving").

Book 1, Chapter 10 Quotes

Once in a great while we just have to protect her. Even back when we were very young I remember running to throw my arms around Mother’s knees when he regaled her with words and worse, for curtains unclosed or slips showing—the sins of womanhood. We could see early on that all grown-ups aren’t equally immune to damage. My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit.

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Leah Price (speaker), Orleanna Price
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Leah Price paints a tragic picture of life in the Price household. Nathan is the only man at home, but he's also in charge—and he has a rigid, sexist view of domestic life. The result is that whenever his wife or daughters do anything wrong, he's quick to yell at them or even hit them for their "sins of womanhood." Leah, her mother, and her siblings must join together to protect themselves from Nathan—and yet at this point, Leah still admires and loves her father greatly.

The passage closes with an interesting analogy; Nathan's faith, it's implied, is proud and militaristic. From what we've seen, Leah is right on target: Nathan is aggressive in his faith, and seems to think of himself as being superior to the people around him. Orleanna, Nathan's wife, is a religious woman, but she doesn't rub her religion in other people's faces, and she seems to have some objections to Christianity (it fits her second-hand, suggesting that she's only remained a Christian because of her family and her husband).

Book 2, Chapter 16 Quotes

Anatole leaned forward and announced, “Our chief, Tata Ndu, is concerned about the moral decline of his village.” Father said, “Indeed he should be, because so few villagers are going to church.” “No, Reverend. Because so many villagers are going to church.”

Related Characters: Nathaniel Price (speaker), Rachel Price (speaker), Anatole Ngemba (speaker), Tata Ndu
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Nathan Price begins to quarrel with Tata Ndu, the leader of the Congolese village where Nathan has been sent to practice missionary work. Although Nathan sees himself as doing God's work, Ndu thinks of Nathan as a nuisance, making the villagers lazy and putting their lives in danger.

The passage reinforces a point that was already obvious: Nathan is oblivious to the fact that most of the villagers don't care about his religion in the slightest. From their perspective, Christ is just another god to worship, and is even inferior to the gods already celebrated in the village. Nathan, so blindly devoted to his work (to the point where he doesn't spend time with his family), is genuinely surprised that Christianity has become so unpopular in the village, to the point that it is even seen as a bad influence on the village's morals. The fact that he's so surprised suggests that he's been a bad missionary, refusing to pay any real attention to his audience's feelings.

Book 3, Chapter 26 Quotes

My downfall was not predicted. I didn’t grow up looking for ravishment or rescue, either one. My childhood was a happy one in its own bedraggled way. My mother died when I was quite young, and certainly a motherless girl will come up wanting in some respects, but in my opinion she has a freedom unknown to other daughters. For every womanly fact of life she doesn’t get told, a star of possibility still winks for her on the horizon.

Related Characters: Orleanna Price (speaker)
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to Book 3, Orleanna thinks back on her early life before she met Nathan. As a young girl, Orleanna lost her mother; yet she doesn't think of her mother's death as a great tragedy. Rather, Orleanna thinks of being motherless as a gift: a motherless woman, she suggests, is "free."

There's a lot to unpack here. First of all, it's important to note that Orleanna is looking back on her childhood: there's a sad, melancholy tone here, the tone of an older woman thinking back on her mistakes. Second, we should note that Orleanna is trying to see the "bright side" of life: instead of treating her mother's untimely death as a life-ruining tragedy, she thinks of the advantages of being motherless. Orleanna is experienced with finding silver linings: when she analyzes the changes in the Congo, for example, she refuses to accept tragedies as tragic—instead, she tries to find the hidden blessing. Finally, Orleanna's thoughts in this passage suggest her guilt about the way she's treated her own children: i.e, the fact that she sees motherlessness as an advantage suggests that she sees her own relationship with her children as being negative. As we'll see, Orleanna blames herself for allowing Ruth May to die and for being a poor role model for her daughters.

Book 3, Chapter 28 Quotes

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 a mind to receive certain news. Perhaps he should clean more chicken houses.

Related Characters: Adah Price (speaker), Nathaniel Price
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Adah points out a translation problem. The word "batiza" means "baptism"—therefore, it's very important to Nathan, who has come to the Congo to baptize as many African children as possible. And yet "batiza" can also mean "terrify" if pronounced slightly differently.

Notably, Adah has only learned the difference between the two "batiza"s by spending time with the native Congolese. Nathan, who for all his interest in baptizing the Congolese, doesn't seem to like them or respect them at all, has remained ignorant of the finer points of Congolese language—and his arrogant aloofness guarantees that he can't communicate with his congregation. The ambiguity in the word "batiza" also symbolizes the way that religion and ideology can be twisted from something pure into something corrupt and wicked.

Book 5, Chapter 70 Quotes

“He is the one wife belonging to many white men.” Anatole explained it this way: Like a princess in a story, Congo was born too rich for her own good, and attracted attention far and “wide from men “who desire to rob her blind. The United States has now become the husband of Zaire’s economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitive and condescending, in the name of steering her clear of the moral decline inevitable to her nature. “Oh, I understand that kind of marriage all right,” I said. “I grew up witnessing one just like it.”

Related Characters: Leah Price (speaker), Anatole Ngemba
Page Number: 456
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anatole (Leah's husband) gives Leah an analogy to explain the troubled history of the Congo. Anatole suggests that the Congo is like a beautiful but fragile woman, exploited by various powerful men (Belgium, Europe, the U.S.). Anatole implies that the Congo, while full of resources and strong, intelligent people, has never been allowed to grow to its full potential. Like a housewife forbidden from pursuing her own dreams, the Congo has been held in captivity, forced to work for others.

It's important to note Leah's reaction to Anatole's story—she immediately sees an analogy between the Congo and Orleanna's marriage to Nathan. At one point, Leah admired her father, but now she sees him for the hypocrite he is. Nathan has held Orleanna in "captivity" for years, ignoring her feelings and forcing her to serve him. Furthermore, Nathan has justified his behavior by accusing Orleanna of being weak and sinful--i.e., he's used Christian dogma to hold Orleanna accountable for her sinful femininity.

In short, the passage is something like a "thesis statement" for the novel itself. By studying the close, intimate relationship between Nathan and his wife and children, Kingsolver suggests, we can better understand the broad, historical relationship between the Congo and the international community.

Book 5, Chapter 74 Quotes

Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western Civilization: expect perfection, and revile the missed mark! Adah the Poor Thing, hemiplegious egregious besiege us. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault, but one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn’t they always get up and dance off stage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray, all better now, hooray!

Related Characters: Adah Price (speaker)
Page Number: 493
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Adah, now an adult (and a prominent scientist), thinks about the shallowness of the Western world's notion of imperfection. In the West, Adah realizes, pain and disability are thought of as hideous diseases, to be transcended through religion or medical treatment. Disabled people are thought of as imperfect—they're pitied for their physical problems, and expected to act apologetic and grateful at all times. Adah, who was disabled for many years (she could barely walk), has a more complex and subtle relationship with her disability. She doesn't resent her "imperfect" body—on the contrary, she embraces it, even after she regains full motor control.

Adah goes further, seeing in the Western world's treatment of disabled people a more general problem. Westerners, she believes, think of "different" people either as monsters to be killed or invalids to be pitied—but never as human beings. In other words, the West's shallow treatment of disabled people reflects a more general bigotry—the same racism that led Belgium and later the U.S. to intervene militarily in the Congo. Adah embraces her body in all its perfections and imperfections, and by the same token, she embraces people of all races.

Book 6, Chapter 78 Quotes

My work is to discover the life histories of viruses, and I seem to be very good at it. I don’t think of the viruses as my work, actually. I think of them as my relations. I don’t have cats or children, I have viruses. I visit them daily in their spacious glass dishes, and like any good mother I cajole, I celebrate when they reproduce, and I take special note when they behave oddly. I think about them when I am not with them. I have made important discoveries about the AIDS and Ebola viruses. As a consequence, I must sometimes appear at public functions where I am lauded as a savior of the public health. This startles me. I am nothing of the kind. Certainly I’m no mad exterminator bent on killing devil microbes; on the contrary, I admire them. That is the secret of my success.

Related Characters: Adah Price (speaker)
Page Number: 530
Explanation and Analysis:

As a grown woman, Adah has developed her own unique philosophy. Adah has become a medical researcher—her job is to study viruses, including Ebola and AIDS. While most of her colleagues think of these viruses as deadly enemies, to be wiped out Adah thinks of them as fascinating strangers--to be greeted, embraced, and understood.

In short, Adah's attitude toward AIDs and Ebola reflects the way she's learned to treat unfamiliar people, and also her rather detached way of viewing the world and morality itself. By the same token, her colleagues' attitude toward viruses reflects the Western world's narrow-minded way of understanding difference. Most people think of viruses as enemies to be eradicated; Adah, trained by her years in the Congo to understand strangers, opts for a more nuanced, accepting point of view. While it may seem unusual to treat a deadly disease as anything other than an enemy, Adah has had great success in curing sick patients because of her unique worldview.