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.
Religion and Faith ThemeTracker
Religion and Faith Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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!
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.