Wendy Murray Zoba
Improbably, two missionary stories have captured the imagination of America's reading public, along with the usual tales of vampires and star-crossed lovers. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible remains (as I write) number 12 on the New York Times Book Review's Best Sellers list, after 27 weeks there. John Grisham's The Testament is at number 4 after 11 weeks on the list. In Kingsolver's case, sadly, the interest seems to be spawned by her derision toward the evangelical missionary enterprise. In Grisham's case, his ability to slam-dunk a plot line accounts for his bestseller status; readers looking for inspiration about whether to answer the missionary call would be better served by biographies of Jim Elliot or Adoniram Judson. To his credit, Grisham lends theological cogency to the story where Kingsolver is theologically clueless. Finally, though, in the case of these contrasting missionary tales, I appeal to the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Philippians, "What does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or pure, Christ is preached. And be cause of this I rejoice" (1:18, NIV). Whether or not the depiction is fair and the narrative transporting, countless readers who are more familiar with the CIA than the CIM will find in these novels at least a glimpse of what some people will do to follow the one called Christ. For this, I rejoice.
It is powerful testimony to the force and majesty of Barbara Kingsolver's narrative that she managed to pull me through every one of The Poisonwood Bible's 543 pages despite the fact that many times I felt like heaving the book across the room in frustration. First, as a long-time Kingsolver fan, I couldn't believe she had written such a contrived book; second, as a Christian, I found it particularly grating that she framed her novel in theological terms and advanced the plot by dismantling that frame, undaunted by her utter failure to grasp Christian theology and missiology. One critic called ...