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Wendy Murray Zoba

Missions Improbable

A stickler for accuracy flubs her facts, while a producer of page-turners leaves his readers reflective

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 this book Kingsolver's "magnum opus"; another called it a "triumph." I call it a capitulation.

The book centers on the Price family, natives of Georgia who move to the Belgian Congo in 1959 on the brink of the country's independence from Belgium. I should say, to be more precise, that the Price family is hauled off to the Congo by the husband/father Nathan Price, a Southern Baptist pastor and buffoon. The Congo experience is narrated through the eyes of the four Price daughters: Rachel, the oldest, a perpetual "material girl"; Leah and Adah, the twins, the former possessing a misplaced devotion to her warped father, the latter born with a handicap that causes her to lean and limp and refuse to speak; and Ruth May, the sweet baby of the clan, who makes surprising inroads with the local children through a disarming game of Mother-May-I.

Orleanna Price, Nathan's wife and self-described "Southern Baptist by marriage," interrupts the narrative of the girls every now and then, directing haunting recriminations at the Price daughter who died in the Congo (the identity of whom is revealed only late in the book). So the narrative comes down to four sassy women (the daughters) and one disconsolate one (the mother) spending 500-plus pages ruminating about their survival—survival not so much of the harsh living conditions they endured in the Congo, nor the incendiary political situation, though all that demanded every bit of their resolve, but rather their survival of their father and his—as they see it—absurd sense of calling.

Kingsolver's account of day-to-day life in the Congo bears unmistakable authenticity. She and her family lived there for several years when she was a child, and she drew on her journal entries from that time to add personal color. She also made many trips to the Congo in the course of writing the book.

Her depictions of the historical situation are less trustworthy, although she assures the reader that she asked many "experts" to comment on her manuscript, including convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal, "who gave it a thumbs-up from his cell in the Pennsylvania state penitentiary." In describing, for example, the insurrection that ousted the Belgians and paved the way for the brief ascendency of the rebel leader Patrice Lumumba, she is long on the revolutionaries' heroics and short on the facts that they were as indiscriminate in their raping and pillaging as the corrupt ousted regime. (Missionary Helen Roseveare, who served in the Congo during the revolution, can attest to this.)

But Kingsolver's descriptions of life with the tribe are spellbinding. The section that describes the onslaught of the killer ants, consuming everything in their path as they make their way through the village—including humans who might fail to outrun them—will make you squirm. Later, when she depicts the desperately starving villagers attempting to capture game by burning a hill, the narration is so riveting that you may wonder if your eyebrows got singed in the reading.

And there are other signs that Kingsolver cares a great deal about accuracy. The book contains a bibliography at the end—not something one expects to find in a novel—listing 28 titles about Africa and the Congo. "Three cheers for the fiction writers who bother to get their facts straight," Kingsolver wrote in a review of Cathleen Schine's The Evolution of Jane (New York Times, October 11, 1998). In that review, Kingsolver laments the willingness of readers to overlook inaccuracy in factual details in the sciences—astronomy, botany, zoology, and the like. The result, she says, is "a blissfully ignorant exchange between author and consumer that dumbs us down."

But all this makes the novel's glaring lapses all the more conspicuous. When it comes to theology, missiology, and church history, Kingsolver abandons rigor, abandons her commitment to accuracy. We have been theologically dumbed down in this book. For all her zeal to reflect the African situation accurately, and for all the experts she consulted, evidently none were Southern Baptists.

I cannot imagine a Southern Baptist, living or dead, who would say, as Nathan Price does in a conversation with his daughter Leah: "God helps those who help themselves"—a line Jay Leno uses during his street surveys to measure the public's biblical illiteracy! Baptism, to Nathan Price (as recounted by one of his daughters), is a "contract" with Jesus Christ. After several children in the village die of an intestinal disorder, he says "If baptized, the children [who died] would be in heaven now." How could anyone even remotely familiar with the subject so misrepresent the Baptist understanding of the nature of baptism and the concept of the confession of faith and the age of accountability? (The only version of the Bible this Southern Baptist missionary uses, by the way, is the one that includes the Apocrypha—the Catholic Bible! Where are those New Yorker fact-checkers when you really need them?)

When I told my husband—a Baptist pastor—how Kingsolver presents Nathan Price through the narratives of the wife and daughters, my husband asked, "Does he get a chapter of his own?" No, he doesn't, and that betrays the weakness of the book on both fronts. His voice, when heard, is forced and implausible, his speech a jumbled parroting of the King James Version. The novel's only interpretation of his motives and theological impulses comes through the whimsical, sarcastic, sometimes sardonic reflections of his suffering daughters and miserable wife. By reducing Price to caricature, Kingsolver keeps him predictably detestable. The reader wants Nathan Price to die a slow, painful death—and sure enough, he does!

The Price caricature serves a second, less obvious, purpose. It also covers Kingsolver's own lack of understanding of things theological. After all, Nathan Price's mission and mandate are defined through the kids, and what do they know? Kingsolver hides behind the children and avoids serious interaction with biblical concepts by reducing any discussion of them to childish ruminations.

Kingsolver took a risk, and it is evident that her risk is paying off—largely because of the general biblical and theological illiteracy in much of today's reading public. She will probably fool a lot of people into thinking that God is a finger-wagging party pooper made in the image of Nathan Price, and that anyone who undertakes Christian mission is a misogynist, racist, patronizing oaf. (Christianity bad, tribal animism good.) One reviewer called Kingsolver's book a "morality play" in which the real preacher is Kingsolver herself—using Price (and his failings) as a metaphor for her larger point: Men bad, women good; whites bad, Africans good; Americans (and Belgians) bad, Congolese good.

This is an angry book. In the final sequence, after the straw man has been eliminated, the daughters reflect on their lives as MKs and say things like this: "Out of habit we knelt on the ground and prayed the dumb prayers of our childhood: 'Our Father which art in heaven,' … I could not remotely believe any Shepherd was leading me through this dreadful valley, but the familiar words stuffed my mouth like cotton" (Leah). "In organic chemistry, invertebrate zoology, and the inspired symmetry of Mendelian genetics, I have found a religion that serves. I recite the Periodic Table of Elements like a prayer; I take my examinations as Holy Communion, and the pass of the first semester was a sacrament" (Adah).

Kingsolver attempted to bring two worlds together, when she only truly understands one of those worlds, and seems to resent what little she knows about the other. Screwtape, in C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, describes humans as a "revolting hybrid," half spirit, half animal. "As spirits they be long to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." Kingsolver never gets beyond the biological side of this hybrid of humanity, and so cannot flesh out what eternal objectives might be brought to bear in the Christian missionary enterprise, in the concept of true submission; and in sacrifice.

How to set her right is another question. Perhaps she needs to ask herself who she is mad at, and why. The answers to those questions might yield her true magnum opus.

John's Grisham's The Testament lacks the literary magic of a Kingsolver narrative (if her prose is raspberry creme brulee, his is Cracker Jack) but lends integrity to the missionary vocation where hers is wanting. Grisham is a Southern Baptist, after all—Southern Baptists understand missionaries. The story begins with the will signing of one Troy Phelan, an old, cranky, and filthy-rich S.O.B. who stiffs his greedy warring clan (the result of three ex-wives) out of his $11 billion legacy. After being interviewed by three psychiatrists who judge him to be "of sound mind," he signs his handwritten will and then, with the videotape running, throws himself from his fourteenth-floor window. (He tried to orchestrate his descent with the departure of his clan, so that they would exit his building about the time he hit the pavement, but his timing was off.)

Grisham understands the lifestyles of the filthy rich, probably more intimately than most Southern Baptists would be comfortable with, and he deftly captures the subsequent scratching, pawing, and cannibalizing by the members of this family, once they learn of their father's treachery, to get their fair share of the pie.

The scene shifts from their skulduggery to the Brazilian jungle, specifically, the Pantanal—100,000 square miles of swamps and rivers with no towns and fewer people—where a lone missionary woman has built a life with a tribe so remote that they live in prehistoric conditions. She is also the illegitimate daughter of Troy Phelan, and, it turns out, his heir—or, in Grisham speak, "the world's richest missionary."

Enter Nate O'Riley—a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict, twice-failed husband, skirt chaser, tax evader in trouble with the IRS, and (who would believe it?) a lawyer. He is completing his fourth stay in rehab just about the time the old man jumps and the holographic will is read by Phelan's trusted lawyer. The lawyer thinks it best to send their chronically wayward colleague to the Brazilian jungle to find the heir rather than assimilate him back into the ruthless litigation culture of the firm.

In the few short weeks after O'Riley is dispatched to Brazil, he survives a plane crash; a backslide involving a bottle and a half of vodka; a storm that nearly sinks his boat; another storm that does; days of meandering through the swamps and flooded rivers of the Pantanal avoiding anacondas the size of tree trunks and incurring mosquito bites that look like diaper rash; a bout of dengue that swells his eyes and makes him delirious; and a stay at a Brazilian hospital where no distinction is made between physical and mental illness and where a nurse, contending with a "screamer [who] pulled down his pants and … pee[d] through the bars laughing loudly," attacks the screamer from the rear "grabbing him in a full nelson."

These events soften the habitually unreflective O'Riley and prepare him for his brief but life-changing encounter with Rachel Lane, the missionary. A single woman of 42 who, for reasons that are not made altogether clear, has forsaken a comfortable life for a Higher Call, she also happens to be, from O'Riley's point of view—crassly put—"hot," and this doesn't hurt his receptivity to the gospel.

He wonders how the locals, most of whom go around naked, exchange simple pleasantries: "A simple hug was complicated. Where do you hold? Where do you pat? How long do you squeeze?" At the same time, he finds himself wanting to hold, pat, and squeeze Lane, but settles for brushing against her knees with his knees when they sit and talk. "It wouldn't pay to get fresh with a missionary," he concludes. There is something disarming about his boorishness, and she takes to him. They strike up a closeness that sets in motion a series of events that alter the course of both of their lives.

In one of his few intimate conversations with Lane, O'Riley admits his vodka-soaked backsliding to her. She asks:

"Have you ever confessed it to God?"

"I'm sure He knows."

"I'm sure He does. But He won't help you unless you ask. He is omnipotent, but you have to go to Him, in prayer, in the spirit of forgiveness."

"What happens?"

"Your sins will be forgiven. Your slate will be wiped clean. Your addictions will be taken away. The Lord will forgive all of your transgressions, and you will be come a new believer in Christ."

Ever the pragmatist, O'Riley responds, "What about the IRS?"

Later, O'Riley recalls this conversation and—in keeping with good Baptist theology—exercises his will in the conversion equation: "He repeated the list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back."

The narrative is simple and the transformation complete. (And the author also answers the question about the IRS.) Grisham unfolds his plot in a linear sequence—we read more than we want to about what Nate O'Riley has to do to get through a day, including episodes related to body functions. This makes for an easy transition to a screenplay (director Joel Schumacher says, "Grisham's books are movies"), but deprives the reader of the reflection and circumspection that enrich Kingsolver's novels.

The Testament is a quick read, a wild ride, and surprisingly affecting. Its unexpected conclusion leaves the reader reflective. Except for the cursing (endemic in the lawyer culture from which Grisham does not recoil), Southern Baptists will love this novel. The grace that is missing in Kingsolver's story nourishes Grisham's. It is a grace, as the Baptists would say, that is greater than all our sins.

Wendy Murray Zoba is associate editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine. Her book Generation 2K: What Parents & Others Need to Know About the Millennials has just been published by InterVarsity.

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