Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is There Christmas Without A Fall?

The Theommentary blog had some great Christmas links including one about a little astrological phenomenon known as the star of Bethlehem. Pretty fascinating.

I had heard before that there was a confluence of Venus with Jupiter (the King planet) in Leo (the lion of Judah) in 2 or 4 BC or something like that, and even preached about it one Christmas. This article has it happening in Aries (the ram of Judah?), so I'm not sure where the descrepency is. I'm no astrologer. But the magi were, and amazingly, that's how they found the Christ child. How's that for natural theology?

Even more interestingly however, as Christmas approaches, is this article by Philip Yancey, called "Ongoing Incarnation: Would Christmas have come even if we had not sinned?" I think it is a must-read, and by the way I'm totally with Duns Scotus on this one.

I think Christmas happens, Fall or no Fall. Otherwise we have something like felix culpa (fortunate fall) going on, and that makes little sense to me. From the foundation of the world we were always going to have fellowship with God through the God-man, Jesus Christ. As James Torrance put it:

"Christ took what was ours that he might give us what is his."

Gloria in exelsis deo.

Happy Incarnation Day folks.

The peace of Christ be with you.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Fiction

I meant to post this list around my birthday but here it is. I've decided on my favourite fiction reads of all time. If I've written about it before there is a link. All of these books in some way or another provided me a great adventure, a spark of insight, and/or a new lease on life. I've ranked them, of course. It is more fun that way. I hope to add one every year, and perhaps change the list slightly over time, but it will be very hard to dislodge any of the top spots

1. Perelandra - CS Lewis

Mind-blowing science fiction with aesthetic beauty, adventure, and a lot to say.

2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkein

Epic, of course. Even after seeing the movies there is nothing that compares with the sense of fellowship and fear developed in the book. And the ending of The Two Towers is unmatched.

3. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare - GK Chesterton

I've said plenty about this book already.Part comedy, part adventure, part spy novel, part absurd, part metaphysical whodunit, part Pilgrim's Regress, and a dash of Dr. Strangelove.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

This was the first bit of required reading in school that I remember absolutely digesting and loving. It starts out as an innocent story of a brother and a sister and their neighbourhood friend and stays the same story except for the "innocent" part. Along with them, the reader is re-introduced to the societal evils of slavery, racism, outcasts, mob mentality, neighbourhood gossip, and bad politics. Somehow these are seen most truly through a child's eyes. And yet the story has a hero too. I am not sure there are any more recognizable characters in American fiction than Atticus Finch, Jem, Dell, and Boo Radley. This is a must read and if it weren't for the dang Inklings would be number one on my list perhaps the rest of my life.

5. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

Best adventure story ever. Bar none.

6. The Outsiders - Susan Hinton

This story follows the lives of some high school gang members in the 50s in such an empathetic and honest way. I don't know if I looked at people the same again after reading this book. Somehow it showed me that everyone's a person, no matter what. These are the guys I would have been afraid of growing up. But Ponyboy, Sodapop, Dally, Johnny, Cherry and the rest are stripped bare in front of the reader in such an authentic and yet understated fashion that by the end you are deeply saddened by events that you would otherwise brush over in the newspaper.

7. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

A highly regarded classic novel, and for good reason. I was enraptured by it.

8. The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

Another all-American great which just shows you the world you live in, and where it has come from.

9. Voyage of the Dawn Treader - CS Lewis

Two CS Lewis books in my top 10? Guess so. This is my favourite of the Chronicles of Narnia, by far. My Dad's favourite too. Can't wait to read it to my boys. My oldest is almost ready.

10. Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Golding's Lord of the Flies is just one of those classic stories that had to be told. There have been many imitators in one way or another but his is the masterpiece. The innocence and peril of Ralph, Piggy and Jack and the boys stranded on this island are writ large, and crumble through the fingers like sand on the beach. Simon is the quintessential Christ-figure, and the startling conclusion just sticks with you for good.

11. Out of the Silent Planet - CS Lewis

Part one of Lewis' science fiction which climaxes at Perelandra, but gets a heck of a kick start here. I love that these stories are basically about Lewis. And Ransom: What a great name!

12. Manalive - GK Chesterton

This is a drastically underrated story, perhaps because it is so quirky and weird. But I've read it a few times now and it never ceases to surprise and inspire me.

13. Life of Pi - Yann Martel

Martel's recent masterpiece debuts on my list after having only read it a couple months ago. Perhaps I'm still a bit caught up in it, but I don't think so. It was that good.

14. Ordinary People - Judith Guest

Even though I saw the movie before reading it, this book still made an impact on me. I read it during a bout of semi-depression and so resonated with the character that I felt like he helped me wade through some deep waters. Besides that, I think this is just a very well told character novel which provides a window into the mind and soul of a young person dealing with death, divorce, guilt, family dynamic, friendship, and the struggle for a sense of peace and identity. This is one of those examples of where the story says it better than any psychology text or book review ever could. You just have to read the story.

15. Misery - Stephen King

Just plain-old freaked me out of my skin. And it did so without poltergeists or bloody zombies or any cheap horror-flick tricks like that.

16. The Trial - Franz Kafka

Kafka's The Trial is at the forefront of the genre of literature of the absurd. In this novel Joseph K. runs up against the unrelenting craziness of everyone and everything around him and, though he tries to keep his head, simply can not stay sane. Though Kafka could probably have used a few moments release from his crippling doubt and despair, he has offered us all a reality check through his writing that we'd be silly to ignore, especially in a time when it is just so easy to escape into our sheltered and foolish optimisms. But I digress. This novel is a wild and even frustrating read, but it is so in a fantastic way. The parable of the gatekeeper and the encounter with the priest are two very memorable moments in this adventure in absurdity.

17. The Great Divorce - CS Lewis

More great stuff from Lewis. Of all the attempts this is the best and most artful peak into heaven that has been written.

18. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

An insight into war-torn Afghanistan through the eyes of one its more fortunate children. The dynamic between this boy and his friend is an enjoyable read on its own, but then when tragedy strikes and the reader follows one character into the ramifications of the rest of his life and the search for redemption the novel takes on a timeless quality and is nearly impossible to put down. Through this book I felt like I experienced another culture and found some common ground in the world, but also came to appreciate the many things which still tear apart at us.

19. The Power and the Glory - Graham Greene

It took me awhile to get into this book, and I'm not sure if that's a flaw with the book or just the circumstances of my reading it. But once it got going this story of a traveling priest on the lam in the villages of rural Mexico took on a life of its own. This is another story of an outcast, told from the inside, and the things he encounters and the attitude he maintains really cut to the quick. He is not idealized but is vilified throughout the novel (by no one more than himself)---and yet he is a heroic figure. There is a lot going on in this story and I look forward to someday giving it a second read. Graham Greene is a masterful story teller.

20. The Magician's Nephew - CS Lewis

My second favourite of the Narnia Chronicles. Should have known the movies were doomed when the started with Wardrobe rather than this one. As a youngster the creation scene and the flying horse and the apples and the rings just blew me away.

21. Revelation - Flannery O'Connor

This is actually a short story about a woman in a waiting room at the doctor's office which ends with her having an epiphany in a pig barn. Sounds unremarkable except for the changes wrought on the character, the stereotypes it exposes, the finger it points at the reader, and the messy kind of redemption it portrays.

22. Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby

Anyone who is a sports fan or who knows and doesn't understand a sports fan needs to read this book. Not only does it explain the inner life of the die-hard fan but it is a really fun read as well. Through it we get to experience the thrill of victory, the devastation of defeat, the obsession over players, the emotional investment of getting wrapped up in a team's history, and both the the fall-out and the inspiration that all of this has in a person's life. Beyond this, the story is also a great experience of modern London and a wonderful journey through the life of an average young English boy.

23. The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky

The idiot is the novel's Christ figure. Enough said.

24. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

Picturing Boris Karloff with bolts in his neck I was not prepared for the literary genius of this novel. I also thought it would be more frightening than it was. Instead it was a gripping tale of a Doctor's turmoil and a new creature's struggle to find his way in the world. There are a lot of ramifications that could be explored here and it would be awesome to read this one in a book club. Reading it is like peeling away layers of an onion, not only in depth of theme but in narrative as well. It is a story within a story within a story within a story. Really awesome book.

25. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkein

Just wonderful.

26. The Horse and His Boy - CS Lewis

For some reason I can still feel my eyes widening as I imagine my Mom reading this to me at my bedside many moons ago.

27. And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie

I'm a sucker for a whodunit and I'm not sure anyone has ever bested Christie at the genre. I love the idea of a bunch of people stuck in a house having to figure something out. This is a classic.

28. Nightfall - Isaac Asimov

A planet with six suns is preparing for its first nightfall in 2000 years. From what they can tell things did not go so well for society the last time. Will anyone survive the chaos of darkness in a place where it has never been known? (I should write the book jacket shouldn't I?)

29. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is a pretty troubling story of a young man, his temptation, and his guilt. Maybe not everyone's idea of beach reading, but really worthwhile. Dostoevsky is an absolute master at developing a character and a story through dialogue, and at getting us to recognize our own thoughts and attitudes in those character's minds.

30. The Son of Laughter - Fredrick Buechner

Buechner gives us the biblical story of Jacob in a not-quite-irreverent but certainly-not-glossy way. Through it we learn also of Isaac and his troubled past, covered by laughter. We read of the God known at first as "The Fear" and we get to see the patriarchs as people like us. Really a splendid piece of work.

31. The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger

When I was reading this I was a pastor at the time and a piece of mail came to the church asking us to help get this book banned in school. I was a bit torn. I don't think it is a book for kids, but thought the point of the book was kind of being lost. Some rough language in it, but it has the same sort of effect as The Outsiders. Maybe I'm a sucker for these empathy raisers, but I love a story that doesn't necessarily deny the stereotype entirely but does cut through it and lets me see people where I might not have before.

32. The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver

Colonialism in Africa, well told in a unique fashion through the eyes of four young American missionary girls.

33. A Good Man is Hard to Find - Flannery O'Connor

Another of Flannery's short stories which leaves you dead in your tracks. No reader emerges unscathed by her gracious sword.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Number 16

Trevor Linden's jersey #16 was retired last night by the Vancouver Canucks. He played there from 1988-1998, and 2001-2008. The years in between were a black hole of meaninglessness for Canucks' fans.

I barely watch hockey anymore, but will always have this team in my blood, thanks largely to this one man. He was an impressive person, a hard-working player, and he nearly singlehandedly brought the Stanley Cup to Vancouver in 1994.

His game 7 against the New York Rangers was one of the most tragic and yet heroic performances I have ever seen from a team athlete. He very nearly conquered the world. Tears were shed when it was not to be. I became a man that day.

The picture below, from after one of those hard-fought playoff games, pretty much says it all.

And you might not enjoy this video montage unless you are a Canucks fan, but regardless it pretty much sums up my childhood and adolescence.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Feats of Flight and the Tower of Babel

Waking up to rock babies at random periods in the night makes you realize just how little late-night television has to offer. So I took this BBC series out of the library to have something to watch in those wee hours of near-delirium. Last night I watched episode one, and it was pretty remarkable.

Did you realize that there were only 66 years between the first human flight and the first step on the moon? In 1903 Wilbur Wright propelled he and his brother Orville's oversized box kite in the air for almost a minute in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1969 Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong flew the Apollo 11 through space for four days and planted a flag on the moon.

Six years later I was born, part of a new generation who would take such things for granted.

Three things amazed me the most about the lunar mission. One I already mentioned, and that is that it was only one average American life span between Kitty Hawk and Magnificent Desolation (that's what they named the area around the moon landing).

The second was John F. Kennedy's speech in the early 60s which ambitiously set the lunar-mission's goal for completion within the decade. We get pretty used to hearing politicians spout lofty promises, but this was the heart of the cold war and he was dead serious and, well, those dang Americans got it done.

In that speech at Rice University, Kennedy said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The third thing that really amazed me about the whole lunar mission was that the space shuttle computers had 74 kilobytes of memory. My ipod nano has over 2 million.

Sometimes I despair of humanity and scoff at the myth of progress. Other times I marvel over all that we seem capable of doing. It raises theological questions for me too:

What made the moon launch any different than the tower of Babel?
What is the place of human development and discovery and dominion?

I think there is a positive place for such things. I think these exhibit the wonder of the created capacity of humankind. I think that the issue at Babel was more one of purpose and loyalty and pride than of accomplishment and teamwork. I think that the space program, as the medical world, the nuclear age, and on down the line all have the potential to glorify God or to dismay him.

The moon landing was surely tainted in ways. It was part and parcel of the cold war after all, as exemplified by the prominent place given to the planting of the American flag and the rhetoric of "winning" that the mission entailed. However, on that day in 1969 I have to think God was generally pretty pleased with what some of his creatures had done in his prevenient grace.

But then again, I am of the Irenaean persuasion that human development was always part of God's plan, and that the tree was forbidden not for its knowledge, but for the autonomy that eating it would entail. I am also fairly persuaded by Torrance that the natural sciences are an important aspect of Christian endeavour.

While many may have seen the lunar mission in merely humanistic terms, many also would have operated that mission in the motive of discovering God's creation. Some would have been cheering "we (the USA) beat the Russians!" Others would be crying "we (humanity) got to the moon!" The motives would have been mixed.

Curiously enough, what was introduced at Babel (culture and language barriers) as a way to keep human progress from getting ahead of itself -- to put limits on the (exponentially destructive) capabilities of autonomous humanity -- was part of what ended up motivating this mission to space. Whereas the tower of Babel was built because humanity was getting along so well, the lunar mission happened because they were not. The cold war is written all over this thing.

Nevertheless, it was quite a feat; a "giant leap" for humankind. It was a touch of the transcendent, and a moment for pause. For many, humanity in that moment seemed very small and yet disproportionately significant at the same time. Whether or not it should go on with such endeavours in my opinion depends largely on whether it can do so in precisely that spirit of humility.

More ideally, however, such endeavours would only be undertaken in service to the Creator God who made an immensely more giant leap for humankind by way of incarnation over 30 life-spans ago. After all, if humanity is really to progress, it is in the image and service of the God-man, the true human, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Incarnation: God's Self-Revelation in Jesus

Seeing as it is Christmas and all, and since we probably could stand (albeit barely) one more attempt to speak of what Christmas is actually about, I'll conclude my mini-series of reflections from Alister McGrath's bio of T.F. Torrance with these quotes from Torrance on the Incarnation as God's Self-Revelation in Jesus.

The first is actually Torrance discussing Jesus' divinity, first citing the professor who left a huge impact on him, H.R. Mackintosh, who said:

"When I look into the Face of Jesus, and see there the very face of God, I know that I have not seen that face elsewhere and cannot see that face elsehow. And secretly, in the hour of meditation, when we try to look into God's face, still it is the face of Christ that comes up before us. What Jesus was on earth God is forever" (31). Torrance later reflects: "There is no hidden God, no Deus Absconditus, no God behind the back of the Lord Jesus, but only the one Lord God who became incarnate in him. . . . What have we been doing in our preaching and teaching in the church, to damage in the faith of our people the relation between their faith in Jesus Christ and God?" (74) .

To further the thought, here is more. This time it is McGrath talking about TF Torrance talking about Athanasius talking about Jesus. That's a real cloud of witnesses isn't it?

"Appealing to the fundamental Athanasian principle that only God can reveal God, Torrance insists that 'nothing else will suffice for a revelation of God than God Himself'. There is a fundamental gulf between God and humanity, which can only be bridged from God's side by God. If the living God is to be known, then it must be through an act of God.

'We cannot know God except through His acts, except by His acts, except in His acts.'

Yet creatoin can be regarded as an act of God. Does this therefore legitimate a natural theology? Developing this point further, Torrance argues that revelation consists of an act 'in which God reveals Himself to us'.

'We must, therefore, hold these two points together in a single thought: namely, that we must know God through His acts, and yet we must know the Personal Being of God, for nothing else will convey Him. No! not even an act of creation, for creation is as such an act in which something distinct from God is brought into existence. That means therefore that we can only know God in an ACT in which HIS ACT AND PERSON are IDENTICAL, in which God's presence, personal presence, is present in His act, in which the act is the Person and the Person is the Act.' . . .

In other words, the Word of God to come across to men must come down to their level and become human, for it would be by becoming human that it could take upon itself all the ideas and language of men in which they converse and think. This is the great doctrine of the Incarnation -- of the Word becoming flesh, of the Word who was in the beginning with God and who was God and through whom all things were created becoming flesh and tabernacling among men -- in Jesus Christ our Lord" (148-149) .

Every year at this time I am amazed at just how drab and drivel and cliche Christmas can be and yet despite it all how refreshing and exciting the incarnation continues to be. I could certainly go without all the trappings of the season, but as far as I'm concerned every day could be Incarnation Day. So I pay special attention to those festivities which make even passing mention of it, because in even the most tired carol or passing comment, mention of the incarnation makes my heart skip a beat.

T.F. Torrance: The Locus of Church Unity

Churches talk a lot about unity. Christians clamour for it as they design their worship services and church programs, as they fish about for a target demographic and cater to the felt-needs of the perceived majority. They will lament the lack of visible unity (in doctrine, mission, fellowship, or reputation) between denominations and ecclesial traditions, and they will lament the lack of fellowship at times within their local churches as well. One of the ways churches respond to this is by the all-too successful strategy of conflict avoidance. We prefer sometimes the false peace of seeming unity to the communion of people speaking the truth in love (as enabled by faith in Christ).

Christians aren't the only ones addicted to the requirement of visible and tangible unity. Often those who have rejected or become disillusioned with the church have done so in part because they think if God were really in the church it would be one big happy unified worldwide church. The existence of denominations alone is taken as proof against God. Sometimes they have actually left because they were "hurt by the church". On these occasions the underlying implication was that it was no longer worth it to seek reconciliation. It is not only accepted but encouraged that we leave a church to its own "unity" and shop around for somewhere else to fit in, hassle free.

Point is, we frequently have churches building their unity around music style, platform persona, vision statements, conflict avoidance, demographic narrowing, building location, pastoral charisma, friendly foyer faces, and so on. And we have church rejected sometimes on the grounds of a lack of any one of these things, or because of a lack of hassle-free unity.

And all this leads one to ask: Where is Christian unity to be found? One thing that I find very compelling is the following perspective offered by T.F. Torrance (as told by Alister McGrath).

"One of the most important issues raised by Torrance [during the ecumenical dialogues of the mid 1950s] was the need to recover the eschatological orientation of the doctrine of the church." As he put it:

"'Broadly speaking . . . while Lutheran eschatology was mainly an eschatology of judgment . . . with their emphasis on the decay and collapse of the world, Reformed eschatology was mainly an eschatology of resurrection . . . with their emphasis upon the renewal of the world through the incarnation of Christ. . . .

'This means, however, that the whole life of faith and union with Christ is exercised in eschatological tension (suspensio) between the prius manifested in the calling of God [predestination], and the posterius of final revelation and redemption [eschatology], and in a wondrous anticipation or foretaste of the glorious consummation.' . . . Torrance believed that this eschatological element of the Reformation doctrine of the church required to be injected into contemporary ecumenical discussions. . . .

For Torrance, the unity of the church was to be understood as 'an eschatological reality that both interpenetrates history and transcends it, as a given unity even in the midst of disorder and as a promised unity beyond it.' . . .

'If the given unity of the church is essentially eschatological, then the vitality of all that she does is conditioned by the Parousia and cannot be made to repose upon any primitive structure of unity already complete in the naturally historical realm.' . . .

The church will be unable to carry out this divine mission and function in the world unless she recovers more and more the eschatological character of her true being. The great shame and disorder of the church is that she has collaborated with the disorder of the world" (Alister McGrath, TF Torrance, 97-99).

I think this is very helpful, and true. At the same time I'd hate to see us cop out from the effort for fellowship in the here and now because we leave it to the future for God to sort out. I don't think that is Torrance's suggestion. Rather, I think that he would say that placing the locus of our unity in the promise and plan and provision of God allows us not to base it on temporal strategies out of a lack of faith. With this kind of faith, we can then actually have a present unity that is found in an authentic and vital dynamic of persistent reconciliation and discussion.

We are centered around some essential creeds and values, to be sure, but our unity is as often in the dialogue as it is in the polished statements of faith or agreed upon worship practices. The locus of our unity is in Christ, and not in ourselves. It is mystical enough to be solid in dark times, and it is solid enough to be a goal worth striving toward.

I don't know if it helps you, but this perspective has really helped me to stick with my local churches through some sometimes disillusioning and disappointing times.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

T.F. Torrance: Theology as a Science

In preparation for an upcoming phone interview I've been trying to read up on some more Alister McGrath. To date I'm mostly familiar with McGrath's works on the Reformation, and have read a few of his articles. And in the process of furthering my familiarization with him, I encountered and began reading his recent "intellectual biography" of T.F. Torrance.

This is extremely interesting, highly brilliant stuff. It is what I like to call a little piece of "loving the Lord your God with all your mind."

Thomas F. Torrance is a Scottish theologian who lived from 1913 -2007. His main teaching stint was at Edinburgh from 1950-1979. Next to Karl Barth (and in many ways building on him), he just may be one of the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century. So, how about a few excerpts?

I find his approach to theology as a science very appealing. For instance, McGrath tells of the time when Torrance was asked to teach divinity in a "dispassionate" manor at Princeton University:

"Torrance responded by declaring that he would be interested in teaching theology as a science. When he was asked to elaborate on this statement, Torrance explained his developing views on the matter: that in a rigorous science, 'we think not as we choose to think, but as we are compelled to think in accordance with the nature of the object, and thus in manners which are governed by the objective grounds on which the science rest's'. The rigorous nature of scientific questioning could be applied equally well to Christian theology. Torrance, who disliked talk of 'dispassionate' approaches to theology, added that he could not guarantee that no one would be converted through the lectures . . . . To his astonishment, they decided to appoint him, and told him so the next day" (57-58).

Torrance never ended up taking that post at Princeton, but did go on to write a lot about this scientific approach to theology. He found fodder for it in the thought of Athanasius:

"It was to theologia of this kind that Athanasius assimilated the scientific method that had been developed in Alexandria, namely, rigorous knowledge according to the inherent structure or nature (kata physin) of the realities investigated, together with the development of the appropriate questions and the apposite vocabulary demanded by the nature or the realities as they became disclosed to us. It is in this way that theology adapts its method to its proper subject-matter, and allows its proper subject-matter to determine the appropriate forms of thought and speech about God. So far as scientific theology is concerned, this means that we are forced to adapt our common language to the nature and reality of God who is disclosed in Jesus Christ, and even where necessary to coin new terms, to express what we thus apprehend" (160-1).

To illustrate what this means, consider his assessment of Trinitarian thought: "The doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to be seen as a retreat into mysticism, or the outcome of intellectual speculation going far beyond the cautious language and conceptualities of Scripture. It is to be seen as the proper outcome of scientific engagement with the reality of God, as God is disclosed in Christ. In one sense, the doctrine of the Trinity is to be seen as the culmination of a scientific theology -- not its contradiction" (162) .

In other words (if you are still reading along!), as all sciences, theology seeks to be governed by its object rather than its subject, and so good Christian theology is the study of God as God is truly and fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Although the subjective creeps in, as always, we seek not to let it govern, but submit our thought to the witnesses to Christ and the interpretive dialogue that surrounds them; submitting ultimately to the self-revealing God. To put it more plainly still: Christian theology (and I dare add worship) is not yours or my speculative ideas or expressed feelings about God, based loosely on notions gained through religion or experience. Christian theology is the study of God as if Jesus Christ reveals him, and thus it speaks of God as Jesus reveals Him. Jesus is the object, and the provider of objectivity.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible follows the lives of a Baptist missionary family in a small village of 1950s Congo. It is told from the various perspectives of the four daughters in the family, with short prologues to each section as later reflections from the mother. It is really quite remarkable.

As a literary scheme this way of storytelling works really well. I can't recall ever reading a novel that told one unified story with multiple voices like this. Kingsolver pulls it off beautifully. Rarely is the same scene narrated twice, and yet because of one's familiarity with the characters and awareness of how they interact one feels that one knows each of the perspectives for each part of the story without hearing each one per se. The plot moves along for the reader with all the benefit of four viewpoints, so that the story is felt four different ways. It really sinks in.

Besides this unique storytelling, what I appreciated most about the novel was that I felt I was given a real insight into another culture, another time, another place, and even another gender. The author did plenty of research and therefore went out of her way to deliver Westerners with something approaching a real experience of the other side of colonialism. This ends up being incredibly unsettling and yet appealingly enlightening at the same time.

That the main perpetrator in this case is a fundamentalist patriarchal missionary hits particularly close to home for this life-long evangelical. I cringe at his actions and attitudes because he in some sense represents my ilk, because I've known people like him, and worse yet, I sort of get him. For those evangelicals in particular and Westerners in general who have yet to consider the sins of colonialism this book may serve as a wake up call.

In presenting this kind of story Kingsolver was quite fair, but in the last third of the novel I felt she weakened the novel and its effect somewhat by turning it into an extended epilogue that got a bit preachy. I think a shorter postlude would have been more impactful. Even though this final section provided a broader picture of the ensuing politics of Congo turned Zaire in the 70s and 80s (and even an African perspective on the famous Ali/Foreman boxing match held there), the denouement was just too long. For me this was the one thing keeping the novel from being a 9 or 10 out of 10. As it is I'm giving it an 8/10. I highly recommend The Poisonwood Bible.

Incidentally, my fiction reading has taken a real shift this year since reading Life of Pi. I used to read mainly the classics (from Dostoevsky to Steinbeck) and had little time for contemporary novels. But I am beginning to love these new authors who are able to craft a story that is not only enjoyable and thought-provoking in its own right but also provides a window into other cultures, other places, other perspectives. My last few reads have taken me from Pondicherry, India (Life of Pi) to Afghanistan (Kite Runner) to Auschwitz (Night) to the Congo/Zaire (Poisonwood) and have set me on a new trajectory in my fiction reading.

So where should I go from here? For real: I'm looking for suggestions.