Kingsolver’s Portrayal of Christianity in The Poisonwood Bible
Kingsolver’s concern with Christianity is evident in the very title of
The Poisonwood Bible. She uses ‘books’ to divide the novel into
sections, which, with names like Genesis and The Revelation, reflect
the books of the Bible. As the novel progresses, the structure
deviates from that of its biblical namesakes: there is a shift in
order - Exodus is placed centrally - and new books with titles such as
The Eyes in the Trees are introduced (Kingsolver’s own appellations).
These names present the reader with the idea that Kingsolver is
rewriting the central Christian text, adapting it for her own story.
Thus religion is heralded as a significant presence in the book, not
just thematically, but structurally.
Throughout The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver uses her characters to
represent forms of attitudes to Christianity. The primary expositor is
Nathan, who sustains forceful, evangelical beliefs throughout. He has
no voice of his own, but all accounts affirm to the reader that he is
consumed by his faith. Leah, the daughter who harbours the most
respect for her father, initially refers to him only in the context of
religion – ‘his tone implied that…[Mother’s] concern with Better
Crocker confederated her with the coin-jingling sinners who vexed
Jesus till he pitched a fit and threw them out of church.’ She is
describing the cleansing of the temple in John 2:13-22, but the fact
that she can reference it freely, and even put it into her own words,
demonstrates that she has been heavily influenced by the Bible.
Kingsolver is perhaps trying to show that religion can be used to
control the way people think, and she portrays Christianity as highly
potent. Leah continues to incorporate Biblical language into everyday
speech, ‘For it was God who gave man alone the capacity of foresight’.
Her language sounds homiletic and parroted, which shows us she has
been thoroughly indoctrinated. She is passive in the face of her
father’s domination - ‘She wouldn’t go against him, of course’ -
providing evidence that religion can be used as a tool to wield power.
Ruth May, although only five, clearly understands Nathan’s
expectations of submission, ‘He doesn’t approve talking back’ – a
telling point when we consider how semi-developed her understanding of
life can be. She names her toy monkey-sock ‘St Matthew’ – this shows
how thoroughly a system of beliefs can penetrate the minds of
children, and the fanatical madness it instils in otherwise rational
human beings – ‘how fiercely he felt the eye of God upon him.’
Orleanna, who could never have known what her husband would become,
claims she was ‘swallowed by Nathan’s body, mission and soul.’ Both
use very physical terms – ‘felt’ and ‘swallowed’ – which present
religion as something so powerful it is tangible. Through her
portrayal of the family, Kingsolver explores how easily Chrisitanity
can be abused. Nathan is obsessed with the traditional Judeo-Christian...