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.
One of the novel's major themes involves the issue of Western control over different countries and cultures of the world. Kingsolver looks as this theme on both a micro (local) and macro (political) level.
On the local level, Kingsolver debates the merits of taking Western notions of religion and progress, and implanting them into cultures that do not necessarily accept them as values. The Christianity of Nathan Price has difficulty taking root in a culture which views religion in more practical terms. While Price preaches of salvation from hell, the people of Kilanga make decision on which gods to worship based on how well those gods protect them from disease, flood, or drought. Price simply cannot understand why the people do not worry over the salvation of their souls and he fails to recognize that the matter of food and survival are more important to the culture than eternal life.
On the political level, Kingsolver details the troubles that Western systems of government have in cultures that are not ready for them. The people of the Congo are used to the rich traditions of rule they inherited from their ancestors. They have difficulty in adjusting to the demands of democracy in which a majority is able to rule and a minority loses their opinion. This leads to the rise of violent dictatorships as the US and other foreign powers attempt to control the Congo and as the people of the Congo attempt to gain their own independence.
One of the unique features of Kingsolver's novel is the way in which it brings a feminist perspective to a history that has largely been told from a white, male perspective.
The novel, which is told from the perspective of the four Price daughters and their mother, takes on themes of activism and feminism. Instead of treating women as subjected voices, the novel brings their voices to the forefront. Their perspective on the family's missionary activities highlight the violence and misogyny often inherent in the process of colonization. Nathan Price's story might have been told as the story of a hero who heroically ventured into the African jungle and was martyred for his work. Instead, through the feminist perspective, we see a man that was both violent and ignorant to the cultural situations into which he brought his family.
Feminist voices are not the only voices highlighted in Kingsolver's narrative. She also brings the voices of the African people to the forefront of her story.
This process can be called a "hermeneutic of suspicion." This means that one looks at the voices of people that might have been left out of certain stories. For instance, a story of missionary activity in Africa would rarely document the daily life and trials of someone like Mama Mwanza. But in Kingsolver's story, Mama Mwanza's life is given a fair and accurate treatment, and Kingsolver's characters, the Price children, become involved and dependent for their own survival on these historically sublimated voices.
Another instance of this hermeneutic of suspicion comes from the character of Leah. Though, as a child, she aligns her self dogmatically with her father, by the end of the novel she and her husband, Anatole, have become maligned fighters for Africa's freedom. These revolutionary characters are often neglected, not only by the dictatorships they attempt to overthrow, but also by historians when they attempt to document a country's struggle. Again, Kingsolver brings the plights of these individuals to the attention of her reader and new and different voices are introduced into the narrative that might have never been heard otherwise.
In Marxist philosophy, the notion of communism rests on the idea that low wage workers, and those shunned by the elite classes of society, will rise up and overthrow their capitalistic governments. These workers, the proletariat, will install new forms of government and economy in which each person shares in the wealth of the nation.
Kingsolver has many Marxist notions of economics and government in her novel. Towards the end of the novel, Leah and Anatole imagine what Africa might have been like had European explorers not found the continent - they imagine a kind of economic utopia. The economic system of Kilanga, where the Prices live, also reveals this utopian ideal; if a neighbor has more food than he or she needs, they give it away. This is the ideal of communism and Kingsolver suggests that this ideal is shattered by the Western world's notions of colonial rule.
The scene in which ants attack the village offers the most dramatic metaphor for this rise of the proletariat. The ants, who attack the village in a massive swarm and eat everything they can, are said simply to be moving from place to place in search of food that they cannot find. This is also the vision for the poor and starving masses of Africa. Anatole sees these masses as eventually having the strength - in pure numbers - to rise up and overthrow their oppressors, simply for the want of food.
When Reverend Price decided to bring his family and his religion into the jungles of Africa, he could not have known the difficulties that he would have adjusting to the native culture.
Christianity suffered in the Congo because it was a religion, in Nathan Price's eyes, that had adapted itself to the uses of white Western people. Price first makes tactical mistakes in his missionary work - trying to baptize children in a river where crocodiles are known to eat people; insulting men and women for their lack of clothes when they have no others to wear. But his mistake goes much deeper than simply not understanding the language and customs. Christianity proves to be a religion ill-fitted for the needs of the Congolese people.
The people's religion, local folklore, ancestor worship, and a dabble of magic, suits the innate culture because it encompasses all of nature, even death. Their form of pantheism worships animals and plants, not because of a belief that animals or plants would provide them with everlasting life, but rather because they believe sustaining from nature ensures the continuation of life on earth. However, when death does come, it is not something to be scared of, or something to imbue with visions of heaven and threats of hell. Death was instead a natural part of life. This less weighty view of death seems inspired by the sheer amount of death around the villagers - large numbers of children die and the average person's life expectancy is very low. Nathan Price's Christianity failed because it did not take seriously the daily needs of the people of the Congo. It proved ultimately that American Christianity simply became lost in translation.
The Price family soon learns during their stay in Kilanga that death is one of the constants of life in the African jungle. Children die young from dysentery and old people starve when there is not enough food and they are too weak to hunt or gather. The hazards of nature are everpresent, as it is common for children to be eaten by lions or crocodiles.
This notion of death is handled most adeptly by Adah, who becomes a doctor, though one suspicious of the Hippocratic Oath. Adah has a distinct appreciation for nature, not just as a thing of beauty, but also as a thing of great cruelty. She herself is a casualty of nature for most of the novel - a child constantly left behind because of a deformity in her body.
The cruelty of nature is expressed when Nelson, the Price's helper, finds out that Adah is a twin. This is a great evil, he says, and mothers in Kilanga who have twins are expected to take both babies out into the jungle and leave them to die. Though this ritual is shrouded in superstition, there is a practical purpose to it as well - the village simply cannot support extra children. Adah is reminded of this later in life when she watches a teenage mother give birth to twins in Atlanta. She wonders if it is actually so cruel to kill these babies, to give life back to the mother and spare these newborns the cruelty that comes with being born to a single, poor, teenage parent. This force of nature eventually drives Adah away from medicine as she can never quite reconcile her own personal experience with the cruelty of nature and that of the people of Africa.
Kingsolver explores the nature of marriage when she introduces two characters who have wedded despite their tendency to be mutually destructive. Orleanna Price marries Nathan Price as a young girl, partly because she is in love, and perhaps even more because of the Great Depression which forces her family to send one of its children away. Yet, when Nathan returns from the war he is damaged profoundly - causing him to become cruel and cold to his wife, and later to his children.
Reflecting on these events and her time in Africa, Orleanna begins to describe both her own marriage, and the marriage of Africa to the white imperial Western nations in a similar vein. Just as she was conquered by Nathan Price - first through love and the thought of a better life - soon she was tyrannized by him and his cruel and vengeful God. In the same way, Africa is a wife to her white invaders. They first promise help and charity, but end up plundering all her riches - diamonds, rubber, and other natural resources. They enslave the continent's people and devise ways to keep her continuously in debt so that she will never be free.
Just as Orleanna Price was in a hurtful and abusive relationship that she was forced to flee from, so too is Africa in an abusive relationship with those that conquered her. Though Orleanna was able to take her children and escape the land, Africa is in a much less tenable position. The violence and cruelty that devastates the land and people will not be as easy to fix and as a result, these thoughts haunt the Price women for the rest of their lives.