I wrote the following review of The Poisonwood Bible for a Humanities course in college. I post it now in honor of Anna’s reading of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, vegetable, miracle. I may come back later on and add in the specific citations to the essay, but that will take more time than I’m willing to put in at the moment.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is extremely effective in its use and illustration of some of the defects present in liberal capitalist society. The book illustrates the critiques advanced by several modern critics of the liberal experiment, including communitarians, feminists and theologians. These critiques are exemplified very well in the dynamic that exists in the development of various characters within the work. Focusing mainly upon the characters of Rachel, Leah and Nathan this paper will demonstrate that they each of them seeks to negotiate a different aspect of modern culture even as they are supposedly outside of its grasp.

In order to understand the problems facing our culture it is necessary to understand the two theses inherent in enlightenment dialogue that have shaped the formation of subsequent forms of government; as Alisdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue: “It is clear that the Enlightenment’s mechanistic account of human action included both a thesis about the predictability of human behavior and a thesis about the appropriate ways to manipulate human behavior.” The history of the ideologies arising out of the enlightenment has been the story of attempts to focus and implement this manipulation. Communism and socialism, totalitarianism and liberalism differ in their assumptions about how to satisfy the desires of human nature yet agree that control is a necessity.

At its heart, the justification for any government is how effectively it protects it citizens. No longer is the responsibility of government protection limited to protection from foreign militaries and invasion however, instead, that protection has been continuously extended.

Evidence of our changing view of government is clearly seen in the new responsibilities we place upon it. Today it is not uncommon to place the blame for an economic slowdown on the government and ask what the “government” is going to do about it-as though the government were some “other” unit of society and wasn’t occupied and controlled by citizens. We speak also of a universal “right” to healthcare, of the “right” to bodily integrity and so forth. The common thread behind all these rights, from the ridiculous to the sublime, is the empowerment of the individual, often morally, usually economically. This is an extension of what it means to be free in the Anglo-American school of thought, which John Dewey articulates in Freedom and Culture:

In the American and English liberal tradition, the idea of freedom has been connected with the idea of individuality, of the individual. The connection has been so close and so often reiterated that it has come to seem inherent [. . .] in the continental European tradition the affiliation of the idea of freedom is with the idea of rationality.

The problem has not simply been how to control human behavior, but to determine what human nature is. Dewey’s belief was that majority of attempts to explain human nature have fallen prey to the tendency of becoming little more than abstractions of the problems observed. During the Enlightenment, freedom was seen to be the goal inherent in human nature while in his own time this goal was thought to be the love of power.

The common assumption iterated by both Anglo-American and Continental schools is that people desire safety or security. There are a few routes chosen to help accomplish the goal of making people feel safe and secure. The first is to make them feel empowered, the second to make them forget about death with the two routes intersecting naturally at various intervals.

Consider the stark contrasts exhibited in the Poisonwood Bible between the American interlopers and the native Congolese. The closeness of death in the minds of the native people juxtaposed with the sterile lives lived by the Americans helps further the story’s goal of humanizing the Congolese while simultaneously addressing many of the injustices inherent to and the detachment bred by modern capitalist culture. The items that the family takes to the Congo with them help to illustrate this detachment and sterility as well. Rather than being concerned about the basic necessities of life in such a place, the family chose to take cake mix and deviled ham. The interesting thing is that-the mother at least-viewed these things a necessary and basic. Their concern was with Betty Crocker, not clean water.

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