Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on The Poisonwood Bible-- Part 2

In my last post, I explored some of the reasons why Nathan Price of The Poisonwood Bible never should have entered Congo as a missionary in the first place. In this post, I want to explore some of the theological differences between what he and his family believe and what I believe. To be fair, each of these topics could be blog posts in their own rights, but I will try to keep my thoughts somewhat brief.

Conqueror vs. Caretaker. The very first Bible passage quoted in the book is Genesis 1:28: “And God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’” Then in the very first chapter the speaker, Nathan’s wife, Orleanna, poetically muses over how the West came to conquer Africa and how her husband Nathan was likewise the conqueror. The way the verse in Genesis is used, one might feel justified in “subduing” a continent, a wilderness, a wife, a family. However, that is never how I have viewed this passage.  Throughout the Bible, it is clear that all things actually belong to God.  For example, Deuteronomy 10:14 declares, "Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it.” Psalm 24:1 states “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” and this phrase is again reiterated in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 10:26. Similar statements can also be found in Genesis 14:19-22, Exodus 9:29, Exodus 19:5, Leviticus 25:23, Job 41:11, Psalm 50:10-12, Psalm 74:16, Psalm 89:11, Psalm 95:4-5, Psalm 104:24, Haggai 2:8. Therefore we are not owners, and we are not conquerors. We are stewards--caretakers called to value, nourish, prune, restore, and protect the world around us. There is much Biblical justification for showing love and appreciation for the natural world and the people around us, but Nathan Price missed it all.

Religion of judgement vs. Religion of grace. When Nathan Price and his family entered the community, the people of Kilanga welcomed them warmly, killing a goat, and preparing a feast. This was Nathan’s first opportunity to address the people, and what does he start with? He shamed the women whose breasts were exposed—which was appropriate to the culture— taking the story of Lot out of context in an attempt to justify his message. And all I could think was “Wow. He completely missed the point. What is critical to the message of Christ?” When Jesus approached people, especially those who eagerly showed him welcome, he led with love. He led with gratitude. He did not hold himself to be above others, but served those around him. The only group to whom he expressed anger and judgement were the Pharisees and teachers who thought they were above their neighbors—the Nathan Prices of that era. Yet, even among that group, some came to realize that the primary message of Jesus was love, a love not bound by anything we have done or could ever do, a love given freely as a gift.

Using shame to change behavior vs. Behavior change as a result of relationship. The destructive nature of shame and of using shame to try to change behavior has become increasingly clear to me over the years. I have especially appreciated and highly recommend the research and writing of Brene Brown. Nathan Price regularly used shame tactics to change people’s behavior, and again, I think Nathan Price missed the point. Christianity is not a list of things that one must do to please God—pray a certain prayer (check), get baptized in the river (check), go to church (check), read the Bible (check), memorize certain verses (check), dress a certain way (check), end polygamy (check)[1]… As Pastor Ben Stuart once said, “That is not Christianity. That is list-ianity.” Christianity is not a list. It is a relationship. It is understandable how Nathan Price missed this distinction, because there are many churches and even whole denominations who have lost this distinction. God is not “watching us,” as the Price children suspected, waiting for us to mess up. God is loving us, grieving with us, rejoicing with us, and longing for us to know him better. In its truest form, Christianity is simply a relationship with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. Do our actions change in various ways as a result of that relationship? Of course! That happens in any meaningful relationship. The more time you spend with your best friend, for example, the more you may start to use the same expressions and act similarly. I do not pray because I am supposed to. I pray because relationships generally do not go well without communication. I do not read the Bible because I feel guilty if I don’t. I read the Bible to discover what words God might want to speak into my life. I do not go to church because I am being forced. I go because I know that as a human I was built for community and I need the encouragement of others in my faith. God is not a fan of coercion and does not want a relationship founded on fear and guilt. God wants a relationship based on love and trust. I become highly skeptical of any religious organization or person that wants to shame me into something. My God does not want to shame me. My God relieves me of shame and tells me I am beloved. I do not want to be pushed, guilted, or shamed; I seriously doubt anyone does. I want to be inspired J

Prosperity gospel vs. Actual gospel. Prosperity gospel is the idea that if you pray the right way, give the right way, and do the right things, God will “bless” you, meaning that health, wealth, success and happiness will follow. We see this ideology in both the U.S. and Tanzania. Here in Tanzania there is even a church called “Winners Church.” The concept is rampant in many Christian circles, and it is completely false. This concept is not the gospel—good news—of Jesus. Jesus did not experience a world without trouble. I mean, seriously, he was violently killed on a cross. Likewise, none of his disciples became rich, many of them were beaten, and all but one were killed for their faith. The belief that only good things happen to good people is more closely akin to karma than to Christianity. On the night before Jesus was killed, Jesus shared with his disciples how they would be scattered and how he would die. He said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Trouble, pain, and suffering are parts of this life. The good news is that there is a peace in God that transcends life’s circumstances, and there is a hope in Jesus that cannot die.  And yet, Nathan Price believed fervently that he would have success on earth if he just followed the magical formula. He believed that any problems that befell the Congolese were because of their lack of faith. He believed nothing bad could happen in his life because he was “doing God’s work.” He did not heed the warnings of others or ever consider that he might need to change his approach. As such, the people of Kilanga followed suit, and as soon as trouble befell the Price family, particularly in the death of their youngest child, the people assumed that Jesus could not be trusted. Nathan had metaphorically built his house on sand, and as soon as trouble came, his weak spiritual foundation collapsed.

The Bible as punishment vs. The Bible as a love story. Whenever Nathan Price wanted to discipline his children, he forced them to write 100 Bible verses with the last verse driving home whatever point he wanted to make. Or if he was in a particularly foul mood, he would drive the point home with his hand or belt. That’s enough to make any child hate the Bible. It is exceptionally hard for children to see God as a loving father when their own father expresses no love. It is impossible for children to see the Bible as a love story when it is used as punishment. Yet, it is a love story. Truly, there are many Biblical stories that are confusing. There are many passages that can only be understood in a certain historical context and with a more nuanced sense of the original language and culture. And honestly, there are parts I wish I could just forget about. However, this I know. The Bible was never meant to be a rulebook for the “morality police.” It was always meant to be the story of the love of our God. It tells of a Creator who never gives up on His creation, no matter how far it strays, no matter how many times it says “I don’t trust you. I will take care of myself and do things my own way.” As Pastor Truemper, one of my Valpo professors used to say, “God loves you, for Christ’s sake, and He will never let you go.” If you ever want to read the Bible in the form of a novel to get to the heart of the message, I highly recommend “The Book of God” by Walter Wangerin Jr.

Working for God’s favor vs. Trusting that you already have it. Throughout the book Nathan tries to overcome his survivor’s guilt by “saving souls.” The entire time he was trying to earn God’s approval. Many religions have this concept of do enough good and then you will get God’s approval, get into heaven, or reach some higher plane of existence, but that is not Christianity. If there is anything that makes Christianity unique from other religions, I feel it is that you don’t have to earn God’s approval. God loved us enough to reach out to us through Jesus and to do whatever it took to bridge the gap between us and God. All God wants from us is a relationship, for us to trust that He loves us and to let Him into our lives. A beautiful book on this topic is “The Cure: What if God isn’t who you think He is and neither are you?” by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and John Lynch. The book presents an allegorical tale of a person who comes to a fork in the road. One side says “Pleasing God,” while the other side says “Trusting God.” Which side would you choose? Nathan Price definitely chose “pleasing God” which led to a life of mask-wearing and sin-management instead of living by faith with the assurances of God’s love and grace. His wife, Orleanna Price, also felt this burden. Even when she returned to the U.S., she felt she had to hide her hurt; she felt that she could never be vulnerable. Unfortunately, even today the church is not always the best at allowing people to be real and vulnerable, but that is what we are called to do! We are all in the same boat, and the sooner we can take off our masks, the sooner we can experience the fullness of God’s love and share it with others.

Cringing at “unearned blessings” vs. Being thankful for every gift. Nathan Price felt that he had to earn every good thing that came into his life. He could not accept that God could give gifts purely out of love, with no strings attached. As an example, he became ashamed of sex with his wife instead of seeing it as a beautiful gift. He also felt that he had to completely detach himself from material goods. Because of his sense of guilt, he did not feel that he deserved joy or laughter. He could not take pleasure in the simple gifts—a beautifully decorated plate, eggs from his neighbors, the sighting of a kopi in forest, the laughter of his children… So much of his life might have been different if he had been able to embrace all the gifts of his Creator.

People as projects vs. People as people. Nathan Price has one goal—“saving the lost,” particularly through baptism in the river. It did not seem to matter to him whether or not the person actually understood or believed anything he said. He didn’t care to find out what they believed or how they saw the world. Nor did he care to find out why the people were so averse to going to the river (crocodiles).  He knew nothing about the people around him and did nothing to serve them or show them love. All he cared about was the end goal. Personally, I have never seen my role as “saving people from hell.” Good-grief, that’s a lot of pressure, and the whole notion of that is fear-based. Fear is not how I want to live my life nor what I want to impose on anyone else. In the book, one of the Price children wondered aloud what might happen to all the people who didn’t know about God. I can tell others about the peace I have in God’s promises for my future, but I will not tell anyone definitively what happens post-death or what has happened to one of their loved ones. There is so much we don’t know.  I am not God. I love how Phillip Yancey phrases it when asked about a similar topic, “I do not know the answer to your questions. But I believe strongly that at the end of time no one will be able to stand before God and say ‘You were unfair!’ However history settles out, it will settle on the side of justice tempered by mercy.”[2] Nathan Price could never see the people in Kilanga as more than a project. What might have happened if Nathan had seen the people in his community as people, as neighbors, as friends, as fellow passengers on a journey? I want to walk with people. I want to share in their joys and sorrows and share my joys and sorrows with them. Of course, in the context of our openly Christian school, I regularly share about my faith, but I also admit that I am still a work in process and always learning. I do not have all the answers, but I do want to offer what I have experienced and found to be true in my limited time on this earth. I unapologetically believe that the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives to bring hope and healing. I’ve seen it—in my own life and in the lives of others. When people are looking for hope, I am more than happy to share about the source of my hope. That being said, being a Christian or believing what I believe is not a requirement for my love or friendship.

In my final post, I’ll talk more about the reputation of missionaries—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Stay tuned…

[1] As a side note, I think cross-cultural missionaries have to be exceptionally discerning about what aspects of culture they want to see changed and why. I think this is a where a lot of things have gone wrong historically. When we try to transplant a certain way of worship, a certain way of dressing, a certain way of speaking, a certain way of interacting, we might just miss our core mandate to love. Change takes a lot of time and a lot of relationship. For example, while there are many reasons that polygamy can be damaging-- affairs due to lack of attention, spreading of diseases, jealousy and abuse among wives, etc.— encouraging an already married man to abandon some of his wives could be the very opposite of loving. Likewise, I think we always have to consider what aspects of our own culture could use to be changed and what we can learn from our host culture.
[2] Here is the context of that quote-- 
Phillip Yancey’s Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (38-40): On a trip to Japan I found myself late at night in a pastor’s study in one of the largest churches in Tokyo. I had flown in that morning and had already endured a rigorous day of meetings. I wanted to check into my hotel room and go to sleep, but Japanese hospitality required this courtesy visit.

The pastor pulled out a sheaf of papers and, through an interpreter, told me that during his entire career he had worried over this one issue but was afraid of speaking to anyone about it.

For the next twenty minutes without interruption the pastor poured out the agony he felt over the 99 percent of Japanese who had not accepted Jesus. Would they all burn in hell because of their ignorance? He had heard of theologians who believed in people having a second chance after death and knew the mysterious passage of 1 Peter about Jesus preaching to those in Hades. Some theologians he had read seemed to believe in universal salvation although certain passages in the Bible indicated otherwise. Could I offer him any hope?

Thinking aloud, I mentioned that God causes the sun to rise on the just and the unjust and has no desire that anyone should perish. God’s Son on earth spent his last strength praying for his enemies. We discussed the view of hell presented in C.S. Lewis’s intriguing fantasy The Great Divorce, which shows people like Napoleon who have a second chance after death but opt against it. “Thy will be done,” says God reluctantly to those who make a final rejection.

“I do not know the answer to your questions,” I said at last. “But I believe strongly that at the end of time no one will be able to stand before God and say ‘You were unfair!’ However history settles out, it will settle on the side of justice tempered by mercy.”

Like Job, I reached that conclusion not through observation or argument but through encounter. “Surely God will be able to understand my doubts in a world like this, won’t He?” asked the Dutch prisoner Etty Hillesum from a Nazi concentration camp. I believe God will, in part because God’s revelation to us includes eloquent expressions of those very doubts.

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