The Poisonwood Bible

I’m nearly finished with The Poisonwood Bible and am beginning to read it slowly.  I dread the prospect of a good story’s end.

Good stories don’t necessarily teach tidy lessons.  Lame stories and sermons do that.

Good stories open the world to us and they open us up to ourselves.  They cast fresh light on life’s complexities, turning them before our eyes so we see them anew.

And they expose our souls’ dark corners, our hidden contradictions, the mysteries of our lives and loves.

This novel does that in so many painful and beautiful ways.

There are a thousand things to say about the passage below and the conversation of which it is part.  I had to read through it slowly several times.

The heart of the novel wonderfully captures the tragedies of a romantic naiveté that feels like faith, the grim realities of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and the feeling of being abandoned by God.

But Anatole said suddenly, “Don’t expect God’s protection in places beyond God’s dominion.  It will only make you feel punished.  I’m warning you.  When things go badly, you will blame yourself.”

“What are you telling me?”

“I am telling you what I’m telling you.  Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal.  When you are good, bad things can still happen.  And if you are bad, you can still get lucky.”

8 thoughts on “The Poisonwood Bible

  1. LW

    Thank you for posting. I needed the reminder of the last paragraph. I am so guilty of thinking I went to church x number of times this week, did this for God, studied that in the Bible, etc. and then wonder why bad things happen when I have been so good.

    1. timgombis

      We all construct a god after ourselves and he usually operates according to an economics of merit and ‘get-what-you-pay-for’. It is one of the hardest things to do to let God be God, the radically ‘other’ God whose economy of grace is something it takes a lifetime to get used to.

  2. Kelly

    As a woman, there have been times when I regret the fact that the tradition I was brought up in kept me from pursuing “full-time ministry.” But then I think back on some of the ridiculously beautiful discussions I’ve had with high school students over literature. Good stories, or any good art, I suppose, reveals the things of God like nothing else can.

    1. timgombis

      It seems to me that when we familiarize ourselves with good literature, good films, good art, we see that they contain trajectories that truthfully and truly render life as it is. It that such truth-telling resonates with anyone and everyone who is honest and seriously wants to understand ultimate realities.

  3. joey

    “Good stories don’t necessarily teach tidy lessons. Lame stories and sermons do that.”
    So true. The best sermons I hear don’t have a set of “take-home applications.” Rather, they are heart-shaping narratives.

    1. timgombis

      I agree, Joey. Good sermons aren’t ‘preachy’, but rather open up aspects of life and cast a hopeful vision that fires gospel-oriented imaginations to see where redemptive pathways lie.

  4. S Wu

    Tim, I really appreciate what you’ve said in this post and in the comments. The conversation reminds me of the stories and wisdom literature in the Old Testament. The narratives in the OT do not hide human failures. The psalmists lament and protest. So does Job. Yet in all these God’s grace abounds. His redemptive purpose is found in Christ.

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