- The Poisonwood Bible’s Multicultural Graft:American Literature during the Contemporary Christian Resurgence
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28
[F]or if the Pauline move had within it the possibility of breaking out of the tribal allegiances and commitments to one’s own family, as it were, it also contained the seeds of an imperialist and colonizing missionary practice.Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew
When Alice Walker wrote in 1996 that “It is my habit as a born-again pagan to lie on the earth in worship” (Same 25), her language suggested the complicated blend of contestation and convergence marking the intersection of multiculturalism and the social and political resurgence of conservative Christianity in the US since the 1970s. Explaining how she caught Lyme disease after The Color [End Page 132] Purple (1982) was published, Walker observed, “I imagine I am like my pagan African and Native American ancestors, who were sustained by their conscious inseparability from Nature prior to being forced by missionaries to focus all their attention on a God ‘up there’ in ‘heaven.’” Walker’s self-identification as a “born-again pagan” established a contrast between Christianity and the ancestral religious traditions to which she turned—but it did so by drawing on the very vocabulary and religious experience of conversion and redemption at the heart of the Christian resurgence: that of the need for adult transformation and commitment, suggested by Jesus’s instructions that to see the Kingdom of God one had to be “born again” (John 3:10). Though we might wish to imagine post-1970s multiculturalism and the conservative Christian resurgence in simple oppositional terms, Walker’s vocabulary suggests a more complicated and surprising story of mutual influence and response in which multiculturalism and the resurgence sometimes shared a way of thinking and talking about religious practice and religious cultures.
The empowerment of conservative Christianity in the US in the last four decades is widely recognized as having changed American politics and social discourse, but what it means for contemporary American literature has been largely an unasked question. Lawrence Buell wondered a few years ago in these pages whether American literary studies was “in danger of being ‘left behind’”—like the characters in the now-famous fundamentalist Left Behind fiction series—noting the contrast between an increasingly “evangelical” Christian public sphere and the fact that “during the same period, literary studies by and large has moved decisively away from religiocentric explanations of the dynamics of cultural history” (32). Many of the titles that Buell reviewed attest to literary scholars’ continuing attention to religion, and other critics—notably Amy Hungerford and John McClure (Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison )—have begun unraveling contemporary American literature’s religious explorations and themes, especially as they are interwoven with postmodernism. But how American literature responded to one of the most important social and political developments during the contemporary period is unknown. Nor do we understand the interplay between this resurgence and the other crucial social and political paradigm shift with which it coincided during the contemporary period: the rise and establishment of multiculturalism. What does an American literary history of the present look like when it keeps in view both tremendously important social movements?
Walker’s religious self-description was one 1990s node of multicultural response to the conservative Christian resurgence. Here I examine another, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)—a novel deeply critical of the resurgence and deeply [End Page 133] informed by American multiculturalism. Indeed, The Poisonwood Bible is a significant exception to serious literary culture’s general inattention to the astonishing, unpredicted Christian resurgence of the last 40 years. Kingsolver comprehensively critiques American fundamentalism, attacking a certain version of Christianity on its own grounds of Pauline universalism. Yet the novel’s universalism is doubled and ultimately undone by a critical relativism—a dual approach perhaps inspired by Walker’s experience in writing about African cultural traditions, I hypothesize. The novel’s strategic ambivalence in its moments of...