Hillsdale, MI.  Cultures banging at each other is rarely a pretty sound.  A good friend in Kabul recently told me that Afghans call us “kaffir feringhees,” which translates roughly, foreign assholes.   I’ve been called a lot worse, and, God help me, I’ve called others a lot worse.

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible inspires these thoughts, and makes me think of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.  Cather’s is the best novel I have ever read.  Kingsolver’s is up there, although it fails for reasons that Porchers should take very seriously.

Both take us into the neverneverland where cultures that have no common language collide.  I don’t mean translation, but what is inside the language.  Kingsolver’s book is about a missionary family in the Congo in 1960 or so; Cather’s is about a missionary priest in Santa Fe in the years after 1848.  Both are almost radio voices.  Kingsolver lets five women from the Price family, in beautifully distinctive voices, tell us how to hear Original Sin from Africa.  Cather gives us a medieval saint’s sermon from the desert southwest.

White men don’t behave very well, which is another uniting feature of these novels.  They are ferocious Baptist ideologues–pastor Price in Poisonwood–or money grubbing pilots or stupid pantheists; or murderous baby-killing nasties–Buck Scales in Death Comes–or at the very least arrogant villains who want to change the Order of Things for their own dirtbag reasons.  Cather’s  story-within-a-story of the priest who gets thrown off a mesa is worth the price of admission.  Unfortunately, Kingsolver is less subtle about what happens to Baptist Price, but that’s for you to enjoy.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather sorts out for us what happens when a French Catholic priest who has served for a while in Ohio gets assigned to the New Mexico desert to make spiritual order from the collision of Spain, Indians (as we called them then), The United States, and the Church.  Kingsolver separates for us what happens when Belgians are leaving a people they never tried to do anything but rape, the naive hope of Lumumba followers for independence, the terrible effects of American money, and shows us the absence of God but the presence of gods.

Read the books if you want to fill in the blanks.  The very small point I want to make here is that they raise a profound question: What unites us and what divides us?  Kingsolver says the FAMILY (or, more specifically, motherhood) unites, and everything else, especially politics, divides.  Cather says the CHURCH unites, and everything else, especially race, divides.  Both are right, but Kingsolver’s understanding of family is profoundly wrong.

Poisonwood is a toxic tree relatively common in tropical areas like the Congo, south Florida, and central America.  Handling it can make a bad case of poison ivy look like a minor skin rash.  Pastor Price gets a case, but he has given it to his family metaphorically even before they arrive in the Congo; he also tries to baptize Congolese villagers into a Bible that has an even worse case.    He represents an American backstory, which comes forward as the novel develops, that not only does not improve upon the Belgian colonial record, but makes it worse.  The extraction of African wealth, material and spiritual, by American manipulation, makes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness look rather tame.

Kingsolver’s Price women (all but one) survive, but none of them ever emotionally leaves Africa.  They survive because of fierce, if ambiguous, mother-love, which the daughters never fully return, and never fully give to each other.  They lose whatever American identity they ever had, or repudiate it, or caricature it.  That said, the story told by the Price women is hopeful,  stupid, funny, terrifying, heart-breaking, loving, intelligent.

Cather’s Bishop Latour, with his friend Fr. Joseph Vaillant, on the other hand, hold the forces of American destruction at bay, fight off the heresies of a mongrel Mexican church, try their best to penetrate the hearts of mysterious Indians, and finally integrate the landscape with a cathedral.    The light that the Archbishop lets into the cathedral is the light of life.  Fr. Joseph goes off to do similar things in the mining mountains of Colorado.  Cather’s story is hopeful, terrifying, sad, loving, inspirational, and intelligent.

Cults collide.  One of the Price girls marries a gentle and intelligent African, and that seems to be as much as Kingsolver can get out of the destruction of twisted Christianity in the jungle, just as the village they went to as missionaries is metaphorically and eventually physically destroyed.  The union between Leah Price and Africa ends up on a kind of commune seeking “sustainable” agriculture.  Her disgusting father ended all his sermons with a pathetic attempt to say that Jesus is Lord in the local dialect.  He got the inflection wrong, and said, week after week, “Jesus is Poisonwood.”  The absence of the Holy Spirit from Kingsolver’s Congo–and she makes it clear from the beginning that even though the work is fiction the Congo and its history, which she experienced as a girl, is real–leaves in the end only the land and some hope for African/American amalgamation to save Africa from the rapacious West.

Cather held out little prospect for any of the cults to survive on their own.  While she would no doubt appreciate Kingsolver’s powerful indictment of progressive materialism, she also would shy from Kingsolver’s uneasy combination of nihilism and progressive moralism.  Bishop Latour never gets fully into the mind or hearts of the Navajo.  He thinks they are probably, despite all the good intentions of certain Mexicans and a few Americans, on their way to extinction–or at least their traditional way of life was.  He is resigned to the inertia of the old Spanish cult, and willing to just let it fade away.  The voluptuousness of European culture had no way to gain traction in the purity of the New Mexican desert.  Nor could even the dynamic Americans conquer something that was so ancient and unmalleable.  The Church, however, could give it the breath of the Spirit.  No poisonwood there.

Although I think that Kingsolver lacks Willa Cather’s moral vision, they share a power that forces us to look hard at the “creative destruction” that is contemporary American life.  Place matters.  So does the cult.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. White men are no more corrupted by the libido dominandi then any other race.
    One of the more enlightening conversations I had the pleasure to participate in was with Robert Obaktu (I think that was his name), an Oxford econ phd who worked as a high official in the gummint of Big Daddy Amin’s Uganda.
    Being young and rather naive, I asked why he didn’t flee to England or the USA. “He would destroy my family,” he said with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.
    I talked with this very brilliant gentleman for over an hour on a Delta flight outta Memphis back in 1971. I don’t know what happened to him.
    Africa is in many of her countries, collapsing into a brutal, violent. dysfunctional “place”. We might consider that the Europeans were run outta Africa fifty years ago.
    On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see African bishops sending missionaries to the United States in the not to distant future.
    On the question of the Indian nations later.

  2. Alas, the Europeans and Americans have not “gotten out of Africa”; they have merely changed the means of control from military to financial. Small, Westernized elites rule over native multitudes, propped up by foreign “aid” and unrepayable loans that find their way to high-powered weapons, Western luxury goods and Swiss bank accounts. The minor tribal wars that used to be fought with spear and clubs and within the bounds of religious taboos that limited the violence, are now fought with machine guns and artillery while the taboos have dissolved.

    Africa needs only four things from the West: a fair price for their goods (mostly agricultural and raw materials); an end to patent regimes that limit technology transfer; real Christianity (http://distributism.blogspot.com/2009/01/why-africa-needs-christianity.html); to be left alone.

    Bill Gates wants to spend his fortune improving the Africans; the blue screen of death will now be added to their woes.

    God bless Africa.

  3. I don’t know about you all, but I find “nihilism and progressive moralism” excruciatingly tiresome in its absurd hypocrisy.

    I.e., the same people who wring their hands about colonialism have no qualms whatsover about the edicts of progressivism being shoved down the throats of Christian America via court edict and an aggressively deconstructivist, multiculti educational establishment.

    I have to doubt that La Kingsolver lies awake much at night worrying about the Roe v. Wade decision being imposed on Kentucky where she lives.

    Seems the silly, ignorant natives have this quaint, superstitious taboo about not squishing a baby’s brains, eh?

  4. Correction: Although Ms. Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky, she now lives in Virginia.

    She is featured in just about every Kentucky literary anthology I’ve seen, hence the mistake.

  5. I couldn’t disagree more with Bill Martin. Not only are the grammar and prose horrific, but this is one of the most nonsensical articles I have read on FPR for some time. The best I can figure is that this scattered comparison of two novels provides the author an opportunity to make an assertion that contemporary American culture is destructive but that the Church provides hope. (??) I am baffled. The analysis seems to suggest the Church was as much responsible for the destruction of the spirit of these cultures as anything else. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot, but I guess when you’re spinning in circles you get dizzy.

    I suppose there are other things going on here, but I can’t make them out for the author’s inability to write.

  6. Eutychus,


    “Kingsolver says the FAMILY (or, more specifically, motherhood) unites, and everything else, especially politics, divides. Cather says the CHURCH unites, and everything else, especially race, divides. Both are right, but Kingsolver’s understanding of family is profoundly wrong.”

    So how is that cryptic, much less “horrific”?

    Are you sure it’s Dr. Willson’s writing ability that is the sole culprit — or does maybe your willingness to read (and manners, come to think of it) have a part to play, too?

  7. I read that article 4 or 5 times. So maybe I am an idiot. Perhaps one must have the read the novels in question to understand what Willson was on about. But if you think the article was well-written, there isn’t much to talk about. Furthermore the Church does NOT necessarily unite. Take a wander around any of your local Native reservations and spend some time with the people. The Church did a real bang up job there. Like those novels suggest. And motherhood certainly does not always unite. There’s pie-in-the-sky idealism here that doesn’t compute, and someone ought to point it out.

    I never said the message was horrific. It was the the execution of the medium that garnered that adjective.

    And I don’t think my manners come into it, as poor as they may be. I just get so darned annoyed at this lazy kind of scholarship.

  8. Once was enough, but twice is, well, think up a word. I’m not going to enter into a conversation with someone who calls my scholarship “lazy” when he obviously knows nothing about either the authors or the subject. I am disappointed that FPR allows this kind of invective from someone who doesn’t even have the manners or the courage to state his name. Nor, of course, does he do anything but assert unsubstantiated prejudices and never once deals with anything of substance. This, my fellow Porchers, is crap.

  9. Sorry to have offended John. I will, in future, not comment when annoyed. My name for the record is Jordan Smith. But if you think blithely citing two novels gives you the permission to assert unsubstantiated prejudices we have a different view of scholarship. I have made my point and I will not be upset if FPR chooses to remove my comments.

  10. Jordan, good to have a name. I am not particularly thin-skinned, having survived over four decades of controversy in a place that has always stuck its collective neck out. But as I understand FPR, it is not a place to engage in ad hominem attacks, but a place for discussion. If you were to first, dispute something I said and second, back it up with something other than “he don’t write good,” and maybe display some knowledge of the very fine works of fiction my comments were based on, then I would be fine with any disagreements or even criticisms of my writing or “scholarship.” As it is, you just don’t play by any rules that I recognize, and as you have now discovered, I won’t be be bullied. Having cleared all that up, if you want to disagree on something of substance (other than assertions about the Church and reservations that you, even there, don’t back up–by the way, I grew up around the Iroquois reservations in western New York, and my grandfather was agent to the Tuscaroras for a time, so you can’t proof-text me on that one, either. End of pissin’ contest.

  11. “It was the the execution of the medium that garnered that adjective.”

    The what of the what that whatted the what?

  12. John,

    Let’s start over. May I ask a question? How do the two novels in question support the view that the Church provides hope.

    I would be happy to share my arguments for why the Church doesn’t provide hope for other cultures, but I think maybe if I better understood your argument for why it does I could respond with my views.

    -Jordan. (not sure how my name is relevant.)

  13. Jordan,
    OK, peace, brother. I have to leave town for a dinner engagement right now, but will be back later and eager to start over.

  14. Jordan,

    Your name is “relevant” because men stand face to face and stand up for what they believe. They don’t attack behind a mask, unless what the mask has to hide is less than manly. Saying that, I am not accusing you of anything–just pointing out what is perhaps a difference in our generations.

    Starting over, the Church is the only unifying possibility for cults that seem to want to dominate each other. Bishop Latour, in Cather’s “Death Comes” integrates the landscape and the cultures he is challenged with only by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. I can give you examples of men and women behaving badly in and out of the Church, probably more examples than you can give me, but what does that have to do with a great novelist seeing things beyond our crummy little lives?

    If we are to really start over, please give me some substance.

  15. I side with Juliet. (I think she pre-dates you by a year or two.) What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Yes, Eutychus, Jordan… I’m all sweetness and sunshine.

    Which is interesting, because it probably underlines our philosophical difference of opinion when it comes to the Church.

    While, yes, I would agree that the “Church” could be the unifying possibility for cults wanting to dominate one another, I maintain that as long as the Church continues to be its own cult there is no hope for it. For starters, the fractured pieces of the Church are still trying to dominate each other. You don’t even have to leave this website to find Peters sending up the Evangelical Krustian cult or Cheeks asking questions about Catholic doctrine. Their questions and criticisms are understandable, but indicative of the problem.

    Which brings me back to names. Or words that stand for things. We Christians are always getting hot and bothered about doctrines or theologies or heresies… all of which are usually questions of semantics. Sure, it isn’t always a question of semantics, there can be real differences… but we spend so much time picking the sawdust out of everybody else’s eyes that we are blinded to the reality of Jesus already present in our circumstances.

    If the Church wasn’t so busy herding all the local Natives into Residential Schools and physically beating their own language and culture out of them, and trying to convert them to their own cultish understanding of the Gospel, they might have seen that the Spirit was already present, albeit latent and maybe unidentified, in Native stories and culture. The story of Christ is in a Haida story about a Haida man who descends into the underworld to save his lost bride. More recently Bill Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaiisculpture that can be found in the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C., contains it’s own fascinating dialogue. There are many things going on, but at the center of the crowded canoe is a figure who Bill Reid only identifies as “The Stranger who comes to ask questions”. Bill Reid further said, “I don’t know his name, but he is who he is”. For me that sounds a lot like T.S. Eliot’s “Stranger” and YHWH himself, the one “who will be who he will be” and comes to ask the question… What is the meaning of this city? Jesus is always present and waiting to be revealed.

    The best example of the “Church” doing it right is Bruchko, or Bruce Wilson, who introduced the savage Motilone culture to Christ by living amongst them, becoming one of them, (as Christ did), learning their language and stories, and then using their language and stories to introduce them to the message, person and power of Christ. Only, of course, Bruce was first rejected by his “Church” that couldn’t even recognize Bruce’s powerful encounter with the person of Jesus. They couldn’t even recognize Jesus in their midst because they were so trapped in their cultish ways.

    We take too seriously OUR labels for things, instead of the principles or ideas that lie behind the labels. We are slaves to our egos (thus the chest thumping importance of OUR names and OUR countries and OUR cities), and haven’t died to ourselves and been reborn in the image of Christ–the WORD that was with God and was God before we had even begun creating language and telling stories.

    And that is what I think the problem is on a fundamental level. Somewhere along the line we mistook the Bible for the Word. Jesus is the Word. The Bible is God’s inspired holy scripture, a record of the Law and life and teachings of the greatest revelation of the Word in Christ Jesus, but it is not the Word. The Word is a living thing. And it exists in other cultures even if it has not yet been revealed.

    So that is why I have no hope for the True Church wrapped in the old miasmal mist. My hope is in the Hippopotamuses whoever they may be.

    Now, from your last post, it sounds like Bishop Latour was able integrate the indigenous landscape and culture with the Gospel in Death Comes. I was not able to deduce that analysis in your original article. And that was part of my complaint. I confess I have not read either book, but I don’t think it is too much to ask that an article clearly summarize the sources it is referencing before using the summary as a springboard to a fruitful discussion. Or maybe it truly was my shortcomings as a reader.

    I guess it just seemed to me like you didn’t know whether you were writing a book report or building an argument for discussion.


    Jordan Smith.

  16. A suggestion for discussion. The young bishop Latour says “The miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perception being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.” The Bishop will not tolerate Padre Martinez, who has made his own cult, centered on his hedonism and will for power just as Richard Price in Kingsolver’s novel has made his own Bible and therefore his own doctrine. Bishop Latour cannot forsake the Truth, but it isn’t embodied in doctrine, but in the Incarnate Word as he lives it and sees it in the New Mexico desert. Richard Price isn’t a Christian, he is an ideologue who beats his family and his missionary village with a Poisonwood Bible, leaving them with only their own poorer resources.

    It is possible, maybe probable, that I assumed too much in a short comparison of two powerful novels. When it comes right down to it, I hoped to encourage FPR readers to get these two on their Kindles and see if I had a point.

  17. I’m kind of discussed out, but my immediate response to Cather’s (Bishop Latour’s) statement on miracles is that it sounds like another attempt to explain away the impotence of the Church. I agree in principle with the idea of our perceptions being made finer, but if that doesn’t result in tangible Resurrection power (ie: real miracles) at some point in time then something is probably rotten in Denmark.

  18. Yes, I already gathered from your last post that you weren’t really interested in discussing my views and now it appears you aren’t interested in discussing the question of the Church’s efficacy in the world. In future when I see you soap-boxing on the Porch I will quietly sashay on by.

  19. Fortune! He fell…he is alive

    I felt a little left out in all this repartee.

    To John Medaille IRT to Africa: Only to say I do not think ‘Westernized’ elites rule much of Africa. It appears to me that most states end outside of the capital, if not sooner – such as in the case of Somalia. The west invariably changed the course of events, but new institutions have never supplanted the old why the old have been uprooted and in some cases de-legitimized through their attempts at staying relevant with external authorities. Your comment on guns et al. changing the costs of conflict and subsequent nature of resolutions is spot on.

    I have never read Poisonwood Bible. Maybe I should. Having grown up in Africa and being professionally tied to the continent you would think I would want to read it – not on a kindle as suggested by the author. From the countless individuals who have asked me to read it or whether I’ve read it the novel seems somewhat cliche, relying on caricatures based on childhood memories that tend to play well to those who feel guilt ridden or empathy towards a continent they have never visited or, if visited, rarely spent more than a few days/weeks on a safari or with some church group. I know, this is terribly judgmental, but always associated with any conversation I’ve had irt to Poisonwood Bible.

    As for what Africa needs: a) A fair price for their goods would be one thing, but sufficient security to keep their goods and add value via local factories, know-how and educated population would be better; few realize how hypocritical and anti-local US Trade policy truly is. b) tech transfer is nice, but most of the tech is there, to include illegal transfer of medical drugs or low cost alternative from India made in part possible by Gates and W. Bush – an unsung friend of Africa, regardless of what one might or might not think of his personal and domestic failings/successes. c) ‘real’ Christianity – definition of real in relation to Christianity is so vague and debated not sure what this really means other than (hopefully) a love of the poor? d) Left alone would be nice – to include stop of foreign aid which, as noted, distorts proper relationships.

    I could talk about Africa for much longer than anyone here cares. I’ll simply say that Africa needs to go local – it starts with the village.

    Ultimately, Africa needs institutions/structures that are connected to its individuals and are accountable to the individual. Most African elites work hard to sever their ties with society and to minimize their accountability – why should they be any different? The only thing is that their institutions never took and it is much easier for them to ‘tune out’ then their American counter-parts. We also play into their hand more often than we care to acknowledge – our own policy is often in reaction to/anticipated by African elites.

    Ok, I’ll get off my own personal soapbox before Paul’s disciple tells me to leave.

    (Pauline) Peace and Grace,

  20. Ah, finally! Poisonwood isn’t cliche, but it’s politically predictable. Kingsolver is a tree-hugging lefty and I doubt that anything the US has ever done in Africa would please her. But the writing is brilliant, and she remembers more than she knows. I read the book at the insistence of a good friend, a woman who grew up in South Africa and has lived around the world. The things Kingsolver raises are not just African issues–if they were I would never, ever compare her to Willa Cather. They are timeless things, family and village and nations and races; that she just doesn’t get the religion thing is fundamental to the truth she misses. Knowing Africa as I will never know Africa, please read it and tell me about it.
    By the way, I was kidding about the Kindle (although I do love mine).

  21. JP, thanks for your erudite and insightful comments re: Africa.
    As for the “native” Americans, and specifically the Eastern Aboriginal clans, septs, and tribes we might ask, Why did the white settlers “hate” these people so?
    The short answer is the result of forty years or so of off and on warfare and the resulting torture suffered by those whites taken captive by the nations.
    The whites understood torture wherein the English regulars may torture to procure info on troops,supplies, plans, etc back in Scotland, Ireland but the Indian “torture” was executed for the pleasure it provided the observers/participants. It was cultural!
    Whites could not forgive that consequently we get the popular phrase, “The only good Indian, is a dead one!”
    Of course the Whites had Gnaddenhutten but then that was predicated on the murder of Mrs. Wallace and her baby girl, both of which were sat down “on ye sharp stake,” tied down, and left to die an agonizing death.
    I wonder if they teach that at Hilldale?

  22. Cheeks,
    As a matter of fact I taught the History of the American West for over twenty years at Hillsdale. The books I asked students to read were about 90% novels–among them Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, Caroline Gordon’s Green Centuries, Cooper’s The Pioneers and The Prairie, Madison Jones, The Forests of the Night, Cather’s Death Comes, Louis L’Amour’s Hondo, Jack Schaeffer’s Shane, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, and many others, in various combinations. I talked with Seneca warriors after they had shut down I-86 in southwestern NY, near their capital of Salamanca (the idiot Mario Cuomo tried to force them to pay state sales tax on white men buying booze and tobacco on their reservations); and with several NYS Troopers who had confronted them and were perfectly willing to shoot them down. Some things never change. What I told my students–or rather, helped them figure out for themselves, was that when a dynamic expanding culture confronts a traditional warrior culture the language is not there to prevent basic human tragedy. One simple example: almost no Indian nations had a concept of private property in land. Therefore, when Americans made “legal” treaties to “buy” land, who had the authority to sell and what did it mean to sell? Big problems always resulted. The red men always had three options: retreat west, integrate, or fight. They did a lot of the first, almost none of the second even to this day, and a great deal of the third, which was sooner or later going to get them extinguished. Then they finally learned to use our courts–ahhh, another story. Cather understood that something within the Great Spirit must connect with the Holy Spirit if there is to be any chance to share this continent with love and respect.

  23. Well Prof. Willson, I was hoping to drive a thread but I see you’ve mellowed out after the contretemps with the punky euchlyptus dude.
    I, actuallly, have a fondness for the nations, particularly the Eastern Aboriginal clans: Miami, Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo, Iroquois, etc., though the “torture” business is true enough.
    One of my kinsmen, a Kinzie Dickerson of olde Catfish Camp in western Pa used to run with Wetzel and them boys was hard on the warriors they came across in the Ohio country.
    You are right, of course, re: the idea of sharing the land.Sadly that dog was never going to hunt.
    I have an Ojibwa pal, and he gets me pow-wow tee shirts every year. A proud race reduced in circumstances now, I’m afraid.
    BTW, I have a library of olde Indian history books that, as a history teacher, you would love…used to write history articles for Muzzleloader and Muzzle Blasts!

  24. JP: I quite enjoyed your soapboxing… some good thoughts. In some senses that’s what we’re all here for. I just thought it disingenuous of John to suggest he was interested in a discussion and when I offered a perspective he promptly said: Read the books, end of discussion. I can only surmise that he didn’t like my perspective or think it warranted a response. But what can I expect when I slagged him off at the start, eh? Ah well, we live and we learn.

    And thanks for the compliment. It’s kind of ironic considering I’ve always disliked Paul. I guess people can change. 🙂

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