Sarah Jampel: Religion in Equiano’s Narrative, What is the What, The Poisonwood Bible

ENGL 447 Sarah Jampel
Professor Dimock December 2013

To Justify the Ways of God to Man: Reading The Interesting Narrative, What is the What,
and The Poisonwood Bible as Theodicy


It is almost impossible to look at the extent of human suffering around the world—the natural disasters that displace millions of people, the wars that leave generations of children without parents, the senseless murders that destroy families, and the diseases that ravage certain subsets of the population—and not wonder how such anguish can exist in the presence of a benevolent God. A just God, many people would assume, would neither inflict such misery nor sit back and allow it to continue. For hundreds of years, religious authorities have struggled to answer this very question: how can the omnipotent, omniscient God presented in the Bible permit the occurrence of inexplicably terrible events that result both from natural phenomena and human sin?

In Paradise Lost, John Milton attempts to resolve this predicament and, as he says, to
“justify the ways of God to men” by crafting his great epic poem as a theodicy: a vindication of divine goodness in the context of evil (I.26). Milton attempts to reconcile the misery and wickedness of the world with the notion that God is benevolent and rational, offering salvation to any individual who pledges complete obedience. The God who Milton presents does not merely sit by and watch the first man, Adam, make a mistake that will condemn posterity to damnation; instead, Milton’s God is a Father who provides man with the choice to obey— ultimately, a choice he does not make. Because it is humankind and not the Heavenly Father who brings evil into the world, Milton’s God is freed from responsibility.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Dave Eggers’s novel What is the What, and Barbara Kingsolver’s bestseller The Poisonwood Bible all engage with Milton’s great epic poem, thereby proving not only the timelessness of Paradise Lost, but also the continual relevance of the practice of theodicy.  Of the three texts, The Interesting Narrative is most explicit in its allusion to Milton, as Equiano quotes the poem in order to emphasize the injustice of slavery. The passage that Equiano includes, however, is actually spoken by the character of Satan. It begins with the line, “No peace is given To us enslav’d,” and is professed as part of Satan’s claim that God and his Son are dictators who have robbed the angels of their former glory (89). In Satan’s mind and in the passage Equiano has cited, it is God who is the slave-owner, which is perhaps a controversial view to be included in Equiano’s own late eighteenth-century memoir.

Though less directly than The Interesting Narrative, the two contemporary novels What is
the What and The Poisonwood Bible also enter a dialogue with Paradise Lost. In What is the What, the narrator Achak, who is telling the story of his long, arduous escape from the Sudanese Civil War, is constantly pursuing “the what,” an unrevealed fantasy life—be it in Ethiopia, in Nairobi, or in the US—that is always just out of reach. Achak’s relentless drive towards the unknown, with its potential to offer him a happier existence, is similar to Eve’s desire for knowledge in Paradise Lost. Eve would have been rewarded by God for remaining obedient and not desiring knowledge outside of her reach; in the same way, the Dinka people, as Achak tells it, believe that long ago God rewarded them for choosing the known and practical entity of the cow rather than the mysterious “what.” Considering that it is Eve’s eating of the apple—a symbol of her yearning for knowledge forbidden from her by God—that is the impetus for the downfall of humankind, perhaps Achak’s constant striving towards the unknown also results in a divine punishment.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver re-imagines the Eden of Paradise Lost in
the Congo. The Price family has moved to the country, which is on the brink of independence,
for the mission of the preacher father, Nathan. But while the Prices, and especially idealistic Leah,
expect the setting of their temporary home to be paradisiacal—“jungle flowers, wild roaring
beasts, […] God’s kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory”—they instead find a violent place
full of unsettling, sometimes gruesome images: a land where the forest “eats itself and lives
forever” (17, 5). Even more than the setting itself, the events that occur in this setting are far
removed from Milton’s Eden. The poet’s conception of a rational, generally benevolent God
does not hold up in the Congo, a place where the Prices are faced with drought, disease, and the
senseless death of the youngest family member and where the native people are not receptive to
From examining how each of these three texts relates to Paradise Lost, it is evident that
Milton’s vision of God is not viable in any of these worlds: not in the world of Equiano, where
slavery is associated, if only accidentally, with God’s reign; not in the world of Achak, where he is
punished by God for aspiring to a safer, more stable life; and not in the world of the Price family,
where the God they have known in Georgia seems to have abandoned them amidst a new
community where He is either rejected or reinterpreted. Still, the direct and thematic ties to
Paradise Lost, as well as the central issues that all three books address, indicate that each text is its
own theodicy: the protagonists struggle to make sense of God, especially during horrific or trying
situations in which any person would likely question his or her faith. Equiano, Eggers, and
Kingsolver all ask questions concerning the nature of Christianity and the definition of a
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“Christian,” God’s ability to determine fate, His moral character and intentions, and the nature
of the system of divine justice that governs the world.
Upon initial reading, all three texts depict God as a punitive, harsh, and at least somewhat
irrational deity; yet, like Paradise Lost, these books also counter this notion by presenting an
alternate version of God who is possible understand and accept. While Milton attempts to
redeem an omnipotent God who reigns over the entire universe, however, the reasonable God in
these stories is one who engages in personal and practical relationships with the narrators,
relationships that depend on an individual’s specific needs and circumstances. In other words, the
just, acceptable Creator is, in all three texts, ultimately an ever-changing reflection of who each
character needs Him to be. Rather than being an overarching, consistent entity, God changes
based on the identity and situation of the character, which proves that His morality, intentions,
and system of divine justice are a product of human invention and interpretation.
* * *
In all three works, the reader is presented, upon first read, with a God to be feared: a deity who
uses his great power to seek revenge and enforce punishment and is thereby markedly different
from the rational, just ruler that Milton envisions in Paradise Lost.
In The Interesting Narrative, Equiano’s very understanding of God’s power is inextricable
from his feelings of great fear. He recalls how, upon first finding religion, he “began to raise [his]
fear from man to [God] alone, and to call daily on his holy name with fear and reverence.” Even
though Equiano makes it immediately clear that he trusts that God “heard [his] supplications and
graciously condescended to answer [him] according to his holy word,” this faith does not negate
his initial response to the Creator (67). Equiano’s reverence is entangled with fright and lowliness,
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as made obvious even in the repetition of the word “fear” in this passage. Equiano’s God-fearing
mentality corresponds closely with his tendency to interpret any misfortune as a punishment
from the Lord. Throughout his memoir, Equiano shoulders the blame for his problems and his
sorrows; even in regards to circumstances that a reader might consider to be outside of Equiano’s
control, such as his state of enslavement, Equiano assumes responsibility. He figures that he must
have sinned in order for God to create or allow for his particular situation. Reflecting on a
shipwreck, for example, Equiano remarks that all his “sins stared at [him] in the face; and
especially, [he] thought that God had hurled his direful vengeance on [his] guilty head for cursing
the vessel on which [his] life depended” (123). This God is a frightening deity harsh enough to
penalize Equiano’s oath with a life-threatening ship accident. Equiano is able to explain otherwise
inexplicable events, like a natural disaster and his state of subjugation, by crediting a frightening,
vengeful God.
In What is the What, Achak imagines an equally wrathful God; yet this ruler, who also
causes catastrophic events for the purpose of punishment, provides almost no clues as to the
reasons for this punishment. In regards to the decimation of Dinka villages by the Arab
murahaleen, a man explains to Achak that “God is sending [the Dinka] a message through these
lion-men. […] We’re being punished by God. Now we need only find what it is that God is
angry about, This is the puzzle” (99). Though this man is similar to Equiano in envisioning God
as an angry, punitive entity, he does not immediately understand what the Dinka are being
punished for. Equiano is able to find an immediate reason for his misfortune (in the case of the
shipwreck, for example, it is because he has sworn), whereas this man is left unsure about what his
people have done wrong—a less satisfying, more frustrating position. Later, before one of the
boys walking with Achak decides to stop moving and to succumb to death, he declares: “God
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wants us dead. He’s trying to kill us” (159). Again, he is unable to offer any explanation as to
why God has targeted the lost boys. Even Deb Newmyer, an American who offers occasional help
to Achak after he moves to the United States, expresses a similar sentiment when she tells Achak
that she “just [doesn’t] know what God has against [him].” Both Achak and Deb know that this is
“a question […] that has not yet been answered” (254). The only way for an outsider to make
sense of Achak’s countless hardships is to blame Achak. Yet at the same time that Achak must
have done something wrong to deserve this treatment (as any other explanation would
necessitate that God is both wrathful and arbitrary), there is no indication as to what his
wrongdoing is.
Achak is not only told by others that he and his people are being penalized and preyed on
by God, as he also has these same thoughts himself. He describes his inclination to think that he
has “done so much wrong, for otherwise [he] would not have been punished so many times, and
[God] would not have seen fit to harm so many of those [he] love[s]” (314). At the same time
that Achak can come to terms with his life only by assuming he must have committed great sin,
he is unable to discover what this sin is. This again leaves the reader with a vision of a God who
punishes particular groups and individuals without reason nor explanation.
The Poisonwood Bible presents an even stronger case for a wrathful and merciless God as
embodied in the religious philosophy of Nathan, the patriarch of the Price family. Though Nathan is not the focus of the story, which is told through the voices of Orleanna, his wife, and his four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, he is the character who is most passionately and militantly religious. The tenet of Nathan’s theology is that “the Lord notices righteousness, and rewards it” (200). His belief system, however, leaves no room for varying definitions of righteousness. As reflected in his persistent quoting of Scripture, Nathan’s God is a universal ruler who allows for no interpretation or compromise and dominates the entire world; God’s word, Nathan believes, should be applicable no matter the setting. More than any other character, Nathan is adamant that “God created a world of work and reward […] on a big balanced scale” (37). Like Equiano and Achak, Nathan conceives of a Deity who punishes those who have done wrong. Yet unlike Equiano, who maintains faith that God listens to his pleas, or Achak, who cannot figure out the reason for his punishment, Nathan imagines a Creator whose default action is to penalize. The act of believing in Nathan’s strict God is itself a punishment for the Price family, in which the Verse is, literally, “[the] household punishment. Other lucky children might merely be thrashed for their sins, but [the] Price girls are castigated with the Holy Bible” (59). In
contrast to Equiano and Achak, it is not a question for Nathan whether he and his family
members are guilty in the eyes of the God. Nathan’s “obsession with guilt and God’s reproof […] infect[s]” the whole family, as he believes that humans are innately sinful (199). Leah Price, who was her father’s most devoted follower up until her disillusionment with his religion, wishes that she “could reach backward […] to give [him] just one gift, […] the simple human relief of knowing you’ve done wrong and living through it. [Nathan] stamped [Leah] with a belief in justice, then drenched [her] in culpability” (525). While Nathan also believes in a punitive, wrathful God, he has no doubt that humankind deserves His harsh treatment.

Though Equiano, Achak, and Nathan all conceive of God slightly differently—Equiano’s
God punishes him harshly for specific reasons, Achak’s God punishes him and his people for reasons unbeknownst to him, and Nathan’s God punishes him and all of humankind for inborn, inescapable sin—a common thread runs across all three texts. These characters attempt to make sense of the hardships of their lives by reasoning that God is punishing them for their wrongdoing and, in each book, the Heavenly Father is therefore a deity to be feared. A closer examination of the characters’ relationships to God proves, however, that even the Lord’s seemingly irrational, wrathful behavior can be at least partially explained and accepted.
* * *

In order for God to receive a fair trial—in order for any of these three works to even attempt to justify His ways—one must recognize that God’s word and power is interpreted and exploited by human beings. God cannot be blamed for the actions of the powerful men who, without divine sanction, use His name in order to validate their own behavior.
It is important to first acknowledge the distinction between Christians and followers of
God throughout the three texts; the narrators in all three books emphasize a discord between those who call themselves Christians and those who are true followers of a benevolent and just God. The wrongdoings of Christians cannot necessarily be associated with the intentions of God, as Christianity (and presumably every organized religion, as well) is an interpretation of God’s will rather than its direct manifestation. In The Interesting Narrative, for example, Equiano remembers the inhuman conditions of his voyage to the US and addresses his Christian readership in exclamation: “O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?” (41). In this passage, Equiano calls attention to a disjunction between those who call themselves Christians and the fair God who, through his law, forbids this sort of unequal treatment. It is Christians, rather than God, who may receive blame for the injustice of slavery, as it is the misinterpretation and disobedience of God’s law that is truly dangerous.

Achak, like Equiano, is also struck by the un-Christian behavior of so-called Christians.
Trapped by robbers in his apartment, Achak shouts to his “Christian neighbors below” (139).   “Hear me, Christian neighbors!” Achak exclaims. “Hear your brother just above!” Yet no one responds to Achak’s pleas: “Nothing again. No one is listening. No one is waiting to hear the
kicking of a man above. It is unexpected. You have no ears for someone like me,” Achak
concludes (142). Like Equiano, Achak exposes a chasm between God’s teachings and those who claim to follow them. His “Christian neighbors” are either oblivious to or unwilling to
acknowledge Achak’s cries for help. Even people who define themselves as Christians do not necessarily exhibit charitable or virtuous behavior, even towards a fellow Christian like Achak.
It is not surprising, then, that the most vehement Christian of all three books—the
character of Nathan in the Poisonwood Bible—is also the most cold-hearted. After the death of his
youngest daughter, Ruth May, all Nathan can say is “[s]he wasn’t baptized yet,” proof that his
fixation with the doctrine and ceremony of Christianity actually inhibits him from connecting
with or comforting his family in this time of need (368). Moreover, the most selfless, charitable
behavior comes from the locals who are not traditional Christians at all. When Anatole saves
Adah’s life, she writes that he “was the only person who cared enough to help me. God didn’t”
(308). Until this point in the novel, Adah’s vision of God is directly tied to her father, who she
calls “Our Father”; through its connection to the phrase “Our Holy Father,” this name implies
that God and Nathan are, in Adah’s mind, one in the same. Brother Fowles, the missionary in the
region prior to Nathan, sums up the distinction between so-called and true Christians in his
statement, which is later repeated by Leah, that “there are Christians, and there are Christians”
(435). Fowles’s remark points out that the word “Christian” does not come with a universal set of
values; the laws and actions of Christians are interpretations of God’s word and are not
necessarily His will or intention. In all three texts, it is clear that God exists outside of the
religious framework and doctrinal practices of Christianity. Not every person who claims to
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follow the word of God or to have God’s support acts in a typically Christian fashion. This clear
distinction between those who call themselves “Christians” (in other words, those who give
themselves this title) and those who are followers of a benevolent God on a moral level (the
characters a modern reader might classify as Christian in their behavior) proves that God himself
cannot be judged by the action of Christians.
Just as these works force the reader to distinguish between Christians and God, they also
stress the separation between God and the power-seeking individuals who exploit His power. Each
of these stories offers examples of authoritative groups or individuals who harness the fear
surrounding an omnipotent God in order to further their own political agendas, be it on the
macro scale of a country or the micro scale of a family.
Though Equiano does so unknowingly, he associates God with the power and, in his
mind, superiority of white Europeans. After Equiano decides to start attending church, he is
“amazed at seeing and hearing the service” and learning that he is “worshipping God, who made
[…] all things.” Yet, Equiano is equally “astonished at the wisdom of the white people in all
things” that he observes; he is “amazed at their not sacrificing, or making any offerings, and
eating with unwashed hands, and touching the dead” (48). In this example, Equiano equates the
awe he feels towards the Lord with the awe he feels towards the whites, linking his worship of God
with what he considers to be the more advanced state of whites as compared to Africans. By
making this association between the Lord and the white people, Equiano signals that, whether it is
purposeful or not, whites are able to channel a belief in God’s power into a belief in their own
dominance. When the “nominal Christians” ignore the teachings of God that Equiano references
and instead, claim His authority to justify slavery, these two dangerous concepts—that whites are
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superior and that one of the reasons for this supremacy is their worship of God—merge to terrible
In What is the What, the power of God is also exploited for political purposes, as Achak
and the other boys cannot decide whether it is the Heavenly Father or a small group of powerful
people who is determining the course of their lives. When Achak is first fleeing the violence in his
village as a child, he hides quietly in a grain hut as the horsemen wreak havoc. The only way that
Achak can later explain why he was not discovered is by believing that it was “God who decided
that the movements of Achak Deng would not produce a sound at that moment” (92). This
instance displays a God who takes an active role in Achak’s fate and specifically, in his survival.
At other times in the story, however, it is less clear whether it is God who is governs Achak’s
destiny or whether it is the individuals who appropriate God’s power and presence for their own
purposes. Dut, the leader and caretaker of the boys for much of their walk, explains that Achak’s
“fate, all [their] fates, were sealed fifty years ago by a small group of people from England,” a
statement that calls into question the force that truly shapes destiny; it is not clear whether it is
God who dictates the course of history and of individual lives or whether it is the powerful people
who use His name to legitimize their dominance (194).
Like Equiano, Achak also sees a close connection between white men, like the people to
whom Dut refers, and God. When Achak sees a white person at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, he
thinks that it makes sense “that the white man would rest alone, because he needed to receive
messages from God.” The white man seems “like a very mild sort of man, a quiet god, if he was
indeed a god or messenger for gods” (282). Regardless of whether white people have intentionally
exploited the power of God for their own purposes, Achak’s impression that the white man is a
god or a prophet demonstrates the difficulty of extricating God’s will from the will of human
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beings, especially those in positions of privilege. Whites are not the only group to conflate the
authority of the Creator with their own supremacy. The murahaleen employ the power of God in
destroying Achak’s village, shouting “God is great! God is great!” as they wreak havoc (272).
Because those in power often exploit God’s dominance for the purposes of maintaining or
validating their positions, it becomes almost impossible to separate the wrongdoings of humans
who claim God’s approval from the intentions of God himself.
The Poisonwood Bible demonstrates how the power of God can be employed to
manipulate politics on the smaller scale of the family, as well. Nathan asserts that he has the
support of God behind him in all of his decisions, thus fusing the Holy Father’s authority and his
own. Not only does Adah refer to Nathan as “Our Father,” illuminating the lack of separation
between God’s will and Nathan’s, but even Orleanna calls Nathan “He,” using the capitalized
pronoun often reserved only for the Heavenly Deity. Orleanna believes that “God was on
[Nathan’s] side.” She “[f]ear[s] Him, love[s] Him, serve[s] Him, clamp[s] [her] hands over [her]
ears to stop His words that rang in [her] head even when He was far away, or sleeping” (192). As
this passage reveals, it is impossible for Orleanna to separate her fear of God and his constant
presence in her life with her feelings towards Nathan. Leah, too, has difficulty teasing apart
Nathan’s intentions and God’s own. Her father’s decision to keep the family in the Congo
“opens up in [her] heart a sickening world of doubts and possibilities, where before [she] had only
faith in [her] father and love for the Lord.” Leah begins to doubt her entire worldview, wondering
“[i]f his decision to keep [the family] here in the Congo wasn’t right, then what else might he be
wrong about” (244). To Leah, her faith in God is so intimately tied to her faith in Nathan that she
cannot trust God after she has come to see her father for the cold-hearted, irrational tyrant he
truly is. In What is the What and The Interesting Narrative, it is hard to resist not blaming God
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for injustice and human suffering, as His name is associated with, exploited by, and almost
inseparable from the people in power; The Poisonwood Bible demonstrates how even on the small
scale of the family, God’s name is used to justify the cruel actions of an unreasonable father,
making it difficult not to blame the Creator himself for Nathan’s decisions and the family’s fate.
The examples of religious and political exploitation of heavenly authority prove that
God’s power is easily confused with and manipulated by humans; therefore, God cannot
necessarily be assigned responsibility for the cruel or unpalatable behavior that men take in His
name. Still, this exploitation of God’s dominance shows that the Lord’s will is largely an
interpretation of man. Though frightening in the context of these examples, this same notion
will play an important role as the characters in all three novels construct personalized versions of
God that are products of their own individual experiences and needs. The ability to interpret God,
though exploited by religious and political authorities, is also what allows the narrators to
understand God’s moral character, intentions, and system of justice based on their particular
* * *
To make the blanket statement that these books represent God as a punishing, irrational deity
who is misinterpreted and exploited by groups seeking religious or political authority does not do
justice to the complex conceptualization of the Lord in all three texts. Equiano, Achak, and the
female members of the Price family offer an alternate version of God who is not universal (that
is, he is not a Creator whose power can be harnessed to control large masses of people). Even
though the will of this deity is also an interpretation of humans, this God is not imposed on
others or used to establish the authority of a particular group. Instead, He exists within personal,
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situational relationships that rely on the circumstances of each character. By coming to
understand the Heavenly Father on their own terms, these characters indicate, whether it is
unintentional or deliberate on the part of the author, that the God who is most justifiable is the
one who can be used on a case-by-case basis to explain otherwise inexplicable events.
Of all three of the texts, The Interesting Narrative displays the most consistent,
straightforward view of God. Equiano’s version of the Lord intervenes directly in every aspect of
his life, the course of which is determined entirely by the Lord’s Providence. Moreover, Equiano’s
God, though punitive, ultimately works in his favor. In a chapter titled “Various instances of
oppression, cruelty, and extortion,” for example, Equiano is sold to a new master. Amidst all of
the hardship that even the chapter title stresses, Equiano does not blame God for His cruelty.
Instead, he reasons that “that trials and disappointments are sometimes for [man’s] own good”
and that “God might perhaps have permitted this in order to teach [him] wisdom and resignation;
for he had hitherto shadowed [him] with the wings of his mercy, and by his invisible but powerful
hand brought [Equiano] the way [he] knew not.” Writing from the perspective of a freed slave
looking back on his life, Equiano realizes that “the invisible hand of God […] guided and
protected [him] when in truth [he] knew it not” (161). Throughout his slavery and subjection, he
comforts himself with the “faint hope that the Lord [will] appear for [his] deliverance” (74).
Because he considers his life to be entirely in God’s hands, Equiano is able to justify everything
that has happened thus far, from the moment he was taken from his parents to his manumission;
despite all of his hardships, Equiano is able to see, as he reflects on his life, that God has ultimately
worked in his favor.
There are several important characteristics of The Interesting Narrative that must be kept
in mind when analyzing its presentation of God. One must first remember that Equiano is
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writing retrospectively; it is much easier to look back at the past from the vantage point of the
present and understand how all of the events have worked together as if part of God’s plan. While
Achak also reflects on his past in What is the What, his account of his journey is less colored by
his current knowledge, perhaps because he is still unsure about his future in the United States. In
The Poisonwood Bible, the narrators write with no foreknowledge1; that neither the readers nor
the characters know what the future holds must contribute to the sense that, unlike Equiano, the
Prices’ lives have not been predetermined by God. It is also crucial to keep in mind that The
Interesting Narrative is a primary source memoir rather than a contemporary novel as are the
other two texts. Whereas Achak and the Price family are fictional creations of Eggers and
Kingsolver, Equiano is both the author and the protagonist of his story. It is not likely that
Equiano, who is writing as a genuinely religious man in the eighteenth century with the aim of
gaining the support of fellow Christians, would intend to raise controversial questions about God,
as may be the case with the other two authors.
Nevertheless, reading Equiano’s autobiography in dialogue with What is the What and
The Poisonwood Bible reveals that even a person with almost absolute faith in God faces major
problems in presenting Him as just and rational. Equiano describes how God has shaped his
particular life, yet he also, and perhaps unwittingly, raises a major problem. Explaining his mental
state before emancipation, Equiano writes that he believed that if it were his “lot to be freed
nothing could prevent [him],” but, “on the other hand, if it were [his] fate not to be freed [he]
never should be so, and all [his] endeavours for that purpose would be fruitless” (96). By asserting
that he gains freedom only through the will of God, Equiano implies that it is not God’s
intention to free other slaves (even Christian ones) and also, he unintentionally suggests that, if
1 This is with the exception of Orleanna, whose cryptic passages preface six of the novel’s seven books and come from
an undefined future time.
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slavery is God’s plan, human action cannot alter it. Either God does not intend for these slaves to
be free or His hand does not have the same effect on their lives. In both cases, these implications
seem to run counter to Equiano’s larger mission in The Interesting Narrative—that is, to become
“an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen” (4). Equiano’s God is exposed as a
personal, rather than universal, deity; He looks favorably on Equiano’s life but does not provide
equal treatment to all humankind (4).
By using God’s providence to explain the course of his life but not necessarily the lives of
other slaves, Equiano crafts a highly personal deity who can be turned to for practical purposes
during his own particular predicaments. Despite his faith in God’s mercy, Equiano’s sentiments
towards the Creator shift depending on his circumstances. When, expecting to be freed, Equiano
is instead forced to board a ship to the Caribbean, he “reproach[es] [his] fate, and wishe[s] [he] had
never been born,” a sign that his devotion is not unwavering, after all (76). Though Equiano
condemns “his fate” and thus doubts God’s plan in times of extreme trial, he praises the Lord
during moments of great fortune. When he makes an unexpected profit, the “surprising reverse
of fortune in so short a space of time seemed like a dream to [him], and proved no small
encouragement for [him] to trust the Lord in any situation” (95). It is evident through these
examples that even Equiano, a man of great faith, is more confident in God during times of
happiness and relief (and as a free man looking back at his life), and doubts Him amid times of
hardship. In other words, it is the events in Equiano’s life that shape his belief in God, a hint that
God is a product of Equiano’s own, evolving interpretation of Him. Equiano expresses a similar
sentiment when he recalls how he
accustomed [him]self to look for the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and to learn from it a lesson
of morality and religion; and in this light every circumstance [he has] related was to [him] of importance.
After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation [man] become[s] better and wiser,
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and learn[s] ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God?’ To those who are possessed of
this spirit, there is scarcely any book or incident so trifling that does not afford some profit (201).
That he “accustomed [him]self” to look for God’s influence and made an intentional effort to
glean meaning from his misery proves that Equiano has learned to use God as a coping
mechanism; his feelings towards the Lord change depending on what best suits and explains his
current situation. The God whose actions make sense to Equiano is as much a tool and a product
of Equiano as an omnipotent force who shapes the narrator’s life.
There is even one instance when Equiano turns to a contradictory divinity that is more
compatible with his own desires. When he pays a visit to a fortuneteller, Mrs. Davis, Equiano first
puts little faith in her stories of the future; when she predicts that he will gain freedom, however,
“this was most agreeable news” and Equiano “believe[s] it the more readily from her having so
faithfully related the past incidents of [his] life” (103). Although Mrs. Davis is not a Christian,
when her prophecy aligns with Equiano’s own hopes he is eager to accept it; in the same way,
Equiano is able to express complete faith in God when the Lord works in his favor. Reading The
Interesting Narrative beyond Equiano’s intentions reveals that even a man with seemingly fixed
faith in the Heavenly Father worships a God whose character and logic shift depending on his
own needs.
This practical, personal aspect of Equiano’s relationship with God is brought to the
forefront and crystallized in What is the What and The Poisonwood Bible, two contemporary
novels that critically examine God’s moral character and His role in human lives. In each of these
works, the narrators begin to make sense of God—to justify the ways of God to man, as Milton
would say—by conceiving of Him, like Equiano does: as an individualized entity who changes
depending on the circumstances of the character. God is not a universal deity who determines the
fate of every individual, but rather, He is a tool used to make sense of current situations and
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immediate concerns. In this sense, even though Equiano does not outwardly question God, as do
Achak and the women of the Price family, the characters across all three texts demonstrate the
human role in determining God’s morality.
As is true of Equiano’s relationship with God in The Interesting Narrative, Achak’s
experience with the Heavenly Father in What is the What also varies depending on his particular
circumstances. Though the deity in What is the What may be, as discussed earlier, a punitive and
incomprehensible ruler who punishes Achak and his people for reasons they do not understand,
there remain particular moments when the Heavenly Father smiles on Achak, granting him gifts
and privileges. When Achak, for example, is singled out by the “Royal Nieces,” the four girls who
join his school class at Pinyudo, to come to their house for lunch, he understands
that God had had a plan. God had separated [him] from [his] home and family and had sent [him] to this
wretched place, but now there seemed to be a reason for it all. There was suffering […] and then there was
light. There was suffering and then there was grace. […] God intended to make up for all the misfortune
in [Achak’s] life. God was good and God was just (300).
In the same way that Equiano rationalizes his many miraculous escapes from the throes of death
by citing God’s Providence, Achak attributes his distinction and luck at being chosen by the
Royal Nieces to God’s grace and justice. By crediting God with his good fortune at this particular
moment, Achak not only makes sense of why he has been chosen above the other boys, but also
explains why his life has been filled with unimaginable affliction up to this point: it is all part of
God’s plan. Similar moments of small joy—when the Sudanese beat the Somalis in basketball
games at Kakuma, for example—are opportunities for the Dinka to “think of [them]selves as
[they] once had, as the kings of Africa, the monyjang, the chosen people of God” (383). By
explaining an event as trivial and seemingly self-determined as a victorious basketball game to be
a sign that God has specially selected the Dinka people, these men are able to begin making
amends with their incredible suffering.
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It is not only in moments of joy that Achak and his fellow lost boys use the influence of
God as an explanation, however; Achak also copes with moments of particular tribulation by
assigning responsibility to God. When he must wait at Kakuma long after the UN has moved
most men his age to the US, Achak feels like the others have been “lifted up the Kingdom of
God” whereas he “had been examined by the powers that be” and “determined deserving of
eternal hellfire” (495). Like Equiano in The Interesting Narrative, Achak envisions God in a way
that suits his particular situation; in joyful times, God is just and Achak’s anguish is validated, but
in times of misery, God has arbitrarily singled out Achak for punishment. Both Equiano’s and
Achak’s conception of the Lord is largely practical and individual; the way that they view God
changes based on their circumstances and emotional needs.
Yet, Achak goes farther than Equiano—who doubts the nature of God’s plan but not His
presence—and questions not only the Lord’s moral character, but His very existence and
relevance, as well. After Achak learns of the death of Tabitha, his first and only love, he concludes
that God has no plan for him at all. After Tabitha’s death, he lives “without God” entirely, a time
he calls “the darkest [his] mind had ever known” (357). When he comes to accept the existence of
God again, he explains that his “godless hours” have not altered his general faith “because [he has]
never felt God’s direct intervention in any affairs at all.” Though “God is in [Achak’s] life, […he
does] not depend on him. [His] God is not a reliable God” (358). This statement directly
contradicts the moments in the text when Achak calls attention to God’s direct intervention:
when he is hiding in the grain hut and is not discovered by the murahaleen; when he survives a
car accident in which his colleague Noriyaki is killed (Achak calls the death “a wretched thing [his]
God has done”); and when he is not initially selected to go to the US. Achak decides whether God
has a plan for him depending on when it is compatible with the events in his life (497). Even
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when Achak acknowledges God’s role in his life, however, His intentions change rapidly: waiting
at Kakuma to be taken to the US, Achak believes that God has damned him to “eternal hellfire”
(490); after being selected, Achak interprets an opportunity to telephone his parents as a sign
“God […] placed in front of [him]” as part of ”God’s plan” for Achak to depart (510); and finally,
when the refugees are stranded at the airport in Nairobi, Achak takes it as “a message from God”
that he should not board the plane (525). It is hard for the reader to keep up with Achak’s
constantly shifting opinions concerning whether God has plan for him and if so, what this plan
Achak’s understanding of God’s plan for him—and whether he believes it to even exist—
changes as rapidly as the events of his life because his opinions towards the Lord are, like
Equiano’s, circumstantial. Similar to Equiano, Achak turns to God as a coping mechanism; his
conception of the Lord shifts based on whether he is aiming to make sense of his plight or his
fortune, which proves that Achak’s God is also a product of his own personal experiences. When
Achak poses the last question of the book—“How can I pretend you do not exist? It would be
almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist”—he may be addressing not only the
reader, but God, as well (535). Since God is Achak’s own creation, an individualized deity whose
existence allows Achak to make sense of his anarchic life, Achak’s understanding of his own
personhood hinges on his faith in this deity. In this interpretation of the novel’s final lines, Achak
asserts that he cannot exist without believing in God, as the existence of God is what rationalizes
all of the nonsense that makes up his life.
As discussed earlier, the character of Nathan in The Poisonwood Bible seems to harness the
power of God for his own authority, leaving the impression that the Lord is as cruel and merciless
as he is. Rachel, the oldest daughter, describes her father as an almost supernatural figure who
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throws off his jacket in the “heat of a sermon” to reveal his huge chest and shoulders: the
“numerous deadly weapons under [his] clean white shirt” (26). Leah makes a similar observation
that her father wears his “faith like a bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers” (68). In both of
theses passages, Nathan’s religious fervor is associated with an aura of almost militant power and
fear. Nathan is fighting on behalf of a universal God whose word can be interpreted literally and
applied to all people around the world. Not only does Nathan make his daughters copy Bible verse
as punishment, but he speaks in Scriptural quotations to the Congolese natives, two examples of
his devotion to the literal, unchanged text. He also refuses to compromise on any religious issues,
feeling that it is “a mistake to bend his will”—and by association, God’s will—“in any way, to
Africa” (97). For Nathan, the “Kingdom of the Lord is an uncomplicated place” and the entire
world and its inhabitants fall under the reign of the one God who is accurately represented in the
Bible (244). Whereas Equiano and Achak both conceive of a personal, practical God who shifts in
moral character and intention based on the circumstances of their lives, Nathan’s God is
unwavering and impervious to skepticism.
Yet the very narrative structure of The Poisonwood Bible contradicts Nathan’s theory of a
universal, all-or-nothing God. In the story of the Price family, Nathan’s voice is never heard;
instead, the saga is told through the five female voices, a multi-perspective narrative that
emphasizes the varying and personalized experiences of one story. In the same way that
Equiano’s and Achak’s conception of God shifts based on his particular circumstances and needs,
Orleanna, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May all come to understand God differently based on
their various situations. The multiplicity of voices in The Poisonwood Bible makes it almost
impossible to believe that there is an overarching God, like the one Nathan envisions, who could
preside over a world in which each person has such different experiences.
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Even Nathan’s God is acknowledged by the women of the Price family as his own
personal version of the Lord. Orleanna classifies Nathan as “a child before his God,” with the
possessive pronoun “his” making the point that this God is Nathan’s own, not necessarily
Orleanna’s (199). Similarly, Leah states that her father “wasn’t capable of any action that might
be seen as cowardice by his God. And no God, in any heart on this earth, was ever more on the
lookout for human failing” (393). Leah, like Orleanna, suggests that Nathan has his own personal
God, but she also hints that “in any heart on […] earth” there exists a different version of God; it
is the heart of the individual person that determines the character of God, meaning that the
universal, absolute God that Nathan imagines does not exist (or rather, that this God only exists
within Nathan’s own heart as his own personal understanding of the Lord).
The Price women begin to form their own conceptions of God after becoming skeptical
of Nathan’s vision of a wrathful deity who reigns over the universe using a system of reward and
punishment. Early during their stay in the Congo, Leah becomes frustrated that God is not
rewarding the Price family for their hard work in the garden. She contemplates whether “God [is]
not obligated to send [them] down any beans or squash at all, no matter how [they] might toil in
His name” and if He “proposed to sit up there and consign [the family] to hardships one right
after another.” Even though she acknowledges that “it certainly isn’t [her] place to scrutinize
God’s great plan,” Leah cannot help but wonder about the balancing scales of justice” (78). Leah’s
suspicion that God might not be as fair and simple as her father suggests is fully realized in the
doubts of her twin, Adah, who questions whether God would “condemn some children to eternal
suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth, and reward others for a privilege they did
nothing to earn” (171). Adah’s sense that the concept of a universal God—a deity who presides
over the entire world in the same way—is senseless and irrational contributes to the notion that
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different forms of God exist depending on the person, the setting, and the circumstances. Adah
ironically concludes that the “other Dearly Beloved who resides in north Georgia [is] not […]
paying much attention to the babies […] in Kilanga” (172). That Adah defines the God of north
Georgia as “other”— a deity separate from the Lord in the Congo—is yet another sign that
multiple sorts of Gods exist depending on the individual and his or her situation. The God who is
understandable to the inhabitants of north Georgia is not the same God who people in Kilanga
can turn to in order to make sense of the particular circumstances and occurrences of their own
lives in the Congo.
As is the case with Equiano in The Interesting Narrative and Achak in What is the What,
the female narrators in The Poisonwood Bible envision a God who is particular to them and who
shifts with their circumstantial needs. Just as the natives in Kilanga turn to Nathan’s version of
God only when the other gods have abandoned them (in other words, they go to Nathan’s church
only for the practical reason that they have no other option and are looking to improve their
luck), the Price girls look to God to meet their immediate needs, too. Hoping to get back to the
US as soon as possible, Rachel prays, “Oh, please God make a tree fall on [Nathan] and smash his
skull!” (169). The God who Rachel is imploring cannot possibly be the same God who Nathan
claims to have on his side. Similarly, before Leah kills her first game, she prays “to Jesus […], then
to any other god who would listen” (348). In this example, Leah acts similarly to the Kilanga
natives who are willing to praise any god, even Nathan’s, who might assist them. Both she and
Rachel demonstrate a personal, practical relationship with God (or gods) that adjusts depending
on their circumstances, thereby echoing Equiano’s and Achak’s understanding of the Heavenly
Father, as well. Ruth May, the youngest daughter, succinctly articulates the notion of an
individualized God when she repeats what Nelson, a Congolese man who helps the Prices, has told
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her: “everybody’s got their own little God here to protect them,” Ruth May remembers (154).
Nathan’s universal, overarching God, a Lord who applies his law to the entire universe, is
unjustifiable; instead, his version of God has given away to personal, little gods that each
individual shapes and uses to make sense of his or her own life.
* * *
In The Interesting Narrative, What is the What, and The Poisonwood Bible, God initially comes
across as a punitive, capricious Creator who rules over the universe according to an oftentimes
incomprehensible system of justice. His power is harnessed by religious groups and politicians
seeking to establish their authority, and, in The Poisonwood Bible, by a tyrannical patriarch
looking to instill fear in his family. Yet this is not the complete story, and the fact that the Lord’s
will is interpreted and exploited by people in power is not necessarily a reason to mistrust or
blame Him. Each text also works as its own theodicy in which the characters come to terms with a
God who appears irrational and senseless by personalizing Him to meet their individual needs. In
contrast to Milton’s great theodicy Paradise Lost, in which the poet justifies a universal,
benevolent God who reigns over the entirety of humankind in the same fashion, the characters in
these three texts manage to rationalize God’s ways only by conceiving of a God who is the
product of individual, circumstantial interpretations of each person. In this way, God is used
practically; the characters turn to Him to explain the inexplicable, assigning the Lord
responsibility for what is otherwise incomprehensible in their lives.
This concept of a personalized God whose will and moral character depend on each
individual’s interpretation poses a larger and perhaps more troubling question: if God is
conceived of differently by each person, does God exist independently of humankind, or is he
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merely a tool that man uses to explain the universe? It is the characters in The Poisonwood Bible
who make the most effort to resolve this quandary. Though God is not consistent across
characters, countries, or circumstances, creation—the existence of life and death—is reliable and
universal. Leah explains that creation is “made fresh daily and doesn’t suffer in translation” (525).
God is a fluctuating deity, one who is interpreted and altered based on the individual, but his
creation can always be trusted; the cycle of life is stable and true across time, place, and character.
Brother Fowles, the missionary in Kilanga before the arrival of Nathan Price, explains that
the land is God’s purest creation. When he wants “to take God at His word exactly,” he looks
“out the window at His Creation. Because that […] He makes fresh […] every day, without a lot
of dubious middle managers” (248). Because God has created the universe, He is everywhere
despite the “middle managers” who interpret his will in their personal manner; it is left to
individual characters to understand God in their own way, but his creation is unchanging. Adah
summarizes this notion when she says that
God is everything […]. God is a virus. Believe that, when you get a cold. God is an ant. Believe that, too
for driver ants are possessed, collectively, of the size and influence of a Biblical plague. […] This is what
we learned in Kilanga: move out of the way and praise God for the housecleaning (528-29).
Viruses, colds, and driver ants are all products of God’s creation and exist independently of His
will. Adah explains that it is the way a person understands these occurrences—whether he believes
that a cold is God’s doing or that driver ants are God’s punishment or His reward—that is up to
the individual. According to this logic, God exists in all three novels because He has, at some
point, created the universe in which the characters live (even if He is no longer present in the
daily events in this world). It is the understanding of God—the way in which the characters make
sense of His moral character and His intentions—that relies on the personal, circumstantial
interpretations of each individual.
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Eggers, Dave. What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. New York:
Vintage, 2007. Print.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa,
the African. Lexington, KY: Simon & Brown, 2012. Print.
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. NY: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.
Milton, John, William Kerrigan, John Peter Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon. The Complete
Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton. New York: Modern Library, 2007. Print.

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