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The Antidote to The Poisonwood Bible

August 1, 2011

One life-long frustration of a missionary kid whose parents did that work faithfully (for 16 years in Seoul, South Korea) has been finding novels that tell that kind of story well.  I was surprised by joy this summer by the novel City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell.  The reviewer in Christian Century says it well:

“If Barbara Kingsolver’s masterpiece The Poisonwood Bible has formed your image of Christian missionaries in the 20th century, you need an equal and opposite set of characters to round out (not replace) your historical, theological and literary imagination. Bo Caldwell’s characters Will and Katherine Kiehn are not as dramatic as Kingsolver’s Nathan and Orleanna Price, but their quiet faith, love of their adopted country and devotion to each other will stir all but the most callous readers. If you are immune to quietness as a form of passion and simplicity as beauty, beware. Otherwise, you are in for a treat. This is a great book.”

This is a story of two unlikely people crossing an ocean in 1906 to what will become 27 years in a remote city in China in 1906, the first Americans and first Christians there:  Will Kiehn, a Mennonite farm boy from Oklahoma, and Katherine Friesen, a nurse who will become his wife.

City of Tranquil Light should be required reading in every church, college, and seminary class seeking to wrestle with what faithful missions looks like.  The story of the transformation of the Kiehn’s desires from the smelly, chaotic, confusing, overwhelming city and people they first see to the beautiful, holy ground Kuang P’ing Ch’eng becomes over 27 years is the story of strange ground becoming holy ground.

As they painfully prepare to leave Kuang P’ing Ch’eng for the last time, Will’s final summing up reminds me a great deal of the “P.S.” at the end of Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness.  Says Will:

“As I lay in bed each night thinking of leaving Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, I also found myself remembering our arrival there – the day we came to the city, our small storefront on Hsiao Chieh, our tentative beginnings – and as I did, I was amazed at what God had done, sometimes through me, sometimes with me, frequently in spite of me.  I could not exactly reconstruct how it had all come to pass – where we had found the money and the knowledge and the perseverance to do what we’d done.  It didn’t add up; it made no more sense than in did to have leftovers after feeding five thousand with a few loaves and fishes.  But I had stopped trying to explain it.  Mysterious abundance was not the exception to the rule.  It was who God was, when we gave Him half a chance.

This is a beautiful book about what people are willing to lose to gain something far better, while never romanticizing that journey.  I hope you get a chance to read it, and tell me what you think.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

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