Sheila Bosworth’s Slow Poison is a novel about God’s role in the midst of tragedy. The protagonist, Rory, is a young woman who suffers through the sudden loss of three family members before she reaches the age of twenty-one. After the first tragic death, Rory begins questioning her faith and seeks advice from her father. He tells her candidly, “You know what would be a lot easier on you, kid? Just buy the whole program, no questions asked. You’ve got to believe in something, right?”
The “program” is the unquestioning belief that one must always thank God for the good, but never blame Him for the evil. The “slow poison” of the title refers to this belief that God will always protect those who have enough faith. If something goes wrong, the program asserts, then it is your fault! You deserved it; you brought it on yourself.
Bosworth believes that Southern women, in particular, are forced to swallow this toxic theology because they are taught that God the Father, like other males, will shield them from adversity. Since they are the weaker sex, they need protection! If something goes wrong, then the women obviously have not submitted to the right male authority. This program is exposed as a complete fraud in Rory’s life. If anything, she thinks, God is out to get me!
I ask you, when people are suffering, do we want to drive them to such conclusions about God?
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Aurora, people of faith have been looking for answers. Sadly, many leaders are prescribing the same “slow poison” that Rory hears. Initially, I imagine that some are comforted by such rhetoric, which places the blame on somebody or something. Perhaps for some, any answer is better than no answer. But in the long run, easy answers do not suffice. If anything, they turn people against God because their experience does not match the beliefs that they’ve been told to swallow.
In a blog about responses to Aurora, Paul Rauschenbusch has recently pointed out that, initially, Job’s friends were content to sit with the man in his pain and suffering. It was only when these men opened their mouths that they got into trouble! It was only when they started trying to explain what had happen that they provoked Job’s, and eventually, God’s anger (see Job 42:7 ff). The call to swallow the program didn’t work back then either!
In Slow Poison, Rory eventually finds a “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) not through the theology of her church, but by the love that is shown to her by others. Sheila Bosworth gave an interview in which she described the purpose of the book:
What I feel I am here to do is to use whatever gifts I have to create art that convinces someone, as many people as possible, that we’re not in this alone, that the truth is that we’re all in this human condition together, and that there’s hope in the very communal nature of that.
Unapologetically, she offers no easy answers; but I believe that her message of unity is the antidote to the poison of patriarchal and abusive theology. In fact, if we do “have to believe in something” in the aftermath of tragedy, then let it be a call to communal equality.