Science and Faith Through Immigrant Eyes
The recent novel "Transcendent Kingdom" gives a uniquely compelling take on tensions between science and faith.
Before You Read
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I was browsing through the New York Times bestsellers list last weekend, mostly dismayed at the kind of books that sell the best right now. But this entry caught my eye:
Debuting at #6 on the combined print and e-book bestseller fiction list, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. A Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience looks to the hard sciences and her childhood faith to potentially help her grieving Ghanaian immigrant family.
The combination of “hard sciences” and “childhood faith” was enough for me to add to the e-book sales and start reading immediately on my Kindle (a reading experience I’ve only become comfortable with for fiction). Now just a few days later, I’ve finished the book and thought I’d write about it for BioLogos, as you don’t get many new novels these days with lines like, “But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false” (loc. 2555).
Besides my occupational interest in science and faith books, I’m also a fan of stories related to West Africa, having spent some time in Nigeria and living in Sierra Leone for a year. If I might tempt you into the genre, consider these other novels for their insight and challenges about this part of the world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (maybe not West Africa proper, but close), and of course the granddaddy of them all, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Most of the action in Transcendent Kingdom takes place in the US, but it is about a family who emigrated from Ghana. The main character, Gifty, is a girl brought up in Huntsville, Alabama. Her parents came there because they wanted a better life for their kids. That turns out to be an unfulfilled dream. Dad eventually leaves to go back to Ghana and marries another woman, leaving the rest of the family to try to survive on their own in a foreign land. The Assemblies of God church they attend in Alabama has good intentions, but isn’t sure what to do with this immigrant family. But when Gifty’s brother gets addicted to opioids after a doctor prescribes Oxycontin for an athletic injury, the church people do know what to do with them… and it isn’t pretty. In spite of their difficult life, Gifty does very well as a student — Harvard undergrad, and then Stanford for a PhD in neuroscience.
All of this might sound like major spoilers for the story, but you learn these things in the first few pages of the book. The story is not told linearly, but flashes back from the present day of Gifty’s research lab at Stanford to various points in her life. By telling the story this way, Gyasi is able to juxtapose scenes that resonate with each other — particularly between the brother’s addiction and Gifty’s work with mice in the lab which attempts to develop neural interventions to treat addictions.
Gyasi herself went to Stanford, but studied English. She says in the acknowledgements that the scientific work in the story was modeled after a friend’s lab at Stanford, and the discussion of it has the ring of authenticity. So does the description of Gifty’s church experiences growing up. Gyasi grew up in Huntsville too, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that her family attended a similar church because the religious characters were not caricatures. It’s not quite the tradition I grew up in, but there is a lot of overlap between Gifty’s religious experiences and my own: the frequent altar calls that instill constant examination of one’s life (and the dread of responding to those altar calls, even knowing there will be positive reinforcement from the community for doing so); lots of Scripture memorization that pops back to your mind in all facets of life; utter shock at realizing some kids in the youth group lived very different lives when they weren’t at church.
I think many of the scientists in our audience might also resonate with Gifty’s later statement about her religious view of scientific work and its loneliness:
The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. (loc. 1216).
In grad school, I was the only Christian in a religious epistemology course where everyone else treated the course title as an oxymoron. Occasionally I’d attempt to “stand up for Jesus” in that environment, and I was reminded of those experiences in the following scene, when Gifty finally spoke up to her small group at Harvard after somebody made a joke about God not existing:
“How do you know God doesn’t exist?” I said, interrupting their laughter.
They all turned to face me. The mute speaks? their faces said.
“Um, you’re not serious, are you?” Anne said. She was the smartest one in our group… I was embarrassed to have earned her ire, but also, I couldn’t help myself. I doubled down. “I just don’t think it’s right to make fun of other people’s beliefs,” I said.
“I’m sorry, but believing in God isn’t just ridiculous, it’s f—ing dangerous too,” Anne said. “Religion has been used to justify everything from war to anti-LGBT legislation. We aren’t talking about some harmless thing here.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way. Belief can be powerful and intimate and transformative.”
Anne shook her head. “Religion is the opiate of the masses, “ she said, and I shot her a killing look.
“Opiods are the opiates of the masses,” I said.
But there was a big difference between my experience and Gifty’s at church: hers was the only black family at a fundamentalist church in the south. That brings with it a huge complication for understanding God and God’s people. When her brother had the problem with opioid addiction, the church people thought it sad, but not shocking for his kind of people. Gifty reflected, “the damage of going to a church where people whispered disparaging words about “my kind” was itself a spiritual wound — so deep and so hidden that it has taken me years to find and address it” (loc. 2228).
The novel is its best when Gifty has to work through her multi-layered response to the people in her life suffering from mental illness. She learns about their brains and how certain areas of them respond to stimuli and produce these unwanted effects. And she understands that they suffer from a disease that might be able to be treated and prevented — her professional work is aimed squarely at that goal. But she has a brain too, which is producing effects in her own life — how she responds to the stimuli of her loved ones making bad choices. And it is hard to treat her loved ones wholly as objects that follow scientific laws without reducing herself to that too. And she can’t do that.
The story did, however, enable me to see more clearly what the United States looks like through the eyes of an immigrant; what white evangelical Christianity looks like through the eyes of a black person in the south; what the elite ranks of science look like through the eyes of a woman; and most profoundly, what addiction and depression in one’s loved ones look like through the eyes of one whose community has given precious few resources for coping with that. – Jim Stump
But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false.
Good fiction draws you into seeing the world through another person’s eyes, learning from other people’s experience. I would guess that many people reading this novel will be impressed by the depth of engagement with religion alongside mainstream scientific views. There is certainly far more of that than you find in most novels on the NYT bestseller lists, which tend more toward The DaVinci Code treatment of religion. But I wasn’t blown away by the insights in that regard. Those are the eyes through which I already see the world, given my professional training and experience.
The story did, however, enable me to see more clearly what the United States looks like through the eyes of an immigrant; what white evangelical Christianity looks like through the eyes of a black person in the south; what the elite ranks of science look like through the eyes of a woman; and most profoundly, what addiction and depression in one’s loved ones look like through the eyes of one whose community has given precious few resources for coping with that.
And I confess that even though my own “science and religion” eyes have seen most of what was presented here on that topic, they still teared up a little at one scene. [Mild spoiler (though probably not unexpected)]: Gifty doesn’t remain engaged in the church tradition she grew up in. She had profound and seemingly authentic spiritual experiences there — conversion, discipleship, and even speaking in tongues, as all good Assemblies congregants are supposed to do. But despite remaining haunted by the divine, she later walked away from the particular Christian understanding of the world she was given through her church because she couldn’t square it with what she learned about the world through the sciences.
At one point in college she walked into a very different kind of church:
The reverend’s sermon that day was beautiful. She approached the Bible with extraordinary acuity, and her interpretation of it was so humane, so thoughtful, that I became ashamed of the fact that I very rarely associated those two things with religion. My entire life would have been different if I’d grown up in this woman’s church instead of in a church that seemed to shun intellectualism as a trap of the secular world, designed to undermine one’s faith (loc.1652).
I’m grateful that Gyasi could paint such an accurate picture of how engagement with science affects one’s Christian faith for too many people in this country. But I continue to pray and work for a different world where Gifty’s is not the typical experience.
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