If you want a book to mess with your neat and tidy ideas of how mission and evangelism should be expressed then the Poisonwood Bible is your go to.
Set primarily in the 1960’s it follows the journey of one Baptist missionary family who feel the ‘Lord has called them’ to missionary service in what was then the Belgian Congo. Nathan Price, his wife Orleanna and their 4 girls all set off to bring the good news of Jesus to the ‘backward’ tribes of a tiny Congolese village called Kalanga.
It’s a story with many interwoven threads and if you don’t pay attention you could easily get lost between the ‘family’ story and the bigger story in which the book is set (Congolese independence and the political wrangling that accompanied it). The story is narrated thru the eyes of the 5 women but we never hear from the Reverend himself, unless it is in his ‘sermon voice’, or thru the mouths of the family as they quote him.
This is one of those books that every aspiring missionary should read. Why?… Because in brief summary it reflects on:
- The curious idea of ‘calling’
Sometimes we can misconstrue God’s voice with our own inner desires and we can use him to sanction the things we already intend to do. Nathan Price had a burning ‘calling’ to go and preach to the African tribes, who he regarded as uncivilised heathen savages. We discover that his ‘calling’ comes as much from a tragic incident when he was serving as soldier, as it does from any voice direct from God. There is a mix of guilt and penitence driving his approach to Christian mission – neither of which are good reasons to pursue a vocation of this sort (in case you didn’t know…) And the outcomes are correspondingly catastrophic for him, his family and the local people.
As I have got older I have often wondered about my own ‘calling’ experiences at different times of life. Was it really the voice of God or was it simply my own desires that I wanted permission to proceed with? Did God really direct and lead us, or did he allow me to pursue my own dreams while I corralled him in to lend a bit of authority?
I don’t think we will ever answer that question properly as everything we do is done with mixed motives. But perhaps it just needs to be said… If you use the language of ‘calling’ then it just bears mentioning that it is usually muddied waters and very rarely a bolt direct from God himself.
- The nature of the gospel.
For Nathan Price, a hardline fundamentalist (not a lot of fun but pretty damn mental) the gospel is almost purely about getting people to ‘convert’ – by which he means agreeing to follow ‘Tata Jesus’ – and then to a place of water baptism. It’s a contractural arrangement that he is seeking to broker between the people he perceives as uncivilised and ignorant savages and an angry God whose wrath he hopes they can avoid (although it seems he is more intent on negating the divine wrath he feels is coming his way)
Unfortunately the absence of any love whatsoever emanating from Price means he really is a clanging gong and every time we hear him speak it’s with a sense of his message completely missing the mark and grating terribly. His is a condescending, colonising voice, coupled with a refusal to learn from those around him. There is no ‘listening’ to the local people and hearing their stories and their journeys before launching in with a sharp and utterly tone deaf spiel about his narrow and jaundiced view of who Jesus is.
No doubt there were points of connection with the people at Kalanga, but he was never going to find them. Ironically his predecessor ‘Brother Fowles’, was a much loved presence in the community. He ended up taking an African wife, but was ironically fired from his mission role for ‘fraternising with the natives’. Fowles learnt the language and the customs, loved the people and became their friend, but he gets treated coldly by Price, as he is seen as a compromiser and heretic.
There is much we could say about the nature of the gospel / good news, but it just bears saying that despite his best intentions and his ardent endeavours he simply failed to communicate the reality of who Jesus is to these people. He spoke ‘facts’ as best he knew them, but he didn’t recognise his own cultural formation and as such couldn’t accept that the gospel may take a different form in this new culture.
For every missionary its a challenge to ask afresh ‘what is the gospel and how is it best communicated to the people amongst whom I am living?’ Because it changes…
- The appropriateness of foreign missionaries even entering a space where people already had their religious and spiritual practices.
This idea has emerged as a critique in a few places lately, but perhaps the best known is the story of John Chau, a young evangelical American who felt God had called him to go as a missionary to the unreached people on India’s North Sentinel Island, a part of the world previously untouched by western ways of life. These people were known to be hostile to anyone who entered their space, but Chau was convinced God had called him and he was equipped with all he needed to do good work there. He had been inspired by the story of Jim Elliot and his small band of martyrs who were killed in Ecuador mid 20th C attempting a similar venture. Chau knew the risks, knew exactly what he was doing, but chose to go there, believing that if no one spoke to Sentinelise people about Jesus that they were spent eternity in Hell.
He was killed by the island inhabitants before he made any progress with his hoped for mission work. A doco movie has been made about his life and his expedition and while I haven’t seen it yet, I believe it doesn’t portray him as a crazy person – just a young man with a burning desire to serve God no matter the cost.
We could mock him and his foolishness, but I wonder where our passionate young leaders are these days? We seem to have fewer and fewer people stepping up to the plate of Christian service, especially costly sacrificial mission work. It’s way easier to poke fun at those silly people than to learn from them and be inspired by them. My own teenage and young adult years were the richer for reading stories of Jim Elliot, Jackie Pullinger and Hudson Taylor. Who are our modern day inspirational leaders in this space? Why do we have so few younger leaders aspiring to a life of sacrifice and service? Yes – it’s hard – but it’s this kind of leadership and service that inspires others to rise up also. Maybe it’s you that needs to drop your cynicism and cleverness and just jump in boots and all to serve and learn?
We can certainly question mission work done in the style of Nathan Price – ego driven, culturally bound and lacking in love. But there is simply no question that the core of the Christian message is to ‘go and make disciples – baptising and teaching them to obey Jesus’ words’. It is to lead people away from false ideas and false Gods and towards truth. Depending on who you are talking to that can be seen as offensive and intrusive, (even within Christian spaces) but this was Jesus’ mission – to ‘seek out and save the lost’. We don’t need to go about it using crass methods, but we do need to come to grips with the fact that at some point the gospel calls people out of one way of living and into another.
I remember hearing Dave Andrews say that in every culture there are Jesus symbols and motifs – and these are our connection points – our common ground to communicating the person of Jesus. There are also going to be points of conflict and disconnect and it requires both courage and wisdom to confront these both cross culturally and locally.
And yes – inevitably that involves calling some things ‘right’ and wrong’. It risks offence and it involves the willingness to take a stand. If missionaries came to Australia from other cultures they might be shocked at our lack of communal living – our prioritising of individualism and of our addiction to buying products which will apparently make us happy. Any missionary would have to challenge these behaviours as not in line with life in the kingdom of God. We don’t make offerings to the Gods like you would find in Bali, but we have our own cultural idols. Idols differ from place to place, but they never stop being idols.
So maybe we should ask; ‘Are we better off to stop cross-cultural mission work and leave people to their own spiritual devices?’ Should we leave Muslims as they are, Buddhists to do their own thing and so on?… I don’t think the New testament gives us any option here. If Jesus is the way to encounter God and he is truth then we are responsible for helping people engage with that truth. It means advocating for one way to meet God, but if that is a sticking point then you may need to go back and examine your own theology.
- Contextualisation is everything in mission work.
Why won’t the people in Kalanga get baptised? Nathan Price feels it is hardness of heart – a refusal to bow the knee to Tata Jesus, but in actuality its because the river is full of crocodiles and very dangerous. As a result they perceive him as a danger to their community! If only he had taken the time to listen and figure that one out. His whole ministry comes under a cloud because they see him as a threat!
Then as the political clime turns towards liberal democracy where people can vote for what they want, the village decide to take a vote on whether they will follow Jesus. Jesus loses the vote, but Nathan still doesn’t get it… He is living in a different culture and has to tread gently and humbly. At one point the village chief lets him know that they managed just fine before he came along- and they will do just fine when he leaves. In the meantime it is they who are being patient with him – when all along he feels his own patience is being tested.
- All mission is happening within a broader socio-political space and if we miss that context then our ‘gospel’ could just be white noise.
Right now we cannot speak of Jesus without paying attention to what is going on in the global political realm. The Russia – Ukraine war, the US Trump phenomena and the Israel – Palestine conflict all give shape to the world in which we live. Close to home we have had the Voice referendum impact our context, the Royal Commission into sexual abuse, as well as the challenge of wondering what alignment the church has with conservative politics and how that influences our message.
We don’t speak of Jesus in a vacuum. If Nathan Price had paid attention to the massive runctions taking place in Congo he may have made some very different choice. He may have been wise enough to get out of there. He may have been humble enough to accept that his western ways are not superior – just different to their own ways.
Sadly he misses all the cues and his end (spoiler alert)
is to be burned at the stake by the very people he was trying to save. No doubt he saw it as being persecuted for the gospel.
- There is a price to pay for missionary service – and this family pays heavily.
I admire our missionaries – wherever they are – in Africa, Thailand, the Middle East or right here in Australia, because these people have stepped up to a very unique vocational challenge. To enter a culture as guests, to listen and to learn for a long time and to love graciously.
Some do it with their children and their kids end up stuck between the two worlds when they come home. Where do they belong? They aren’t sure… This can have both good and bad effects. Some kids resent their parent’s sacrifice and drop faith like a hot potato. Some kids are inspired and follow in their parent’s footsteps asking how they can build on the work and continue to serve.
But you don’t do what the Price family did without cost. Along the way there are significant impacts on each member of the family as they come to grips with their Africa experience. Truth be told had their father been a different man they may have thrived in Africa rather suffering PTSD and suffering in various ways.
I know of missionaries who have lost children in tough missionary environments, of others who have come home shell shocked and with a faith in tatters because they were not remotely successful at what they set out to do.
It requires boldness and some serious courage to take the cross cultural path and to immerse yourself in another world for an indefinite period of time – even in the middle of a countries internal fracturing. Nathan Price may well win a prize for being the world’s worst missionary. What is scary is that I saw some of my younger self in him as I observed his black and white view of the world, his dogged determination to succeed at all costs and his belief that his view was right in every way imaginable.
I’m glad to be a bit older now and to have been formed a bit more into Christ. But I grew up in an era of Nathan Prices and I could so easily have been him.
If you haven’t read the book then do yourself a favour and invest the time!