by C. Peter Wagner
As soon as I saw the title of Betty Elliot’s first novel, No Graven Image, I prepared myself for a good dose of iconoclasm. This is a favorite disposition for many of us who have spent our adult lives on the mission field and who have shared Mrs. Elliot’s urge to smash the golden calves around which we at times have found ourselves dancing.
As soon as I saw the title of Betty Elliot’s first novel, No Graven Image, I prepared myself for a good dose of iconoclasm. This is a favorite disposition for many of us who have spent our adult lives on the mission field and who have shared Mrs. Elliot’s urge to smash the golden calves around which we at times have found ourselves dancing. In this book Mrs. Elliot has succeeded in grinding many pseudo-sacred missionary traits to dust. But while this in itself is a commendable achievement, I cannot help asking, As a result of destroying an old graven image, isn’t Mrs. Elliot in danger of substituting a new one?
Before attempting to discuss some of her ideas, a word on Mrs. Elliot’s literary method. In using the novel as an art form to dramatize her point of view, she has undertaken a difficult task and has come out on top. This approach has been neglected by evangelical authors who, with a few exceptions such as Grace Irwin, have been content with the kind of pablum fiction that we find today in many so-called "Christian novels."
The measure of success of any novel is not whether readers agree or disagree, but how much it causes them to think. We would do well to admit that to show satisfaction with the type of romantic sentimentality that many Christians are reading is a sign of sad immaturity as far as our cultural development is concerned. It’s true that life sometimes produces a situation whereby John, handsome and pleasant but worldly, gets saved, marries sweet and patient Mary who loved him all along, and they live happily ever after. But honest people admit that life is usually more complex. This is why no one cares to discuss or even remember John and Mary after finishing their syrupy story. On the other hand I would predict that discussions of Margaret Sparhawk, Mrs. Elliot’s protagonist, will rise in tempo among evangelicals for some time to come.
Briefly, Margaret Sparhawk is a young American missionary who goes to Ecuador to minister to the Quichua Indians in the high Andes Mountains. She has been motivated by the sort of "call" that many receive, but has never realistically analyzed it or forseen what might be involved in it. Her process of self-discovery during her first years as a missionary turns out to be more painful than she might have anticipated. Several other missionaries come into the picture, mostly as props, but one, Lynn Anderson, M.D., has a special role in helping Margaret discover herself. The plot develops around Margaret’s desire to "reach the Quichuas," but not quite knowing how. By chance she strikes up an acquaintance with a typical Indian, Pedro Chimbu, and after supreme effort wins a measure of confidence from him and his family. She hires Pedro as her informant and begins the process of learning Quichua and translating the Bible. He undergoes a rather unconvincing conversion, and Margaret centers her life around developing friendship with him and his wife Rosa. When it appears that she is going to enjoy some success, her world crashes in. She follows Lynn Anderson’s example in giving Pedro a penicillin injection for a serious infection in his leg, but a violent allergic reaction sets in and Pedro soon dies in agony. As the book ends, Margaret Sparhawk is lying on the grass next to Pedro’s grave, bewildered by the irrationality of the circumstances, and asking herself soul-searching questions.
From a literary point of view, the novel has its ups and downs. Mrs. Elliot is strong at descriptions of scenes and feelings. The train trip in the first chapter exquisitely captures the sounds, sights, and smells of the Andes. The description of the death scene makes the reader feel personally involved in the tragedy. At the same time the story occasionally bogs down, and some of the elements used in the plot lack reality. Perhaps the most obvious negative aspect of the novel is weak characterization. With the exception of Margaret Sparhawk, perhaps Lynn Anderson, and to a lesser extent the MacDonalds, the characters in the book seem to be caricatures. The missionary conference, for example, introduces many missionaries seemingly for the purpose of making them act and talk in a distasteful manner. It is true that missionaries do and say obnoxious things, but Mrs. Elliot’s technique, being overly obvious, is proportionately unconvincing.
With these comments out of the way, I would like to attempt a deeper analysis. In doing so I have no intention to offend a fellow Christian, much less question her integrity. But Mrs. Elliot has chosen to bare her life and her being to public view through her three previous books and numerous articles, and therefore must accept her status as a celebrity. It is difficult to read No Graven Image without constantly attempting to peer through the symbolism into Mrs. Elliot’s heart. If a good novel (which this is) projects the author’s ideas and feelings behind the narrative, what are some of the underlying concepts of this book?
One of the golden calves she effectively destroys is that of the missionary’s "going native." Margaret Sparhawk at one point decides to identify herself more closely with Pedro and Rosa by donning Indian dress. It isn’t long before she discovers that this only amounted to being "a fake Indian one day, a white the next." I clearly recall an article written by Betty Elliot several years ago when she was first moving in with the people who had murdered her husband Jim. She told how she walked the jungle paths in bare feet in order to identify with them. It struck me at the time that a more obvious identification would have been to remove her outer clothing instead! (Going barefoot invites hookworms.) Margaret’s experience as a phony tuna shows that Betty Elliot has been flexible enough to profit from her own experience.
The novel seems to reflect autobiographical parallels, although without knowing the author personally it is difficult to judge how closely the details coincide with her own experience. Margaret Sparhawk seems to be Betty Elliot herself as a young missionary. Margaret’s process of self-discovery, however, undoubtedly occurred at a much faster pace than did Mrs. Elliot’s. One would suspect that the tragedy of losing her husband would have started or greatly accelerated the thinking process which ends in her desperate words: "And God? What of Him? `I am with thee,’ He had said. With me in this? He had allowed Pedro to die, or-and I could not then nor can I today deny the possibility-He had perhaps caused me to destroy him. And does He now, I asked myself there at the graveside, ask me to worship Him?"
Lynn Anderson is also Betty Elliot, I suspect. She is not the missionary Betty Elliot, but perhaps her alter ego. The author paints Lynn as she wishes she herself had been, and as she hopes she now is. Dr. Anderson was "impeccably groomed in a dark cotton dress of simple cut, her ash-blonde hair drawn back carefully in a bun. She wore Ecuadorian earrings of handwrought silver with a bracelet to match. I noticed that her car was well polished . . . . (She was) the picture of confidence and efficiency. I saw that she had a certain dignity in her walk . . . ." Lynn’s ideas are a bit unorthodox, and there is some question as to whether her mission desires her to continue with them. Most missionaries are offended with Lynn’s ideas, but Margaret admires her. She is really the heroine of the book.
While I have been told that Pedro Chimbu represents a person who experienced a similar tragedy in Mrs. Elliot’s life, I cannot escape the notion that Pedro profoundly symbolizes Jim Elliot. Pedro’s death, as Jim’s, from the human standpoint seemed to be irrational and extremely difficult for anyone closely involved in the situation to comprehend. The two events were the Mount Moriahs for both Margaret Sparhawk and Betty Elliot.
A certain bitterness pervades the novel; I do not recall a humorous line. Certainly the visit of Mr. Elmer Harvey of Millions Untold, for example, could have been narrated with a tongue-in-cheek jocularity rather than with the scarcely disguised cynicism of the passage. The same attitude carries over to most of the other missionaries who come on stage. Lynn Anderson is the notable exception, the heroic contrast to the others. By the time the book ends, one asks, "Are there any good missionaries?"
A NEW IMAGE?
But what is the new graven image? It is nod fully developed in the book, but I sense some seed thoughts. Eating a meal with several other missionaries, Lynn Anderson asks, "I wonder if it is possible that God might have some excellent reasons, quite outside our imaginings, for not doing what we think He ought to do?" This leads to the matter of the evangelization of the world and the part the church must play in it. When another missionary puts the question to Dr. Anderson, "Don’t you believe that we’re here to win souls?" she replies, "I am no longer as sure as I once was."
It is not fair to make the jump from this statement to the theories of the "new missiology" which are rapidly increasing in influence in some circles, but the similarity is nevertheless somewhat striking.* The business of the missionary, it is said, is not to convert, win souls, or proselytize; rather it is to participate with God in His redemptive purpose in the world. We must have no preconceived ideas as to how God works or intends to work, according to this view, but when He does we must be there on the spot.
Iconoclasts often unconsciously substitute one idol for another. It is one thing to come down hard on fundamentalist mores, in the name of iconoclasm. It is another thing, and perhaps a more dangerous one, to sanctify this kind of iconoclasm and make an idol of it. For Mrs. Elliot the old graven image is undoubtedly the God who is expected to act according to our preconceived notions, based on our own traditions rather than biblical exegesis. But how dangerous it would be to erect a new graven image: a God who has failed to inform men of how He will act, so that men may better know how to serve Him.
* In response to an inquiry about her philosophy of missions, Mrs. Elliot said, in part, "If people have judged me a theologian and philosopher when I have tried to be a novelist, it is clear that as a novelist I have not been taken seriously." Concerning alleged ecumenical or liberal implications in her writing, she said: "I must protest that the book is a novel, and as such, it is meant to be the faithful portrayal of d human experience, scoured to its innermost qualities. It is of course the privilege (not to say the duty) of any reader to bring to bear upon this experience is own judgment. The single relevant question is not "What will this do?" (e.g. to missions, to young people, to our theology, to any vested interest), but "Is this possible?" or "Could this be true?" If the answer to the last question is yes, then the reader must deal with the data according to his own perspective, faith, and understanding. If the set of facts presented in this particular story raises unwelcome questions, we ought at least to ask whether life itself does not perhaps raise similar questions…. I hope that the time is not far off when evangelical Christians can accept things as they are, can recognize truth no matter from whose mouth it proceeds, and will have the courage to face up to the implications of that truth no matter what label may therefore be applied to them. There must be those among us who will say what is. I have tried simply to do this, about a single person, in a single situation. The chips must fall where they may." –The Editors.
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