by Douglas Webster
That many missionaries are heroic and do make sacrifices is undeniable, but it is not for Christian propagandists, surely, to make too much of this in the lifetime of those concerned.
I have been reading five books about missionaries. The first four are set in Asia, the fifth in South America. They have this in common: they are all written by and about conservative evangelicals. The most important, the best written, and the only one which I really enjoyed reading, is the first, A Passion for the Impossible: The China Inland Mission, 1865-1965 by Leslie T. Lyall.
The story of the China Inland Mission is one of the most moving in the long saga of missionary obedience, and James Hudson Taylor, its founder, will always rank among the greatest of missionaries. It is fortunate for all who love China and revere the CIM that so gifted a writer as Mr. Lyall was able to provide this excellent paperback of 190 pages in the mission’s centenary year …. I wish I could recommend the other books in this set. One opens a book with so unpromising a title as The Fabulous Flemings by Grace Nils Fletcher with some trepidation. Undoubtedly, these two doctors, husband and wife, are fine and devoted missionaries who have rendered magnificent service. But is all that they stand for best served by being written up in this sentimental way? Three of the 216 pages contain useful facts about the United Mission to Nepal, but anyone who wants more detailed information about either the mission or Nepal will not find it here.
The Bamboo Cross by Homer E. Dowdy is rather better, and missionaries are very much in the background. The people described are Christians, owing their conversion to the work of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The central figure is Sau, a courageous lay preacher and a tireless evangelist, from the Chil tribe. We have here an account of the beginning of the guerilla war after the departure of the French from what used to be Indo-China. Sau is attractively portrayed. He refused a highly-paid government job after independence. He helped to transfer villagers from the hills where they were in danger from the Viet Cong. Famine and raids are described, as is a vivid dream of heaven he had when suffering from typhoid.
This book is lengthy, but not sentimental.
Angel at Her Shoulder by Kenneth L. Wilson is about Lillian Dickson, who, with her husband, went as a Canadian Presbyterian missionary to Taiwan in 1927. Apart from a brief interlude in British Guiana during the war and the Japanese occupation, they have been there ever since. Mrs. Dickson has done a notable job in building up a series of institutions under what is called Mustard Seed Care. Throughout the book she is "Lil." A woman of great compassion, dedication, determination, and energy, she has founded orphanages, schools, a leprosarium, churches, clinics. On any showing this is a wonderful achievement. But the very foreword to the book puts one off, with its reference to Mrs. Dickson’s "unusual pipeline to her Father in Heaven."
The Land Between the Rivers is Henry Grubb’s account of his own pioneer work among primitive Indian tribes of the Argentine Chaco. He served there with the (Anglican) South American Missionary Society from 1922 to 1959. Simply and sincerely written, it has the merit of being void of sentimentality. There is a good deal of travel adventure, descriptions of primitive people, and pioneer evangelism. There is the typical mission station" and the converts living there. Unfortunately, however, this book is chiefly a collection of reminiscences rather than a connected historical account.
So much for the books themselves. Reading them together compels me to raise certain questions. With the exception of Leslie Lyall’s book, which is a real contribution to missionary history and knowledge in popular form, anyone concerned with the progress and interpretation of the Christian mission is bound to ask what this kind of literature is expected to achieve …. There is so much that is admirable and challenging in the ultimate aims and steadfast devotion of many of the conservative evangelical missions and missionaries-so much that ought to be faced up to by those who are not conservative and whose sense of mission is often nothing like so deep. That is why I regret the light and tone in which the fine work of such bodies is presented in books such as some of these. They will seldom be read by any except their own supporters and those of a similar outlook, and if they were read by any one not of conservative evangelical persuasion, they would hardly be likely to help him to appreciate the evangelical position. If conservative missions are to win the respect they deserve in the wider Christian and ecumenical circle, their work should be written up in the sober, factual, unsentimental yet quietly enthusiastic style of Mr. Lyall.
It is high time we ceased to present the missionary as a hero figure making great sacrifices. That many missionaries are heroic and do make sacrifices is undeniable, but it is not for Christian propagandists, surely, to make too much of this in the lifetime of those concerned. In relatively few places today does the missionary occupy the center of the stage, and where through force of circumstances he still has to, this is not something to be proud of: it simply indicates a lack of success in bringing into being a truly indigenous church. The missionary is not a popular figure in the modern world, even in many Christian circles, not to mention secular society. When Albert Schweitzer died, one African newspaper opened its leading article thus: "The word `missionary’ has become a term of abuse in modern Africa. It has come to represent imperialism and support for imperialist goals." Whether that judgment is accurate or not, it is certainly true that missionaries, particularly if they are British or American, are so regarded in very many countries. If missionaries are to be praised, would it not be more appropriate for such commendation to come from the nationals among whom they work in Asia or Africa, rather than from admiring fellow-countrymen with vested interests in keeping them there and gaining financial support?
Equally serious is the dangerous misconception of the role of today’s missionary which is conveyed by laudatory writing about yesterday’s missionary. The majority of people in the West, certainly of those who support missions, have not yet caught up with the profound change of mood and situation in those areas of the world to which the churches of the West are still invited to send missionaries. Except in very backward areas where there is practically no indigenous church to speak of-and the number of such areas is rapidly diminishing-the missionary recruit of today and tomorrow will in all probability control nothing at all. It is most unlikely that he will have the freedom of initiative allowed to those about whom some of these banks are written. If young men and women are led to offer for missionary service in the belief that they also will be able to live this kind of life, they are in for bitter disillusionment. Yet this kind of writing can hardly fail to give this kind of impression and arouse this kind of motive. It does a serious injustice to the young Christian generation from whom missionaries are to be recruited-by misleading them; it also misrepresents the situation of today in most parts of the world.
Any one going overseas in whatever capacity can have adventure; very few will be considered heroes. And the heroism galled for today will be more psychological than physical, more that which belongs to faithful and patient service than organizational leadership, more in the sphere of creative relationships than in the foundation of institutions. Indeed, the situation of the church overseas and of the countries in which it is set has changed so enormously in the last twenty yearsand in some places in the last seven or eight-that the missionary movement may be more harmed than helped in the long run by the continuous publication of missionary biography of this nature, especially when it is uncritically written.
In so much writing of this type, the missionary is made to loom large and very often utterly to obscure the church. The foreigner is seen as an activist and those to whom he goes as passive recipients. Little recognition or credit is given to those indigenous colleagues on whom the future of any church so much depends. Who will write about them? At least The Bamboo Cross attempts to do this and to redress some of the balance.
What the student world needs most today is the truth, and this comes not through sentimental biographies peppered with anecdotes, but through facts. Most of the facts are hard, some unpalatable. Of course, history and biography have to be written all the time, but this should be for the purpose of an accurate record and not for propaganda. Unless we can offer the younger generation some readable missionary literature of a very different order from much of what has been reviewed above, either they will have no interest at all in the modern missionary movement, or else they will be interested for the wrong reasons.
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