by David Woodward
Douglas Webster, missions professor at Selly Oaks College, Birmingham, England, in his article, “Down With Heroes” (Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Summer, 1967), examines the current rash of missionary biography and recommends that missionaries be taken off their literary pedestal.
Douglas Webster, missions professor at Selly Oaks College, Birmingham, England, in his article, "Down With Heroes" (Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Summer, 1967), examines the current rash of missionary biography and recommends that missionaries be taken off their literary pedestal.
"It is high time we ceased to present the missionary as a hero figure making great sacrifices,’ he says, adding, "In relatively few places today does the missionary occupy the center of the stage, and where through force of circumstance he still has to, this is not something to be proud of… the missionary is not a popular figure in the modern world."
His comments come after he has just read five books of missionary biography at one time. Admittedly this is too much of a good thing and calculated to give one mental indigestion. Nevertheless, we missionaries ought to be able to take our knocks without complaining. A review of missionary history would show that missionaries have been unpopular in some circles from the beginning.
There seems to be a case of injustice in the lack of publicity accorded the national churches and their leaders, and Mr. Webster champions them. "The missionary is made to loom large," he declares, and then speaking of missionary literature, condemns much of it because "little recognition or credit is given to those indigenous colleagues on whom the future of any church so much depends."
Is there a resemblance here to the complaints of the British during the last world war about American coverage in Burma which played up the relatively minor American exploits and hardly mentioned the Empire forces? So far so good. Missionary literature taken as a whole has been one-sided, and all of us could wish for a more complete description of the younger churches. Let it be noted, however, that the church growth studies of Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, and Korea show rectification of this lack. In the line of biographies of outstanding nationals in other lands, Leslie Lyall’s life of John Sung is an example of what can be done, and Christian publishers are exploring ways and means of producing more such books. The reception of the translated works of Watchman Nee in the English-speaking world is an indication of what is possible in a reverse flow of Christian literature back to the older churches.
If placing national Christians in the spotlight is Mr. Webster’s chief desire, this would not excite too much comment. It is only as I continued to read his article that it seemed to me that his main thrust is against the spotlight, whether it picks out a missionary or a national Christian. He is against heroes per se.
Speaking about a book on a missionary medical couple, he decries the lack of information it gives on their mission and its locale. Thus it seems that he seeks a further adjustment, not only more books about national Christians and their churches, but also more mission survey books instead of the preponderance of biographies. This would be a reasonable plea (though book publishers would regard it as a naive estimate of what the public will read). It is spoiled, however, by a serious overstatement.
"What the student world needs most today is the truth," he says, "and this comes not through sentimental biographies peppered with anecdotes, but through facts … 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."
This appeal for truth equates truth with having all the facts and not a selective portion of them. Anecdotes are suspect because they are but a sliver of life. On this basis we would deny that Aesop’s fables contain truth because they are too sketchy. We would also repudiate them because they speak to the emotions. They are, in fact, sentimental.
I don’t want to be unfair to Mr. Webster, but I can’t help asking myself what conclusions his studentswill form on the basis of what he is telling them. They will certainly regard biography as suspect and treacherous ground. They will want to stick with the "facts" rather than with the "heroes."
This immediately put me in mind of C. S. Lewis and his description of "men without chests" in his book, The Abolition o f Man. He analyzes the modern predilection for "facts" and the debunking of "heroes" with particular reference to educationalists, saying, "They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda-they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental-and they conclude that the best thing to do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be wakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts" (p. 8).
If we were to pursue an analogy to Mr. Webster’s thinking in another field, we might say that a prospective medical student should stay away from Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters because it is a subtle piece of propaganda by the large medical foundations. We would say that he has no likelihood of becoming as famous as Marie and Pierre Curie or Sir Alexander Fleming; that is a practical certainty that he will land up in a lucrative but routine practice. Also it is obvious that biographies of medical pioneers are not medical textbooks. And when we have said all this, how have we bettered our student? And of what have we robbed him? He has certainly lost confidence in the world of literature; he is less able to move into his calling with the inspiration of some of the noble men and women who have preceded him. And he has a warped idea of what truth is.
Fortunately, the abolition of heroes is easier said than done, for they keep popping up in the most surprising places. One unprepossessing member of my college class of 200 graduated with the rest of us, and then instead of drifting into obscurity acted with such distinction in World War II that a naval ship has been named after him. The class secretary wrote of Hunter Marshall, "Our quiet friend with the shy smile … commanded a gun crew on a ship which had been torpedoed and was sinking. He kept his gun in action until its muzzle was under water and went down with the ship."
Now it may seem unfair that so many more successful biographies are written about missionaries than about ministers or college professors, but they do tend to get out where the action is. And as a class they are more enterprising.
Mr. Webster sees a curb coming on this kind of pioneering, for he predicts, "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 or initiative allowed to those about whom some of these books are written."
I don’t believe that the controlled society of tomorrow is going to be so foolish as to control imagination and research, pilot projects, and born leadership. Times and conditions of men may change but not human nature itself. There have always been two general types of missionary, those who get their own guidance and those who look to the mission or church for guidance. I believe that this will continue. The end of colonialism, whether political or religious, does not mean the end of western initiative or influence in other parts of the world. Every generation has a certain percentage of people who take their freedom whether they are allowed to or not. They do not become proper organization men, but they are too important to the organization to lose.
I cannot accept the appeal for equalitarianism, that leveling of individuals in favor of a relatively nameless mass. It goes somewhat like this. The missionary is made to look large, is he? Well, cut him down to size. But would not the objection still hold if the national is made to look large? Cut him down, too! The truth is not to be found in the particular but in the general. Let’s exchange the spotlight for subdued diffusion of light.
This is a false dichotomy, of course. It does not have to be an either-or proposition. For example, the Bible has its roster of heroes in Hebrews 11 and story of the Good Samaritan along with deep theological passages. In the end I think that the scholars will have to put up with the public taste for visual aids. After all, God stooped to our human weakness with the revelation of His Son, and this has been remarkably effective!
Granted that modern missionary biography can be accused of bathos in places, this is no excuse for denying its effectiveness. I have just seen the sixth Chinese edition of Isobel Kuhn’s By Searching come off the press, and as I get reports about how this book is touching young people throughout the Orient, I look for more such stories to publish.
Mr. Webster seems particularly fearful about "the dangerous misconception of the role of today’s missionary that is conveyed by laudatory writing about yesterday’s missionary." But has the basic role of the missionary changed? Or is he not rather being increasingly freed from administrative respon sibilities for his main job of contacting the non-Christian world. He should be working on the frontiers of an expanding younger church with the same freedom to preach as his predecessors.
I have known missionaries who have been pushed into fame in the course of their witness for Christ. Frank Laubach, the literacy specialist, was my "Uncle Frank" in boyhood days, living on the same station with me in the southern Philippines. Later in west China I knew Gladys Alyward before her days of "Small Woman" notoriety. I can visualize her sitting on a porch, drying her hair in the sun, and telling me some of her experiences. I think of Geoffery Bull helping to carry my baby daughter up a steep and snowy pass, a shapeless, grey felt hat jammed down on his head. We didn’t know that he had three years of Communist imprisonment ahead of him. Ordinary people were they? Hardly worth talking about? Certainly not worth writing about? But they have had a lot to say to this generation.
And am I to believe that the coming generation of missionaries will contain no Laubach or Alyward or Bull? If situations make men, then perhaps we are on our way to an Orwellian 1980, but if men make situations, there is still hope. Especially if we believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit. God is still in the business of making men who make situations that glorify Him.
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