Evangelical kids are regularly exposed to the thrilling missionary stories of Lottie Moon, Ann and Adoniram Judson, Mary Slessor, David Brainard, Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, et al.
These stories generally have a satisfying narrative arc, starting with the calling from a safe haven at home to a faraway place where Jesus’ name has never been heard. The missionary faces trials and obstacles, but God is ever faithful and His objectives are met, even if the missionary faces martyrdom. Eventually people are saved, and even the martyrs are confident in their faith as they face their final trial.
Reading these stories as a kid always made me think that being a missionary could put you directly in touch with God’s intentions and plans. Even if our own walk with God is sometimes uncertain and God’s will is sometimes obscure, the missionary had it made. He or she always knew they were doing God’s will.
Of course, missionaries are given no more access to God than any Christian, and they too struggle with their calling and God’s will. And sometimes a missionary’s enthusiasm for changing the world can be crushed when passion meets reality. The books that inspire us to “go” can also paint an unrealistic picture of the results that we will see in that far off land. Sometimes that story doesn’t have a satisfying narrative, and even without martyrdom, it doesn’t end well.
So maybe it’s a good idea to read some not-so-inspiring missionary stories. I don’t think a true calling will be tamped down by alternative viewpoints, but such stories could help would-be missionaries examine their assumptions and their real reasons for answering a perceived call.
Two new books reviewed in the September/October 2015 issue of Books & Culture describe the dangers of expecting God, Christians, and even potential converts to behave according to our presumptions.
One book, Running to the Fire: An American Missionary Comes of Age in Revolutionary Ethiopia (Sightline Books), is by the child of missionaries to Ethiopia. The vantage point of the missionary kid can be notoriously cynical and world weary. Tim Bascom subtitles his story An American Missionary Comes of Age in Revolutionary Ethiopia. The reviewer of this book, Amy Peterson, sums up Bascom’s insights this way:
“When the revolution forces his boarding school to close, his bubble bursts. He begins to see that his heroes are also hypocrites, that God sometimes hides, that communities of belonging don’t last, and that nothing is as clear-cut as he had once believed.”
This is not your father’s missionary story. Bascom does apparently hold on to his faith, but the journey is hard.
Another young man, Jonathan Hollingsworth, wants to please God with all his heart and tries to live a life that is sold out completely to Him. The book Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World is written by Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth, and describes the young man’s commitment to live up to the famous words of missionary martyr Jim Elliot:
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
The book’s subtitle lets you know that this story may not have worked out so well.
As Jonathan grows up and is influenced by books calling for radical commitment, he becomes more and more of an ascetic as the deprivations of the poor make him feel less entitled to his own wealth. He finally feels compelled to go to Africa to do good. But it only takes four months for all his idealism to be shattered by materialistic Christians (yes, they exist even in Africa) and legalistic missions organizations.
The reviewer, D.L. Mayfield, notes that the book was written shortly after Jonathan returned home from Africa, and both Hollingsworths could probably have used a little more time and distance before trying to recount and analyze what went wrong. But Mayfield ends up saying his story is one we need to hear. She writes:
“In the end the authors wrote a book to fill a gap in the narratives of contemporary radical heroes, acknowledging failure and disappointment with God, an unfinished wrestling with privilege and cultural understandings of wealth and blessings.”
It is true some are called to go. And to be happy in the will of God, they must go. But others go to work out issues that have to be resolved no matter where you live out your life in Christ. Mayfield began her review with a quote from Amy Carmichael, missionary to India:
“We are here just what we are at home–not one bit better–and the devil is awfully busy….There are missionary shipwrecks of once fair vessels.”
There are many shoals that can shipwreck faith. Agnostic college professors are a danger, it is true. But there are also dangers for the zealous Christian who finds his acts of sacrifice do not result in a satisfying narrative. These books may help such Christians steer a safer path.