Monday, November 19, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE MISSIONARIES” by Norman Lewis (first published 1988)

            Reading Ben Stubbs’ travel book Ticket to Paradise reminds me of another book that makes strong reference to Paraguay.

            It is sometimes bracing to read a book that is lop-sided, biased, very selective in its presentation of material and yet sincere and making a genuine case with genuine evidence. A work of advocacy, in other words.

            The Missionaries, subtitled in some editions God Against the Indians, is one such book. It was one of the later books of the veteran British novelist and travel-writer Norman Lewis (1908-2003), who died at the ripe old age of 95, nine years ago. The Missionaries was written when Lewis was about 80. The cover of the paperback edition I have on my shelves promises an expose of genocide-practising missionaries among the South American Indians, and part of the book is indeed that. It eventually focuses on the Panare tribe of Venezuela and the Ayoreos of Paraguay. But somehow the blurb on the cover is misleading – this is not a systematic facts-and-figures expose, but an autobiographic volume clearly culled by Lewis from years of travel and travel-writing, not all of which was necessarily undertaken as research for this particular topic of missionaries.

            Lewis’s chronology is a little confusing as he buzzes through his own various voyages. Some of it clearly refers to events from the 1940s and 1950s, as Lewis recalls time spent with the Montagnard tribes in old French-controlled Vietnam; or his visit to a shaman in Mexico. Other parts clearly date from the 1970s (the awful round-ups of Indians in Paraguay) and the 1980s (his visit to the peaceful Panare, with their culture now subverted.)

            The clear villains of the piece are, in Lewis’s account, American Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists. To set the scene for what he has to report of modern South America, Lewis quickly recaps on the work of the evangelical London Missionary Society in the Pacific in the nineteenth century. In Lewis’s version, they deliberately set out to undermine the local cultures in order to cause that social fragmentation which would make it less possible for indigenous peoples to resist Christianity as a unifying force. One of Lewis’s set-pieces is his account of a Pacific chieftain, in the nineteenth century, being made dependant on alcohol by the LMS so that he would be more pliable in allowing the missionaries free rein over his subjects.

            After this sort of prologue, Lewis then turns to modern South America. He examines Protestant-fundamentalist-run outfits such as the New Tribes Mission and the so-called Summer Institute of Linguistics, which is less disingenuously called the “Wyclife Bible Translation Society” elsewhere. It genuinely studies indigenous languages, but with the sole aim of producing translations into them of Protestant versions of the Bible. The fundamentalists’ basic philosophy is that the Indians’ souls must be “saved”, even if the Indians are killed and their society destroyed in the process.

            At one point Norman Lewis quotes them: “He comes’, as the missionaries never cease to quote, ‘not that Man shall continue to live in the world but that he shall be with him in the hereafter’. The unimportance of a comfortable, earthly life, weighed in the balance of the threat of eternal punishment in the next life, inspires many missionaries to gather souls at all costs, often with disregard for the converts’ welfare in this world.” (Chapter 7)

            For Lewis, this suggests that Protestant fundamentalist missionaries have an undeclared dualism, almost Manicheism – all that is not of Christ (and this includes Indian customs) must be of Satan and therefore must be eradicated.

            Lewis is clearly an agnostic, but in his account, the Catholic Church comes through quite favourably. Lewis does have some negative comments (generally relating to Catholic missions among Indians many centuries ago) but he understands that by and large modern Catholic missionaries have worked out a religious co-existence with the tribes, often join anthropologists in protesting against the destruction of tribal cultures and habitats, and understand the concept of “inculturation” in their preaching. Liberation theology and the strong strain of social justice in South American Catholicism mean that the Catholic Church is frequently at odds with tyrannical governments and dictatorships; whereas, for over half-a-century, Protestant evangelicals from the United States have been quite happy to work hand-in-glove with dictatorships and with logging companies which destroy the rain-forests, so long as they can have access to the human material they wish to convert. Claiming to be apolitical, the evangelicals are in fact highly political. They are spreading the influence of American cash colonialism and dependence on consumer goods.

            The Missionaries is as much a lament as a protest. There is something extremely elegiac in its final description of a Panare fish-hunt. Lewis was aware that this life he was describing would shortly no longer exist.

            There are, however, some anomalies in the book. Given the  subject matter and Lewis’s sympathies, it is odd how old-fashioned Lewis’s tone often sounds. We have to remember that Lewis was already an old man when he was writing. Somehow it is an antique style of travel-writing in which the author never disguises his awareness that he is bringing exotic wonders and sights to his Western readers. Sometimes, too, we have the sense of the privileged traveller not always revealing clearly why he is at any given scene which he describes. And occasionally Lewis is not aware of how much his own presence signals social change for the indigenous people he champions.

            Lewis is a Westerner, sympathising with the Indians but not sharing their beliefs. We are told that one of his companions has been adopted by an Indian mother, but the way Lewis repeatedly refers to the man’s “fictive Indian mother” suggests that he himself does not fully accept or recognize this (non-European) relationship. One wonders too if Lewis is a little sanguine about the supposedly peaceful co-existence of Indians and miners before the murderous Protestant missionaries moved in.

            Some years ago, as part of gaining a theology degree with a major in church history, I undertook a paper on nineteenth century Protestant missionary endeavour. I remember one lecturer becoming very annoyed when I mentioned Lewis’ book, and saying that its sections on the LMS were very selective. He was probably right. There is by now a long history of stereotypical depictions of 19th century missionaries as cultural wreckers. At its crudest it can be seen in best-selling pop-novels like James A. Michener’s Hawaii; but it was also present as early as Herman Melville’s supposed travel book Typee in the 1840s (in which Melville pretended that his brief three-weeks stay on a Pacific island was the extensive experience of four months).

            The image was set of harmless “natives” living an idyllic life which was being disrupted by missionaries’ threats of hellfire. Often, too, those Westerners who most loudly damned missionaries’ cultural predations (Melville, Gaugin etc.) were themselves bringing “corrupting” Western influences into indigenous societies. Frequently missionaries were mitigating the harm already being done by traders, sailors, gun-runners, European settlers and others who were already destroying non-European societies before the missionaries had arrived or made any impact.

            Nevertheless, even after taking all this on board, I still find convincing Norman Lewis’s account of Protestant fundamentalists at work in South America. One terrifying aspect is the evangelicals’ clear obliviousness to how they are cultural missionaries as much as religious missionaries. They assume that they represent Christianity and “normality”. They never stop to reflect that their own culture and its values are not noticeably Christian; and that they are more the advance guard of Coca Cola, Fox News, wage dependence and consumerism than they are spreaders of the Gospel.

            What they need is a damned good dose of the concept of inculturation – but you won’t find that taught in any fundamentalist college.

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