Tag Archives: Missions

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Reflection

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I read Tom Wolfe’s latest work, The Kingdom of Speech. Wolfe is well-known and controversial journalist who has authored fiction and non-fiction works on a range of subjects. In the aforementioned title, a sort of exploration into philosophy, science, linguistics, and history, Wolfe devotes significant attention to the story of Daniel L. Everett.

Everett was a missionary sent by the Summer Institute of Linguistics to the Pirahās (pronounced pee-da-HAN) Indians in the Amazonian jungle. I had heard of Everett before and discussed his story with a Brazilian friend, though I did not know the whole story. What I did know was so fascinating to me that I picked up a copy of his memoir, Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon Books, 2008).

Everett’s primary objective was to learn the Pirahās language—one of the most complicated ones known to man—and produce a successful translation of the Bible. So at the age of 26, Everett made his first journey to the Pirahās. He and his family would spend large portions of the next 30 years working among these unique people deep in the heart of the Amazon.

Everett was well-suited for this specific mission as he had shown himself to be an exemplary student of language during his undergraduate and graduate education. He studied at Moody Bible Institute, but he also would earn his masters in linguistics and a doctorate at UNICAMP (a large Brazilian university). In more recent years he has held positions at many universities, including Illinois State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Manchester.

Everett’s Significant Contribution

This book is significant for several reasons. First, as Christians deeply committed to global evangelism, we can appreciate someone devoting most of their life to an obscure, extremely dangerous place (hence the book’s title), doing the hard work of learning and translation in order to put God’s Word in the tongue of a people. Moreover, though there had been a few previous missionaries to this tribe, none had been successful. Everett notes at the time of his book’s publication that there had never been a known conversion at any period in the history of their tribe! (269).

A second reason the book is significant is because it is more about language and culture than it is the spiritual task of missions. The book interweaves the Everett family’s story with reflections on different theories about linguistics, and how various theories had sought to explain the phenomenon of language. How can Darwinism account for the unique complexities of human language? This question, the subject of Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech, also pervades academic discussions of language. Since this is also a community Everett had been part of for years, his book discusses this issue in great detail.

Everett contends that the language of the Pirahās actually undermines the dominant thesis of modern linguistic theory, promoted by Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, now 88, is the most influential figure in the field of linguistics not only in America, but perhaps the world. Chomsky is famous for his notion of Universal Grammar. In essence, this theory asserts that language is primarily genetic in origins, not primarily cultural (as many others believe, including Everett). Grammar, or how language works/fits together, arises from a set of structures innate to human beings. While languages across the world are very diverse, there are some common elements that show language to be inherent to the human genetic make-up.

Because Everett has been able to document how the Pirahās language does not fit the paradigm advanced by Chomsky and others in the field, his research has caused quite a bit of a stir in academic linguistics.

What’s Theology Got to Do With It?

From a theological perspective, it may be tempting to simply say we believe that humans are made in the image of God, and leave it at that. However, there are numerous ways we could deepen our study of what the Bible says about humanity and consider how this might intersect with what we believe about language.

Some have suggested that language is one entailment of being made in God’s image. Others have suggested it is the central meaning of being in His image. Even Wolfe makes several mentions of this particular doctrine in his book and how it relates to this larger discussion of what humans are like.

One thing is for sure: linguists, anthropologists, philosophers, and scientists of all kinds are likely to arrive at different conclusions about language if they operate out of an evolutionary framework.

Intellectuals working from such a framework are forced to try and explain all human phenomena in either cultural or biological terms, or both. Yet in the end they will either simply double-down on the conclusion that human beings are nothing special, just highly-evolved primates. Or they will try to preserve a sense of human uniqueness among all other species, but lack the metaphysical grounding for this belief.

There is much more to Everett’s book that merits discussion here, but I’ll conclude with one final observation. A rather sad reason why the book is significant (SPOILER ALERT) is that in the end Everett tells of his departure from Christianity. This will likely be the only “missionary biography” one ever reads with this conclusion.

As difficult as it was for me to read the conclusion of the book, I think the reasoning he gives is a sobering cautionary tale. I’ll leave it to others who read to glean lessons from this. To me, it is a tale of how increasingly gradually bracketing out theology and communion with God from anthropological and linguistic research can make a person intellectually vulnerable to the already-present spiritual vulnerabilities of life in the world, especially on the mission field.

Simply put, if Christian doctrine is always revised in light of the latest scientific consensus on a particular question, and if one does not carefully guard their walk with the Lord, they will find that the complexities of life will gradually erode the commitments of their soul. Everett was confronted for years with the hardships of life in the jungle, the contentment of a lost tribe to continue rejecting Jesus, and trying to untangle the mysteries of language and culture. This is a tall order for anyone.

Although most of us will continue to dwell in a familiar Western world, we should recognize that there are many complex burdens in serving God and understanding His world. Therefore, we must maintain spiritual vigilance in the fulfillment of our ministries, regardless of where they take us.

 

Kevin Hester & “Trinitarian Preaching”

by Theological Commission

Recently the Commission for Theological Integrity hosted its annual Symposium on the campus of Hillsdale FWB College. Among the many excellent papers presented was Dr. Kevin Hester’s entitled “Trinitarian Preaching: On the Father, in the Son, and through the Holy Spirit.” It was extremely well-received, and we’re happy to provide you with the audio file of this presentation. You can listen/download here.

Additionally, a paper copy of this presentation, along with the rest of this year’s papers, can be acquired by ordering a copy of the Digest of Papers. Checks for $20 (which includes S&H) can be made out to the ‘Commission for Theological Integrity,’ and mailed to the attention of Mrs. Martha Fletcher at 3606 West End Avenue, Nashville, TN, 37205. Notify us at fwbtheology@gmail.com if you’d like to place an order, and please provide your mailing address in the email.

Thank you for your interest.

Missions and the Trinity

by Kevin Hester

Missiology is not my strong suit. It hasn’t been a part of my theological training except by extension. My appreciation for missions has largely come from the clear commands of Scripture and some of the basic principles of ecclesiology. I also think missionaries have such cool stories. I still remember the awe and admiration I had for the missionaries who visited my church during my childhood. They seemed to live such a vibrant Christianity in exotic contexts.

These stories aren’t just part of my childhood experience. As a historical theologian who works primarily in the late classical and early medieval period of the Church, I have run across important missional events that are dotted throughout this period. St. Patrick lived out his Christian mission in Ireland. St. Columba followed his call and worked to establish Christianity among the Picts in what is now Scotland. St. Gregory commissioned missionaries to England and Spain in the late 6th century to evangelize the new barbarians and to battle heresy. In the early 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi tied his new monastic endeavor to preaching and missions, going himself to attempt evangelistic efforts with the Sultan of Egypt.

Missions has been a part of the Christian church from the beginning. The Church blossomed from the work of the apostles and early Christian believers to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every nation.” This story is clearly presented in the book of Acts. We see there the same types of exciting stories that were so attractive to my 13-year-old budding masculine sensibilities. But when you turn to church history you quickly see that the explosion of church growth came not from what we call “missions,” but from “normal” Christian people living out their faith in their communities. (This is the basic thesis of Michael Green in his Evangelism in the Early Church, a book I would highly recommend.)

The more I have lived and learned, I have come to understand that mission work isn’t always exotic. I have befriended enough missionaries now to understand that they struggle with life’s everyday concerns just like I do. They work jobs, cook meals, tend to sick children, and go about the business of life in ways not dissimilar from all of us. They certainly have challenges that most of us don’t face when it comes to language and cultural issues, but mostly they work to live out their Christianity in their day-to-day interactions with people.

Missions is organic and basic to the Christian life. The professionalization of missions, much like the professionalization of ministry, has left most of us viewing it as a specific calling for specific people in specific places of the world. This does happen, but it is the exception rather than the norm. Missions at its most basic level is what we call Christian living. The call to all of us is to live out the love of Christ in all our relationships.

This emphasis on relationship can be seen in the history of the word “mission”. As David Bosch points out in his Transforming Mission, the term “mission” wasn’t used to describe evangelism until the Jesuit evangelistic enterprises of the 16th and 17th centuries. Instead, the term mission “was used exclusively with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, of the sending of the Son by the Father and of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son” (1). Historically then (and theologically), mission is based in the ontological nature of God and God’s desire to establish (or reestablish) a relationship with his creation.

All my life I have heard mission conference speakers and missiologists work to develop elaborate philosophies and methodologies. Many of these were built on social or ethical concerns. Others took a theological tack focusing on the relationship of general revelation and soteriology. I have even heard injunctions to mission based in eschatology. I really felt for them. I have so longed to hear a missionary sermon that wasn’t based on Matthew 28 or Acts 1. What else, after all, is there to talk about? Jesus said to do it, so I guess we have to.

This is why I was so refreshed to recently read Timothy Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. In this work, Tennent grounds missions not in a command alone, but in the nature of God. Suddenly, it clicked for me. Mission is who God is and “all theology is fundamentally missional because biblical theology reveals God as a missionary God.” (60)

In the divine economy of the transcendent Trinity, the Father sends the Son. In the immanent Trinity’s activity in human history Jesus sends the Church. He sends us to do what he did. He sends us to live and to love. He sends us to show the Father to the world. That is mission. It isn’t tied to a specific call or a specific place. Missions is for all of us. God the Father invites us into His work by being what He is creating (or recreating) us to be. The internal relations of the member of the Trinity serve as the model for the relationships we are called to have with God and with one another.

When we fail to base our concept of mission in who God is we miss the basic outline of Scripture. We commit that all-to-human of errors and make missions about us and what we can or “have” to do. When we do this, “the role of the Church as the body of Christ, the redeemed community in the world, and the ongoing reflection of the Trinity in the world is largely lost. We see ourselves as commissioned to tell the story, but we don’t see ourselves as intrinsically part of the story. However, the Church must do more than tell the gospel; we must embody it.” (63)

The missio Dei as expressed in the Trinity is about relationships. God, as a personal being, reveals Himself to a people He created for Himself. He calls all of us to tell His story and by telling His story to tell our own. He calls us to live lives of holiness and love; lives more in tune with the coming eschatological future than the present. The Father invites us into His mission. The Son revealed the Father and gave Himself for us. The Spirit calls us into service and empowers us to fulfill it through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Much like the incarnation was meant to give us a clearer picture of the Father, the sending of the Church serves to clarify the meaning and the purpose of the incarnation.

None of this means that God does not call some people to proclaim the gospel in exotic places. What it does mean is that each of us is a part of God’s worldwide missionary enterprise. God’s method is based in Trinitarian relationships. God tells His story and He does it through our relationships. It looks like we all have a story to tell.