Hey friends, the video curriculum for Long Story Short is now available at Seedbed.com (here).
As a sample, they’ve even made the videos for Creation (Ch. 1) and Jesus (Ch. 4) available for free.
I’m hoping that the video curriculum–along with the discussion questions and Bible readings at the end of each chapter–will serve churches and small groups well as they dive into the book (and more importantly, the Bible) in fresh ways.
Enjoy my occasionally creepy eye-movements and the one polo shirt that I apparently wear for all such videos 😉
Chapter Four: Jesus: “Why Directors Should Wear Makeup”
Chapter One: Creation: “Why Sugar-Momma Had to Die”
John Chau, Jim Elliot, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
As it happened, when news broke that John Allen Chau had been killed while trying to evangelize an isolated tribe far off the coast of India, I had been re-reading one of my favorite works of fiction: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
The story, written around 1899, is among the most famous critiques of colonialism in its ignorant and damaging forays into tribal cultures. Conrad wrote it from experience. He had gone to the Congo in 1890 to serve as a river pilot. Long before that, at the young age of nine, he had placed his finger on the blank space of a map that represented Africa, and proclaimed: “When I grow up I shall go there.”
The reality did not live up to his hopes.
Near the beginning of Heart of Darkness, the narrator (Marlow) recalls a scene that functions as a kind of allegory:
Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.
Blindly firing into a continent.
For Conrad, this was a metaphor for western meddling in tribal cultures. It was a wasteful farce; a mix of ignorance and arrogance. And it resulted in unnecessary death.
But what does this have to do with John Allen Chau?
MUST MISSIONS BE COLONIAL?
For many, Chau’s decision to evangelize an unreached tribe on North Sentinel Island bears a resemblance to Conrad’s vessel. In Chau’s defense, his aim was not to pillage, colonize, or do violence. His goal was to minister or die trying.
Yet he did so with a frightful ignorance of the harm that he could bring—and not merely to himself. Even the slightest exposure to the germs Chau carried on his person or his gifts could wipe out the people that he sought to save. Yet “there [he] was, incomprehensible,” firing himself into an island.
JUST FATAL, FUTILE THEATER?
While many have been critical of Chau (and rightly so at points), it is the incomprehensibility of his act that interests me. That same word appeared in Conrad’s quote (above).
And in some ways, Chau’s thinking is as incomprehensible to the secular mind as is that of the islanders that killed him.
But it wasn’t always.
As Thomas S. Kidd notes, there is a striking difference in how journalists covered the death of Jim Elliot, the Christian missionary who was speared to death when he and others attempted to evangelize an unreached tribe of Ecuador in 1956. At that time, Life Magazineoffered almost fawning coverage of Elliot’s noble attempt to “civilize” the “Stone Age savages.” (Yes, they used those words.)
Are Chau and Elliot so different?
In some ways they were. It seems that Chau was more of a rogue actor. He was more naïve; more careless with the health of those he sought to help. And undoubtedly, there are differences between the Ecuadorian Huaorani and the tribe that Chau sought out.
Still, note how a recent column in The Wall Street Journalspoke of Chau’s death, and then contrast that with Life Magazine, 1956:
there will be those who ascribe nobility to Chau, and courage. . . But go easy on the romance of Chau and his messy, martyred end.
He broke Indian law by entering the country on a tourist visa while pursuing an evangelical mission. Chau’s application would have been refused if it so much as mentioned the words “North Sentinel Island.” . . . What we had in the end, was one man’s futile—and fatal—theater.
An adventure tourist. A theatrical fame-seeker who broke the law. Don’t cry for him.
But is that fair?
Enough context. Now for my own imperfect takeaways from this odd mashup of
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)
Life Magazine (1956)
The Wall Street Journal (2018)
First, it seems quite clear to me that not all missionary efforts are praiseworthy. Despite good intentions, Chau was terribly naïve about the dangers that he brought to North Sentinel. When a couple of the islanders were kidnapped by a 19th c. British naval officer (Not Conrad), they died almost immediately for lack of an immune resistance. This matters; and especially given that far more indigenous people (in North America) were killed by germs from white conquerors, settlers, and missionaries than by anything else.
Would you go evangelize your neighbors and their children if you knew you carried the equivalent of Ebola?
If the apostle Paul was right that “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom 13:10), then Chau was either terribly ignorant or terribly cavalier about the result of “firing” himself like a human bomb into a very vulnerable culture.
Second, thank God that many westerners are now more sensitive in the way they think of what Life Magazine called uncivilized “savages.” Not even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is immune from these stereotypes (see Achebe’s famous, if overdone critique).
But neither Elliot nor Chau would have thought of indigenous communities in this way. Whatever other flaws they might have had, Chau and Elliot would have thought of such tribespersons as fellow image-bearers who deserve the gospel as much as anyone else. That’s not colonialism; it’s Christianity — even if Chau was wrong to go about it as he did.
Third, a final lesson from this whole sad tale is just how inscrutable it is for modern folks (e.g., the fairly conservative Wall Street Journal) to understand the historic Christian idea that neither “law” nor threat of “death” should stop one from sharing Jesus. Yes, this can be done badly (as it likely was in Chau’s case). But it can also be done with great care and bravery.
MY NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR
Allow a final example: Right next-door to my office sits a PhD in Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology: “Dr. Mike.” He is a legend around campus for his open door, open ears, and oft-imitated-but-never-duplicated laugh. Students love him.
He also lived in the jungles of New Guinea for ten years as a missionary with a VERY isolated tribal culture. He learned their language, customs, and their names. He was sensitive to many things that white missionaries often take for granted, and he teaches this to students.
It was quite possible, of course, that Mike too could have been killed as were Chau and Elliot in a tribal region prone to violence.
Why then did he go? And why especially with a wife and two small children born during his decade in the jungles?
Was it all “futile, [nearly] fatal theater”?
I don’t think so.
But I don’t doubt that it seems incomprehensible – to all except the tribal people that he came to know and love.
UPDATE: The always-thoughtful Ed Stetzer has a piece out now at The Washington Post that debunks some of the early news reports on Chau (see here for that). While Chau may well have posed grave dangers to the tribe he sought to reach, it also appears that initial news reports were not working (or caring) with all the facts.
While the book has been available for a couple months now, this week marks the official launch of the project, along with all the video content we shot to help church small groups use the material in practical ways.
I’ve been blown away by the response so far and can’t wait to share new resources as they come out.
If your church is interested in the book and would like to have me come speak or preach on the content, you can reach me at Joshua.email@example.com
I’ve got several dates on the calendar already, but would love to add more.
Lastly, if you’ve read the book, please consider leaving a review on either Amazon or Seedbed.com. They really help with the digital voodoo (read: algorithms) that determine who sees the book online.
For a writer, reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gileadcan be a bit deflating.
Not because it’s bad, but because her countless perfect sentences—so simple yet so penetrating—are enough to make almost anyone despair of what they’ve written.
In Gilead, we read the letters of a dying pastor (Rev. John Ames) to the young son that he will leave behind. In one of them, Ames tells of preaching during the carnage of World War 1.
In his attic, there are boxes of old sermons. Yet:
One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it.
THE ONE THAT BURNED
At the time, the Spanish flu had broken out in the midst of the Great War, killing millions. Hence many young men were dying before they even made it to the trenches.
As Ames writes:
It was a strange sickness—I saw it over at Fort Riley. […] They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right there in Iowa.
Now if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it.
I said, or meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers.
And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God
Now the part that I care about:
It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was.
So he burned the sermon, despite the fact that it seemed like the most honest thing that he had ever written.
As Ames puts it:
It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it. But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.
APPLICATION: PREACH TO THE PRESENT
My point here is not whether Ames was right about God’s hand within in the Spanish flu. In fact, I tend to detest such claims to omniscience when it comes to God’s judgement via natural disasters (see here).
My concern is with a more common problem amongst preachers, myself included.
The temptation to preach to those who aren’t present, rather than the ones who are.
After all, it’s easy to condemn the Woodrow Wilsons and the Pontius Pilates when they do not sit in front of you.
It’s easy to decry those “soft” and “lazy” millennials to a room of aging baby-boomers–or to a room of “superior” millennials (see here). It’s easy to bemoan liberal rot to a room of midwestern conservatives; or conservative fundamentalists to an educated group of East Coast mainliners.
But what good is it?
It’s like railing to poor Mirabelle Mercer about the Kaiser’s war policy.
To preach to those who are present is more difficult, not least because you might step on the toes that sit beneath the pews. It forces us to ask about our besetting sins, which are always the ones we’d rather ignore.
The well-known Dallas Baptist, Matt Chandler, notes this tendency within his own context:
If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media.
If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political …
If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.
His point is that it’s not just preachers who prefer the sermon to convict the absent, it’s often the parishioners too. “Lord thank you that we are not like those people.”
In the end, if there is a lesson here from Gilead, it’s that sermons must connect, convict, and encourage the audience that will actually hear them—not the one that won’t.
In short: Preach to those present.
Preach to Mirabelle Mercer.
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This past week, I had the privilege of serving as the senior high youth speaker at Cedar Canyon Wesleyan Camp in Rapid City, South Dakota.
It was a great experience.
Admittedly, I have never considered myself to be a typical youth speaker. I am a college professor, an introvert, and a user of sermon illustrations that ranged (last week) from Soren Kierkegaard to David Foster Wallace.
Still, I marveled at how God used the time, not just in the lives of campers but also in my own life. The thirteen-hour drive home was a worshipful experience—which is saying something.
Cedar Canyon is a special place.
It’s beautiful, set near the Black Hills of South Dakota. And the Wesleyan camps there are planned and led by some of the most dedicated and enjoyable youth workers I’ve ever met. The music was phenomenal and the college teams served admirably.
On many nights, leaders worked till wee hours of the morning prepping for the next day’s activities—e.g., packing pantyhose as powdered “paint bombs” to be used at Rec. time (just like the early church).
I mention all this because I sometimes hear church leaders talk about moving away from camps as a way to engage young people. I get it. They can be a ton of work. Some “boutique camps” are so expensive that one practically needs a FAFSA or a trust fund to attend. And it is often alleged that such experiences trade on emotionalism, a suggestive state, and a lack of sleep to “manufacture” conversions. That happens.
But it’s not what I saw last week.
What I saw was a group of counselors, youth pastors, and staff that genuinely care about young people, and each other. For days on end they planned, prayed, and worked their butts off to create an environment that was safe, fun, and spiritually rich.
As always, the results are up to God. Yet it was humbling to watch young people come forward to trust Christ, pray for one another, and sign their names on giant boxes to signify a call to ministry.
God used our week, and I was thrilled to be part of it.
Here’s a video that only covers Tuesday!
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