Getting John Chau right

Getting John Chau right

This week, a good friend of mine sent me a new and fascinating article from GQ (that noteworthy Christian publication) on the fatal case of the missionary, John Chau.

I wrote about Chau last year, just after he was killed trying to evangelize an uncontacted tribe off the coast of India.

I tried to find a middle ground between Chau’s harshest critics and what I took to be his cavalier naïveté regarding the danger he posed to the island’s inhabitants—primarily because of the pathogens he may have carried.

“His goal was to minister or die trying,” I wrote.

Yet he did so with a frightful ignorance of the harm that he could bring […]. 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.

That last line was from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the famous critique of Western ignorance and colonialism.

FIRING INTO THE BLOGOSPHERE

So why revisit Chau’s death now?

In short, because I was wrong about it—at least partly.

Across the span of fifty-three pages (Yes, fifty-three), GQ writer Doug Bock Clark reveals how so many of the perceptions about Chau were simply false. He was not the careless and publicity-hungry “adventure bro” that many claimed.

That perception was created by Chau himself, intentionally, to protect the locals who helped him. Bock writes:

He worried deeply that [these people] could be harmed should his mission go awry.

[He] had built a website and Instagram account that looked like those of an adventure bro to throw people off the trail. Instead of desiring posthumous Elliot-like fame, he preferred to be remembered as a fool.

I was also wrong to claim that Chau was completely insensitive to the dangers of the germs he carried. In fact, he spent eleven days in a self-imposed quarantine in hopes of ridding himself of any lingering infections that might harm the islanders.

He was naïve, and dangerously so, since multiple doctors have noted that this quarantine would not have worked. But he was not completely insensitive to the need to minimize his potential for harm.

None of that, however, is why I’ve decided to revisit the story of John Chau.

MAKE “LONG-FORM” GREAT AGAIN

My real reason for dredging up this old story has to do with the remarkable bit of journalistic integrity displayed by (to my knowledge) a secular writer for GQ: Doug Bock Clark.

According to Clark’s website, his pieces have appeared in

The New York Times, GQ, WIRED, ELLE, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Esquire, The New Republic, The Atavist, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and The New York Times Book Review.

These are not purveyors of evangelical puff-pieces.

Yet Bock’s research on Chau is so scrupulous, so unflinchingly fair, and so winsomely written that it demands to be taken seriously.

Note, for instance, this paragraph, about what Bock found in the waterproof Bible that Chau took with him in his initial (non-fatal) attempt to share the gospel with the North Sentinalese:

I flipped open an edition of the waterproof Bible that had stopped the arrow the Sentinelese boy had fired at Chau.

He recorded the verses that the shaft broke on, which conclude in Isaiah 65:1–65:2: “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not…

Bock is clearly moved by this “coincidence” that the arrow broke on just this verse. And the respectful posture carries over to his account of how Chau may have died.

Since a person’s heart and brain present small targets for an island archer,

… the projectile would have been aimed at Chau’s large and soft gut. Once he was crippled, the Sentinelese would have charged in, wielding their long arrows like spears.

But before then, Chau would have had time to confront the fact that he was going to die.

And I have faith that he welcomed his killers with Christlike love.

CONCLUSION

To be honest, I still harbor my old concerns over harm Chau may have caused by his naivete. And I disagree with Chau’s assessment that this lone island should be seen as “Satan’s last stronghold” on earth. (I can think of many others: Washington D.C. for one.)

But I confess to feeling humbled and bested both by the sacrificial authenticity of Chau himself and of his secular “biographer.”

What Doug Bock Clark does in his article for GQ is precisely what is needed in an age deliberately slanted or impatiently planted “hot-takes.”

And that includes my own initial blog post.

Read the whole piece (here) and help make “long-form” journalism great again.

 


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