Lost in the Jungle

On Sunday Sequence last weekend on Radio Ulster, there was an interview with Dr. Daniel Everett, a linguistic anthropologist and former Bible translator/missionary, about his loss of faith and the negative consequences for his relationships with his family and friends. Over the past year our church "Good Book Group" read his book "Don't Sleep, There are Snakes" in which he describes his experiences amongst the Piraha people of the Amazon, including, in the concluding chapter, his loss of faith.
I subsequently gave it a relatively poor rating on the Goodreads site not because of his conclusions, but because it was a literary dog's dinner. As I wrote in my review of it, I wasn't entirely sure whether it was an autobiography, linguistic anthropology, critique of Chomsky's theories, or an anti-missionary apologetic?
The lack of a clear structure and aim to the book didn't endear the author to me, and the more I read (long before the final chapter) the more antipathetic I became.
There seemed to be a naivety in his approach, which was neither innocent nor endearing, but appallingly arrogant. I trust that he has grown out of this in the same way he claims to have grown out of his faith. But there was a curious contradiction between his latter description of the Piraha as not needing what he had originally gone to share with them ie. the Bible in their own language and the gospel it speaks of, whilst earlier he had described a people with little fellow-feeling, who (possibly through an enhanced sense of mortality) had an almost callous disregard for the lives of others, be that Dr. Everett's malaria-stricken wife, a member of the tribe giving birth alone on the riverbank, or a woman effectively gang-raped by the males of the tribe. This is, by no means, a tribe of bucolic innocents.
I was also struck by the fact that while he identified ties between their language, culture and (lack of) organised religious rituals (although I would contend that he missed the sense of an existential/experiential spirituality which is as valid a starting point as any), he seemed unable to identify the strong cultural conditioning of his own faith... the Piraha were not interested in his American Jesus, and why should they be? Especially when the actions of this American missionary didn't match his profession - early on in the book, there was he, who professed belief in life after death, frantically trying to save his ill family (and making some dreadful decisions in seeking to do so) while the Piraha, who believed in death as a part of life with nothing afterwards, simply watched on dispassionately.
But I have to say, what I found perplexing, was the Christian culture that Everett seems to have come from and subsequently rejected. His rejection of Christianity caused a breakdown in his marriage, and wider family relationships, which he only mentions in passing in the book. But in the interview on Sunday he said that not only had his family relationships been shattered, but that he was effectively ostracised by his former friends and colleagues. Now this can be the experience of many people who go through divorce in a faith setting... it has been said that the second question in such circumstances after "who gets the kids" is "who gets the church". This must be exacerbated where there is a loss of faith involved, as the individual involved absents him or herself from worship, Bible studies and other gatherings that used to be not only spiritual but also social in function. Are such people actively ostracised? Or is that simply the perception? Is there a difference? It has certainly raised questions for me regarding how I deal with people who have walked away from faith or the church. Am I like a shepherd who seeks the lost sheep, or a father who waits for the return of the lost son, or do I simply delete them from my pastoral care list and my memory?
But the aspect of Dr. Everett's formative Christian culture that most frustrated and infuriated me was the missionary mindset that he seems to have blithely accepted at Bible College, that "you have to get people lost before they can understand their need to be saved..."
Whilst I understand what is meant by this, frankly I believe it does a huge disservice to the gospel. It speaks of the old joke where a tourist asks an Irish farmer for directions to somewhere and he tells them, "Well, if I was going there, I wouldn't start from here!" But this isn't a joke... If there is to be any authenticity to the gospel we seek to share we need to start where people are and help them to encounter Jesus there, rather than get them to retrace our faltering steps on the journey of faith...
Whether it be in the Amazon or the post-Christian west, we need to free the Bible and gospel from its cultural and linguistic shackles... So that the lost may find their way home...


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