New York Times Magazine article, The Call

by Jim on 28 February 2006

The cover article in the 29 January 2006 edition of the New York Times was The Call, a visit with American missionaries with AIM in northern Kenya. Rick and Carrie Maples live with their two daughters in a remote (for them) area of the country with the Samburu people.

Some friends of ours pointed the article out to us the other day, and the Kingsleys also mentioned the article in their blog, particularly focusing on the portions of the article about the children (actually, it was a major theme of the article). I wasn’t even going to mention it, but being such a major magazine I’m sure many of you have seen the article, and have thought about the issues written about there.

The article is very much written in a “reporting” style, giving the facts and letting the readers draw their own conclusions. However, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the cover photo of a family in American style clothes looking somber along with a Samburu friend is not likely to bring out feelings of love and joy.

I couldn’t help but think that most people reading this article would react with horror and outrage toward the missionaries. Looking at the forums on the New York Times site, it seems I wasn’t wrong. Out of the 9 posts on the subject I read, 2/3 were very negative towards the missionaries, over 3/4 at least somewhat negative. Two were neutral, and none were positive. The impression that one seems to get from the article is that of parents attempting to brainwash the people, and even their own children (though somewhat unsuccessfully).

Typical statements included: When are these racist do-gooders going to accept religion began in Afrika and that Afrikans are born spiritual people therefore, they need to stop their brainwashing of bringing God to Afrikans? or how about this one: Conversions have no place in the age of science,enlightened thinking and rationalism.

I wouldn’t blame the author Daniel Bergner nor the missionaries themselves for this impression. The article was thorough and free of a lot of the misinformation that’s currently out there. In the end, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on, even from such a lengthy article. However, one of the quotes that disturbed me the most came unfortunately from missionary Rick Maples himself – “But I won’t argue with the fact that I’m using my truth to affect Samburu culture”.

Why would this article make people angry? Because they see someone using their truth to influence a secure, beautiful and yet endangered culture. Of course, we as Christians know that the truth is not “our truth” but “the truth”. I have no doubt Rick Maples would say the same thing, regardless of this quote. But as long as people reject God’s truth, they will stand in opposition to anyone sharing that truth, no matter how innocent or tactful that sharing may be.

I won’t go into a long discourse about truth here, except to say that I think people should remain free to explore and share truth. But this article addresses other issues – taking children to the field, influencing culture, human rights, aid and development, the cost of sending missionaries, and so on. I do hope that missionaries and the Christian Church as a whole will continue to wrestle with these issues.

I hope people reading this article will remember a couple of things. First, this is the experience of one American missionary family. Missionaries are sent out from many countries and many religions, they do many things and have many different philosophies, good and bad. Second, there are a lot of positives that I think the article misses out on, and a number of alternatives that it doesn’t explore. If you think all the children of missionaries are isolated and suffering (not that I necessarily think the Maples children are), or that every missionary has the same reasons for going or reacts to culture the same way, you’re missing out.

Remember that missionaries have been interacting with culture in both positive and negative ways for 2000 years. The issues aren’t new, and the idea of missionaries trying to preserve culture is as old as the Bible. Though the accusation that missionaries are condescending and imperialistic has often been deserved, it just as often hasn’t been deserved. The desire of the Maples to plant a culturally relevant church isn’t as new as most people seem to think.

Be sure to visit the AIM US page about the article and related issues. Dr Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a blog about the article as well. It’s entitled The Continuing Call—Christian Missions in the Post-Colonial Age. It’s a good article, although I think he may be a little optimistic about people’s reactions to the New York Times piece.

Regardless of the media and the beliefs of the world, the real question remains – what is true and right? And what would the God of Truth and Love have me do today?

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