Monday, 25 February 2013

How to Really Evangelize

Daniel Everett with the Pirahã
In his 2008 book ‘Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes’ (Vintage Press) Daniel Everett recounts the astonishing experiences and discoveries he made while he lived with  a small tribe of Amazonian  Indians in central Brazil.

Daniel L. Everett arrived among the Pirahã with his wife and three young children hoping to convert the tribe to Christianity.  Everett quickly became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications.  The Pirahã have no counting system, no fixed terms for colour, no concept of war, and no personal property.  Everett was so impressed with their peaceful way of life that he eventually lost faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them, and instead devoted his life to the science of linguistics.  Part passionate memoir, part scientific exploration, Everett’s life-changing tale is a riveting look into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

As a representative of the Summer Institute of Linquistics (SIL) missionary Everett believed that the most effective way to evangelize indigenous peoples was to translate the New Testament into their language.  Since SIL also believes that the Bible is literally the word of God, then, it is reasoned, the Bible should beable to speak for itself.  But efforts to convert these peoples where for naught.  The Pirahã were not interested in his message or Jesus.  As Everett later relates:   

“I had gone to the Pirahãs to tell them about Jesus and, in I my opinion at that time, to give them an opportunity to choose pur­pose over pointlessness, to choose life over death, to choose joy and faith over despair and fear, to choose heaven over hell.

If the Pirahãs had understood the gospel and were nevertheless rejecting it, that was one thing. But perhaps they had not understood it. This was a strong possibility, since my speaking ability in the Pirahã language was still far from native.

On another occasion during that first period with the Pirahãs, I felt I understood their language well enough to give my own story about why I accepted Jesus as my savior. This is a common practice among evangelical Christians, called ‘giving your testimony’.   The idea is that the worse your life was before you accepted Jesus, the greater the mira­cle of your salvation and the greater the motive of unbelievers in the audience to accept Jesus too.  Obviously, this is tempered by the missionary’s desire to convert people to his or her own concept of truth, but worse things are known and the relative effect of proselytizing varies from people to people.  

However, as Everett was to eventually discover that the Pirahã believe only what they see, saying:

“Sometimes they also believe in things that someone else has told them, so long as that person has personally witnessed what he or she is reporting.  The Pirahãs live purely in the present the way the early Christian mystics discovered and recommended many years ago. Everett eventually came to question “Is it possible to live a life without the crutches of religion and truth?” and responds “The Pirahãs do so live. They share some of our concerns, of course, since many of our concerns derive from our biology, independent of our culture (our cultures attribute meanings to otherwise ineffable, but no less real, concerns). But they live most of their lives outside these concerns because they have independently discovered the usefulness of living one day at a time. They simply make the immediate their focus of concentration, and thereby, at a single stroke, they eliminate huge sources of worry, fear, and despair that plague so many of us in Western societies. They have no craving for truth as a transcendental reality. Indeed, the concept has no place in their values. Truth to the Pirahãs is catching a fish, rowing a canoe, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria. Does this make them more primitive? Many anthropologists have suggested so, which is why they are so concerned about finding out the Pirahas' notions about God, the world, and creation.”

Everett finally suggests to his readers

“But there is an interesting alternative way to think about things. Per­haps it is the presence of these concerns that makes a culture more primitive, and their absence that renders a culture more sophisticated. If that is true, the Pirahãs are a very sophisticated people. Does this sound far-fetched? Let's ask ourselves if it is more sophisticated to look at the universe with worry, concern, and a belief that we can under­stand it all, or to enjoy life as it comes, recognizing the likely futility of looking for truth or God? The Pirahãs have built their culture around what is useful to their survival. They don't worry about what they don't know, nor do they think they can or do know it all. Likewise, they do not crave the prod­ucts of others' knowledge or solutions. Their views, not so much as I summarize them dryly here, but as they are lived out in the Pirahãs' daily lives, have been extremely helpful to me and persuasive as I have looked at my own life and the beliefs that I held, many of them without warrant. Much of what I am today, including my non-theistic view of the world, I owe at least in part to the Pirahãs”.

Yes, this is a true story about a missionary who set out to exploit an uneducated and primitive tribe deep in the jungle of the Amazon and find a people who practiced their beliefs as Jesus taught nearly two thousand years ago.  When Daniel Everett emerged after nearly two decades with this tribe it was he who was  evangelized instead.  As a result he painfully discovered that his original beliefs no longer served him but at the terrible expense of his and family and friends because he no longer shares their foundational beliefs.   

But before we judge him we must consider what missionaries did for hundreds of years previous in their attempt to convert the so called pagans in the world.  How many aboriginals were separated from their religion and families worldwide in the name of Christian evangelization?   What pain and suffering was put upon these innocent victims that are only now being recognized?

Finally, we must ask ourselves “what is evangelization really about?”

  Jesus tells us “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat. 28:19-20).   Jesus evangelized simply through leading by example.  And for us it must begin just like Jesus by recognizing that the life we live is not about us but by allowing God to live his life through us. Only in this way can we be fully equipped to serve others by healing the sick, bring the dead back to life, heal those who suffer, drive out demons, feed the hungry, etc., etc.,   It is really that simple!  When we set out to evangelize others it will be good to remember that God meets us where we are – not where others would have us be. Perhaps in that way we too we will experience a renewed understanding of what it means to evangelize.    

No comments: