Against hagiography

On page 1 of The Missionary Factor in Ethiopia, the editor Getatchew Haile dares to call modern Protestant missionary biographies for what they in fact are: hagiography.

Now he is not derisive and the book is not at all dismissive of their work. But he does point out something that fanboys of all ages are usually loathe to admit – their heroes are usually not as holy and amazing as we wish they were we should be honest and treat them as such. To do otherwise, I believe, is damaging to our witness.

Along those lines, if I hear one more “inspiring” sermon about how freakin’ amazing Jim Elliot was to get himself killed in the Amazon, I’m gonna scream. The guy was faithful and brave. That’s great! But that’s all. That’s all. His story just doesn’t get, in my opinion, as much mileage as the story of many other faithful men who aren’t told. It’s really hip to get speared by natives in the jungles of Ecuador while trying to preach Jesus to them and have a large network of people back home who care about your work. It’s not near as cool to get gang-raped in Iraq because they heard you were secretly a Christian. And nobody knows about it – not even your family. We talk about one far too much and the other hardly ever.

Someone might think that I’m all cynical about these stories. Not so. I really enjoyed reading about the Sudan Interior Mission a couple weeks ago. I admire those folks tremendously and also realize that they, in hindsight, made some bad decisions. Some unwittingly and some through failure of character. I think Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a true contemporary saint. People were shocked a few years back when some of her journals and letters were published and it was revealed that she had various problems and often felt very discouraged during most of her life. But this is completely normal – at least when human beings are concerned.

I vote for less celebrity worship and fewer big names. I’m for less hagiography and more biography. Let’s have a bit less polish and more humility and along with that love and acceptance of flawed heroes.

Below – Some examples of hagiography of, ahem, varying quality: