The problem with simple story-telling

The almost universal tendency of the missionaries to exaggerate their own importance and success in order to keep the economical contributions in Europe on a high level is usually not taken into account. The focus is on the missionary and the people they encounter are either characterized either as eager listeners, that is potential converts, or aggressive enemies, both categories promoting the supporters of the mission to send more funds and missionary personnel.

-Samuel Rubenson, The Interaction Between the Missionaries and the Orthodox: The Case of Abune Selama, p.74

Before I continue, I want to note that despite the negative tone of the quote above, I do not believe the author is scoffing at Christian missionary work and it is not my intention to do so either. In fact, I enthusiastically support the bulk of it. I am just trying to provide a bit more light on certain aspects of it as I study the interaction between Africa and the West.

The passage above points out one of the most fundamental problems with “narrative” (I put narrative in scare quotes only because of it’s over-use as of late). The problem is that good stories are spun – massively edited accounts. It’s the nature of the medium. Virtually every film that has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture was also at least nominated for Best Editing. True story. An 800-page academic biography and a 300-page thriller can have exactly the same subject matter and facts, but tell it in remarkably different ways. They each have their virtues and pitfalls.

But that’s the problem with spin and it affects our understanding of international cultures and churches as well. That’s why it’s not uncommon to hear conflicting accounts from the mission field. Were the Orthodox Christians really welcoming and hospitable or where they hostile and dangerous? Were the Muslims eager to hear the gospel or did they try to burn down the missionaries house? What about all the people inbetween these too poles? It turns out that MOST of the people were somewhere in the middle as to their response and opinion. There were lots of people that didn’t like the missionaries, but didn’t do anything in particular to stop or sabotage them. In the same way, there were plenty of people that came to Christ after years of work – they were not at all interested at first. These people’s stories aren’t often told though because they are slow and boring. But real life is slow and boring. The problem with journalism is that it nearly always goes for the easy-to color folks. Oh, sure maybe they have some nuance if given enough time but in short stories, most folks are still pretty well delineated as either heroes or villains. To tell a good story is a good thing, but it is also, often, a deceptive thing. Remember that there is always way more going on behind the scenes – most of it dull and tedious!

This is what’s missing from the Iron Man movies – Tony Stark spending weeks debugging the navigation sensors on his power suit due to some bad wiring and miscalibration. Can you imagine a sequel like that? Yawn. But it would be undeniably much more accurate.