Miracles of different sorts

I’ve been reading a book titled “Seven Sevens of Years and a Jubilee: The Story of the Sudan Interior Mission”. Published in 1943 (and somewhat hard to find), it is the memoir of Rowland Bingham, a Canadian who founded and worked tirelessly to send protestant Christian missionaries into sub-Saharan Africa in the early part of the 20th century. It’s been an interesting and enjoyable read, even more so when I think about what sometimes ISN’T being said. I’ve read a lot of history and analysis of these same regions during this time lately and sometimes a very different picture is painted. I still would consider this guy “on my team”, while at the same time realizing that his account is going to tilt a certain direction and gloss over facts that may not fit well in the story he is trying to tell. The following is an example of what I’m talking about.


This is a book full of miracles. But these missionaries are not charismatics, but rather mostly baptists and Presbyterians. Nobody gets suddenly healed, there are no prophecies spoken, no distinct tribes spoken to in their own languages via glossolalia, and no exorcisms. It’s not to say these things didn’t happen. In fact, if even a fraction of the more personal accounts of these deep inland African missionaries are to be taken at face value, then nearly all these things were in fact happening. Exorcisms and demonic confrontations in particular figure prominently into many accounts of attempts to evangelize pagans. This holds for Christians of all traditions and denominational backgrounds, even ones that technically dismiss this sort of activity. But, it wouldn’t be fit to report THOSE stories back to westerners that had categorically ruled out their possibility. They might begin to doubt the rest of the story as well and withdraw their financial support.

Yet the book is still full of miracles. What miracles then? Money ones. These missionaries repeatedly set out on trips with barely enough cash to buy a train ticket to their next league of their destination, let alone enough money to outfit an 800-mile trek into Niger in 1910. But the money kept showing up. Random people they met would give them a thousand bucks. Someone would die and donate their entire estate to the mission. Bingham would be asked to preach during an impromptu service on a boat across the Atlantic and the offering taken up from the strangers there would be just cover all expenses. Should we be careful and scale things back during the war (WWI) they asked? No! Full steam ahead. And the war years turned out to be some of the most fruitful. Some donated a bunch of money in stocks to them. The financial advisers all said they should carefully invest them for the future. No way! Sell ’em all now and use the money to send some guys to Darfur. The quality at the center of each story was trust – trust that God wanted them to do this dangerous and seemingly impossible thing and how they went and did it anyway, with his divine assistance.

Or didn’t do it. The number of team members Bingham lost in the early days – most of them to malaria, was rather shocking. On several of his trips, he returned home having buried his friends in the dirt and seemingly accomplished nothing. Talk about discouraging! God wants us to do this thing! We even got all this money out of the blue and used it to buy supplies and passage to Ghana. Then we sailed up the river to find this unreached tribe we had heard a rumor of and…. half the team got sick and died and some Muslim slave traders tried to kill us. We returned completely empty-handed. And…. then got our act together and tried the whole thing over again the next year, with only slightly better results.

After years of that, actually establishing several churches in the bush, translating several of the gospels into the local language and baptizing thousands of converts would not seem like “business as usual”, but rather just like what it was – a miracle of sorts.

Now, you may wonder if I have personally ever experienced anything like this. The answer is  yes. I won’t go into the details at this point but I will say this much: My wife and I have been technically broke or in debt our entire marriage. Two years ago we wanted to adopt our forth child. Nearly everyone, especially family told us it was a foolish and unwise idea. We decided to trust God that it was not in fact a stupid or misguided desire, but rather something He was asking us to do. In the end, it cost over $30,000. We didn’t do any fundraising and the naysayers didn’t give us a dime. We brought her home about 18 months ago. The bills are entirely paid off. True story.

Comments on John Hull’s ‘A Spirituality of Disability’

The following is commentary from my wife and I on John Hull’s essay A Spirituality of Disability: The Christian Heritage as both Problem and Potential.



Some long, but worthwhile quotes:

One of the most important aspects of the spirituality of disability lies in the challenge which it offers to hegemony. The world of the able-bodied usually conceives of itself as the only world. Those whose bodies are not able are excluded. As an example, let us take the situation of sighted people. Although sighted people know, with varying degrees, that they are sighted, it is unusual to find a sighted person who knows that he or she lives within a world which is a projection of the sighted body. In other words, although sighted people know that they know through sight, they seldom realise the epistemic implications of vision. Sight projects a world and sighted people are embodied within that world. They know that there are others but they seldom know that there are other worlds. Therefore they think of others as being excluded from their own world. Thus they unconsciously create a discourse of dominance.
When this ideology of domination is internalised by disabled people, as is almost inevitable in the first instance, the result is a loss of self-esteem, a loss of soul which is the accompaniment of identification with the marginalised and the excluded. In this way, the power of the present absolute world is acknowledged.
There can be no dialogue between the disabled and the non-disabled until the plurality of human worlds is recognised. As long as the non-disabled world retains its hegemony, the relations which it has with the world of disability will be those of care for the helpless, and of patronisation. The relationship will be that of charity, of condescension, and not that of mutual respect based upon acknowledgement of otherness.

What are the implications of this approach for the education of disabled children and adults? One of the controversies within special education is the question of whether disabled children should be educated for successful life in the larger society or whether they should be educated for successful life within the world they already live in. This controversy was particularly sharp in the case of those with profound hearing loss, and has only gradually been partially resolved in a deeper respect for the integrity of the deaf condition and the recognition that the culture of the visual has its own characteristics. In the history of the education of people with a visual loss, there has been a similar conflict. The predominance of embossed, punctilinear script over embossed shapes of the letters of the Latin alphabet is a case in point. Punctilinear script, the most widespread example of which is the type devised by Louis Braille, is recognisable by touch more easily than the embossed forms of printed letters, but is less convenient for sighted people. Braille only won the struggle when blind people got control of the agencies. The approach of this present study is a contribution to the growing tendency to recognise the integrity and distinctive nature of each form of disability, and lays emphasis upon the need to help each disabled child to achieve wholeness within the characteristics of that particular disabled state. The approach of this present study is a contribution to the growing tendency to recognise the integrity and distinctive nature of each form of disability, and lays emphasis upon the need to help each disabled child to achieve wholeness within the characteristics of that particular disabled state. For social and economic reasons, disabled people must also live in the greater world, but this can be achieved most successfully if the adaption to the larger society springs not from a sense of deficiency and loss but from a position that has come to realise the intrinsic character of the world in which one lives in the body.
I realised this in the course of preparing my project ‘Cathedrals through Touch and Hearing’, that set out to equip the English cathedrals with facilities for blind and partially sighted visitors. I found that most of the cathedral guides wanted to show the sighted person’s cathedral to the blind person, and did not understand that such knowledge must necessarily remain in words only. How can a blind person be interested in stained glass? Only by way of general information about the cathedral. Sighted guides would place the tip of my finger on a tiny rose bud, cleverly carved amongst the intricate shapes of the leaves and branches of a chair leg, something that would take the blind hand a long time to appreciate, while the loveliness to the hand of the cold brass of the smooth communion rail would not be mentioned. Gradually my project team realised that blind people must be taught to acquire first hand knowledge of the cathedral, and this meant teaching them to use their bodies in contact with the fabric in order to construct a distinctive blind cathedral. We realised that there are at least two cathedrals – one for sighted and the other for blind people. Each has its beauties and its needs.

My thoughts on this essay.

In a sense, this one had more that I felt was useful than the previous one. Often, I found myself nodding my head and thinking, “I hope that non-disabled people read this, really read it.” All the stuff about the sighted living in a single world that assumes anyone outside of that world is merely lacking is so true that I wanted to jump to my feet and shout “Preach it!”

At the same time, I think the verbiage used can so easily be misinterpreted as to obscure the entire point that Hull is making, quite excellently, I might add. The trouble with the “plurality of worlds” as Hull readily admits, is the Christian notion of singularity, and the danger of the pluralism to fall off the cliff into relativism and mushiness. I don’t think that is at all what Hull intends. I would humbly attempt to clarify his verbiage by replacing “world” with “lived experience” or “perception.” Hull is not advocating for relative Truth, but differences in perception, differences in lived experience, differences in conclusion based on differences in culture. Just as different races experience different cultures based on geography, tradition, language, food, socio-economic status, appearance or clothing, so a marginalized people group like people with a certain disability might also experience an alternate culture even while residing within a non-disabled community. This difference is what Hull seems to be saying by “world” and my own experience supports such a notion. Both the experience of a parallel, rich, beautiful, but alternate culture, and the disempowering rejection by the mainstream sighted world of the validity or existence of that culture. Because of the widespread prevalence of the insistence that the sighted experience is the only valid experience, I have struggled for years with defining my own experience only in terms of lack, which led to intense depression and problems with self-identity and self-esteem.

I loved the description of the journey that Hull and his colleagues took when deciding how best to present a tour of a cathedral to blind guests. Instead of presenting the aspects of a cathedral that sighted guests find most stimulating and trying to awkwardly translate it for blind guests, to instead present a different but equally valid set of experiences.

I also sympathized with Hull’s conclusionary statement that our culture, so long entrenched in ableism (disablism in the UK) has so far to travel before any significant change is effected that to view such a wold seems merely like foolish idealism. Yet, I still hope, and dialogue about this because I believe that words and ideas have power. Doing nothing will bring nothing. Doing something as small as joining in these discussions and dialogues may someday bring society shuffling closer to this kind of respectful thinking that we today can only dream of enjoying.


Minus 5 points for the phrase “phenomenological epistemology”.

I like that he begins with a difficult abstract concept (The transfiguration of the body and the transcendence of the body) and then goes onto to give good tangible examples of what his actually means.

In particular, the fact that technology transcends our bodies and extends our reach beyond ourselves and draws distant information to us. This is just as true of a blind person using a GPS device as it is of a sighted person chatting with someone on the internet, or either of them reading a book.

The body is transfigured by the loss of a sense. But in doing so, it is opened to the possibility of other worlds when before it seemed that there were only one. It is a powerful kind of “forced empathy” you could say. Once you realize there are at least 2 worlds (seeing and unseeing, it is much easier to make the jump to their being 3, 4, 5, 500). At the same time, there is still only one world. Hyper-individuality is no good either.

I enjoyed his account of the blind person regaining their place in a new world, “gradually built up, put into place with innumerable fits and starts”. To the degree that we “deny citizenship” to this person in their world, we are not loving them. As Christians we have historically done this unwittingly by treating people as charity cases or sinners.

The blind person is, (hopefully I might add!) “No longer confined through the deception of everyday experience within an absolute world”. This is a good thing and another way to say that throw a particular narrowing of their senses or reach (in the case of, for example, a wheelchair-bound person) they are no longer so narrow minded. Their disability has transfigured their body and now they are aware of a wider world.

His point about how Christian tradition treats blindness in 2 ways was interesting to me and something I hadn’t considered. That it was a negative thing, yes, but I had forgotten about how it was sometimes used as a metaphor for faith (positive).

His line of reasoning about how there were no disable people among the disciples was really quite interesting to me. It seems that it would be very helpful if there were.  That the early apostles were accompanied by signs of healing seems to aggravate this problem. I think that one problem for this is that Acts records only the really cool stuff that happened in the first few years after Jesus ascended. There were likely tons of people with disabilities (major and minor) that were part of the Christian community but that did not get healed in any sort of miraculous sense. When one considers how many people probably had fairly severe myopia in antiquity with no vision correction, this has to be the case. Then again, that was the norm, so not worth mentioning. Only fancy stuff made it into the written account.

It’s a really challenging passage, but it’s also a case where I think we need to not be so much of a biblical literalist that we don’t consider other sources. That there were people of all social standing and economic class among the early Christians is clear from lots of 2nd century accounts. I think disabled people were definitely in there too, whether they were written about a lot or not. Also, as he mentions in several cases, Paul definitely had something going on which he alludes to on a couple occasions.

Finally, at the end, his example of the Cathedral made me think of the last time I was in a Cathedral. I noticed the stained glass and the high arches, and even the roughness of the stone, but didn’t think about the ornate carvings on the legs of the pews. I realized, in a bit of shock, that if I were building a Cathedral, I might have left that detail out! Terrible idea.

He ends on a downer. Can Christianity be rescued from us always considering blind people as alien? Oh ye of little faith. Yes, I believe so. Always reforming.

Oh, and this quote is good:

“It is the very provinciality of disability which enables it to grasp the territory of the human, while the city, looking out upon the provinces, thinks that it itself is everything. So a spirituality of disability not only pluralises the human world, it extends it.”



As Walt Whitman says, that I may contribute a verse.

O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 5
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

Comments on John Hull’s ‘The Broken Body in a Broken World’

My wife and I have had discussions lately on the topic theology and disability. It a topic that is, I believe, more important than you might think and one that has certainly been neglected by most or perhaps all of the best Christian thinkers.

One person that has written about it is John M. Hull, an English theologian who went blind in the middle of his life. We aim to read through a collection of essays he wrote related to disability and Christianity and try to comment on and further develop his ideas a bit. We decided this would be the best venue to post them at.

This is the first round. Please read the original essay, The Broken Body in a Broken World: A Contribution to a Christian Doctrine of the Person from a Disabled Point of View.

Our comments, with minimal editing, are as follows:



I am initially put off just by the title. The word “broken” implies the kind of negative connotations I am trying to reject. While I appreciate that the Fall has created a reality of brokenness, and also that the broken Body of Christ is celebrated, and not scorned, my search lately has been to discover whether a legitimate, orthodox theology of disability can support a view of disability in which the condition and experiences of the disabled person is different than that of the comparable able-bodied person but not inferior or negative in any way.

This is important for a philosophy and a theology of disability because it enables us to postulate the existence of several worlds of human knowledge. The experience which a blind person has of the world is so significantly different from that of sighted people that we can speak of it as a constructed world. This emphasizes the independence and integrity, the wholeness of the blind world, and sets blindness free from being interpreted merely in terms of deficiency. Blindness is not just something that happens to ones eyes; it is something that happens to ones world. This enables us to also relativise the hegemenous assumptions of many sighted people, who do not always realise that they live in a world which is a projection of their sighted bodies, but make the mistake of thinking that the world is just like that, the way they see it. Such people are never able to respect or understand blind people, but will always regard them as being merely excluded from the sighted world, and not as having a more or less independent world of their own.

As far as we are concerned, these controversies are long since dead, but a significant point remains, and one which is hardly ever commented on in the interests of a theology of disability; the Man who stands at God’s right hand is imperfect. The broken body on earth corresponds to the broken body in heaven. Moreover, the broken body on earth is to be found not only in the eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, but also in the church, which is the broken body of Christ, and in the broken body of suffering humanity. When people are hungry or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or in prison, it is Christ who suffers these things, and because only a body can suffer thirst, hunger, nakedness, illness and imprisonment, it is not the Spirit but the body of Christ that suffers (Matt. 25:31-46).

Several points in Hull’s essay have caught my attention. The first is choosing to deal primarily with the theology of the body as a direct contrast to Imago Dei.

I fail to understand why these two concepts must be mutually exclusive. Hull goes on to conclude later on in his essay that Jesus exists corporeally in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and yet Jesus is consummately in the image of God. He is God. The scars and wound (what Hulls refers to as the “brokenness”) did not alter the image of God or remove Christ from the Trinity. If Christ is still a member of the trinity, but the corporeal body bears the imperfections and scars even in heaven, then bodily imperfection therefore must not reflect on the perfect Imago Dei that Christ still shares.

I suggest that the “Kingdom of God is within” idea solves this dilemma in that the Kingdom of God does not rely on the state of our physical bodies. This, of course, directly denies Hull’s theology of the Body, but to me better addresses the dichotomy of the problem of imperfection and Imago Dei.

The next point that caught my attention is the idea of the High Priest who understands our weaknesses. Of course, the Old Testament priests had to be physically perfect, and specific guidelines were written about certain disabilities that would remove the eligibility of a man from serving as high priest. Still, if Jesus exists in heaven with the scars and imperfections now, and yet can serve in the role of High Priest, does this speak to a certain perfecting of imperfections or sanctifying of brokenness that results in requalification for service?

Hull briefly addresses the role of the disabled Christian within the Body of Christ: specifically that the awareness of the body, the empathy and compassion that the disabled naturally develop needs to exist within the church, and is an integral part of the Body of Christ.

While this is observably true, I would argue that this barely scratches the surface of the possible roles God might have in mind for the disabled within the larger Body of Christ. It would seem to me to be merely a poor start, as it is once again focused only on the negative, the experience of suffering and neediness that give the disabled such a one-dimensional persona to society in general, and the Church in particular.

To extend this, I’d like to bring a reminder that the disability that society so scorns often creates opportunities within the lived experience of the disabled person to develop skills that otherwise would likely stay latent. Fanny Crosby might have written 6,000 hymn had she not been blinded as a young child, but without the experience of learning orally, of having her grandmother read the Bible aloud to her until she had entire books of it memorized, and the time to compose verse due to a lack of other stimulation and activity, I highly doubt she would have been so prolific.

Beethoven might have written the Ninth symphony had he not been deaf, but the social isolation and introspection he experienced may have contributed to the intense power we find in the Ninth. Such speculation is impossible to prove, of course, but the contributions of people who have disabilities should never be limited to compassion for others or inspiration of the non-disabled, as nice as these things are. To really acknowledge the disabled as equally contributing members of the Church, their positive accomplishments need to be lauded, and not just as exclamations of shock or sentimental anecdotes of “overcoming.”


“due to the persistent tendency to infer inner sinful states from outer imperfections”
Yes, this is a problem, but not actually the actual case, just a tendency.
We are the image of God, but we do should not reinvent him in our image.
I still think, if phrased properly, the image of God can still be an OK starting point. I think most of the intuitive implications from this though are indeed problematic (God as perfect body, perfect intellect, etc.) and considering disabled people does a good job of bringing these problems to light.
With Dorothy Sayers, I would tend to emphasize the image of God being some sort of creative energy, something still observable in even some of the most mentally disabled.

Agree on physical disability, mental disability, and sensory disability being essentially the same thing, with the possible exception of some of what we in the modern secular west call psychological disorders. Some of these are better described as simply sin or the work of demons. The man who does not fear God begins with the assumption that neither of these exist, but we should not and no saint or writer of scripture thought anything of the sort.

Social aspect most alienating. Yes.

I like the “relative disability” thing on walking to get water in Africa. This is what I’m always sayin’. We are ALL disabled in some sense, to varying degrees and from various standpoints. It’s not an either/or.

Be careful treating everything as a construction inside someone’s head creating new worlds. This is a common technique to ignore nature and especially scripture. Empathy does not require multiple universes, but one.

Baggage muddies the waters of our understanding. For example, the fact that most blind people live in poverty makes blind people seem more different than they really are. They share many things with wealthy blind people, but much they do not. Don’t confuse the two. This is a good point.

Careful saying the economics is unnatural. That’s probably too big a bite to chew.
I would qualify it as being largely contrived and unjust, but not necessarily wholly unnatural.

Some examples of disabilities in scripture…

  • Jacob limped because he fought with God. This isn’t presented a bad thing.
  • Moses had a speech impediment, but this was not presented as a substantial problem.
  • Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus, but it was simply to get his attention.

“Your Best Life Now” self-help “You can do it!” theology is poison to disabled people. (And everyone else for that matter.)

Christianity is not part of the problem, but one of THE major forces in history that does advocate for disabled people. Marxist China euthanizes them. So did Pagan Rome. India relegated them to an established bottom class, and African tribal people largely neglected them. Christians, and ONLY Christians started nudging and pushing things toward anything even close to what we have today. So some people are angry at Christians that oppressed them. So what. That is short sighted. The big picture says otherwise.

Gosh my heart is warmed when I read a blast of scripture. It’s like someone opening a window and the cool oxygen-infused breeze rushes in! Then back to the stifling ivory tower.

I totally dig his study on the breaking of bread and how often it appears. Especially about how the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. “he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”.

The body that stands at the right hand of God is imperfect, but in some sense, fully fulfilled in it’s brokenness. But it is also incorruptible.

I agree that unambiguous perfection is an “oppressive monolith”. It’s like the weight of the law. But Jesus is always keeping the law intact while blowing it to bits with a love that comes crashing through it like a train through a paper barrier.

The image of God, and Man in Eden is not the same as “the images of perfection which are found in our present culture”.

Footnotes: Disappointed that he didn’t mention Pope John Paul II’s “A Theology of the Body”, which is a MAJOR work on this topic. It’s a Catholic thing though and might not be on his immediate reading list. It’s impossible that he hasn’t heard of it though.

Article got better as it went along.

In the end I agree with his conclusions.

I think the adjustment I would make is that I think the traditional perfect Eden and perfect eschatology view can be clarified and amended to reject modern ideas of “perfection” and still stay intact. I don’t think they must be tossed entirely. They are important for other things.



Regarding our “perfected bodies” in heaven, where do we get the supposed standard of perfection that God plans to give us in our heavenly bodies? Matt mentioned a Ken doll, and while it made me laugh, what IS a perfected body? Is it a certain height? Certain musculature? Certain hair or skin color? Will someone with dwarfism be taller and have a “normal” body? How about a person who is proportioned in more of a typical manner, but who is as short as a person with dwarfism? Will the body with dwarfism change, but the person who is merely short stay the same? How about IQ? Will we all be geniuses?

I still wonder if more of our difference are deliberate by God than we realize, and my in fact be a perfection just as they are.



When you start asking questions about what our redeemed bodies will look like, then some of these things fall apart. It is conjecture of course, but one that can bring out where you stand on a lot of things and challenge them. Will a dwarf person still be incredibly short in the new Jerusalem? Will he stay short? Will he begin to grow? Will a blind person be instantly seeing? Will they grow to see over a 100 years? Will then stay blind but not actually care anymore? A person who died of cancer will no longer have that, but what WILL they have? Do you come back as a 20-year old? 40-year old? What happens to all the aborted babies? Do they get to be born and then grow up as children? I’m afraid that we can’t go very far down this road without just making things up. It’s tempting but probably best to do our best with the information we have a clearer picture of.

Bumbling guardians

In the city of Gondar in northern Ethiopia is a 17th century church Debre Birhan Selassie.

In 1888, Muslim raiders from Sudan sacked the city and burnt down all the Christian churches. This one, though, when they approached it, they were chased off by a terrible swarm of bees and decided to move on to pillage a next village.

The church remains to this day and features hundreds of brilliant angel faces painted on the ceiling.

C.S. Lewis, speaking through Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comments on the red-breasted robin: “They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure a robin wouldn’t be on the wrong side.” It strikes me that, in similar fashion, if the robin is a good bird, one parallel is that the bee is a good insect – perhaps the best of bugs.




A shout out to some locals

I’ve cleaned up my sidebar links to other blogs for the first time in quite a while. I’ve also added a few local friends and acquaintances I’ve been meaning to mention for a while.

Three cheers for proximity and community and all that!


How long do you want to wait to hear “NO”?

I recently read through the bulk of the Lonely Planet travel guide for Ethiopia and Eritrea. The many fun anecdotes made it an interesting read.

  • Want to drive to Kenya? You can, but be sure to take at least two spare tires for you 4WD. The road is really bad.
  • Many cheap hotels in some parts of the country double as brothels so bring earplugs if you want to live cheap.
  • If you want to travel any further east of Jijiga toward Somalia, an armed guard is compulsory and you should find a convey to be part of. Experienced travelers only.

And finally, my favorite, a description of how to (not) get into Sudan:

Unless you’re using the services of a registered Sudanese tour company, then obtaining a tourist visa at the Sudan Embassy is a mission impossible if ever there was one. Prepare for a lot of sweat, tears, headaches, and then a big, fat ‘No’. All applications are sent to Khartoum for approval, so the process of being told you can’t have one can take over a month to complete. However, don’t go changing those plans just yet as there is one way in. Transit visas, allowing up to a fortnight in Sudan, are issued fairly easily. For this you require a letter of introduction from your own embassy, an onward visa for Egypt, a couple of photos and, for most nationalities, $100 cash. [Congratulations!] Americans, you get to pay $200. It normally takes two days to issue.



My wife wrote some more good thoughts on the theology of disability today here. Worth checking out as this topic is definitely a neglected one.

Poem: Why He is worthy

When we exhale we breath out carbon dioxide
When He exhales He breathes out all the elements
His tongue like the heart of a star

When we open our eyes we take in a narrow band of light
When He opens his eyes they were already open
Seeing everything ever before or after – even dark things

When we think we follow only one frustrated line of thought and desire
When he thinks his ideas become fully real
Before the ink is dry on the page

When we love, it promptly grows weary, cold and twisted
When He loves, the universe expands in all directions
New stars by the minute engulf our crooked ways in warmth


The dialectic of modernity in Christian mission

On several passes through the library, I missed this book titled “Marxist Modern” because I didn’t think it had anything to do with Ethiopia, much less the topic I’m most interested in: the development of Christianity there. But then I found it referenced in a bibliography of an article I enjoyed on the topic, so I decided to pick it up on my next pass.

The subtitle of the book is “An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution”. The author writes in a detached style in language that does not condemn communism per se, but that nevertheless acknowledges many of the atrocities that were committed during the Ethiopian socialist revolution of the 1970s and 80s. Unlike a lot of accounts, one does not get the impression that the author is denouncing Marxism, but simply telling a story about how its implementation came to pass (and ultimately fail), especially in the rural areas.

Does this all sound very interesting? It’s not really. But smack in the middle of the book is a chapter titled “The Dialectic of Modernity in a North American Christian Mission” and this one really got me thinking.

In it, the author, Donald Donham, tells the story of the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), the largest and most influential outside Christian organization to make inroads into the country during the 20th century. There were other missionaries there too, but they had only a handful of people. A local woman I know here in town grew up in southern Ethiopia where her parents worked for the SIM.

The SIM was founded in 1897 by the Canadian Rowland Victor Bingham. For Bingham, the “Sudan” was a blanket reference to all of sub-saharan Africa. The organization would go on to send a lot of people to Africa, mostly to Sudan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, where it arrived in 1927. From the beginning, the organization was not tied to a particular denominations and its missionaries, aid workers, and teachers came from all different protestant backgrounds.

In Ethiopia though, it discovered the already established Ethiopian Orthodox church. It was not welcomed by the Coptic leaders, but rather told to pack up and leave. Early on in their stay however, one of the SIM missionaries, Dr. Thomas Lambie, was awoken in the middle of the night and called to help the local governor of Wellegga where they were staying. He was in great pain and the doctor was able to, using a special pair of tweasers, remove a bug that had crawled into the governor’s ear while he was sleeping. Lambie didn’t think much of it, but his influential patient so raved about the doctor that he was given an audience with Halie Salasie not long after.

The Emperor was absolutely feverish to bring in modern western teachers and especially doctors and wasn’t about to turn down this possibility. The SIM was allowed to “do their Christian missionary thing” in the country, as long as they kept to the rural areas where the Orthodox church had almost no presence (mostly the south), and as long as they established LOTS of hospitals and new schools. At first, this sounded great, but it later became to be a strain on the evangelists. Whenever they wanted to move into a new territory or village, they were told they needed to bring in a bunch more doctors first. Just planting a church wasn’t an option, but only a reward of sorts for various degrees of modernization that the SIM could bring to the country. Lambie, now in charge of operations in the country, played this political game well. He had Ford automobiles imported to the capital (which had only a couple hundred cars at the time) as well as tractors and other modern equipment. He pushed forward with plans to evangelize more unreached rural areas while assuring financial backers back in the US and Canada that the emperor was a legitimate Christian, despite his adherence to (as far as they could tell) a largely alien religion.


Over the years, this whole setup began to have some strange and unintended side-effects. At this point I had better quote from the chapter a bit.

In the conversion process that slowly unfolded, the negative sign of anti-modernism was switched again and again. Consider for example the Biblicism that the missionaries brought to southern Ethiopia, their emphasis on the Bible as the “inerrant” word of God. To North Americans, this doctrine protected religion from the modernist claims of science: whatever science profess to know, all that anyone really needed to know was the Bile: “[The SIM missionaries] felt duty-bound to have a Bible text for every religious statement they made. They believed that their interpretations of the Bible was that held by Jesus and his apostles; they believed in an authoritative Bible and took it with them to southern Ethiopia.

In the context of southern Ethiopia, however an emphasis on the Book had entirely different consequences than in North America. In Ethiopia, being able to read the Bible (and hence other books) in a society in which no one else could separated one, not from modernity – far from it – but from tradition. In the 1930s, the SIM was allowed to use local vernaculars, but after the Italian occupation had ended, it was required to use the national language, Amharic, both in preaching and in Bible translation. For southerners, being literate in Amharic opened a whole new world on the nation, courts, newspapers, radio – in short, modernity.

Another example of this process of inversion occurred in missionaries’ notion of exactly what constituted conversion. Becoming a Christian, for fundamentalists, did not depend upon a mere rite like baptism; rather, conversion required a wholesale “separation” from the world and a basic behavioral change in converts’ moral lives. In North America, this kind of separation meant detachment from tobacco, alcohol, and other sin and, more broadly, from all forms of (modernist) attempts to dilute religious traditionalism [such as modern psychology, Darwinism, materialism, etc.]. But in souther Ethiopia, an emphasis on so-called separation led to a radical rejection of tradition, one that, as one missionary put it, would eventually “blast apart” customary assumptions.

The message delivered to the people was not one just of the Gospel of Jesus, but was very tightly tied to free modern medical care, learning to read, and exposure to a whole truckload of other western ideas. Some regions in the rural south went from having an almost zero literacy rate to having some of the highest rates in the country thanks to the schools founded by the missionaries. These people then moved to the city, leaving the family farm in the dust and hoping to make a better richer life for themselves. Sometimes they remained in their new faith, but they frequently abandoned it for a large helping of worldliness. Donham goes on to trace how many of the most enthusiastic supporters of the communist revolution were the young Christians from the south. They used their new-found education not to read the Bible, but to overthrow the Amharas – their ancient overlords and oppressors.

Along the same lines, people also flocked to the missionary stations for modern medical care and took only a feigned interest in the preaching. This is to be expected of course and there is a sense in which Christians must always be willing to give freely even when there is nothing to be had in return. Still, the way it was set up, these things were experienced in such tandem that they could not be separated in the minds of the new converts. Many of them did not even realize until far later that their new faith had anything in common with the religion practiced by the highlanders in the north, their ancient enemies.

What was this “Dialectic of Modernity” that the missionaries are grappling with? It was the contradictory nature of much of their thought and practices. Back at home, the Christians of the SIM and their supporters were actively anti-modernist. They tried to keep traditions alive and respect the past in the face of rapidly changing secular ideas. They tried to preserve things like prayer in public schools, acknowledgement of God in the public square, no legal basis for easy divorce. They placed a high value on community life and family ties. They praised farming and field work and had strong followings in the rural midwest and the south. They decried the rat-race of the city and considered it a damaging moral influence. In short, they were very conservative in just about every sense of the word.

But here they were in Africa being radically progressive! They shunned tradition, encouraging the people to throw away anything remotely connected to the paganism of their past, be it charm bracelets, or various food rituals, or even their language. Before, a couple’s honeymoon would last several months. Now it was encouraged to be only a week so they could go back to working hard, just like industrious westerners. Following Jesus meant it was time to ditch your family if they didn’t want to come along and that was OK because you were a liberal free agent now. Lets hurry up and teach all these goat herders how to read so they can learn, not just about how their sins are forgiven, but about democracy, fertilizers, engines, and biochemistry.

It’s like one minute they were denouncing the evils of Rock and Roll, and then the next minute teaching children to play the electric guitar. How do you keep this tension in your personal philosophy? (By not facing it I suspect. It’s how we handle our own cognitive dissonance today).

How ironic that the leading Ethiopian modernist of the 1920s, ras Teferi, came to support the activities of the arch anti-modernist Sudan Interior Mission. Or was it? For Hingham, the dialectic between anti-modernism and its shadow, modernism, was always more than a simple opposition. These two stances toward the world seemed in fact to depend upon one another and at times to feed into one another.


A phrase I often here from people that discuss evangelism, is “What you win with WITH is what you win them TO.” If you “attract” people with cool music, inspirational speaking and good parties, then you have to keep that stuff going or your “ecclesia”, your community, falls apart. Sure, there is some stuff about Jesus in there, maybe a lot of it actually, but it wasn’t a naked gospel that got them in the door, but rather a thickly clothed one. In the same way, when things like modern pharmaceuticals, books, and exciting foreign friends are part of the presentation, they also gain the convert’s allegiance along with what is taught from the Bible. It can’t help but be this way. Faith matures over time and can (and does!) overcome these entanglements, but that can take years and for some people never seems to occur.

I want to stop for a moment and say that, despite what I may be recounting above, I am not highly critical of the SIM missionaries. I am actually really impressed with some parts of their story. They did, in my opinion, a TON of things right. They were very serious about establishing indigenous churches. They trained local native pastors and got out of the way very quickly. They didn’t prop up new churches with a single dime of foreign money but made sure they were self-sustaining from the first day. They made sure it was all locals on the elder boards. One day they (the white folk) would be serving communion, and as soon as they had a few people baptized, the next week, they had THEM serve it. Great stuff. And the church exploded in their six years of absence after the Italians kicked them out of the country in 1936. This sort of “give them Jesus and get out of the way” attitude is bold, courageous, and dramatically more sustainable than some other models. For all the secular modern baggage the missionaries may have unwittingly brought with them, they still took some huge steps in decoupling their own western culture from the gospel and enabling the new churches to flourish. I dig that.

And I dig where I see that happening today, even in our own backyard, ecclesia semper reformanda. And I also am troubled by the dialectic of modernity as it continues today. I frequently have difficulty reconciling the two in my own life. One antidote is to remember that _____ (fill in the blank) will NOT save you. Christ has saved you.