Whether you’re interested in missions abroad on at home, you need to read this book. If you’re a Christian, you should probably read this book even if you aren’t interested in missions!
Why Christians Interested in Missions Need to Read this Book
Actually, I have two books I strongly recommend. Barbara Kingsolver’s book, The Poisonwood Bible, takes a deep dive into the life of a missionary family who traveled to Africa in the 70s. If you like odd pairings of fiction and non-fiction, read both! The books might make you uncomfortable and stretch you in unexpected ways. Kingsolver’s because of the themes and Twiss’s because of the vocabulary. Twiss, an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, has a doctorate in intercultural studies. He’s not afraid to use big words, and since I’m not a missiologist, I had to look a few of them up.
Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way
By Richard Twiss, IVP Books, 2015, 272 pages.
This book describes all my feelings over the past ten years working with Native American students. My journey to understanding the disconnect between the great commission (go forth and tell the world about Jesus—Matthew 28:18-20) started with Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible.
I began teaching Navajo youth at a Christian school about ten years after reading Kingsolver’s book. I wondered why the gospel’s good news didn’t seem to ‘stick.’ Students chose baptism but never seemed to really ‘act like Christians.’ I met baptized Native church members who didn’t attend church regularly. Furthermore, they didn’t speak the same lingo about sanctification, transformation, or transubstantiation. Just kidding about transubstantiation. (It’s one of those churchy arguments which take away from sharing the good news about Jesus, and I don’t have time for those.)
Twiss helped me understand I have the wrong expectations. The construct of ‘acting like Christians’ is very European, white, and exclusive. For hundreds of years, missionaries have demanded Natives remake themselves in the missionaries’ images to prove conversion. As if culture and Christianity were equal in the eyes of God. The same thing happens in Kingsolver’s book; only her story takes place in Africa.
For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples the world over have had relationships with Creator—and each tribe manifests its relationship differently. Likewise, white people have certain ways they like to manifest their relationship with the Creator. It doesn’t make either way wrong; it just makes both ways different.
Different but Equal
I’ve heard and read dozens of missionary stories where indigenous people have foreknowledge of the Bible and look forward to meeting people with the book. God (the Creator) comes in dreams, angel appearances, and visions to make way for missionaries who come years, decades, or centuries later. The indigenous people don’t anticipate missionaries coming to change their way of life, their values, their ways of farming, or their manner of dress. They anticipate the missionary’s arrival so they can find out more about the good news of Jesus.
Sometimes, the missionaries get it right. But all too often in the stories I’ve heard, the missionaries gloat about how easy it is to ‘civilize the savages’ instead of share Jesus with other cultures.
If we want to share the Good News of the Gospels, we must find a common starting point (belief in the Creator). We must show (not dictate) how our faith manifests in our culture. From there, we can show how acceptance of Jesus can provide even more freedom within the context of other cultures.
We need to acknowledge that white doesn’t make right. In short, we need to stop bean-counting baptisms. We must quit enforcing all the strictures of our colonizing, European, white gospel and actually get to know the people we wish to serve.
Jesus wants us to spread the Good News about HIM—not our order of worship and our rules for properly respecting God (by playing drums/not playing drums; wearing certain things/not wearing certain things).
Jesus saves. Churches don’t.
Warning: You may need a dictionary to read this book (I think it’s part of Twiss’s doctoral dissertation). But even if you aren’t interested in missions, it would behoove you to read the book.
I agree with you, Anita. This book was ahead of its time. So important. I love your point: “Jesus saves. Churches don’t.”
Now I am eager to read both. And, I had to ask myself as I was reading your description of the white missionaries’ attempts to make other cultures “act Christian” if the (sub)cultural divides in our country represented by age and socioeconomic status might also be addressed in a similar fashion.