Between a busy work schedule of late and the lack of rain—meaning I’ve got to water the garden every day, which takes awhile—most of my daylight hours have been spoken for and the riotous nightlife we have here has prevented me from doing much in the way of posting. I have, however, been able to squeeze in a few books during this time, both related to the subject of missions, both very good reads, so I thought I’d share:
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes
by Daniel Everett
Having spent over thirty years in the Amazon jungle, Daniel Everett is the leading expert on the culture and language of the Amazon Indian tribe known as the Pirahãs. His book opens with his early experiences as an SIL missionary, his observations on the culture, the perilous events that he encountered, and the difficulties he had in both learning the language and trying to evangelize the people.
The second section is an in-depth analysis of the technical novelties of the Pirahã language. He uses his discussion, especially of the apparent lack of recursion (an aspect widely thought to exist and be foundational to all languages), to posit that much that is accepted in prevailing linguistic theory is invalidated by Pirahã. He wants to theorize that language, far from being an inborn trait of all humans, is a tool that is developed by a group’s culture, and that its very structure reflects cultural values and expectations.
This hypothesis launches him into the final portion of the book, dealing with the difficulty he had in evangelizing the Pirahã. At the outset, his task was to translate the Bible into their native language—a task made extremely difficult by the lack of many common linguistic structures in their speech. The hallmark of these difficulties is that the Pirahã lack any interest in communicating past events (they have no creation myths) and tend only to trust the information of eyewitnesses. The story of the Bible is too many steps removed from current events to be considered by them. Lastly, their culture is extreme in its rejection of outside cultural influences. Everett writes that no missionary in over two hundred years has managed to gain a single convert.
The final chapter in the book explains the not-so-subtle hints that Everett has been dropping throughout his prose. He talks about how his lack of spiritual success in working with the Pirahã as well as his increasing understanding of their language and culture caused him to doubt his Christian faith while at the same time seeing a desirable alternative in the way that these people live. In many ways, it was a sobering ending to the book, and a reminder that despite the fact that missionaries are supposed to be the paragons of faith and trust in Christ, they face numerous temptations on the mission field. While we pray that our Karimojong church members would not forsake the faith, we need to pray the same for ourselves as well. Together, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes was timely because it spoke to many of the same obstacles we face to successful ministry in Karamoja.
When Helping Hurts
by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
This handbook on diaconal ministry and poverty-alleviation is very much en vogue in Christian circles at the moment, and not without good reason. The premise of the book is that the church at large needs to think more carefully about how it cares for the poor in its congregation, its community, and the world at large.
It’s laced with useful anecdotes and exercises that help to carry the point that much of what the church does in trying to combat poverty ends up hurting the very subjects of its compassion as well as the church itself. But before getting into the details of how this happens and how it can be prevented, the authors present a very well-crafted Biblical basis for diaconal ministry and poverty-alleviation particularly. They are insistent that any church’s efforts in this area must be based on the solid foundation of Biblical teaching regarding poverty, money, work, and stewardship.
Building upon this foundation, they go on to explain the problem with many common strategies for helping the poor and suggest more viable alternatives. Among many important points they make, two are fundamental to the argument. First, they hammer home the fact that poverty is not a merely financial matter. They explain that poverty takes many forms—material, social, personal, spiritual—and that addressing the problem of poverty must encompass more than just the material. Assisting the material needs of the poor is an incomplete solution that is bound to fail.
The second major issue they discuss is giving the appropriate type of help. They break poverty alleviation into three stages—relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief is given, as they say, to stop the bleeding—to get people out of the downward spiral into poverty. A common example would be giving direct material assistance after a natural disaster. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, involves the giver working alongside the recipient to help address the issues that have caused the problem in the first place. This might involve efforts toward helping people get out of debt, or helping someone to repair damaged property after a hurricane. Lastly, development involves creating strategies that help people to avoid repeating the same problems they’ve had in the past. This can take the form of education on money management, the creation of methods for saving and investing, etc. The authors argue that the wrong type of assistance can be detrimental to the people who ought to be helped.
These issues are of particular interest to us as we see many of our neighbors struggling with poverty. We want to be compassionate toward them, but we don’t want to inadvertently create dependence or encourage new bad habits. Discerning how to do this is not always easy, but When Helping Hurts provides a very useful set of tools and encouragement to continue trying to address the many needs that surround us.