This book was highly recommended, and loaned to me, by a member of my small group at church, and I was not disappointed.
The book is about the missionary work done by Canadian Don Richardson and his wife Carol among the Sawi people in the western half of New Guinea, now called West Irian or Irian Jaya. Not to mince words, the Sawi were treacherous cannibals. And I use the word “treacherous” advisedly: Their culture prized deceit and betrayal first of those then eaten. But the Richardsons prevail, and the Sawi are converted to Christianity.
I don’t think it’s highlighted, but it is mentioned in passing that the events in the book are around 1963 (incidentally, I learned that Michael Rockefeller, son of Nelson, had disappeared under tragic and mysterious circumstances in the area a couple of years earlier). The book includes a number of photographs, which are interesting and valuable. I’ll note that the book was a Reader’s Digest selection and has been translated into many languages. There’s a good biographical entry for the author on Wikipedia, here. And the author notes (254-55) that a 28-minute film version of the story was made by Gospel Films as “a tool for evangelism”; it can be rented and watched online here. The book’s cover calls it, “An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century.”
The missionaries’ faith and courage is amazing, and the brutality of the natives is appalling. I have to say that I’m not sure I would have been willing to put my infant son in harm’s way the way he and his wife do (see especially 77); still, that’s what missionaries feel called to do. The author’s prayerful encounter with God (118-19) was especially moving, with God concluding, “The Peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall garrison your hearts and minds through Christ.”
There’s an astonishing passage (151) in which the author realizes, after recounting the Gospel’s passion narrative, that the natives are acclaiming whom they perceive to be the hero of the story: Judas!
The author is known for his belief that there are in tribal cultures what he calls “redemptive analogies” that can be used to explain to the natives the meaning of Christianity and the Gospel, particularly the Incarnation and Resurrection and the salvation that comes with it. To quote from this book’s “Author’s Postscript” (244-45):
Redemptive analogies, God’s keys to man’s cultures, are the New Testament-approved approach to cross-cultural evangelism. And only in the New Testament do we find the pattern for discerning and appropriating them, a pattern we must learn to use.
Some redemptive analogies stand out in the legends and records of the past: Olenos the Sinbearer; Balder the Innocent, hounded to his death, yet destined to rule the new world; Socrates’ Righteous Man; the unknown god of the Athenians, an analogy appropriated by the apostle Paul; The Logos, appropriated by the apostle John; the sacrificial lamb of the Hebrews, appropriated by both John the Baptist and Paul.
Other redemptive analogies have been found hidden away in the cultures of the present—dormant, residual, waiting: the Sawi tarop child and the words of remon; nabelan-kablelan, the Dani tribe’s deep-seated hope of immortality; the Asmat new birth ceremony. Still others are the places of refuge and the legends of the fall of man, of the Deluge [Flood], and of a “ladder” connecting earth and heaven.
How many more are yet waiting to be found, waiting to be appropriated for the deliverance of the people who believe them, waiting to be supplanted by Christ, that they may then fade from sight behind the brilliance of His glory, having fulfilled their God-ordained purpose?7
Only those who go and search will find them.
Finding a redemptive analogy was not an easy task with the Sawi, though, compared to, for example, the early Christians, as the author discusses (155-56). There was much already in Judaism to explain and justify Christianity (see, for example, the book of Hebrews in the New Testament) and, with the Greeks, the logos concept could be used by John in his Gospel. “And even my own Anglo-Saxon forefathers,” continues the author, “were found with the pagan term god, a term which someone kindly appropriated to teach us something better than worshiping trees and rocks.” But the Sawi “had no name for God. Nor even the concept of Him. No lamb sacrifice to teach the need for an atonement. No redemptive analogy I could use.”
A similar point is well made in this passage (148):
Basically, there were two presuppositions [!] I shared with the Sawi — belief in a supernatural world and in the importance of interaction between that supernatural world and men. The Sawi believed in a hierarchy of disinterested, if not malicious, demons and departed spirits of the dead. I trusted in an infinite yet personal God who loves justice and mercy.
The Sawi were convinced that no misfortune happened by accident, but was invariably caused by demons who could be either activated or restrained by witchcraft. I was persuaded that all things were either commanded or permitted by a divine Providence which in turn could be influenced by prayer.
Beyond this point, there was little common viewpoint in our respective world views. Here was a barrier even greater than that of language. Somehow I must bridge the gulf in a meaningful way.
But a redemptive analogy is finally found. It works dramatically, and gives the book its title.
I’ll make the obvious point here that all this seems to fit in with C.S. Lewis’s (and J.R.R. Tolkien’s) view of myth, and for that matter with James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. All noted that certain religious themes are found in a variety of cultures, though the conclusions drawn from this phenomenon were very different, with Lewis and Tolkien viewing Christianity as, not just another myth, but as a “true myth” (I discuss this in other posts on this blogsite — for example, here).
Some additional notes:
- So much of the setting seems straight out of Heart of Darkness that I had to laugh when, while discussing his tribulations, the author admitted to be “struggling against a dark Conradian despair” (163) — hardly a surprise!
- The author warns of Islamist threats to the native peoples here (255); it’s interesting that he has written a book, Secrets of the Koran, critical of Islam and has apparently concluded that the redemptive analogy approach doesn’t work there (see this link).
- The epilogue is rather disjointed, and there’s an odd paragraph near the very end of the book (255-56), in which the author asserts, “Nefarious businessmen, in collusion with elements of the Indonesian armed forces, gather prostitutes known to be infected with AIDS”; then “Native Papuan men … primed first with offerings of beer or marijuana .. are induced to infect themselves and then their families back home by consorting with the tragically infected women,” thus “portend[ing] a possible undercover genocide ….”
- In the book’s last paragraph (256), he bids farewell to his wife, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.
- The friend who recommended the book to me, by the way, also tells me that in the author’s later years, his passion was ensuring that the Bible was translated into all languages. That makes sense, especially for a Protestant, and especially since the author recounts here the challenges he faced in learning the Sawi’s language as his first step in bringing them to Christ.
Finally, I want to flag this passage (91, emphasis in original) soon after the missionaries arrive:
It seemed, furthermore, that this bracing excitement was not our own but was being communicated to us through the presence of God — as if God Himself had been waiting for such a long, long time to do whatever He was going to do for the Sawi through us, and was delighted that at last the time had come! It had never occurred to me that God could feel excited, that the One who is omnipresent in time as well as space could actually, as it were, isolate part of His consciousness on a single world-line and anticipate the future as if He were not already experiencing it!
It’s true, I thought—God is excited and we, like children, are getting excited along with our Parent’s contagious joy! ….
I had drafted a post along similar lines for this blogsite, and this seems to be a good place to stick it in:
Can We Delight God?
I like to think so. Certainly to be Christ-like we must strive to “well please” Him, and David was “a man after [His] own heart,” which sounds even stronger. But “delight” suggests at least a tinge of surprise, does it not — and can God be surprised?
Perhaps. I like to think of God the Father looking down at the Palestinian plain around 1000 B.C., and seeing David not just trash-talk Goliath, but then — as Goliath advances — start to run toward his enemy, so great is the shepherd boy’s faith and bravery. With wild surmise then God the Father looks with something like incredulity to His Son on one side, and to the Holy Spirit on the other, and exclaims, “Do you all see that?! That’s what I’m talking about! That’s my boy!”