Cultural Conversions: Unexpected Consequences of Christian Missionary Encounters in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia

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By: Heather J. Sharkey, Editor

Cultural Conversions: Unexpected Consequences of Christian Missionary Encounters in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2013. 328 pp. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0815633150.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Paul S. Rowe, PhD

Trinity Western University

Langley, BC, Canada

Popular perceptions of Christian mission activity in the colonial world are somewhat predictable. The association of missionaries with colonial authorities and Western cultural imperialism is widespread in both popular culture and academia. Take, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible which portrays the destruction of a missionary family amid a disastrous attempt to convert the people of 1960s Congo. In the past decade, revelations such as those about the deprivations that indigenous children suffered at the hands of mission schools in North America, or reports about the efforts of Christian mission activity in Iraq after the United States’ invasion of 2003 have done little to improve the reputation of missionaries. The real history of missions is far more nuanced.

The zeal that inspired the development of the modern mission movement in the 1800s was equally propelled by a certain assurance about the predictable outcomes of preaching the Christian gospel abroad. Emulating the ancient mission journeys of the apostle Paul, they sought to globalize the European Christian message that was the product of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Their expectation was that, just as the Pax Romana had facilitated the expansion of Christianity, so would the Pax Britannica. As the world opened up to the European traveler, missionaries would face an open field of harvest similar to the one that greeted the ancient apostles.

This collection of essays seeks to explain the ways in which missions proceeded to have unforeseen, unpredictable, and in many cases, undesired outcomes. It highlights “a history of the unexpected insofar as the changes set rolling often went far beyond, or even astray from, what the missionaries intended” (p. 2). Case studies in the book juxtapose the experiences of people in several countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, organized thematically. The first section of the book, “Christian Contestations,” includes three chapters that deal with situations where Christian religion delivered by missionaries served to divide Christians from Christians and Christians from others. The second section, “Missionaries, Antimissionaries, and Doubters,” brings together accounts about colonial societies that resisted or responded to the message of the missionaries. The final selection of essays, under the rubric “Missionaries, Language, and National Expression,” provides examples of how Christian missions helped to classify and determine the very understanding of national identity and belonging.

It is difficult to bring together such an eclectic mix of case studies, undertaken by diverse scholars in multiple fields, into a coherent whole. Heather Sharkey has done an excellent job of providing the collection with a united purpose under the theme of the unexpected. She has also managed to balance the three sections of the book by region, including in each section a case study from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The unexpected thus emerges wherever missionaries traveled. In Zambia, rival indigenous forms of spirituality rivaled both the Catholic and Protestant missionaries during the early colonial period. Descendants of these indigenous religious entrepreneurs became the leaders of contemporary Zambia. Among Palestinian converts to the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, the politics of the late mandate pitted the Anglican hierarchy against the indigenous church, which pioneered Christian efforts to voice the concerns of an Arab flock. In Sri Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhists embraced the tactics of Protestant Christianity as a means of resisting the missionaries themselves. In India, Christian conversion had an important role in defining legal rights to inheritance; and missionaries contributed to the racialization of Indians in the European mind. In each of these cases, Christian missions expected the spread of the gospel; they did not expect that their own converts would become rivals, or that their efforts would change the regulation of the societies where they ministered.

For scholars of the modern Middle East, the three chapters that deal with mission activity in Arab lands will garner the most interest. First, Laura Robson writes the aforementioned study of Anglican clergy during the period of the Arab revolt of 1936-1939, highlighting the Palestine Native Church Council (PNCC) founded in 1905. Fighting suspicions that their association with the Church of England connoted support for the expansion of the Jewish home in Palestine, the PNCC became a vocal opponent of the expansion of Jewish immigration, arguing that it would lead to the expulsion of Christians just as Armenians and Greeks had been expelled from Turkey (p. 56). Their opposition did not persuade then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, who instead saw the Palestine question through the lens of Jewish suffering and a theology of Jewish return. The PNCC had little influence on the issuing of the 1939 White Paper that called for limitations on Jewish immigration, which consequently did little to rescue Palestinian Episcopalians from being viewed as traitors to the cause. Robson thus emphasizes the way in which Anglican positions in this period accelerated the emigration of Palestinian Christians.

Emigration is certainly one response that Christians have taken to the Middle East conflict, but one should also note the extent to which the PNCC blazed the trail for Palestinian church leaders to challenge their coreligionists’ blindness to the injustices brought by the British mandate.

By the 1980s, Palestinian Anglicans, such as Naim Ateek or Riah Abu al-Assal had become the most vocal Palestinian Christian nationalists, at a time when other Palestinian churches remained in the hands of foreign hierarchs. Their presentation of contextual theology for Palestinian Christians became the pattern that has been followed by the other mainline churches, and today has an impact even upon evangelical Christian leaders, who increasingly present a counterpoint to Western Christian narratives of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Beth Baron writes the second chapter which deals with mission activity in Arab lands. She focuses her attention on the story of Turkiyya Hasan, an Egyptian student enrolled in a Christian orphanage school in Port Said who was disciplined by caning for refusing to rise for Christian prayers. Turkiyya became a cause célebrè in Egypt in 1933 when she fled to a local police station and her case was publicized throughout Egypt. It forced the government to respond with a public investigation and the deportation of the school’s headmistress who had administered the punishment. This was followed by the announcement that alternative orphanage facilities for Muslims to rival those of the Christian missions would be established. The incident highlighted one of the first instances of a public clash between Christian mission organizations in colonial Egypt, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood activists became increasingly involved in their own mission to protect young Muslims from the influence of the Christian missionaries (p. 136). The outcome, according to Baron, was the acceleration of the spread of Islamic societies, the downfall of the Egyptian government, and the “beginning of the end for American and other missionaries in Egypt” (p. 138). The Islamist movement arose to take their place.

Writing in the same vein, Heather Sharkey provides a concluding chapter that elaborates on the early translation of Christian scriptures into colloquial Arabic in North African countries. Such translations of all or part of the Bible were published in colloquial forms for Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian, Egyptian, and Sudanese audiences, as well as Judeo-Arabic versions for Arabic-speaking Jews in North Africa. While Arab and foreign scholars derided the use of colloquial Arabic as a vulgar way to communicate eternal truths, missionaries embraced the colloquial form in their work with illiterate rural and urban poor populations, and in particular, women (p. 212). The demise of colloquial translations of the scriptures took place as Western mission activity in North Africa met its demise beginning in the 1930s, as nationalist governments arose and responded to public pressure from Islamists and others to limit foreign mission activity.

The story of mission activity in Egypt in the 1930s is replete with cultural and other offenses that symbolized British imperial overstretch and the deepening antagonism of the Islamist trend. The argument that such Christian activity was a device for the expansion of Brotherhood activity is noteworthy, though the Brotherhood would likely have evolved with or without Christian missionaries as its stalking horse. The curtailing of Christian mission activity in Egypt removed the far enemy and revealed the near enemy, jahili rulers of the people who became the target of later radicals.

The latter observation begs the question, how crucial was mission activity in causing these unexpected outcomes? Casting one’s eye to other chapters in this volume, one sees the centrality of Christian efforts in sparking a resistance movement among Buddhists in Sri Lanka, or the importance of Christian conversion to the reconceptualization of identity in India. It is less clear that the Palestinian Christian embrace of nationalism, or the rise of Islamism in Egypt were directly related to the mission enterprise.

These histories address the role of foreign Christians and their converts in these societies. They have less to say about indigenous Christian churches. As a next step, the editor and contributors might put their hand to deeper consideration of the relationship between mission societies and indigenous Christians of the historic churches in the Middle East and South Asia. Such stories may reveal even more of the unexpected.

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