As an English major, I have always found an appreciation for literature as a reflection of real life. Ideals are helpful sometimes and often a more relaxing read, but realism also has the potential to teach. Hawaii, by James Michener, is one of the excellently told stories which has many great lessons about human nature. I read this book several years ago, but was reminded of it this week when I watched the 1966 movie version (why yes, that is Julie Andrews). The novel spans the course of 2,000 years or more. It is truly a story of Hawaii itself and the overall development of the land and culture. The movie focuses in on a fourth of the tome and is still almost three hours long. It covers twenty years of the first missionary contact with the Hawaiian people.
The missionaries arrive and one man in particular succeeds in perpetually sabotaging his own ministry with legalism and insensitivity. He sees little fruit, he and his family personally suffer, and he questions God’s purpose. He is portrayed as ignorant and pragmatic. Some Christians would view this portrayal and assume the author is hostile to Christianity and therefore we should disregard his writing and look to the biographies of the fruitful, godly missionaries of history. However, I believe Michener has some very keen insights into the potential dangers of ineffective cross cultural work. He portrays them in a realistic narrative which causes us to weep or rejoice with the characters.
The first lesson we can learn from Abner Hale about how to ruin your ministry is to be ethnocentric. Reverend Hale and some of the other missionaries are absolutely convinced that their culture is sanctified because of its Christian history and therefore they can learn absolutely nothing from the “heathen” Hawaiians. One missionary refuses to let the Hawaiian midwives assist his wife. He goes so far as to drag his wife across miles of terrain to the other missionaries who have no experience and are dependent on the midwifery book. His wife dies as a consequence. Reverend Hale never listens to advice from the Hawaiians on any level and persists in American customs wholly unrelated to the church or moral issues, such as eating similar meals to what he would have in New England and dressing in the same manner, including warmer clothes for “winter”.
Secondly, in fruitless ministry, the important matters of teaching, discipling, and leading are reserved for the missionaries. Abner Hale refuses to ordain the young Hawaiian who first inspired him to come to Hawaii, believing him to be too immature yet. In fact, he is unwilling to ordain any Hawaiian…yet. The young man waits for nearly a decade until he is driven to frustration and reverts to the old Hawaiian beliefs and customs. It is interesting that even the mission board rebuked Abner on this, insisting that the church should have been turned over to native leadership long before. This gave me a clue that perhaps Michener did not think mission work was worthless, only that it could be done and had been done wrong in this case. This part of the book saddened me more than any other death or tragedy. Christ gave us the priesthood of all believers through His Spirit. What a shame to deny that to any believer, especially one willing and able to lead.
Another tip, expect people to change their behavior before they come to God. Yes, repentance is part of submitting to Christ, but there will be many battles with various sins in one’s life throughout life. Abner Hale expected the people to give up their idols, their sexual practices, etc. before they had experienced God’s grace and without knowing His power. We cannot expect the fruit of the Spirit before the Spirit is present.
Finally and perhaps most important, if you want to destroy your ministry, be focused on yourself. In the rough moments, Abner Hale’s true desire showed through. His desire was to build his ministry. He was frustrated by setbacks, not so much because he was burdened for the people or he wanted to see God glorified, but he wanted his church to grow and his converts to be examples of his ministry. Ambition is a deadly fault. There will always be setbacks or struggles along the ministry, but our hearts will reveal if we are burdened for God’s work and for the people he loves or if we are mourning the loss of our own dream.
Thank you for listening to my musings. I hope they are an encouragement to you in regard to cross cultural ministry. Additionally, don’t be afraid of negative portrayals of Christians or Christian workers in literature. The Bible itself is full of all kinds of embarrassing and shameful accounts about the Israelites and the people in the church, some of whom were humble and repentant and others who were not. What can we learn from these examples? Is there truth in the negative portrayal? Better to take heed from a negative example and examine yourself than continue in prideful error.