March 7, 2012
Marginally Generalizing Is Not A Good Thing
Recently I was reading a book, a study by a notable scholar of a notable figure and published by a notable university press. And I came across this statement: “Like most missionaries, … was a marginal man.” Call me sensitive (marginal disclosure: I’m the descendant of three generations of missionaries and served as a missionary for a short while myself), but this statement irritated me to the bone.
Just where did the author come by this information that most missionaries are marginal? Did he survey missionaries past and present? Or did he just consult his mental filing cabinet of biases and stereotypes?
And what are his criteria for judging the margin from the center? Is the center made up of people like himself and anyone else his subjectively formed impulses take to admire? He teaches at an Ivy League university, so we might be able to draw some inferences about what that center might look like, but they would be just stereotyped hunches.
Here’s the irony: The man he relegates to the margins was a pioneer missionary in his day, who—like him or not— demonstrated great drive and tenacity. In the course of pursuing his main topic, our author tells the story of this man mastering the Chinese language, writing a book on Chinese idioms and being involved in the translation of the Bible into Chinese. What’s more, he persevered for over fifty years in China, evangelizing in the face of much hardship, great resistance and little fruit. This marginal man, it seems to me, had more than enough of what it takes to have succeeded at whatever task he had set himself to pursue, perhaps even to become a university professor.
From my own informed but subjective experience, I would counter-submit that while I have known some missionaries who are lazy, not well educated and culturally insensitive—perhaps qualifying by some definition as “marginal”—they are not the norm. If we’re going to generalize, I think we’re on far better ground saying that most missionaries are and have been courageous, humble, enterprising and always learning more about their adopted culture than they ever bargained for when they first set out as missionaries. They have intentionally taken themselves off to the margins of American society, true enough. But in fact, many missionaries I have known would have done very well indeed had they stayed in their home country and devoted themselves to law or medicine or banking or teaching or business. Some of them even come from backgrounds of wealth, first-class education and families of note. And what’s more, they know enough not to think of “most” of their colleagues as “marginal.”
Once I got over my initial irritation (or have I?), it did not take long to see this as warning to editors and writers. So I asked myself some questions:
If I had been this author’s editor and shared his perspective on orthodox Christianity and the “missionary enterprise,” would I have challenged him on this point? Or would I have simply enjoyed his punch to the groin and quietly cheered him on? I hope I would have challenged him, but I fear that I might not have. And in that case I would have been doing him a disservice.
Or have I, in my own writing, allowed my biases to cloud my perceptions and portrayals of others in much the same way as this author? I hope not, but I fear that I might have. And I would be doing the truth a disservice.
The temptation to caricature people, especially those of the past—and particularly those whom we don’t take the time to understand and tend to despise—is very powerful. They can’t talk back. But we need to love our subjects more than that. Dealing with history is a cross-cultural endeavor. We can find plenty to despise in the past and present. But it takes a fair-minded, critical judgment—and an attempt to step outside ourselves—to form warranted conclusions.
Here’s a practical suggestion: Follow the blog Get Religion for a regular critique of the coverage of religion in the news. It’s a daily workshop in forming better judgment in writing and editing in the field of religion.
I was ready to put this to rest and hope the author had moved on to better judgments. But then, revisiting his book, I came across this comment: “the strange and terrible vocations pursued by generations of missionaries in China.” Wow!
At this point I want to refer him to the recent book God Is Red, in which the author Yiwu Liao interviews a number of contemporary Chinese Christians. The overwhelming message is thankfulness for those who pursued their “strange and terrible vocations.” As one of them states: