Friday, September 04, 2009

The Challenge of Evangelization -- Black Robe

A number of years ago, I flipped the channel and came across the film Black Robe. I never saw the end, nor did I see the beginning for that matter. At a used book sale a few months ago, I came across the novel that the film was based on. The novel, written by Brian Moore, follows the French missionary Jesuit priest Father Laforgue, as he travels with an Algonkin tribe to reach the mission to the Huron tribe.

From the outset of the novel, it is clear that the language the priests use regarding baptism and conversion, the only language they know and are clearly indoctrinated into, actually becomes an obstacle when talking to the natives. Father Laforgue (as well as other priests in the book) talks about baptism as the way to life after death, always focused on the other world. He never hears the Native Americans concerns that baptism is more about death. Father Laforgue tries several times to administer baptism just prior to death, always too late, but the Natives see that death always follows the "water sorcery."

Evangelization must always be sensitive to and understand the cultural trappings into which it is brought. Whenever the priest tries to discuss the gospel, he fails to articulate it in terms that the Natives will understand. Throughout the novel, Father Laforgue struggles with the completely foreign nature of the Natives' tribes. Brutal to their enemies, incredibly open with sexual partners, distrustful of privacy keeps Laforgue off balance. But he never senses that the vertigo he experiences comes from the refusal to jettison the theological language which has good apologetic value in the Old World. In the New World, however, the gospel must be communicated with language that has apologetic value there. Laforgue jumps immediately to baptism and the renunciation of all the Natives hold sacred. Interestingly Moore walks the line in the culture clash. The Natives (who hold great stock in dreams) have dreams which all come true, most notably in Laforgue's walking into the Huron village alone. However at Laforgue's presence the fever which is ravishing the Natives begins to lift. Which perspective is right? Are the dreams showing the true worldview? Or is God's hand at work healing the Natives?

I am in no way advocating or suggesting that we throw out all of our theological categories and language. Absolutely not. But we constantly need to be interpreting the story of God's work in the world through Jesus Christ so that we can hear it for what it is, good news. If we fail to understand the surrounding culture, we risk making the gospel unintelligible and have created a stumbling block for the hearers.

The story of Laforgue is something we should pay great attention to, for evangelization is not something in the past, but an ever increasing reality. However, we must be careful not to assume that the past's language will suffice. Even Paul knew this with his "let me tell you about your unknown God." Paul used their cultural trappings as the entry point for the gospel. We can do the same, but only if we pay attention to our surroundings and the story of God in Christ Jesus.

By the way, do not read Black Robe if you are uneasy around crude language, brutal violence, and deptictions of sex. All are prevalent throughout the novel.


Dr. Rural said...

Oooh, oooh, early American historian here!! Black Robe is a good movie, but the real issues the Jesuits dealt with in Canada are so much more interesting!

Believe it or not, the Jesuits actually worked extremely hard to understand the cultural contexts they lived in. They became fluent in Indian languages and translated catechisms, prayers, and such into them. But doing so presented problems . . .

One example: among the Huron Indians, a father was not a terribly important person. The man who fulfilled that role for a boy was much more likely to be his uncle -- specifically, his mother's brother.

So . . . take a prayer like "Our Father, who art in heaven," translate it directly, and it becomes something like "Our not-so-important male relative who art in heaven . . ." Well, you probably ought not to diminish God that way in the interest of strict translation.

But if you translate to get the emotional impact of "father," then you would wind up with something like "Our Mother's Brother who art in heaven." This brings up huge problems of its own -- like "Who is 'Our Mother'"?

And the Jesuits were in a terrible Catch-22 about baptism. In general, they didn't want to baptize anyone they hadn't thoroughly catechized. But . . . they also believed that all unbaptized people spent eternity in hell. So the one exception they made would be to baptize absolutely anyone who asked for baptism at the point of death. (The Indians were suffering from horrible epidemics, and so this situation arose all the time!) The Jesuits were well aware that by doing this they were making the Indians suspect that baptism *caused* death -- but what could they do? They felt like they had to at least offer it to anyone who was dying.

Brian Bennett said...

Actually I think the book is very clear in showing that the Jesuits were apt pupils of the Native American culture. It was clear that they spoke the native tongues. I realize that my use of "the only language they know" allows for some confusion. I did not mean that they came in speaking only European languages. I meant that, at least as the book told, they were focused on offering the natives the choice between eternal life in some foreign (to the natives) paradise, or a hell that had no sway over them. The items that had apologetic value in the Old World were of no value in this strange new one.

There were a few brief moments where one could see the agony of Father Laforgue knowing that baptism without catechesis was not preferred. In fact, the end of the novel is precisely this question. The reader is left to wonder about this tension in its midst.

Thanks for commenting Dr. Rural, and helping me be more specific.