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Competing Narratives, and a Way Forward

There can be many pitfalls when it comes to cross-cultural interactions, starting with the very inspirations that motivate us. The author of this article, a lifelong alongsider, describes his journey towards what he considers a healthy, authentic, and faithful-to-Jesus understanding of his own role in this process. If you are interested in learning more about being an alongsider and meeting other people who share this desire, please be sure to join us at this year’s Rethinking Forum on July 22-24, 2022, either in-person in Dallas, TX or through a digital option. More information available at this link: Rethinking Forum ’22.

– The Editor

Every Christian who takes the initiative to share the gospel with Hindus believes a particular narrative. A narrative can be a story, an accounting of events, or a particular point of view intentionally embedded within the plot, setting and characters of a story. This third kind of narrative is meant to shape our values and inspire us to action. An intentional narrative has taken deep root and grown up within western Christian circles about Christian interaction with Hindu communities. Almost without exception, it has been the western missions narrative which has determined why and how western Christians try to share the gospel with Hindu people and communities. I was personally affected by this narrative for many years.

The Western Narrative

The western missions narrative has emerged from two sets of stories. One is the story of the apostle Paul and his missionary journeys. These are recorded in the New Testament books of Acts and the Epistles, the letters that Paul wrote to churches and believers. There is a basic assumption in this approach to missions narrative. The way Paul and his companions fulfilled the so-called Great Commission is the pattern that the Church is meant to follow. This makes perfect sense because the early Church concluded that the record of his choices and actions was inspired scripture. A core belief of the western missions narrative is that apart from faith in Christ, all Hindu people are hopelessly lost in sin and doomed to an eternal hell. Christians are called to step into this dire situation by emulating Paul and pursuing his strategic plan of reproductive discipleship and church planting, and to do so in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul was indefatigable in serving the Lord, so doing whatever it takes to make all of this happen has become a central tenet of the missions narrative.

Another thread that impacts the western missions narrative comes from the biographies of people who participated in what Kenneth Scott Latourette referred to as “The Great Century” of missionary expansion in the 19th and early 20th century. The Great Century narrative is the epic story of intrepid western missionaries like Hudson Taylor introducing the Christian faith to the lost world outside of Christendom. The Great Century part of the missions narrative tells us stories of Christian exploits carried out by people who are meant to be our heroes, following in the footsteps of the apostle Paul. Christian heroism is a central tenet of the missions narrative.

Within the context of South Asia and specifically regarding Hindu people, the western mission narrative’s preeminent example of Christian heroism involves the stories of William Carey and his life and work in India. The stories about Carey contain inspiring examples of what it was like to leave the “light” of Protestant Christendom behind in order to live and serve in the “dark” world of 19th century India. Stories about other missionary heroes such as Christian Friedrich Schwartz, Praying John Hyde, E. Stanley Jones, and Amy Carmichael add lore and legend to the South Asian version of the missions narrative. I consumed all the content I could find about the two themes of the inexhaustible effort and Christian heroism within the western missions narrative. They impacted my life at a very deep level. 

South Asian Narratives

To my complete surprise, however, I soon discovered that there was a fundamental error within the western missions narrative for South Asia. It only tells one perspective of the experience. The western missions narrative is not a lie, far from it, but the people of South Asia, both Hindus and Christians, tell another set of stories which leads them to believe in a different version of the missions narrative.

Both Hindus and Christians in South Asia tell stories about how missions were indistinguishable from British colonialism. For Hindus especially, missionaries were often considered to be agents of the British Empire. In fact, I have rarely ever met a Hindu person who does not assume that foreign missionaries used their money and power to address the social ills of caste discrimination and poverty in order to coerce marginalized Hindu peoples to convert to Christianity, the religion of their oppressors. Christians in India also tell a different version of the missions narrative. They talk about how the institutions of missions, such as overseas agencies, imported denominations, and funding from abroad, became permanently embedded there. This foreign influence created demeaning dependency and conflicts of interest within the Indian Christian community. 

Over time, my shock deepened into sadness as I realized that I was occupying a ministry space that was based on the missions narrative. I had to find a way forward that enabled me to have integrity as a gospel-sharing Christian among Hindu people.

Listening to these competing versions of the missions narrative deconstructed my assumptions about sharing the gospel with Hindus. I basically discovered that western Christians, Indian Christians, and Hindus were all simultaneously editing the narrative of any cross-cultural gospel interaction.  Each side would only tell the stories that aligned with their preexisting assumptions.  Western Christians emphasized their generosity, self-sacrifice, and the importance of their spiritual motive.  Indian Christians often felt demeaned or co-opted by an outside, foreign agenda that believed it knew better.  Hindu people would feel targeted and demeaned, and an object of conquest.  Western Christians believed their version of the narrative, and Indian Christians and Hindus believed their versions. No one would listen to what the others had to say. This left everyone biased and confused. 

I struggled to put all of this into a right perspective. Vocal proponents of each version of the missions narrative were convinced that they alone were right. If I accepted only the Indian versions of the missionary narrative, I would have no choice other than to stop sharing the gospel within Hindu communities. If I accepted only the western version of the missions narrative, I would become blindly triumphalist, believing that I had been authorized to save all of South Asia from damnation! I eventually concluded that both versions of the missions narrative were simultaneously right and wrong. So, I decided to do what I have always done. I conducted a first principles search for the truth. I read the Bible and prayed about what I was reading.

The Gospels Narrative

Over about a five-year period, I discovered an alternative narrative. I will refer to it as the Gospels narrative. It is the stories of Jesus and his disciples which are embedded within the setting, characters, and plot of the four Gospels. These stories are about Jesus spreading the gospel within human community, regardless of religion, culture, or lifestyle. Many of the people Jesus encountered went on to become his faithful disciples. I also came to the conclusion that Paul translated and adapted the discipleship ministry of Jesus into innovative and faithful ways to make disciples of Jesus in increasingly Gentile environments. The Gospels narrative brought being a disciple of Jesus more clearly into my focus, while the cynicism and triumphalism of the biased missions narratives became harder and harder to see. 

The Gospels narrative satisfies me and seems to satisfy Hindu people. It provides me with a philosophy of bhakti and seva (devotion and service) that integrates my lifestyle, the entire Bible, and the world around me. It also provides a framework for Hindu people to experience the joy of being loved and blessed by Jesus himself, without all of the Christian clutter. Ultimately, the Gospels narrative provides me with the thing that I cherish most – the opportunity and ability to come alongside Hindus in any context where we each find ourselves brought together by the mysterious sovereignty of God. 

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