by Gary Brumbelow
If more 21st-century missionary efforts were like that of William Carey, the father of modern missions whose 250th birthday was marked in August, what a difference we might see in our progress of fulfilling Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations.”
Of course asking a missionary to copy William Carey is like encouraging a junior-high quarterback to imitate Tim Tebow. In sheer genius and talent, Carey far surpasses most of us who follow in his train. But if we cannot match his abilities, we can nevertheless emulate his example (with one exception: his intensity of work that placed unbearable burdens on his marriage).
Carey’s courage to challenge entrenched evils was surely one of his most compelling traits. A clarity of vision in such matters drove him to fight cultural crimes including, as detailed in The Legacy of William Carey by Vishal & Ruth Mangalwadi, “polygamy, female infanticide, child marriage, widow-burning, euthanasia, and forced female illiteracy” all of which were deeply rooted in the culture as well as sanctioned by the prevailing religious system and ignored by political powers. But Carey never got fogged about the authority of his Commissioner, the Giver of life “who appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works” of “the thief [who] comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy” (1Jo 3:8; John 10:10).
Carey was unencumbered by the cultural relevance and missiological correctness that weakens much cross-cultural effort today. He died long before the birth of the modern idea that long-held beliefs and practices of a society must be respected by outsiders who cannot pretend to understand the back story. If such thinking is sometimes true, in a fallen world it can never be absolute.
Even some professional anthropologists have chucked such theories as largely outdated. For example, Darrow introduced me to a book by Robert Edgerton — Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. Edgerton, a PhD professor emeritus at UCLA and 2004 Distinguished Lecturer of the American Anthropological Association, writes in the opening chapter:
The belief that primitive societies are more harmonious than modern ones, that savages are noble, and that life in the past was more idyllic than life today is not only reflected in the motion pictures and novels of our popular culture (the recently acclaimed film Dances With Wolves comes immediately to mind), it is deeply engrained in scholarly discourse as well.
As you might gather from his title, Edgerton is challenging the “discourse.” In 200 fascinating pages he relates dozens of (thoroughly documented) examples from all over the world that serve to lay the matter to rest. He paints a vivid picture of fallen humanity without ever acknowledging the doctrine.
In Discipling Nations, Darrow explains that God built laws into the creation which we observe to our benefit, or ignore to our peril. The notion of “cultural relativism”–that “the values in one culture are no better (or worse) than those in another”–is antithetical to the concept of these divine, immutable laws. God’s moral laws matter, and His servants are commissioned to teach them where they are not known.
Carey got that. May his tribe increase.