A Feature Review of
Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World
Reviewed by Matthew Loftus
Amy Peterson’s debut book, Dangerous Territory, is not your typical missionary biography and it is not meant to be. As Peterson recounts her story of teaching English as a Second Language for two years in Southeast Asia, she deliberately tries to subvert the conventions of the missionary memoir in order to change the way we talk about missions. In an article last year for Christianity Today, she wrote that “We need to hear stories about the real struggles and joys of missions work.” This is one of those stories.
Peterson begins her story a few weeks before she leaves for the first time, frequently flashing back to moments when she felt called to overseas missions. The main narrative of her two-year term in Southeast Asia is broken up by “interludes” that feature more abstract reflections on four subjects: missionary narratives, short-term trips, the role of women on the mission field, and the missionary vocation itself. These interludes stand alone from the memoir, but the points she makes in them are constantly reinforced by her experiences.
For example, she feels torn between the passionate messages she hears at conferences about going all-in for Jesus like the missionary heroes of yesteryear and her natural discomfort in evangelizing non-Christians. She is no starry-eyed dreamer waiting for her naivete or pride to be crushed; she knows enough to know that she doesn’t want to be like the arrogant father from The Poisonwood Bible. She knows that she does not want to be a colonizer or a contemporary “expat” (the catchall term she uses in the book to describe rich foreigners who embrace a Western lifestyle). What, then, does she want?
Despite the book’s subtitle (“My Misguided Quest to Save the World”), Peterson’s story demonstrates that before she even got on a plane to Southeast Asia, she respected the limits of what she can accomplish. She decides explicitly at the outset that she will be a “neighbor.” This is in contrast not only to the stereotypical missionaries she has encountered in fiction or history but also to her own years spent indulging her wanderlust across Europe. She recognizes that the desire to jet in and out of places and relish a sense of adventure has helped drive her (and many others) to the mission field, but seems to acknowledge that this desire to find adventure won’t help– and may even hurt– her ability to stay for the long term and truly help the people she comes to care about.
After getting adjusted to her new life in Southeast Asia, though, Peterson starts to wonder about when she might get around to changing the world, one English student at a time. Her prayers are answered in the form of “Veronica,” a sweet and earnest first-year student whose interest in the Bible is mostly fueled by the professions of faith from American boy band members. This does not make her any less eager to study Scripture or start sharing it with her friends as soon as she comes to believe in its truth. Veronica is a post-Poisonwood missionary’s dream: through Peterson’s patient relationship-building and thoughtful questions, Veronica becomes a Christian and starts trying to live out her faith with nary a harsh sermon or pushy altar call.
Once Veronica’s faith gets going, the story starts to become more interesting. The bold new convert, at the author’s encouragement, begins to tell her friends about Jesus and connect with other Christians around. Peterson leaves for a scheduled vacation home excited about what sort of flourishing little church she might encounter when she returns. Unfortunately, her protege’s zeal quickly invites the attention of the police, who arrest and interrogate Veronica and the other girls studying the Bible together. Veronica remains committed to the faith, despite this pressure, but Peterson is accused of being a spy and forbidden to return to teaching at the university.
The author reflects on all the possible decisions that could have led to this point: being too bold in inviting new people to study, connecting Veronica with another Christian already under police surveillance, leaving Christian literature and a JESUS Film for her young disciples to learn from. Nothing was particularly damning or even unexpected for someone in their first year abroad learning how to navigate the difficult cultural and social barriers that she encountered. Again, there was no grand hubris that put the author’s friends in danger– just a few careless decisions and mistaken judgments.
Peterson has to quickly decide between moving to a new country or staying home. She elects to join another team in Cambodia, where her story begins to meander as it mostly focuses on renewing her relationship with God after the hurts she experienced during her first year and falling in love with her husband, a fellow missionary. The narrative arc is far more like Napoleon Dynamite than The End of the Spear, reaching a happy conclusion without heightening the drama in the third act. Again, this seems an intentional decision to subvert the traditional missionary memoir, as the author herself seems to learn more about God’s grace than any of the students she’s trying to work with.
In fact, during her term in Cambodia, Peterson and her fellow missionaries are more free to openly evangelize– but this doesn’t make the work any less difficult. She finds herself more dissatisfied with the prevailing approaches to missions (which she traces back to “major commercial enterprises” of the 1800s). Just as she found the traditional narratives of missionaries-as-heroes counterproductive to genuine spiritual formation, she takes issue with the contemporary business-oriented approach to missions, asking:
What if we had more bi-vocational missionaries? What if our boards were more diverse, and staffed by people who understand the local situation on the ground rather than by church leaders thousands of miles away? What if peripheral theological debates didn’t have to divide us? What if we functioned as a spiritual body rather than as a financial corporation? What if we could cut costs by creating more local partnerships? What if we could empower those on the margins to be missionaries by creating lighter, more flexible structures?
The good news is that these very things she is asking for are happening all over the world — but, unfortunately, she doesn’t explore how these experiments in “other ways of doing missions” are going. Most of the interludes are similar, with little space given to any arguments for the traditional models she critiques and only fleeting references given to contemporary alternatives that are living out her suggestions. Many (if not most) churches still need to take the above questions seriously and deal with the historical baggage that has accumulated over two-and-half centuries of missions movements. But Dangerous Territory seems to elide the fact many missionaries and sending organizations have been wrestling with these issues for years, leaving the discussions about these topics fragmented and incomplete.
The discussion about the vocation of missionaries near the end of the book feels particularly constrained by its brevity. In both that interlude and the book’s conclusion, Peterson discusses how all callings and vocations are equally valuable– but in trying to make this point, she neglects the fact that not all vocations are equally costly. The world surely needs good janitors as much as it needs good doctors, but training a physician requires far more time and money. Similarly, all Christians are indeed called to be faithful neighbors wherever we are– but being a faithful cross-cultural missionary requires a greater deal of commitment to reckon with the costs such a life entails.
I don’t want to perpetuate the false dichotomy that Peterson argues about between the “holy” and the “ordinary”, nor do I think it’s healthy for anyone who isn’t a missionary to think of themselves as a “second-class Christian.” I am sure that Peterson would agree with me that encouraging all Christians to live at a level of discipline and joy that missionaries require to sustain their lives in difficult field . Until that happens, though, the stark realities of the mission field will select for those who have counted the cost and reject those who have not cultivated the necessary disciplines and joys. A love for adventure, a desire to prove oneself, and an urge to save the world are terrible foundations for any career– but they are often necessary to catalyze the first big move overseas or the start of a new ministry. A great deal of missionary life does consist of the exact same boring spiritual disciplines that our churches back home are trying to encourage and form. However, those disciplines are lived out in a context where the missionary is often at greater physical risk and is required to spend more time and energy overcoming barriers to the Gospel or fighting back evil as it is manifested in disease, poverty, or violence. These risks and costs are unique, and they deserve appropriate recognition as long as they exist.
Peterson could have explored all these themes in relation to her story, the other missionaries she worked with, or the missionaries (historical and contemporary) we meet in other memoirs. Just a few more paragraphs wrestling with the story of Helen Roseveare, whose entire career and work dealt with so many of the issues that the author finds unresolved, would have added much. As it is, the book’s treatment feels halfhearted.
The evangelical world needs stories like Peterson’s — stories of people who were faithful and didn’t see dramatic fruit. Stories like these do illuminate contemporary debates about missiology and missions practices, but Dangerous Territory leaves out so much that the reader doesn’t get a sense of how diverse the contemporary mission field really is. The good news is that the author’s thesis is true — but Dangerous Territory limits its punch by only asking questions instead of exploring the answers being lived out all across the world.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices family medicine in East Africa and Baltimore. You can learn more about his work and writing at MatthewAndMaggie.org