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A Review of
Running to the Fire:
An American Missionary Comes of Age in Ethiopia
Paperback: U of Iowa Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Sarah Lyons
I have grown up in an evangelical church. When I tell you this, it will automatically bring to mind a hundred different ideas of what I am like or what I have experienced, even though I have not told you how old I am or what denomination church I attend. Still, a lot of your assumptions will not necessarily be wrong.
For instance, there certainly was a great number of missionaries who passed in and out of my church’s doors. It was common for the sermon to open with a prayer over the next traveling family, often a young mother holding a baby while the father’s hand rested authoritatively on the shoulder of an older brother. I had casual knowledge of at least a dozen families who would later put their feet in places like Thailand or India. And yet, saying this implies that I actually knew a missionary, or at least had a conversation with one—which I didn’t.
Perhaps one of the reasons is because, ultimately, missionaries seemed like a select breed of Christian, the kind that might have been just a cut above everyone else. God had spoken to them! He never seemed to speak directly to me, but there they stood on the stage claiming that God had called them into foreign lands to rescue His people. Surely they were furthering His kingdom in ways I secretly feared were not possible for me.
Running to the Fire is the first time I have heard the other side of the story. It is a memoir that documents the sixteen-year-old life of Tim Bascom, every chapter alternating between memories of his past and his analysis of them from the present.
I love this style, this dialogue between Bascom’s two selves. It is honest, first of all—he recalls for us childish bravado, admits to moments of melodrama, and shares his childhood fears and regrets. He never discounts the struggles of growing up, even against the backdrop of a violent Marxist takeover in Ethiopia.
And yet it is not just a coming of age story, where the only truth available to the reader comes from the sometimes-underdeveloped perspective of a teenage boy. Bascom is writing this with all of the understanding he has now, decades later. He asks questions that the sixteen-year-old was afraid to acknowledge. But he also finds purpose in things that his younger self did not see.
It is these other chapters, written through the eyes of the adult Tim Bascom, which forced me to stop and put the book down at times. They are not the admissions of the pretend missionary I created in my church. In fact, some of the observations are quite scathing:
[Missionaries] hope to establish a spiritual kingdom instead, transcending earthly boundaries by bringing people through the gates of heaven. This mission lends them a deeply meaningful sense of purpose. The only problem is that it can also become an excuse for imposing cultural values or, even worse, elevating the self. (67)
I have listened to debates in college classes by students who would argue for and against missions—the pros and cons of short term or long term, the arrogance of entering a country with the mindset of trying to ‘fix’ its problems, the benefits of letting various ethnicities be the only ones to evangelize their own people. Running to the Fire does not pick one side of the debate and argue it through to the end. Instead it is a story, one filled with real people who you will hurt for even though this happened in the 1970s.
Running to the Fire will also teach you about Ethiopia. I knew nothing about this country’s history before reading this book, and afterwards I felt embarrassed for my lack of knowledge. As a child, wasn’t I a bit jealous of missionaries for the adventures they seemed to go on? And yet I hardly cared where they went or what was happening in the countries they lived. In fact, how much of my own country’s history could I actually explain if asked—not just the order of events, but why each shaped the other?
If allowed to voice a complaint about this emotionally gripping book, I would have wanted more answers. Not necessarily for some of the big-picture questions, the ones that address missions as a system and in all honesty are never going to have a truly satisfying solution. No, what I really wanted to know was what answers Bascom found for himself.
He notes at one point that “I began writing this memoir—what you are reading now—feeling a need to apologize for my appalling ethnocentrism and that of my missionary clan” (142). Accurate though this may be, I am not sure whether this book ever quite pulls out of being anything but confessional. And I am left slightly unsettled by this, wondering whether or not writing this memoir changed the way that Bascom copes with his doubts. Is the person he has become able to reconcile the experiences of his sixteen-year-old self? Or is he left simply with an overwhelming guilt that now has no place to go? And when he ends the book with a question—“After all those troubles under Mengistu—you know, the fighting and the persecution and the hiding—what do you think? Was there anything good about the revolution?”—does Bascom really believe the answer can be “yes” (230)?
Though my questions aren’t completely quelled, there are more than enough glimpses of hope in Running to the Fire. Perhaps my favorite line comes from a recollection of Bascom’s parents, near the beginning of the trip: “What could be more meaningful really than to risk everything for Jesus? True, we would be running right into the fire, but what place was safer than there—in the very will of God” (42)? Perhaps in this book, there is everything I admired in the missionaries I saw at my own church: a frequently inexplicable bravery and trust in God. But the difference is that I feel as if now, for the first time, I’ve gotten to know one.
Sarah Lyons is an intern here at the ERB this summer, and a senior English major at Taylor University.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com