About Mennonite Life
|Ted Grimsrud is assistant professor of theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Prior to joining the EMU faculty in 1996, he served ten years as a pastor of Mennonite churches in Oregon, Arizona, and South Dakota. He is author, most recently, of God's Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Main Themes of the Bible (Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press U. S., 2000).|
Barbara Kingsolver's best-selling novel, The Poisonwood Bible, has been of special interest to persons familiar with Mennonite mission history and church growth in Congo/Zaire. Kingsolver's story unfolds in a fictional village of "Kilanga" along the Kwilu river in Bandundu Province. "Kilanga" is apparently located somewhere between Kikwit and Kandala, which in 1959-60 were two sites of growing Congolese-African Mennonite church congregations and extensive Mennonite missionary activity.
And so Mennonite readers pick up this novel with high expectations. Will Kingsolver help us understand the dynamics of the Mennonite missionary presence in Congo/Zaire? The answers to this question have been mixed. But the Mennonite responses to the novel have been notably intense.
Three essays in this issue of Mennonite Life help us come to terms with The Poisonwood Bible. Jim Bertsche, who with his wife Jennie served in Congo/Zaire for twenty-five years, was executive secretary of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission from 1974 to 1986. In a recent issue of The Mennonite (25 Feb 2001), Bertsche presented a balanced critique of The Poisonwood Bible. In this issue of Mennonite Life, he documents in greater detail the extraordinary vitality and growth of mission and church in the Congo in the 1950s. The evidence contradicts Kingsolver's image of Christian mission in this era and region as thoroughly frustrated -- apparently in its death throes.
The essays by Ami Regier and Brad Born, both from the Bethel College English department, evaluate Poisonwood Bible as an achievement of literary imagination. These essays grew out of faculty discussions of the novel as required reading in Bethel's senior course, Basic Issues of Faith and Life, for the 2000-01 school year. Regier and Born respond to the book in very different ways. Perhaps their intra-English department debate can be seen as a kind of practice intramurals, where participants exercise by exploring contrasting stances.
Born reaches the startling conclusion that Kingsolver, despite her brilliant description of nature and of native culture in the Congo, fails to take Africa seriously. Regier illuminates Kingsolver's literary strategies for engaging readers in her moral viewpoint. The readers are not allowed the comfort of neutral distance. Kingsolver forces us to deal with our complicity in the negative outcomes of white colonialist arrogance in Africa.
The camera was an essential tool for Mennonite missionary enterprise in Africa, as well as on other continents. Photographs enabled missionaries to share information with supporting families and congregations back home. Through slide shows, photographs in church periodicals, and photo albums, North Americans learned about people and places on "the mission field." (Strangely, the missionary family in Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, although overloaded with consumer comforts from home, seems not to have had a camera. They remembered their misbegotten mission work without the aid of photographs.)
The "Congo Picture Book," from the collection of photographs in the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, was originally created as a kind of photo album. The original photos are mostly prints about nine by eleven inches in size. The photographer is unknown. Perhaps someone among our readers can help fill in some details. [See note in Table of Contents of the June 2001 issue.]
The photographs are not well dated but seem to come from around 1960. They show people and situations from the work of Congo Inland Mission, later Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. The photo captions, written for a North American audience, betray a paternalistic style of missions publicity typical of an earlier generation. Note in the photo of the gymnastics group, for example, the reference to a "curriculum which teaches them to obey instructions." The Africans are pictured as people of great dignity, but the viewpoint implies outside ownership. This is "our work," belonging to the mission and to the supporting churches in North America.
The captions in the "Congo Picture Book" are quoted directly. Some photos are missing from the set, but the captions are all included here, and the gaps are noted in the series of links.
|Jim Bertsche is a retired missionary and missions administrator, now living in Goshen, Indiana. He is a graduate of Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and has a master's degree in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. Jim and his wife, Genevieve, experienced first hand the joys and the upheavals of the Congo in the years of independence and civil war. Jim is the author of a definitive history of the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, CIM/AIMM: A Story of Vision, Commitment and Grace (Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, 1998), 855pp.|
|Brad S. Born is associate professor of English at Bethel College.|
|Ami M. Regier is associate professor of English at Bethel College.|