Observations Reviews

Books I Have Read; Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission

Two books with some strong points, but some serious weaknesses.

Actually, this is a brief review of two short books by the same author; Jim Harries of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission.

Let’s start with Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Village. This is a large format paperback with just over 40 pages. The title more or less tells you what to expect. In the words of the introduction it is a short fictitious diary. The account was originally written in the Luo language and the translation is deliberately literal in an attempt to carry some of the feel of the African setting. The story is interesting and informative. It is set in Kenya and describes a situation and culture very different to the ones I know from West Africa. In truth, the book would be more accurately titled Three Days in the Life of a Kenyan Christian Village, but that’s a small detail.

If you are interested in Kenya, or just generally interested in the expression of Christianity in other contexts than your own, you may want to get a hold of this book. It won’t set you back as much as others I’ve mentioned lately!

However, it is important to remember that this book is written by a foreigner. It is an Englishman’s interpretation of Kenyan village life, not a Kenyan one. If you are really interested in getting under the skin of another culture, far better to read material written by the people themselves and not by their Western interpreters.

Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission, is a companion to Vulnerable Mission, a book that I wrote about a few months ago. The book is a normal format paperback with around 120 pages including 7 pages of references at the end.

The book covers much of the same material as its companion, though in a less conversational and more combative style. There is some good stuff in here and comments I made on the other work are equally valid:

There is much more in this controversial, thought-provoking vein. With government aid, evangelism and Bible translation all coming under examination. Those of us who do this sort of thing as a living, need to be prepared to listen to the critiques that Jim brings.

However, as was the case previously, there are some serious flaws with this book. The first and most serious problem is the “I’ve got it right and everyone else is wrong” attitude which pervades the book. Even when I agree with the author, I find myself wanting to disagree because of the strident tone. As with the Village book, this one also falls into the trap of equating East and South Africa with the continent as a whole, which is slightly annoying and makes you question some of the broad assumpations made in the book.

However, it is in the area of language where I have my biggest reservations.

  • I don’t understand how you can have a discussion of language and literature in Africa without paying attention to Arabic (Classical and Vernacular) and the way in which French was appropriated for African writing by people such as Senghor and Hampaté Ba.
  • Likewise, the author mentions the work of Sperber and Wilson in Relevance Theory, but pays no attention to Gutt’s application of their work to Bible translation and mission work.

I realise that these might seem a little picky or nerdy to most people; but the point is that the book is described as “an academic appraisal” and so I would expect it to engage with a wider range of sources from across Africa.

More seriously, the book doesn’t really get to grips with the complexity of the language situation in Africa. There are an increasing number of Africans for whom English or French is actually their mother tongue, not to mention the growth of urban patois such as Nouchi in Abidjan or Sheng in Nairobi. These cannot be ignored when tallking about communicating the Gospel in Africa, especially the burgeoning cities across the continent.

This leads into my biggest problem with the whole thing and that is that according to this model it is the missionary who decides which language the Gospel should be transmitted in. I’m all in favour of working in African languages (that’s what I’ve spent my adult life doing and advocating for), but the choice for the medium should lie in Africa, not with the expat. Some Africans prefer using European languages in some contexts, and they should be allowed to do so, if that’s what they want.

I have similar concerns about some of the other sections, but the language issue is the one I know best and about which I feel most qualified to comment.

The principles of Vulnerable Mission; using indigenous languages and local resources are useful ones, though not as revolutionary or unique as the author seems to imply. Despite my reservations, I would still encourage people to get to grips with what Jim Harries is saying. However, I would suggest that you buy Vulnerable Mission, rather than the Academic Appraisal.

A final comment from my earlier review is equally valid here:

I remember reading a book about personal evangelism that said that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Were this book a little sweeter and a little less strident, it would, I am sure, gain more adherents.

The African Village book is not available on Amazon, but you can find it at the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission website where you will find a wealth of resources on the subject.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

1 reply on “Books I Have Read; Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission”

This comment illustrates my whole problem with the “vulnerable mission” books. yes, I have been critical, but I have also suggested that people read the books and have pointed people to be he website and places where they can get hold of them. Nonetheless, Jim feels “written off”. Apparently you have to accept every jot and tittle of his ideas or you are opposing them.

Please look at Jim’s response to my comments. From where I am sitting, he has simply side slipped my comments, while likening himself to the prophet Jeremiah. So my genuine and honest questioning of his work is transformed into persecution of the Lord’s prophet; a classic way to shut down conversation.

Regarding the issue of forcing Africans to use African languages; it was Jim, himself (at a meeting in Oxford), who told me that I would be wrong to use French in conversation with Afrivan friends, even when they initiated the conversation in that language. I’m glad to see that he has moved away from this position.

I take no pleasure in writing less than glowing reviews on this blog. I know that criticism is painful for people and I hesitate to do it unless there is a good reason to do so. As I have said the n more than one occasion there is some good stuff in the “vulnerable mission” books and I recommend that people get to grips with them. However, they are not without their weaknesses.

for my own part; the mission world is huge and i don’t not propose to spend much more of my limited time blogging about “vulnerable mission”.

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