Magazine article The Christian Century

Mission in Spite of Empire: The Story of Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg

Magazine article The Christian Century

Mission in Spite of Empire: The Story of Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg

Article excerpt

THE WORD mission leads a curious double life in mainline churches nowadays. On the one hand, it's on everyone's lips, a frequently frantic response to declining membership or a thinly veiled borrowing from the business world, the better to market our ecclesial product. On the other hand, it's almost an expletive, the wicked work of colonial toadies destroying indigenous cultures and imposing Western religion with guns and Coca-Cola. In either case, the word tends to have a high recognition factor while remaining nearly void of content. Neither version of mission spends a lot of time with the details of actual efforts to spread the gospel.

Into this self-referential circle of North American anxiety comes the gentle rebuke of the Tamils of India. Not only Tamil Christians, either. Tamil Hindus and Tamil Muslims happily join the chorus in singing the praises of one Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, the subject of Christopher Gilbert's documentary Beyond Empires, distributed by Lamp Post Media. An 18thcentury German Lutheran Pietist whose missionary career lasted only 13 years before his untimely death, Ziegenbalg's unprecedented approach to the Great Commission caused him to become "the father of modern Protestant mission," in the words of Tamil church historian Daniel Jeyaraj.

Not that Gilbert, an Australian filmmaker, knew any of this at first. Like most 21st-century Protestants, even German or Lutheran ones, Gilbert had never heard the unwieldy name until a Tamil church planter in New York City tracked him down in 2006 (having seen a short film he'd made about Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan) and asked him to tell the story of Ziegenbalg in videographic fashion. To make matters even more difficult, at that time there was only one book in English about the man in question: The First Protestant Missionary to India, by Brijraj Singh. Not a theological but rather a sociological account of Ziegenbalg's impact on Tamil life and culture, the book exuded affection for its subject. And the author was a Hindu. Gilbert was intrigued.

As it turned out, 2006 was a bit late to get started on the film. It was actually the tercentenary year of Ziegenbalg's arrival on the shores of India, and local celebrations were well under way. Gilbert wasn't able to travel to Tranquebar himself, but he found a Muslim journalist to coordinate with a Hindu cameraman to shoot footage of the festivities. Both men asked Gilbert to call every morning and pray for their day's labors before they set out. It was only four years later that Gilbert was able to travel to India himself and set to work on telling the story of "the Morningstar of India" who had inspired 10,000 Indians of all religious convictions to gather and commemorate him.

But who was this Ziegenbalg, and how did he, at the tender age of 23, initiate such a dramatic change in Christian missions?

One hundred years before the arrival of the British, Denmark had a trading colony on the southeast coast of India, rather self-importantly named Fort Dansborg but better known as Tranquebar. It was everything you'd expect of a colonial enterprise: abusive, exploitative, and reducing the local population to slavery. Accordingly, the church was carefully excluded. It was only when King Frederick IV's mistress died in labor with his own child that a momentary pang of conscience induced him to accede to the wishes of his wife, mother, and chaplain, and he authorized a mission in the colony.

Danish volunteers were not forthcoming. Church had been defined territorially, indeed statically: hard as it is to fathom now, there was no theological framework for even imagining the onward movement of the apostolic gospel to new lands. It had been an assumed truth among Protestants that the task of the Great Commission had been laid only on the original apostles, or in any event had already been finished--forgetful, perhaps, of how recently Christianity had come to a number of European peoples. …

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