Missions in Fiction

By Scott, Jamie S. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Missions in Fiction


Scott, Jamie S., International Bulletin of Mission Research


Biblical portraits of the apostles are as much the products of fictional imagination as of historical fact, as are such early Christian texts as the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (ca. 203) and Athanasius's Life of Anthony (ca. 357). Later writers have reworked these ancient portrayals throughout the centuries, from hagiographies like Jacob de Voragine's Golden Legend (ca. 1260) to contemporary novels like Walter Wangerin Jr.'s historical drama Paul (2000) and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code (2003), which depicts the apostle Peter as ambitious and misogynistic. More important, though, the lives of apostles, martyrs, and saints epitomize two interlacing themes: the inner turmoil of the soul resisting apostasy and the public struggles of believers committed to spreading the Christian Gospel among nonbelievers. Though classic Christian proselytizing narratives from St. Augustine's Confessions (398) to Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (1321) play variations on such themes, the rise of the novel in eighteenth-century western Europe offered the most suitable vehicle for dramatizing missionary tales of discovery and self-discovery. Early Christian Europe or the Middle Ages sometimes provides the backdrop for missions in fiction; St. Augustine of Canterbury is the main character of Donna Fletcher Crow's Glastonbury: The Novel of Christian England (1992), for example. Generally, however, novelists and short story writers have looked for inspiration to two great flourishes of missionary activity: the Portuguese, Spanish, and French Roman Catholic missions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which in many ways was revived in the nineteenth century; and the British and North American Protestant missions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Both periods saw Christian missions established around the world as spiritual outposts of Western colonial and imperial expansion.

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Roman Catholic Missions in Fiction

Among the earliest depictions of Roman Catholic missions is Sydney Owenson's The Missionary: An Indian Tale (1811), which is set in seventeenth-century Kashmir and dramatizes an unconsummated romance between the Portuguese Franciscan missionary Hilarion and the Hindu priestess Luxima. The Goan Inquisition sentences Hilarion to burn at the stake for apostasy, and Luxima prepares to commit sati on his pyre. A riot allows both to escape but also results in Luxima's death, leaving Hilarion a lonely recluse back in Kashmir, where he worships by the sacred rivers at sunrise and sunset as Luxima used to do. Largely orientalist in ethos, The Missionary issues salutary lessons on cultural encounters; as one scholar has suggested, Hilarion unmakes Hindus but makes no converts, and he himself ends up neither one nor the other.

In a sense, both historically and thematically James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933) picks up where Owenson's book leaves off. In May 1931 a plane crashes near the hidden lamasery of ShangriLa in Tibet's Kuen-Lun Mountains. The crash strands a group of Westerners, including Roberta Brinklow, an indefatigable Protestant missionary. The lamasery's high lama turns out to be the 200-year-old Father Perrault, a Belgian missionary who had traveled from Peking to Shangri-La in the early eighteenth century to found a Capuchin monastery. When Brinklow determines to start her own mission in Shangri-La, the high lama comments on her ambitions with a certain amount of indifference. He dies shortly afterward, his legacy a mysterious blend of Buddhism and Christianity.

Several other authors, some writing sympathetically, some from more ambivalent postcolonial perspectives, have portrayed Roman Catholic missionaries in the New World and elsewhere. Brian Moore's Black Robe (1985) explores the interplav between indigenous and European cultures in seventeenth-century New France. Tormented by self-doubt and tortured by the Iroquois, the young French missionary Father Laforgue begins in the novel zealously intent on restoring the Jesuit mission of Saint Marie. …

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