In the past fifty years “church” has been something we have mostly imported from our neighbour to the south. Our imagination about what it means to be God’s people has been shaped by a variety of traditions — you can name the one you know — but those traditions themselves have been conditioned by the preachers, leaders, books and churches that have dominated the scene in the U.S.A. The most prominent of these, we all know, being Willow Creek.

We are now in the intriguing place of recognizing the limits of an imported imagination of ecclesial life. There are signs that the work of theology, and of mission, in place — in THIS place — and the interaction of these two, is being taken with new seriousness by Canadians. Thus this series of posts on the work of Canadian authors.

My last post considered “Where Mortals Dwell.” This time we’ll look at John Bowen, The Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan.

Before cracking John’s book, a look back at “Christianity Rediscovered” lends some context. The summary at AMAZON reads like this:

“This profound and thought-provoking book is one of the classics of modern missionary writing. Superficially just a good missionary story, about how one man brought a number of groups of Masai people in east Africa to Christian faith, it is something much more than that. For in what the author says about the method and content of evangelism, the meaning of the eucharist, and the nature of ministry, we are led back to question our understandings of the mission of the church in all its contexts. For Donovan, his experiences in Africa meant a total reappraisal of the meaning of his faith, and therefore a rediscovery of his faith. His book, which is written with moving simplicity, continues to represent a provocative challenge to all those engaged in issues of evangelism and multiculturalism.”

And in a post-colonial world, we might add! A reviewer on Amazon wrote the following: “Donovan made a point to strip the Gospel of its ‘cultural accretions from the West’, and so present the Masai with a Christ free to be the God of all tribes and nations, as He was really meant to be. As an American, my picture of the Body of Christ is often, and unfortunately, very American. Ethnocentrism is a fault that all Christians must address and overcome…”

coverIf you happen to have done an MDiv or a DMin in the last ten years, chances are you read this book. It’s a great read: rich and inspiring and reflective. John thought so too — and then discovered that all the letters of Vincent had been collected but never published. He saw an opportunity to tell more of the story, to inspire more reflective practitioners, and took it. One reviewer summarizes the effort with a quote from the foreword by Brian McLaren:

“The Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan is a treasure trove; a collection of discovered valuables. In the letters, Father Vince both challenges the institutionalization of religion while he enlightens us about what it means to a Christian and apostle of Jesus Christ. In the Forward, Brian McLaren aptly captures several themes of Donovan’s work including the following, “Donovan displays a profoundly evangelical instinct – in the sense that for him the essence of Christianity is not a static, inflexible institution but a dynamic gospel, not a set of untranslatable doctrines but an ever incarnating message and mission of hope.”

John Bowen opens the collection of letters with some reflections on photography: the camera shows only what the photographer chooses to frame. “Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered is a snapshot in time. Like all photographs, it has edges, and cannot describe what is outside the edges, wherever they are drawn.” And that sets the stage for what is to follow. Bowen tells us that,

“Two things have happened to shed light on what is outside the frame of Christianity Rediscovered. One is that Vincent Donovan’s letters from Tanzania to friends and family during the years 1959 to 1973 have come to light…These provide us with a much wider range of snapshots of Donovan’s life and work. Apart from anything else, they give us more of the context surrounding the stories told in Christianity Rediscovered.”

And for those who found the first book inspiring, and felt some connection and sympathy with the unique journey of a unique man in a very unusual setting, the letters expand the story, fill in some blanks, and in particular answer the question, “What happened next?” Bowen writes,

“The letters tell more dramatic stories of missionary life—of encounters with wild animals, of Donovan’s clandestine meeting with Julius Nyerere, the future president of Tanzania; of attempts by Christians of other denominations to kill him; of Antoni, heroic apostle to the Meru; and particularly of the reclusive Sonjo people among whom Donovan spent his last five years in Tanzania… [and] here we also get a fuller sense of Donovan the man.”

And there is much, much more. For those who enjoyed the earlier work — and I have never spoken to anyone who read it who did not! — this is a real treat. The letters add fresh insight into Donovan the reflective practitioner of mission. As early as 1960, Donovan is collecting Maasai melodies “and writing Christian songs to them in the Maasai language — ‘and presto, we had Masai hymns’ (August 1960).” Bowen notes that,

“At this point, he is already using the language of “[clothing] the soul of Christianity with the flesh and blood of Africa” (September 1960, February 1965) and “translating” the story of Jesus into Maasai terms (November-December 1960, January- February 1961). He also understands the concept which becomes so central to Christianity Rediscovered, of community conversion: “In any other tribe . . . it was not one man who came forward to accept Christianity. It was . . . usually very, very many at one time normally being baptized in the same day” (November 1963 cf. September 1967).

I highly recommend this collection, a gift offered to the world by Dr. Bowen of Wycliffe College, Toronto. Next up: Tim Dickau, “Plunging into the Kingdom Way.”

Previous posts in this “Made in Canada” series:

A Happy Ending, published by The Story in Sarnia, Ontario.
Beautiful Mercy, published by St. Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg.
The Cost of Community, by Jamie Arpin-Ricci in Winnipeg.
Where Mortals Dwell, by Craig Bartholomew in Hamilton