Friday, April 29, 2016

Ussama Makdisi on a Nineteenth-Century Protestant Mission to the Middle East

In 2008, Ussama Makdisi published his award-winning title, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. On one level, this book simply tells the story of American Protestant missionaries and one As’ad Shidyaq. Born in 1798, Shidyaq lived in that part of the Ottoman Empire now known as the Lebanese Republic. His life forever changed when he became the first convert to Protestant Christianity in that part of the world, and was subsequently tortured and killed. He thus became the first Protestant martyr of the American mission to the Middle East.

Roman Catholics, members of the Maronite Church, and Greek Orthodox Christians were all officially tolerated in the Empire. But in the early nineteenth century, Protestantism was something new. Makdisi sums up the encounter between American missionaries and the Ottoman Empire as follows: “One reflected a determination to refashion the world on evangelical terms at a time of ascendant Anglo-American power; the other, a violent refusal to accept these terms" (5).

Makdisi insists that the story he tells is not an example of a clash of cultures, much less a clash of civilizations. It is much more specific than that, he explains, and therefore reflects no such general “clash,” an obvious disavowal of the so-called “[Samuel] Huntington thesis.”

As interesting and significant as this story is, Makdisi has received special notice for how he tells it. In general, most historical accounts of Christian missionary work are examples of institutional, denominational history. This is only natural since those producing the historiography are members of the community of faith that conceived and conducted the mission activities they describe. Consequently, denominational historians of missionary efforts have typically ignored those materials that reflect the ideas and that chronicle the culture of the target group. In countless examples, missionary historiography is essentially Christian hagiography. Based on reports from the field and memoirs that missionaries often publish, such historiography relates the episodes of heroic evangelists who took the gospel to exotic, distant places. From the Apostle Paul to the recent past, and in most every era of the history of the Church, missionaries have been among the top candidates for canonization. As Makdisi puts it, even most of the recent historians of American religious history “have consistently reproduced, in admittedly less evangelical terms, the perspective and structure of classic missionary memorials, charting the unilinear path of missionaries from dynamic West to stagnant East, from light into darkness, from white to nonwhite, from historiographically important to less important, and thus have continued to overlook the actual histories and archives of non-Western societies” (7). Counter to this tradition, Makdisi is convinced that "[t]he only way to tell a story of a cross-cultural encounter involving Americans and Arabs is to enlarge dramatically the conventional scope of inquiry” (15).


Wade Tannehill said...

Thanks for this. If I understand correctly, it sounds like an intriguing case study of Christian mission history which takes into account the target culture's perspective. Perhaps this could be a good resource for helping us (Protestant or free church traditions) to see ourselves more objectively, more as others might see us, and to more appropriately critique our methods, strategies, and agendas.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, Wade. Yes, exactly right. This book is a good example of a historian putting on display both sides of a missionary project. There are a few others in this category: Linford Fisher on The Indian Great Awakening, and Allan Greer's book called Mohawk Saint do similar things. I suspect they'd be good reading for current and future missionaries. Then, I guess, some reflection on "How do I handle this sort of knowledge?" would be in order.