God in the Rainforest:
A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador
kathryn t. long
oxford, 446 pages, $34.95
If you are an American Christian of the evangelical variety and at least sixty-five years old, you are likely familiar with the story of the five young missionaries who were killed in Ecuador in January 1956 by members of an “elusive and feared indigenous group,” the Waorani. In accounts at the time, the Waorani were called “Aucas,” the name given to them by “their neighbors and enemies the Quichuas”; it meant “savages” (a useful reminder, in our day of sometimes excessively self-conscious naming practices).
No event between the end of World War II and 1960 made a comparable impact on American evangelicals, though its interest wasn’t limited to them alone; Life magazine’s ten-page feature in 1956, with striking photos by Cornell Capa, was the most memorable account in the mainstream press, but there were many more. In 1957, Harper & Row published Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot, who was the widow of Jim Elliot, one of the five slain missionaries. This “spiritual ‘multibiography’ of the five men became an immediate bestseller.”
Still, dramatic as this narrative of martyrdom was, its long-term influence would have been much diminished without the astonishing sequel: In the fall of 1958, Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint (sister of Nate Saint, the pilot of the group, killed with Elliot and the others), with the help of a Wao woman, Dayomæ, “made peaceful contact with the Waorani who had killed their loved ones. . . . A few years later, sooner than anyone expected, a handful of Waorani began to profess belief in God.”
The story has had a long afterlife, and it is known even among many younger evangelicals. (For example, this February, Broadman & Holman published Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, by their daughter, Valerie Elliot Shepherd.) For some, though, it is an admonitory tale rather than an inspiring example. It is not Kathryn Long’s purpose, in God in the Rainforest, to transmit the legend or to debunk it. Rather, she offers a scrupulous narrative that sets the familiar dramatic events in a much larger context, including the fate of the Waorani in the decades since their first encounter with the missionaries. It is a model of historical scholarship, requiring many years of labor (not least, the difficult task of deciding what to include and what to leave out). “The overarching argument,” Long writes, “is that the global expansion of Christianity as it happens on a case-by-case basis is complicated, even messy, much more so than either mythmakers or critics are willing to acknowledge.”
What a balm to the spirit, at this particular moment, to encounter such a sensible judgment and to read the book that fleshes it out. So, you answer, it’s “complicated.” Isn’t that what hairsplitting academics are always telling us—unless we happen to be violating one of their taboos, in which case it isn’t complicated at all? No, the attempt (with all due humility) to recount actions and their consequences, noble and ignoble alike, is not “hairsplitting.” By drawing attention to “the quotidian actions of people in Ecuador, both missionary and Waorani,” Long helps us make a connection between these actions and our own:
An old Wao warrior described himself “a little believer” in the message of Jesus, meaning that he had a hard time understanding what the missionaries were talking about. Still, he learned enough over the years that he chose not to avenge his sister’s murder, even though he clearly wanted to. His step in breaking a cycle of revenge may have reflected a spirit of sacrifice not unlike that of the missionaries he had killed years earlier on a riverbank in the rainforest.
I wonder what God might be calling us to do to break a cycle of wrongdoing that leads to more wrongdoing, on and on? Maybe something as hard for us to understand as the gospel was for that old Wao warrior.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.