Daniel L. Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (New York: Vintage Books, 2008).
Kerry and Chris Shook, One Month to Live: Thirty Days to a No-Regrets Life (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2008).
Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984).
You won’t sleep through Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. This is one of the most engrossing and disturbing books on missions I have read in a long time, a study in cultural anthropology and linguistics that often reads like a jungle adventure story.
Faith Challenged . . . and Lost
Everett and his family went to the Amazon to decode the unwritten language of the Piraha (Pee-da-HAN) people, a tiny hunter-gatherer tribe. The 26-year-old missionary, his courageous wife, and their three young children lived through adventures more hair-raising than those on TV’s Survivor. They survived threats from anacondas and other snakes, tarantulas, drunken murderous tribesmen, and malaria, which nearly killed Dan’s wife, Keren, and daughter Shannon. He rescued them with derring-do that earned my respect—and further raised my doubts that I could ever have made it as a missionary.
To Everett the linguist, the Piraha language was a unique puzzle. It contains no numbers and has no fixed terms for color, no proper vocabulary for personal property, and uses only three vowels and seven consonants for men; three and six, respectively, for women. There is no word for sorry or for thanks. And none for God. Furthermore, the Piraha didn’t want their language in writing. Oral was good enough.
A larger research question also intrigued him: How exactly does culture affect language, and language culture? What he was learning from the Pirahas contradicted the current orthodoxy in language studies. Could what he believed he was discovering possibly be right?
He struggled as a linguistic, and as a believer.
His stated purpose for producing a written New Testament, of course, was to have a tool for converting the Pirahas.
He failed. He made no converts. In his second year his friend Kohoi explained the facts of life: “The Pirahas know that you left your family and your own land to come here and live with us. We know that you do this to tell us about Jesus. You want us to live like Americans. But the Pirahas do not want to live like Americans. We like to drink. We like more than one woman. We don’t want Jesus. But we like you. You can stay with us. But we don’t want to hear any more about Jesus. OK?”
For more than 200 years the Pirahas had resisted the missionaries’ message, even though they liked the missionaries. They have no use for history and do not accept secondhand testimonies about anything a speaker has not personally seen. So a story about some messiah who lived a couple thousand years ago held no appeal for them. “The Pirahas were not in the market for a new worldview. And they could defend their own just fine.”
Everett did experience one conversion: his own. He could not persuade these jungle people; they persuaded him. As his respect for the Pirahas grew, doubts about his message increased. Eventually, he gave up his Christian faith (more than that, “the nature of faith, the act of believing in something unseen”). As a consequence, he lost his family and left his calling.
This is not an uplifting tale told by a victorious evangelist. It is the sobering report of an honest man who adopted these so-called primitive people’s view of truth: “Truth to the Pirahas is catching a fish, rowing a canoe, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria.” By contrast, Western society’s sophistication, with its pressures and pretenses, had little to offer.
As I said, sobering.
Life Ended, Faith Expressed
A complete contrast to Don’t Sleep is Kerry and Chris Shook’s One Month to Live. I shouldn’t have read it in conjunction with Everett’s story. American Christian-
ity can seem pretty shallow. I kept wondering what the Shooks would say to the Pirahas.
These are hugely successful ministers. They founded a church near Houston with eight people in 1993; the attendance is now more than 15,000. They have a television ministry that reaches all 50 states and 200 countries. This book is a best seller, praised by the likes of Ed Young, Ken Blanchard, Lee Strobel, and Bill Hybels.
So why doesn’t the book resonate with me? The idea is a good one. Suppose you have just 30 days to live. What will you do with them? My wife has kept a message from our daughter on her phone for two years. Candy’s professor assigned the students to list the most important things they would do if they only had a week to live. She called home to tell her mother she loved her.
Believing you will die soon does concentrate the mind and sort out your values.
The values the Shooks promote, which form the four sections of the book, are living passionately, loving completely, learning humbly, and leaving boldly (dying with courage). These obviously are worthwhile goals. That may be my problem—obviously. Not much new here.
This is generally not my kind of book, but the questions it raises can be life changing. What if I had only one month to live? What would I do differently? Whom would I phone? What would matter?
Literature Considered, Truth Discovered
When friend Kevin Carlson asked me to teach a short course on the Bible as literature for his Spring of Life Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona, I realized that though I used to be a professor of English literature, and though I’ve preached from and taught the Bible for half a century, I had never taught a course bringing my two disciplines together in this way. I liked the assignment.
I turned for help to Leland Ryken’s How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . and Get More Out of It. A longtime professor of English at Wheaton College and renowned Bible scholar, Ryken holds that “the one thing the Bible is not is what it is so often thought to be—a theological outline with proof texts attached.” Bless him.
He believes, instead, that the Bible offers “a literary approach to truth that frequently avoids direct propositional statement and embodies truth in distinctly literary forms.” Those forms include stories, poetry, parables, letters, satire, and visionary literature.
Ryken points out the variety, imagination, and love of language that makes the Bible live. He urges his readers to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, without being reinterpreted to fit our prejudices or imposed theologies. Every verse, after all, does not equal every other verse in literalness or authority.
Reading the Bible, like reading great literature, delights the mind and fortifies the heart.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.