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‘The Mission’ Documentary Revisits the John Allen Chau Controversy

One of the truest lines spoken in The Mission comes from author and historian Adam Goodheart: “I think every person who has been drawn to this story, whether a missionary, anthropologist, historian, author, filmmaker, is coming in with their own narrative arc that they want to see and experience and depict.”

Viewers of The Mission—a new National Geographic documentary about the 2018 death of 26-year-old missionary John Allen Chau—are likely to see in it what they want to see. Sympathetic Christians might see Chau’s story as an inspiring tale of martyrdom. Secular skeptics will likely find more fodder for their perceptions of evangelical stupidity.

Part of why The Mission can be so variously interpreted is that filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (Boys State), to their credit, attempt to tell the story in a balanced way, interviewing a broad spectrum of friends, family members, pastors, missionaries, and academics. Each person interviewed has a different take on the wisdom and worthiness of Chau’s ill-fated effort to bring the gospel to the unreached peoples of North Sentinel Island—one of the last remaining “untouched” tribes on the planet.

Viewers of The Mission are likely to see in it what they want to see.

The film is well made and compelling, especially in its use of animation and voiceover actors who bring Chau’s own words (from his diary and notebooks) to life. For Christian audiences inclined to share Chau’s passion for overseas missions and fulfilling the Great Commission, The Mission might be frustrating to watch at times. But it can spur helpful discussions for Christian churches, students, and missionaries alike.

Much Has Changed Since 1956

John Allen Chau—like so many other American evangelicals—was deeply inspired by the witness of Jim Elliot and the other Ecuador martyrs in 1956. The film notes how Chau rewatched End of the Spear several times. This famous tale of risky outreach to unreached people (the Huaorani) fanned the flames in Chau’s heart to reach the unreached Sentinelese.

With Chau’s mission ending in his death (likely by spearing, just like the Ecuador martyrs), the comparisons between the 1956 story and Chau’s martyrdom are inevitable. But much has changed over the last seven decades. Contrast The Mission, which is highly conflicted about Chau, with the “enormously sympathetic” treatment of the Ecuador martyrs by Life magazine (among other news outlets) in 1956. Historian Thomas Kidd observed this in 2018, following Chau’s death:

A national magazine such as Life in 1956 would at least resonate with the attempt to bring Western civilization to people they called “Stone Age savages.” But Life also faithfully represented Elliot’s evangelical agenda, as he explained that he and his colleagues were under divine commission to preach the gospel to all nations. Six decades later, we live in a world where academic and media elites are allergic to the notion that one culture is superior to another. Many evangelicals—especially missionaries—would applaud this move away from a sense of Western cultural superiority, too. But the evangelical conviction about the transcendent truth of the gospel for all people endures.

The mixed response to the Chau story shows how the narrative around foreign missions has shifted and is increasingly associated with a variety of toxic “isms” (colonialism, imperialism, patriarchalism, parochialism, pragmatism, and so on). The changing perception (particularly in the post-Christian West) is that whatever good might come with the Christianizing of a pagan culture is largely outweighed by the bad.

In a secular age, when the transcendent and eternal have drifted out of center view, immanent things like human cultures take on central, hallowed significance. Preserving the tangible customs and traditions of indigenous cultures in this life therefore becomes a far greater good than evangelizing indigenous people to preserve their souls for an intangible afterlife. Indeed, the latter is seen as a threat to the former.

For skeptics prone to seeing Christian mission in a “more harm than good” way, The Mission will likely confirm this bias.

Missional Passion Needs Guardrails of Wisdom

But even for those sympathetic to Christian missions, Chau’s story isn’t necessarily one to herald as the best example to emulate.

Much about Chau is admirable and inspiring. It’s hard to watch the film and disagree with the assessment of a close friend of Chau’s that “the conclusion of John’s life is that he lived it for Jesus.”

Here was a sincere young evangelical who followed a familiar path from suburban comfort to being “radicalized” for missions. While a student at a Christian high school, he goes on a missions trip to Mexico and comes back inflamed for the Great Commission. He attends a Christian university (Oral Roberts) and further develops his passion for missions, takes part in several other overseas missions trips, and ultimately joins a missions organization (All Nations) where he trains to bring the gospel to the famously isolated and mysterious Sentinelese people.

Contrary to some claims, Chau didn’t go entirely rogue in his mission to North Sentinel Island, and he wasn’t blind to the dangers of colonialism (“The team will not bring any colonizing mentalities into this mission,” he specifically wrote in his roadmap for the mission). On the tribute page for Chau on the All Nations website, international executive leader Mary Ho (who is briefly featured in the film), calls Chau “one of the most well-equipped young missionaries we’ve ever seen”:

He read books on cultural anthropology and missiology at the rate of one every three days. He was also trained in linguistics so he could learn the language of the Sentinelese people. He was a certified wilderness EMT, so that he could serve the Sentinelese in practical ways.

And yet questions remain about the wisdom of his mission. Why did he go alone? Should he have trained longer before attempting contact? What made him think that he, a 26-year-old unseasoned American missionary with no ability to speak the Sentinelese language, would be the first person in history to peacefully reach and evangelize this group? Did Chau’s youthful zeal and passionate urgency lead him to go faster than wisdom would advise?

And perhaps most of all: Was God really telling Chau to go, now, in this way? Or was Chau driven more by a fantasy script where he’d play the role of a Bible-bearing, spear-fishing survivalist somewhere between Jim Elliot and Robinson Crusoe? In the film, a pastor at Van City Church, where Chau apparently attended for a season, wonders whether it was actually God calling John or “idealism masquerading as God’s calling.”

Was Chau driven more by a fantasy script where he’d play the role of a Bible-bearing, spear-fishing survivalist somewhere between Jim Elliot and Robinson Crusoe?

The uncertainty that inherently surrounds our individual understanding of “God’s call” is one of many reasons why passionate missionary zeal must be subject to the accountability of a broader community of Christian wisdom—ideally both a local church and also a network of experienced missionaries. It’s a good impulse to want to go and make disciples of all nations. We should take the Great Commission seriously. But the when and how details matter, too, and they’re best worked out with patience and prudence, in the context of community.

Chris McCandless of Christian Missions?

As I watched The Mission, it struck me that Chau is framed as a sort of Christian-missionary version of Chris McCandless, the subject of the book Into the Wild. Like Chau, McCandless was a twentysomething who desired a more radical life than the empty comforts of suburban affluence. Like Chau, he loved the outdoors and had a penchant for risky adventure, ultimately striking out on his own into a dangerous survival situation in an “untouched” place (the Alaskan wilderness) that, in the end, would claim his life.

When you read Into the Wild (or watch the film), your response to McCandless’s death likely tilts toward either “what a foolish waste” or “how beautiful and inspiring.” Your response depends on your view of McCandless’s “mission.” If you see value in his mission—to shun consumerism and live off the land, in Thoreau-esque communion with the simple beauty of nature—then you might view his death as a fitting martyrdom for a worthy ideal, even if you wished he’d exercised more practical wisdom along the way.

If you don’t find value in McCandless’s mission, however, you likely see his Alaskan death as a sad, empty, predictable end to an ill-begotten fantasy.

The same is true for responses to Chau’s death. It depends on your view of the mission that drove his actions. Do you believe God is real, eternity in heaven and hell is real, and a resurrected Jesus really did say the words recorded in Matthew 28:16–20? If so, Chau’s death in pursuit of reaching an unreached people group makes sense, even if you wish he’d exercised more practical wisdom along the way.

But if, on the other hand, you don’t believe there’s a “there” there, as linguistics professor and former-missionary-turned-atheist Dan Everett says in The Mission, then you view Chau’s mission as reckless madness and a sad waste of a life.

John Allen Chau is framed as a sort of Christian-missionary version of Chris McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild.

Everett is one of the more prominent experts featured in the film, and his story is sad. After serving 30 years as a Christian missionary to the Pirahã people in Brazil, Everett became disillusioned by the lack of results and the general disinterest in the gospel among the Pirahã. He eventually lost his faith and now actively opposes all Christian mission work. “I believe it’s unfortunate that we still have people in the 21st century believing first-century myths enough to die for them,” Everett says.

Earlier in the film, Everett gets emotional as he recites Jim Elliot’s famous quote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He’s likely emotional because he remembers believing in those words, which inspired him to sacrifice much in his own life to bring the gospel to a remote tribe. But now he believes Elliot—and all missionaries—are fools for believing in something eternal that cannot be lost.

Madness of Missionaries

The Mission is an apt title for this documentary. Ultimately it challenges audiences to consider what they believe about the mission more than what they think of the missionary John Chau.

The tagline on the film’s poster is pithy: “There’s a fine line between faith and madness.” Exactly where viewers place the “line” will have a lot to do with the degree to which they believe or disbelieve in orthodox faith, which will always look like madness and folly to a perishing world (1 Cor. 1:18).

Do you believe in a “there” there, which makes Chau’s seemingly radical decisions make sense? Are eternal life and eternal suffering real? Is Jesus Christ who he says he is in John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”)? If not, then the John Chaus and Jim Elliots of this world are dangerous extremists and delusional fools.

But if the answer is yes, then Christian evangelism and discipleship, both at home and to the ends of the earth, are utterly necessary and urgent, worthy of all scorn and sacrifice—even the ultimate sacrifice.

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