Running to the Fire: An American Missionary Comes of Age in Revolutionary Ethiopia (Sightline Books)
University Of Iowa Press, 2015
264 pp., 19.95
Coming of Age as an MK
When I decided, at the age of 21, to move to Southeast Asia, I had two different ways of explaining my decision. To my college professors, I'd say that I was going to teach English as a Second Language while working on a master's degree in Intercultural Studies. This answer neatly avoided the word "missionary" and the complicated associations it had, especially for well-educated westerners who had read The Poisonwood Bible and were (rightly, I felt) wary of missionaries' history of complicity in colonialism and ethnocentrism.
With people at church, I was more forthcoming. They hadn't read Kingsolver, but they had read Through Gates of Splendor, so I used our shibboleth: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." I told them that I was going to Southeast Asia to offer a needed service, language lessons, and to build relationships. I asked them to pray for "fruit," to pray that by the end of my first year there, I would have two or three students to disciple.
In Running to the Fire: An American Missionary Comes of Age in Revolutionary Ethiopia, Tim Bascom puts those two perspectives on missions in dialogue with each other, and his ability to do so is what makes his story unique. To be sure, Bascom is not the only child of the 20th-century missions movement reckoning with the experience of growing up with parents who believed they could change the world: Running to the Fire joins Megan Hustad's More than Conquerors, Catherine Frerich's Desires of the Heart, Bill Svelmoe's Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya, and a number of other books (including numerous self-published ones available on Amazon) in processing the experience of the missionary kid. But in his ability to speak both the language of the devout and the language of the academic—and to speak them with a fluent mastery and ease acquired at the Iowa Writer's Workshop—Bascom shines.
In brief chapters, often just 2 to 3 pages each, Bascom alternates between two perspectives. The first is that of his teenaged self. In 1977, he returns with his missionary parents from Troy, Kansas, back to the Ethiopia where he had spent his earliest childhood years—a country now torn by a Marxist revolution. He makes friends, attends Bible study, masturbates, sneaks out to a party, kills birds with a slingshot, falls in love; he is held at gunpoint, finds a dead rat in his well, listens to rebel preachers. In short, he's a teenager—but he's not in Kansas anymore.
A thrilling scene in the first chapter sets up the central tension of the book. The 15-year-old Bascom and his father, stopped at a checkpoint south of Addis Ababa, are questioned by machine-gun-wielding sentries. Bascom describes his father's easy faith and courageous proclamations about Jesus in the confrontation, and feels "the primal tension of being a son—proud of my father's courage yet embarrassed, longing to emulate him yet troubled, not sure (to be brutally honest) whether I trust his vision of the world and of a God who presumably hovers over it all, always safely in command."
That question of how to understand his father's faith, and his own, drives the second narrative line in the book as well, in which Bascom's adult voice breaks in to explain the "action/adventure" story he's telling. For me, this is where things really get interesting. In these chapters, Bascom places his own story within different contexts, allowing each to inform his experience. First, there is the context of missionary history in Africa. As Bascom described the early work of David Livingstone, Rowland Bingham, and Malcolm and Edith Forsberg, his parents' predecessors in Sudan Interior Mission, I was struck by the straightforward language he used.
Missionary writings tend toward hagiography, and when missionaries talk about their predecessors, the language usually glows. Maria Hutchins Hill, for example, records her visit with another missionary to Serampore, the birthplace of Indian missions. "My heart thrilled with emotion," she writes, "and it was with a kind of reverential awe that I ascended the steps of the Ghat and walked over the ground once hallowed by the footsteps of Harriet Newell, Ann Hazeltine Judson, Henry Martin, and others, whose names are written in heaven."
Bascom is not quite so reverential in his description of the "gung-ho" mentality of his missionary predecessors, admitting quite plainly that missionaries are often as driven by a need for adventure as by a need to share their faith. He examines his missionary existence in light of political conflicts, religious conflicts, colonial expansion, and Marxist theory. While Bascom is candid about the parts of his heritage that embarrass him, he defends the missionaries, too. "Capitalists and armies would have come to Africa anyway. The Empire would have stretched and grabbed," he writes. "But the missionaries were sometimes, at their best, a conscience." Missionaries often fought against slavery and risked their lives to document and publicize colonial abuses of power. Some of the missionaries' work actually would have blended quite well with the Marxist agenda.
Running to the Fire presents a more nuanced view of missionary work than is often found in this genre, and that may be its greatest gift to us. At the same time, though, it is also a coming-of-age story. Like the best memoirs, it tells a specific story with universal resonance, evoking the adult longing for that nostalgic past when everything made sense. For Bascom, it was one semester at boarding school: he belonged to a group, and his adventure-story existence had purpose and meaning. When the revolution forces his boarding school to close, his bubble bursts. He begins to see that his heroes are also hypocrites, that God sometimes hides, that communities of belonging don't last, and that nothing is as clear-cut as he had once believed.
In examining his own coming of age, the older Bascom is relentless. If growing up cost him a sense of belonging and purpose that he once had and still longed for, what did that mean? Doesn't the deep-seated human desire to belong often lead us to form communities based on principles of exclusion? He admits, too, that a certain restlessness still nags at him as he sits in church, or by his own hearth, warm in the Iowa winter. He's still tempted to believe that truly meaningful work must require risking it all, as pioneer missionaries do, but he realizes that the desire to be personally significant can lead to hubris, whether at home or abroad.
Bascom is not trying to process a missionary devastation on the level of Shusako Endo's Silence or Elisabeth Elliot's Through Gates of Splendor. His book is not pointed or satirical like Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible or even Elliot's only novel, No Graven Image. The gentle, thoughtful, achingly nostalgic Running to the Fire will resonate with almost any child of zealous evangelical parents—it's the story of a quiet moment when a childhood faith cracked. When you lost that perfect sense that you belonged and that all the parts of the world fit together, just so. As Bascom traces that crack in his own life back to its source, looking at it from every angle, he finds that the fire of faith still burns below the surface. He heard the voice of God speaking out of that fire—and lived.
Amy Peterson works with the Honors Guild and teaches ESL at Taylor University. Her blog, Making All Things New, is at amypeterson.net.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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