North Sentinel Island

A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

Here’s the must-read religion story of this past weekend: the New York Times’ front-page treatment Saturday of the tragic death of missionary John Allen Chau.

I’ll offer a few quick grades (on a report-card scale of A to F) on the in-depth piece before urging you to read it:

• Readability: A.

Filled with “astounding details,” this is an exceptional read that immediately draws in readers.

The compelling opening anecdote (my apologies for copying and pasting so much text, but it’s crucial information):

Just months before undertaking the most forbidding journey in his life as a young missionary to a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau was blindfolded and dropped off on a dirt road in a remote part of Kansas.

After a long walk, he found a mock village in the woods inhabited by missionaries dressed in odd thrift-store clothes, pretending not to understand a word he said. His role was to preach the gospel. The others were supposed to be physically aggressive. Some came at him with fake spears, speaking gibberish.

It was part of an intensive and somewhat secretive three-week missionary training camp. Mary Ho, the international executive leader for All Nations, the organization that ran the training, said, “John was one of the best participants in this experience that we have ever had.”

For Mr. Chau, 26, the boot camp was the culmination of years of meticulous planning that involved linguistics training and studying to become an emergency medical technician, as well as forgoing full-time jobs so he could travel and toughen himself up.

He did it all with the single-minded goal of breaking through to the people of North Sentinel Island, a remote outpost of hunters and gatherers in the Andaman Sea who had shown tremendous hostility to outsiders.

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Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

It didn’t take long for the John Allen Chau affair (see previous Julia Duin post) to make the leap from hard-news coverage to newspaper op-ed pages and other “Culture War” venues.

Before looking at two examples, from the cultural left and then the right, let’s pause for a second for a bit of background.

Faithful GetReligion readers may remember the “tmatt trio,” a set of doctrinal questions that I have, for several decades now, found useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks or cultural conflicts about the Christian faith. I am convinced that the Chau affair is linked to one of these hot-button questions.

Please remember that the purpose of these questions is journalistic. I have learned that asking them always leads to answers that contain all kinds of interesting information. Here is the “tmatt trio” once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, the Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a Boston Globe piece that ran with this killer headline: “Missionary didn’t die from tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.” The author is Globe associate editor and columnist Renee Graham. Here is a crucial early thesis statement:

In the Old Testament, Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haughty pride caused John Allen Chau’s destruction and fall.

He’s the young man from Washington state who decided that what a small tribe on a remote island needed was his personally delivered taste of that ol’ time religion. What he found was an early grave.

Chau didn’t die from the tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.

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