On saints, martyrs and other pains in the a…

Evangelical Origin Stories

In a bible camp dining room, I spotted a friendly looking elderly couple who seemed like a good bet to spend dinner with. And they were, with friendly chit-chat exchanged. Another person joined us who informed me these were the parennts of yhe martyrs written about in “Through Gates of Splendor” by Elizabeth Elliott.
I gushed.
And for good reason — “Through Gates of Splendor” changed the course of my life. That book, and a movie shown in our church, inspired me to become a missionary. It’s hard to overstate how important this story of the five missionaries martyred by the Ecuadorian Auca tribe in 1954 was to me. When I went off to bible school, I learned I was not alone — that book inspired only God knows how many Evangelical missionaries during the 60s and 70s. In bible school, we re-read the book and re-watched the movie as we prepared to follow in their footsteps
I’ve forgotten what I said to the couple but it was something admiring about the book. I have not forgotten their response, “We tell that story differently.”
I was stunned! It seemed uncomfortable and risky to continue, so I changed the subject but those five words were also highly influential on me. Now, when I read hagiographies, I keep in mind that these are followers telling the story. The parents of saints might tell a very different story.
With this in mind, one can read “Through Gates of Splendor” and see Jim Elliott as sanctimoniously insisting it was God’s will to do what probably could have been done smarter.
Put simply, he was a saint but also a pain in the…
Fast forward fifteen years and I get a call from a Swedish missionary friend. His living room wss filled with a group of American short-term youth missionaries and he wanted me to help him talk them out of something reckess. Maybe another brash American could better do that. The “senior” leader of the team (maybe 22 years old) said that God wss telling them to take the train through the entire length of the country in a prayer journey. This was through separatist-held territory and we all knew a veteran missionary who had recently been drugged and held hostage for ransom on that same journey.
The more we veteran missionaries told the short-term leader how dangerous it was, the more this convinced him that God was giving his team a faith test. Our alternate idea of flying to their destination while praying from above was not what God was telling him to do. Get behind him, Satan! Because it was an independent mission, we had no authority to tell them no, even though their kidnapping or deaths would have a huge impact on the local Christian community, we resident missionaries, the consulate, their families and many others.
They went and, thank God, it was fine — they accomplished God’s will! Had they been kidnapped or killed — what book would have been written about these Spirit-filled, saintly martyrs? I doubt I would have been asked to write it.