- God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England by Matthew Engelke
For secular citizens of contemporary industrialized nations, it is difficult to think of missionaries as anything other than agents of coercion. While methods may vary over time and across religious traditions, the common thread running through mission histories from a secular perspective is that missionaries attempt to transform people through the promulgation of specific religious beliefs and practices. What makes this a necessarily coercive project from this point of view is the fact that religion is largely understood to stand outside of the sphere of rationality. For secular citizens, the main—perhaps the only—legitimate form of non-coercive evangelism (it is hard to find terms not borrowed from a religious vocabulary) is through rational, critical debate. If religion is about beliefs, ones that are not provable in a scientistic register, then missionization is a project of illegitimately forcing people to change.
Unlike souls, minds and opinions can be changed through discussion or through targeted acts of information dispersal. The political activism of the Facebook era is largely predicated on a much older model of consciousness raising: people only think the way they do because they do not know the real state of things. Let them know about the true costs of fossil fuel consumption (insert your own pet project here) through catchy posts on social media, and they will start to “like” these posts, “share” them, and maybe even call their elected representatives.
But secularists are not the only ones concerned with the coercive nature of missionizing. Missionaries also worry about “rice Christians,” those who participate in mission activities only to take advantage of economic benefits; or syncretism, a state of religious mixture that, from a missionary perspective, is due to a poor understanding of the path to salvation. [End Page 555] Twentieth century Christian missiology was largely focused on trying to eradicate coercion from mission practices. In the American evangelical cases with which I am most familiar, this reformist agenda was captioned as a critique of the mainline missions that coerced potential converts into being Western rather than being authentic, free, and local Christians. While the groups and organizations involved in this reformist agenda were varied, they all shared a dedication to missionization that avoided institutions—schools, mission stations, rules of conduct, or dress—and advocated the capacities for freedom found in linguistic debate, especially debate centered on the Bible (Handman n.d.).
Bible translation, then, became the premier form of non-coercive missionization. To only slightly caricature this position, the missiological method was: go, translate, leave, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. The Summer Institute of Linguistics (now SIL, International) is a global linguistics and literacy NGO whose roughly 4,500 members are largely focused on translating the New Testament into hundreds of languages around the world. Translators spend about 15 years in a given locale translating scriptures into the native language of local people so that they can easily and accurately receive Christianity’s revelations. In its members’ own estimation, SIL is not a church planting organization—in fact it avoids the term “mission” all together—but is instead a global network of people engaged in the spread of important information, just like those environmentalist advocates whose posts populate my Facebook feed.
SIL (and many other Christian groups more willing to take on the “missionary” name) have long had a partner in these efforts in the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in London in 1804, and the subject of Matthew Engelke’s excellent God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England. The goal of the Bible Society was to provide the scriptures to every person in the world, ideally in a speaker’s native language (2). From its London headquarters, the Bible Society helped manufacture and distribute Bibles around the globe that were often translated by members of other Christian groups like SIL. The crucial distinguishing feature for Bible Society products was that they would offer no “note or comment” (3). “There was to be no direction given to the way...