- Evangelizing Lebanon: Baptists, Missions, and the Question of Cultures by Melanie E. Trexler
Missionary literature often falls into two categories. One accepts the endeavor as positive and generally assumes the best about the motives and practices of the missionaries. More recent scholarship often uncritically lumps missionary movements with European colonial efforts, too often treating missionaries themselves with a disrespect bordering on contempt. While some Western missionaries surely engaged in conduct worthy of disdain, the overall effect of simply dismissing missionaries as colonial agents obscures their personal motivations and much more nuanced historical processes.
Melanie E. Trexler has written a responsible history of Baptists in Lebanon that derides close-minded and paternalistic missionaries when deserving, but also highlights those who adapted more meaningfully to the cultural spaces and historical moments in Lebanon. Trexler is also successful in illustrating how theological debates and rifts among American Baptists, regional Middle Eastern politics, and internal Lebanese strife shaped religious belief and practice among Lebanese Baptists. Incorporating so many elements of global history and politics turns a story about Arab Baptists, who number just 8000 today (xiii), into a [End Page 193] narrative with compelling implications for others seeking to better understand the intricacies of global missionary movements.
The book “describes the series of transformations in [Southern Baptist Convention] missionary and Lebanese Baptist relations that prompted missionaries to rethink their mission and the Lebanese Baptists to reconsider their role within the religious landscape of the country” (1). The story begins in 1893 with Said Jureidini’s evangelical conversion while in the United States for the Chicago World’s Fair. Combing his “newfound faith and the possibility of financial support from America,” Jureidini established the first Baptist Church in Lebanon two years later which enabled the Baptist Church to begin its missionary outreach to Lebanon and the broader Middle East. Trexler illuminates the context and complexity of this seemingly straightforward narrative by highlighting theological and structural disagreements among American Baptists at the time of Jureidini’s conversion. Jureidini was supported by the Landmark Baptist Church, a conservative branch of the denomination much at odds with the mainstream Southern Baptist Convention. Jureidini may or may not have been aware of this division when he accepted Landmark funding for this mission, a decision Trexler concludes was “motivated more by finances than by theology” (13).
As expected by those familiar with global missions in the late nineteenth century, American Baptists in Lebanon treated Jureidini and other “native workers” as second-class Baptists. First, the church placed a higher monetary value on American missionaries in terms of salaries. More damaging, however, was American missionaries’ unwillingness to listen to local ideas about how best to evangelize in Lebanon. Like “native missionaries” in other global locations, Jureidini’s approach to local evangelism was rooted in his deep local knowledge of his community. Thus, when foreign leaders insisted that he preach at the American University of Beirut, Jureidini refused because he “recognized the cultural and religious complexities involved in preaching to both Muslim and nonevangelical Christian students” (59). Such tensions over missionary methods increased tensions between Lebanese Baptists and their American coreligionists. What the Lebanese members sought throughout the twentieth century was structural support for those already converted, such as a school, a church, and other physical representations of the Baptist presence in Lebanon. American Baptists wanted converts.
At other historical moments the influence was political rather than theological. For instance, the creation of Israel in 1948 created tension for Baptist missionaries. Finlay Graham, the head of the Lebanese mission, rejected US recognition of Israel and described it as motivated by internal American politics. Israel remained a controversial topic for Baptist missionaries, especially as American Baptists adopted stronger dispensational premillennialist and Christian Zionists theologies during the second half of the century. Missionaries in Lebanon pushed back against Americans who wanted to openly support Israel.
The book has a happy ending, as such stories go. While the Lebanese Civil War was devastating for everyone involved, it also marked the end of the Southern Baptist...