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Missionary Philistinism

Guest - July 8, 2005

Submitted by Ned Flanders

Nineteen-year-old males aren’t paragons of learning and
wisdom. Sequestering them with other nineteen-year-olds probably isn’t a recipe
for much improvement. Despite these serious handicaps, they are the primary
representatives of our church. (I am setting aside the sister missionaries for
a moment, since they are much more mature, educated, and scarce.)

Unfortunately, we but ill-prepare these boys for their service. Sure, we shovel
a lot of language and scripture-sharing into them, but we don’t provide any
cultural background for the place they’ll be living for two years. The sum
total of the Argentine culture I was exposed to in the MTC was a three-page
fact sheet about exports and demographics and one "culture night."
During culture night, returned missionaries showed us slides of their mission,
passed around a soccer jersey, and taught us a supposedly Argentine song. (We
all learned it fastidiously, and then never heard it again.) That’s it.

We hit Argentina knowing the name of the President, and that we should never,
under any circumstances, bring up the Falkland Islands in conversation. Is it
any surprise then that many Elders don’t learn much more than that during their
mission? I had to wait until I was back at the university to read any
Spanish-language literature or learn about Argentine history. When I was
finally exposed to these things, I realized that I had been missing out on
whole levels of understanding. It felt like I had squandered a chance to fully
experience the Argentine culture.

Why can’t the church assign one short work of the native culture as a reading
assignment? It would help missionaries’ language skills immensely to read
something NOT translated directly from the English Correlated Mormonese. It
would provide insights into the culture that they will soon be immersed in and
would give them a common reference point to draw on when interacting with
people. Half the fun would be deciding what story or novella to assign for each

As it stands now, I lived in Argentina for two years, and returned without ever
having read anything by Borges. That just doesn’t make sense. And I can’t even
remember how many old men we met who wanted to talk to us about the gaucho
classic Martin Fierro.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with well-rounded missionaries.

Cross-posted at VivaNedFlanders.


  1. This does happen in some missions, Ned, generally at the hand of the mission president. When I was a missionary, a companion and I worked up a series of historical/cultural essays on Portugal that were included in the mission curriculum associated with the qualification program.

    Comment by Rosalynde — July 8, 2005 @ 12:32 pm

  2. My mission president insisted that we read Russian literature (in Russian) and attend a cultural event once a month.

    Comment by John C. — July 8, 2005 @ 12:43 pm

  3. Wow, Rosalynde and John C, that’s fantastic your presidents did that. Would you say that it helped (like Ned thinks it would)? In Guatemala we were encouraged to read Popul Vuh (famous Mayan text), but that was more from other missionaries, not really our president.

    While I agree with Ned that it would be nice to have a little better idea of the culture we are immersing ourselves into, I’m not sure it would be so simple to implement. I mean, where do you draw the line? Should you have been allowed to listen to Soda Stereo so that you have an opener at the door? I would have loved to read 100 Years in Solitude, but I would imagine it a bit distracting. I don’t know. It’s a very intriguing question though.

    Comment by Rusty — July 8, 2005 @ 1:28 pm

  4. Maybe I’m a little narrow minded but I thought missionaries are called to preach the gospel…call people to repentence. They have study time to study to gospel, to learn what they should be teaching. I’d say most don’t use that time effectively. Opening up a cultural study sounds interesting but where do you draw the line on what to study and when do you take the time to study it?

    I didn’t realize that the English dislike Americans. The older ones because of our part in the War, and the G.I.’s attitudes. The younger ones because of what we have and our attitudes. So what, I learned it quickly and don’t think it made me a less effective missionary.

    I also don’t think that learning English history, or reading the works of Shakespear would have made me a better missionary. What would have made me a better missionary is to have been more humble, to have really realized why I was there, to have loved the people more and to have worked harder.

    Missions aren’t about us and what we can learn about cultures and countries.

    Comment by don — July 8, 2005 @ 1:45 pm

  5. I was anticipating Don’s objection, and I agree. It’s hard to know where to draw the line. But I think the fact that Rosalynde and John C. were able to do both secular and religious study is an argument in favor of my approach.

    I am very jealous of John and Rosalynde. I had no idea that sort of thing was allowed in certain missions.

    Also, Don, I think England might be a tricky example. While the culture is different, we share a common language and history.

    Comment by NFlanders — July 8, 2005 @ 1:55 pm

  6. “I am setting aside the sister missionaries for a moment, since they are much more mature”

    HA ha!

    I had a Spanish-speaking companion for three months and he regularly took Spanish literature from the library to read. I have no idea if it was a mission president initiative, but I doubt it since my companion had long hair, listed to the radio and smoked.

    Comment by Kim Siever — July 8, 2005 @ 2:19 pm

  7. Of course we’re there to preach the Gospel, but the better we understand the people the better we will be at preaching.

    Think of all the parables Christ used. If he didn’t truly understand the people he was preaching to none of it would have made any sense. In fact, it’s funny that in Church when we teach Christ’s parables we have to explain the parable and then explain how relevant it was to those people back then (because many of them don’t make any sense to us in our modern world).

    Comment by Rusty — July 8, 2005 @ 3:02 pm

  8. Great post. Let’s face it, most of our apostles aren’t up to the job of running a worldwide church. Our mission program is a pathetic joke run on autopilot with a few Band-Aids like the new discussions. Most GA’s don’t give a rat’s ass about the efficacy of the program or the missionaries. If they did, it would be on a continuous improvement program like everything else they do care about is. We really need a mechanism for old worn out GA’s to step down like Lehi did to yield to a new generation of visionary leadership that will fix these things.

    Comment by Steve (FSF) — July 8, 2005 @ 6:46 pm

  9. John C:
    I’ve heard of that mission president in Russia–sounds like a good guy.

    Forget Borges–if they read your boy Roberto Arlt they’d have a better appreciation of the raging neurosis machine that is Argentina than if they read Borges.

    They used to have culture class in the MTC every Sunday night; I’m not sure when they did away with it, but it was better than nothing. They also used to send a red book on culture to each missionary before they left for the MTC. Those books were excellent–in a post-mission job I had for Uncle Sam, I would give that to guys deploying to Latin America for the first time.

    I agree that an appreciation of culture would help the missionary effort. I read anything I could get my hands on-novels, newspapers, magazines–and as a result was able to carry on conversations on things besides the Church. The members loved it as they could invite us over to dinner with one of their friends and not have it turn into a hard sell fiasco. As a result, I almost always had investigators and was able to baptize many more than the average missionary. A majority of those baptisms are still active, contributing members of the Church. Which is more than I am :)

    I’m not sure the typical missionary would read non-
    church literature even if they were allowed, but it ought to remain an option.

    I think you’re spot-on. But I also think the missionary program is more about converting missionaries than anything else. Since the program seems to be doing that there is no reason for the higher-ups to change anything with regards to dress, etc..

    Comment by Capt Jack — July 8, 2005 @ 8:03 pm

  10. Steve (FSF),
    You’re always welcome here as I always enjoy your hyperbole-drenched comments, but can you seriously say with a straight face, thinking it through, that “the GA’s don’t give a rat’s ass about the efficacy of the [missionary] program or the missionaries.”? Huh? Do you KNOW any of these men? You were a missionary, you loved (some of) the people, were concerned for them, wanted more of them to improve their lives… do you think that concern and love stops at the missionary? I know my president loved and cared for us… do you think that love and concern stops at the presidents? I feel sorry for someone that would be so cynical.

    I mean, sure, the missionary program has it’s fair share of problems, but so does my dad’s business but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about fixing them. It’s being constantly improved, year after year things are getting better.

    Comment by Rusty — July 8, 2005 @ 9:55 pm

  11. It probably helped that my president was a professor of Russian literature prior to being called.

    Comment by John C. — July 9, 2005 @ 7:56 am

  12. On my mission, in the Dominican Republic, fully racist attitudes were wide-spead among gringo missionaries. A common genre of story was the “Dominicans are so stupid that…” narrative. It didn’t help that the top callings in the mission always went to gringo missionaries. Cultural training of the kinds discussed above could only have helped with that problem.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — July 9, 2005 @ 2:26 pm

  13. Ok, maybe I’m also naive, but don’t you think that the missionary has some personal responsibility in preparing themselves for a mission?

    You only read 3 fact sheets on Argentina before you went? It’s not like the missionary is told, “You’re going to Argentina, be at the MTC in 2 hours!” There is plenty of time to do a lot of research before you embark.

    If you go to a foreign country and act like a philistine, it’s not the fault of GAs or Mission Presidents, it’s yours.

    Comment by kristen j — July 9, 2005 @ 4:46 pm

  14. Kristen, what would you have the missionary do, with no guidance, in the one to two months they usually have between getting their call and leaving? In a lot of cases, kids are finishing school, working a job, negotiating a bunch of family farewell activities, and so forth during this period. To the extent that the church and adult leaders encourage missionaries to do any preparation before leaving, that preparation involves scripture study–not cultural preparation. So many, even most, missionaries may not even get the idea of doing much research.

    And, even if they do, how are they going to know what to read? They might read some tourist guidebooks, which would be roughly useless–written with an eye to pointing out the major landmarks, and typically including very little cultural information.

    It’s not like “philistine” behavior on the part of missionaries is a rare problem or anything, either. In my not unsubstantial experience, the majority of US missionaries in Latin America fail to figure out even the rudiments of the culture that they’re serving in. This kind of widespread problem suggests a systematic issue, not an individual failing. Hence, the blame does go to the mission program, not the missionaries.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — July 9, 2005 @ 5:08 pm

  15. Kristen,
    You make a good point. There is time before they depart. I did some research before I left… I read the two pages on Guatemala in the encyclopedia. What else am I going to read (RoastedTomatoes’ point)? I think now that we have the internet these kids actually have a lot more resources, though I’m still not sure it’s enough.

    Comment by Rusty — July 9, 2005 @ 5:34 pm

  16. I think it’s also important to remember that much of the best literature about their assigned country is inaccesible until they develop language skills–hence the need, IMO, to allow quality non-Church reading materials.

    Comment by Capt Jack — July 9, 2005 @ 6:28 pm

  17. Roasted Tomatoes, You’re right, if the missionaries are acting like doofeses then the mission president should have some type of education for the missionaries.

    Your other point about not having study time is pretty weak. You will find time for what is important to you. Maybe you can just go late to the 3rd farewell beach bonfire with your high school buddies.

    As for where to go for info, in the pre-internet age you could write, call, get in touch with embassies, UN etc. I did this for a high school project.

    Now with the internet not only is it quick but there is a ton of information out there. I was going to go to Zimbabwe and found a lot of information from a British website about behaviors, travel areas, etc that weren’t ok. I found that in about 2 minutes of research.

    Of course there is always your local library, if they don’t have the info you need they can order it from another library.

    There is so much information out there I just think it’s a cop out to lay the blame at the feet of any one but the misbehaving missionary.

    Comment by kristen j — July 9, 2005 @ 6:29 pm

  18. Kristen, while your suggestion of an inter-library loan is interesting, I don’t think it’s very realistic. The mission sends us a list of the things we need. Why can’t it tell us the name of a book we all should read before showing up? I think your insistence that we should learn everything we need to know before showing up at the MTC (with no guidance, no less) is a little strange. We’re there to study. Let us study culture and literature as well as the scriptures.

    Also, it would help to read a lot of this stuff in the native language, something we can’t do until we’ve been out in the field a while. I think the learning process should be a continual one.

    Comment by NFlanders — July 9, 2005 @ 7:01 pm

  19. I’m with Don on the overall subject (and of course Steve FSF is dead wrong). The purpose of a mission is to preach faith in Christ, repentance and baptism — not to impress locals with cultural skills. If there were racists in Roasted Tomatoes’ mission, isn’t that a problem with charity rather than cultural training? If a missionary doesn’t truly love the people he teaches no amount of cultural training or savvy will make up for that. However, if a missionary is humble and preaches by the spirit and loves the people, no number of cultural missteps will impede the success of that missionary. That is why the focus of the missionary program is on the inner missionary and not the outer missionary. God makes it clear that he wants the weak and simple as his missionaries – that is why we send out our 19 year old goofballs in the first place. If God wanted slick and culturally savvy missionaries he wouldn’t send this bunch out.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 9, 2005 @ 7:20 pm

  20. Ok, so you don’t want to do an inter-library loan? Here’s a few more ideas for you; 1. Find some local Argentinians (there is often a local club)and pick their brain for a few hours. 2. I know that the Argentine mission is a rare one so this might be difficult (note the sarcasm) but you just might be able to find someone in your ward/stake who has gone on a mission there. I’m sure they would be more than happy to bore you to tears about the Argentine people and culture.

    I’m not against continual learning and I know that I’m not going to learn everything I need to know about a native people until I interact with them but it just seems silly to pass the buck on this to the missionary committee, mission presidents, etc when there is so much that a missionary can do on his own to prepare himself.

    Someone earlier talked about how the GA’s aren’t concerned with fixing the problem with jerk missionaries. Don’t you remember the letter that went out to the church that basically said, if you’re a jackass just stay home?

    Comment by kristen j — July 9, 2005 @ 7:38 pm

  21. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, Geoff. The point isn’t to “impress locals,” it’s to more fully understand and engage with the people. It’s about learning to respect and love the culture and the people (which I suspect is a big problem in a lot of foreign missions).

    The Lord may use the weak and simple, but that doesn’t mean we send missionaries out with no language training. There’s nothing wrong with preparation.

    The bottom line for me is that there are too many missionaries out there who may love the people they directly teach, but have no respect for the culture. Maybe I’m wrong and this is merely a Latin American mission phenomenon, but I doubt it. It is my contention that we can help this through education, and help the missionaries become better. I think we can all agree on that goal, at least.

    Comment by NFlanders — July 9, 2005 @ 7:44 pm

  22. I actually didn’t have any objections to your ideas in the post, Ned. As RW and John C. noted, some good local reading can be very helpful. I was responding more to the general implication that the missionary committee of the church was dropping the ball by not putting a lot more effort into culturally training the missionary force. Cultural training is important, but I suspect we would all agre that it is not the most important thing a missionary needs training on.

    I might add that a lot of these missionaries are socially retarded back home as well. (If you don’t believe me have the missionaries over for dinner — odds are pretty high you’ll get at least one well-meaning social oaf.) Why should we expect them to be suddenly socially graceful in a foreign culture?

    Comment by Geoff J — July 9, 2005 @ 8:03 pm

  23. Well, I totally agree with everything you just said, Geoff. I agree that the cultural part isn’t the most important element of missionary preparation, just the most neglected.

    I also agree with your point about the social skills of 19-year-olds (see the first two sentences of the original post). These kids need all the help we can give them (I know I sure did).

    Comment by NFlanders — July 9, 2005 @ 8:21 pm

  24. I think the big thing I agree with here is the recurring comment about where we draw lines. I’ve lived in Hawaii for 2 years. I’ve spent a good deal of time since I’ve been here trying to read about Hawaiian culture. I’ve learned some of the language. Despite this, I can still do some dumb things in inter-cultural situations. There’s just a lot to know and very little time to know it. Ideally, we’d have more native missionaries who really know the places they are serving, but we don’t for now, so we make do.
    The other consideration is that most 19-year-olds are not going to read Borge or anyone else. And if they do, it’s not really going to raise awareness all by itself. When I teach, for instance, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, to a class of about 20 students, perhaps 2/3 will read the book if I quiz them and hound them, and that’s quite a short novel. Another third will simply assume that the book is interpretable in terms of their own cultural framework. Others will misinterpret the work in other ways because they just aren’t trained in reading. A few will really get it–and by that I mean they will really latch on to the idea that they are dealing with something substantially different from what they are used to–from what they know. Of course, we could intensely train them for the two years, and in the end, most of them would much better understand the culture. This, however, would be a substantial dsitraction, I think.
    Steve (FSF)
    Do you know when you use words like “don’t give a rat’s ass” about people that your audience cares about, you generally turn them off and they don’t listen you you? Just a rhetorical tip.

    Comment by Steve H — July 10, 2005 @ 2:47 am

  25. Rusty and Steve H,
    Thanks guys. Perhaps I am overstating things, but I really don’t think so. Rather than threadjack, I’ll draft a post for Mormon Open Forum tonight.

    Comment by Steve (FSF) — July 10, 2005 @ 5:04 pm

  26. One way that learning a little about the culture helped me in Korea was the idea of ancients writing on sheets of precious metal. in some cultures, including much of the US, that idea is far fetched. In Korea, there is a collection of writings on precious metal in the National Museum.

    Comment by alamojag — July 13, 2005 @ 2:20 pm

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