Hillary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth is my current bedtime companion these days, and I’m probably reading it as a way to better understand myself.
You may know Pearl Buck from her seminal, best-selling work, The Good Earth, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and later the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. But Pearl Buck was also the daughter of missionaries to China before she went on to become a writer. Her parents, Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, served with the Southern Presbyterian mission in a tumultuous time in China’s history (think, for example, the Boxer Rebellion) at the turn of the nineteenth century.
I’m only midway through the book, but am struck most by the psychological portrait painted here of Pearl’s father, Absalom. He was inhabited by a furious, all-consuming passion to convert “the heathen,” one that often placed his own family in harm’s way. (Pearl lost three older siblings to sickness during the family’s overseas posts- a fact that Absalom barely even acknowledged in any of his writings, despite his wife’s resulting breakdowns and the strain it placed on their marriage thereafter.)
Some twenty years into his missionary labors, Absalom wrote this: “We are by no means overtaking these millions with the Gospel. They are increasing on us…a great and increasing host against us…Heathenism with all its vices still living and active…The darkness, widespread and deep, sin in all its hideous forms, intense worldliness as well as hydra-headed idolatry.”
This kind of hostile and combative relationship with the world as a parental inheritance was one that Pearl sought to navigate growing up in her Chinese environment. She was at an early age and by her own admission more Chinese than she was American. This meant hours spent listening to her Chinese playmates’ mothers and aunts “talk so frankly in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.”
Spurling as biographer here is revealing some of her own bias against missionary zeal, a bias that at times in the book comes across as a bit unfair. But she also is speaking to a sad reality in the history of the church: that historically its missionaries have been prone to view themselves as self-contained wielders of morality and salvation, always in the service of a God who stands in opposition to the world He created. And Spurling captures the implicit irony here- that the result can be a people sent out into the muck and mire, looking more intent to protect themselves from the hard realities of the world in which we live.
So maybe a healthier way to view ourselves in relation to our world is to recognize that the divine footprint has been there- everywhere we go- before we ever even entered the picture. Maybe we need to view ourselves more as “nature preservationists” whose task is to preserve that divine footprint- to gesture to it while all the while being vigilant lest we deface it with all of our own litter.
Peter Millar, in Waymarks: Signposts to discovering God’s presence in the world, captures the following sentiment shared in a cross-cultural workshop, which I think says it well: “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy and we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”
Maybe, then, one measure of a true disciple is whether she is willing to tread lightly in bare feet.