Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Power of Stories

Sometimes stories stay with us for a long time, and with their magical power weave a spell over our psyches.

As a child of missionaries, I remember being transfixed with
the story of Jim Elliott, and the other men with him, who died in the Amazon jungle. I don’t recall the precise year—probably late 1950s. For reasons completely unfathomable to me, I suddenly began thinking of him several months ago. (As I write this, I realize a possible reason—these events occurred in January, 1956, 50 years ago.)

Truth is, I couldn’t recall his name. But with the Internet, ferreting out such information takes just a few clicks of the mouse combined with a little savvy intuition.

It did not take me long to find several sites that recounted the story. The bare bones details—eager young college student burning with zeal—at Wheaton, no less—exhibits early some of the leadership qualities he will display later in his life. He meets and marries a young woman named Elisabeth and soon they are off to the Amazon jungle to carry God’s word to those indigenous people who have not experienced civilization much less hear God’s word.

Jim and Elisabeth team up with several other couples, young husbands and wives equally eager for the spreading of the gospel. They have, among their number, at least one experienced pilot. So for a few weeks after they reach Ecuador, they fly up and down a portion of the Amazon River. They have selected the particular target tribe precisely because that tribe had so little contact with the outside world.

The missionaries are powerfully motivated by the ringing words of Christ’s so-named Great Commission—“Go into all the world.” Well, this is certainly part of “all the world.”

It is equally clear they are mindful of the incredible danger involved in forcing contact with native tribes untouched by outside forces. So Jim puts a pistol handgun in his pocket. The plan is—if anything begins to go wrong, he can fire over the heads of the natives and scare them.

Having spent a couple weeks buzzing the natives and dropping gifts from on high, the men—for that is who is going to make the first contact—decide it is time for a face-to-face meeting. No more
deus ex machine.

They land, and soon a few native men emerge from the jungle. It seems there may have been some initial pleasantries exchanged. But then, suddenly and without warning, arrows and spears fly. One after another the five missionary men die.

And never a shot is fired. The pistol stays dormant in Jim’s pocket. By the time I read this detail from the laudatory Internet account, revelation hits me full force. He wanted to die! Why else fail to carry out the pre-planned warning shot?

This belief of mine is like a thunderbolt. When I first heard this story, as a child living in Africa with my missionary parents, I thrilled to the details, even as I was horrified at the possibilities. Of course, I romanticized the story. Might I lose my parents to belligerent natives?

I have a mind’s eye picture of the photographs that appeared in a contemporaneous Life magazine—the smiling men alive, the small insignificant plane, the placid imperious Amazon, the bodies strewn along the banks or floating in the river.

For weeks, I fixated on the story, struck by the unnecessary tragedy of it all. I mouthed the names of the men. I noted the coincidence of family details—that Jim and Elisabeth’s baby girl was born in the mid-1950s, making her close to my sister’s age. I grieved as though these were lost family members.

So resurrecting the story recently renewed my old fascinations. And then I came upon that one unrevealed detail—Jim Elliott had a pistol in his pocket that he never fired.

Perhaps he was right to want to die. I doubt that he really sought to leave this life—to leave behind Elisabeth and their daughter. But, deep down, he may have sensed the consequences of his death. When the wives waiting back at camp did not hear the planned-for radio contact, they knew something was wrong. They tried to no avail to raise the men. Then a search party headed out, and soon the grim scene was discovered. All dead—all young men gone. Eventually, after the bodies had been retrieved, other missionaries did contact the natives. They even determined who had shot the fatal arrows—and redoubled their conversion efforts and succeeded.

While a student at Wheaton, Jim Elliott had written: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Could it be that is why he wanted to die?

As I said at the outset, stories stay with us a long time. This particular one has held me in its thrall since I was a child and even today I am both attracted to and repelled by the details.

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