Context: Given to me by my mum for Christmas, the same lady who, about 35 years ago, made me a Winnie the Pooh I’ve recently been reunited with after giving him up for lost.
As I’m someone who believes strongly in the missionary cause of Christ and supports the work of the organisation the author used to work for, my mother thought that this book would interest me and gave me it for Christmas. I’m very grateful she did. It’s extremely important for us to engage with beliefs that challenge our own and to allow credence to points of view that, at least initially, we find difficult to accept.
The book is a description of Everett’s experiences of 30 years’ work with the tiny Piraha tribe in the Amazon. He describes their life and their language in depth and claims that they have a language unique in many interesting features.
Don’t Sleep challenged me on a number of levels and, because of this, I consider it an important book for anyone with an interest in mission, linguistics or anthropology to read. I’ll be passing my copy on to the library here where I work in the UK so that others can engage with it too. Although Everett challenged my thinking, I only found myself more sure of what I believe to be true having read it than when I started. I’m not sure that’s what my mum intended but that’s what happened 😉 Let me take some literary liberty to explain why…
First of all, there’s a lot in the book which is self-contradictory and quite honestly seems dubious. While that’s par for the course with much travel writing, it’s not what I expect from a scientist trying to convince us of some quite debatable claims. For example, he claims there’s no word for sorry in their language saying that “I felt no aggression towards me.” But, pages earlier, he describes a situation so terrifying he locks his wife and children in a storage room while he talks a man out of shooting him with a shotgun. The next day after this incident, the men involved come “to apologize.” Hmmm…
In another section, focussing on the observations he makes about the tribe being unable to add 1+1 after 8 months of study, he claims that they are unable to count specific numbers of things. Later, one of them asks him for “two matches.”
There’s quite a bit of this fuzziness as the book progresses and so it made me wonder if he was dumbing things down for the plebs. Linguistically, it’s obvious that he’s very much ‘old school.’ For someone like me, who’s grown up in linguistics over the last ten years, the link between language and culture is very much alive. Certainly in the organisation I work for, there’s no way you’d get away with separating the two now. But it’s obvious that Everett has had to battle with a lot of the theoretical linguistics he started with and make that connection for himself. Had he not had to do this, he might have made more progress over the thirty years he’s known the tribe.
Nevertheless, linguistically, he’s got some important points to make although anyone who wants to seriously consider these is not going to use this as a starting point but rather the numerous papers he’s published which have been widely and controversially discussed.
But aside from his desire to convince the world that the Pirahas of Brazil are a unique tribe linguistically, Everett is also set on
dealing with the spiritual skeletons in his closet too. He claims that the lifestyle and attitude of the Pirahas had such an impact on him, it made him reconsider his entire Christian faith and, ultimately, to abandon it for atheism.
Again, there’s a bit of fuzziness here. After a particularly gripping account of sickness which struck his family, he says that the Christians from his organisation who helped him were the kindest people he’d ever met in his life. But he also claims that the Pirahas are happier than any religious person he’s ever met in his closing line. Well, I’m not sure what to make of this. People on dope are usually happier than most of the people I meet on a day to day basis but I’m not sure that’s a good enough basis for me to start a habit. Personally, I’m more inclined to consider the beliefs of someone who is kind to me than someone who simply wears a big smile. Maybe that’s just me though…
And this happiness belies a great deal. The book is cram full of anecdotes of Everett grappling with cultural shocks. One of the most heart-breaking is the episode of a woman who goes down to the river bed to give birth alone as is the custom. But it’s a breech birth and she’s in agony. Everett describes how he has to endure the woman’s screams for help ignored for hours by the tribe as she and her child die in isolation yards away from her people. His conclusion: the Pirahas value the ability to survive the problems you encounter and death is a natural part of life.
While I’m not saying for a minute that we in the west have our approach to suffering and death all done and dusted, I’d certainly rather be part of a community that comes to rescue me when I’m in danger of dying and offers compassion to the suffering. But apart from this, Everett again introduces fuzziness. The same people who ignored a screaming mother’s cries for deliverance from agony and death, come time and again to him saying “Please give me some medicine. My child is sick.” You can’t have it both ways.
Perhaps Everett is as blinkered as those he criticises in his work. For example, he tells of an incident when, preparing to spank his child (and he is careful to point out that he did this as part of being a Christian father as if this is the only take on Christian parenting) the Pirahas asked him why he was doing it. He is dumbfounded and realises that they never spank their children and yet their children are well behaved productive members of society. So, he abandons this practice, much to his daughters’ delight.
But he also relates how the Pirahas let their children, even babies, play with fires and knives and get injured by these at which point they chide them for their carelessness. Seems barbaric to us right? Well from an anthropological perspective, they are identical. They are both social devices for ensuring children are aware of behaviour that will bring harm to them or their community. Spanking and knife juggling are just two sides of the anthropological discipline coin. To reject one in favour of the other is to be ignorant of what anthropology is there to reveal. This isn’t the only time when Everett seems unaware of bias in his anthropological observations.
Ultimately Everett abandoned the faith he had as a result, he claims, of finding a people who are just as happy without Jesus. Happiness doesn’t really enter into it. A baby can be as happy as Larry playing with a python until it bites. But I don’t think I know a single person who knows Christ who wouldn’t say that they thought the same before they became Christians. I thought I was fine before I met God. It was meeting him that revealed to me just how much more there was to me than I had realised and it was Jesus who unlocked and showed me that potential. This potential was something I could only explore through relationship with Him. From the experiences I’ve heard of down the years, self-satisfaction can often mask serious hurt and underlying problems.
And reading this from the perspective of someone who knows Christ, it is clear that it wasn’t Christ that let Everett down but his own brand of Christianity and its cultural trappings – things he’d taken as read and never queried. Time and again, he mentions practices and beliefs that do not tally with Christ’s approach to mission. For example, and to my shame and horror, he tells the tribe at one point that “if you don’t want Jesus, you don’t want us. My family is only here to tell you about Jesus.” What!? Not there to love them, to share their joys and sorrows, to improve their health, to help them gain protection for their land claims, to represent them to national agencies, to help bury a friend, to learn their language, to learn how they hunt, to learn how they see the world? This is profound ignorance and mission without love has no place in the Christian faith at all.
Everett had missed the point before he even left the States. No wonder it all fell apart for him spiritually. The final breaking point comes with his Immediacy of Experience Principle. The IEP is a description of the fact that, as far as he can tell, Everett believes the Pirahas live constantly in a state of the present with no past or future concerns. He gives copious evidence for this from their language and other cultural insights. There’s not a little irony though in describing such a happy people, more well-adjusted to their environment than any other and living blissfully in the present with no worries about the future in an epilogue about how we must work hard to protect tribes like them from the dangers of the future. Er… excuse me? They’re totally content and you’re telling me I have to worry on their behalf? If ignorance does, it seems, mean bliss, perhaps the answer is for all of us to become more ignorant.
Now, while I’m not challenging the IEP as it seems reasonable to me based on the evidence he has provided, what I am challenging is his claim of how this makes Christ irrelevant to them. “They only believe what they see” he states or, sometimes, what others say if those others are witnesses to it. The reason we tell others about Christ though, is not because we have been forced to, or we are mindlessly obeying a command given by some guy 2000 years ago. No. In fact, it is exactly because we are now witnesses to Christ ourselves. Acts 1:8 specifically says that we will be his witnesses and it is not addressed to those who physically heard the words spoken by Christ but to all generations of Christians, as a correct interpretation of the verse will show.
No, we do not simply repeat what other people have told us about Christ. I believe that the IEP, was a watershed principle to discover because it is, in fact, the distinguishing feature of any true Christian. Many read the Bible but few have experience of Christ. If Everett had been a true Christian, i.e. one who knew Christ as the New Testament Greek word ginosko intends i.e. to know through experience and not just have head knowledge, he would have had something relevant for the Pirahas. But he didn’t.
If you live by theology alone rather than by faith leading to experience, the ginosko of the New Testament, you have nothing to offer anyone. You have nothing to proclaim except the second hand claims of history. But I know Christ. That is, I ginosko Christ. Literally, I know him through experience. I’ve met him, he’s impacted my life physically, psychologically and, of course, spiritually. I can no more see him than see the wind but he is no less real to me than the wind is.
For me, the tragedy of Everett’s story is profoundly relevant to mission: If we have no experience of Christ, it is not Christ who becomes irrelevant to the people we go to. It is ourselves.
I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahas are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.
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