Last night I watched the movie Avatar, which if you have not yet seen it is amazing. James Cameron did a great job in creating a believable alien world of plants, animals, and a native population called the Na’vi. In fact it is so real and beautiful that many people (including me) find themselves wishing they could go to this world and live among the native population like the main character.

While thinking about the Na’vi and how real they seemed, a thought crossed my mind that made me see how unrealistic their portrayal actually was. And this little omission highlights a part of our worldview that has an interesting impact on the subject of missions.

So what was missing to make the Na’vi people unrealistic? In one word, “sin”. Avatar, along with just about every Hollywood movie about native peoples paints a picture of perfection and romanticizes their primitive way of existence. “Dances With Wolves” and “The Gods Must Be Crazy” are some similar movies that come to mind. A primitive tribe living in perfect unity with nature and each other, battling the outside corrupting forces of the civilized world trying to destroy their little paradise. But where is the sin nature that is deep in the heart of every people? Where is the greed, jealousy, hate, and other ills that plague every society?

I think these movies are simply a manifestation of our western culture. We believe that all the evils of this world and associated guilt are a product of our modern society, and if we would just leave the natives alone they could remain in their utopian society undisturbed. A perfect example of this is the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” where the bushmen tribe lives in perfect harmony until a coke bottle drops from the sky and everyone starts fighting over it. Could that really be true? I say no. Every society struggles with the affects of sin. While it is true that the symptoms may be different from culture to culture they still exist. While a civilized society may have to deal with the affects of murder, theft, adultery, and drugs, a primitive culture is often plagued by violence, murder, fear of evil spirits, starvation, and even a host of preventable or curable diseases due to lack of access to modern health care. I submit that while exposure to the modern world may have an affect on culture (Cultural Materialism), it does not have a corrupting affect on the morality of that society. Sin is sin, and different tools to commit it do not change that fact.

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Putting the complicated anthropological aspects of this aside, how does it apply to missions? The term “Missionary” has gotten a bad rap due to them being perceived through history as being destroyers of cultures. Unfortunately that reputation has been earned due to faulty understanding of mission’s purpose and the desire to “civilize” the savages. But forgoing those historical issues, missionaries by and large have brought huge benefits to primitive societies across the world. Water wells, modern medical care, and improved farming technology are just a few examples of the humanitarian benefits missions has had. But of course the most important thing missionaries have done is bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to lost and dying peoples who had no access to the truth before.

I think about the unreached Bonda people of Orissa, India. If you were to assume that their incredibly primitive and isolated way of life was a paradise that should remain untouched you would be sadly mistaken. In reality their society is plagued by shame due to the belief they’ve been cursed, drunkenness, and incredible violence. In fact their population has been shrinking due to the incredibly high murder rate resulting from their culturally accepted drunkenness, violence, and depression. Are they better off left alone? I don’t think so! They are in desperate need of the redemptive power of the gospel in their lives and society as a whole. And I have no doubt you will find similar situations in all the remaining primitive tribal cultures of the world.

In recent years a number of organizations have sprung up as a result of this romanticizing of primitive native peoples. Groups like Survival International are gaining more political power as western governments and the United Nations side with their worldview. While these groups play an important role in protecting the rights of tribal peoples, they often are in fierce opposition to missionaries. They are helping governments around the world to write laws closing off unreached peoples to the gospel. And all this is a direct result of this faulty worldview about tribal people.

In summary of all these thoughts, I think it is very important to recognize this emerging view as exposed by Hollywood. The romanticizing of native cultures is both dangerous and damaging to those peoples. It can block us from seeing their extreme and urgent need for the truth of the gospel. It is also a driving force behind the changing attitudes toward missionaries among the governments of the world. It is important to keep this in mind lest you fall prey to the belief that they would be better off left alone. Every people needs Jesus, and no matter what the world says it is our responsibility to give them the opportunity to meet him.

  • What are your thoughts on the corrupting influences of the outside world on tribal peoples?
  • Have you ever found yourself romanticizing tribal cultures?

UPDATE:
Here’s a very interesting article that addresses the folly of Western anti-modernists »