Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 01/15/2008 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. A gripping and persuasive report on Indian missions in the early twentieth century.
This book is about missions. And about India. But most importantly, it is about Christ. Whether or not the publisher meant to render the ‘Christ’ on the cover in all caps to signal the main subject in the book we may never know, but in E. Stanley Jones’ life Christ was the be all and end all. While he loved missions and cherished India, he was consumed by Christ.
On another level, this book is a slice-of-life about missionary work in India. Jones was a master narrator who didn’t need endless pages to convey a story. Often, two sentences will do; he is a master of economy and inversion, which leads to many pithy and quotable statements. The entire eight-page eleventh chapter, “The Concrete Christ,” is an extended set of inverted propositions about Christ. For example, Jesus “did not teach in a didactic way about the worth of children – he put his hands upon them and blessed them and setting one in their midst tersely said, ‘Of such is the kingdom of God,’ and he raised them from the dead.” From beginning to end this is a book written in a winsome and compelling tone, and for the most part it is buttressed by solid theology.
At the very opening, Jones makes the distinction that rather than being a book about an Indian interpretation of Christ, it is instead “an attempt to describe how Christ is becoming naturalized upon the Indian Road.” Although the reader may not immediately understand this distinction, as the book progresses it becomes clear. What we are left with is not primarily an account of how India understands Christ, but how India is responding to Christ (albeit in the early 1900s). Jones harps – and rightly so – on the need for the Indian Church to be an expressly Indian institution. While this book is in no ways a polemic against Western Christianity, and Jones does hope that the Indian Church will appropriate helpful aspects of the Western Church, he perceives that “If we do not make [civilization] the issue, they will probably take more from it than if we did.” Some might object that Jones paints too rosy a picture, failing to address demographic and sociological realities. But that is not his purpose. He realizes full well that issues of justice and social change dominate Indian life. But he is presenting a transcendental reality, and makes no apology for that.
If there is any danger in this book, it is that Jones constantly makes provocative statements that he delays in qualifying. But in every instance of a provocative statement – at least those statements I deemed to be provocative – he qualified it later, sometimes one page later, sometimes at the end of the chapter. One conspicuous instance of this is his glowing description of Mahatma Gandhi’s Christlikeness, brought to a crescendo through the course of an entire chapter. I made a note at that time that Jones seemed to be exaggerating Gandhi’s adherence to Christianity. Only much later, chapters later, did Jones explicitly state that Gandhi was a non-Christian.
There are also two instances of minor but noticeable theological error, which needn’t be made much of, but should at least be mentioned. Firstly, Jones frequently refers to “those whom Christ is calling who are not of this fold.” Without getting bogged down in exegesis of that particular biblical passage, following Christ outside the Church is not normatively compatible with Christ “speaking peace to his disciples.” Thankfully, and true to form, on the next page Jones qualifies his statement by expressing his desire for the Church to be “the Christlike medium” enfolding this move of the Spirit. Secondly, at one point Jones demonstrates a misunderstanding of international relations according to Scripture. Whereas Jones maintains that nations should treat other nations as they would prefer to be treated (a misapplication of the golden rule), Romans declares that the State is sanctioned by God to protect the citizen from the wrongdoer. Considering Jones wrote this book in the years after the war to end all wars, his hopeful statement can be understood, notwithstanding its lack of contextual merit.
E. Stanley Jones, who has been called the greatest missionary since St. Paul, emerges from this account as a humble man. Whether speaking about his Indian friends, to his American audience, or even when addressing rampant American materialism, he never comes across brash or arrogant. But this book reflects Christ even better than it does E. Stanley Jones. Would-be missionaries, and anybody else for that matter, would do well to invest in Jones to gain new insights into the priorities of the Christian life, starting with Christ.
Note: If purchasing this book, avoid the yellow Kessinger version. Rather, invest in the Abingdon edition.