Susan Cooper is a renowned author best known for The Dark is Rising Sequence. Her latest young adult novel, Ghost Hawk, is an deeply compelling look at the dangers of cultural imperialism and the ways that cultures interact. Here, I’ll examine the book from a worldview level. The will be SPOILERS in what follows.
Cultural imperialism occurs when a dominant group asserts its customs or traditions as normative over those of another. For a fantastic book that looks at some of these issues in context of First Nations/Native Americans, see Richard Twiss’s Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys. The white settlers coming into the land are imposing their culture and customs on the Native groups in the area. That this is historical reality is beyond dispute. Cooper presents this, however, in an intriguing way.
John and others are in favor of reform–working with the Native groups and trying to understand them. Others, notably Puritans, believe that all the Natives are without any kind of possible hope. They are simply the heathen, and must be not only converted, but must conform themselves to the European cultural standards. This same imperialism carries into today as missions to Native groups too often wish to banish all Native expressions of spirituality.
The story does not take a happy turn. The efforts to come to mutual understanding largely fail, and Little Hawk is murdered in the process. Little Hawk’s spirit lingers to speak with John for some time (see below).
Despite all the reasons why Little Hawk and John might give up hope, they persist in trusting that hope might be found:
“These people[,” John said, “]they have no charity either for the Indians or for Christians who do not follow their own harsh rules. They talk about the word of the Lord, but they do not listen to it. Shall we destroy each other, in the end?”
…”Change is made by the voice of one person at a time,” [Little Hawk/Ghost Hawk] said…
“But you had no choice [to kill the wolf,” John said to Ghost Hawk. “]We too kill wolves, to keep them from eating the animals that we want to eat. We choose to do it. We have choices all the time, and so often we make the wrong ones.” (291-292, cited below)
There are a number of avenues to explore in this quote. First, it is worth noting that that different Christian voices are presented in the novel. Yes, some present a view in which the Native peoples are merely the heathen–not even worth associating with. Yet others work towards understanding and following God’s word. Second, the concept of choice is quite blatant here: our choices is what can make the difference going forward. When we choose to continue to act as a cultural aggressor, the cycle is perpetuated. What can be done to make a change? Again, different choices–following God’s word.
The story of Ghost Hawk is set during early colonization of what would become known as Massachusetts. The first half of the book follows Little Hawk, a Native American boy who begins his quest to become a man. He encounters the spirit of a hawk/osprey in the wild, but when he returns home he discovers that plague has killed the vast portion of his family and tribe. As the story goes on, he encounters John, the son of a settler. Little Hawk is murdered by one of the settlers as John looks on, and himself becomes a kind of Manitou spirit, communicating with John for some time. Yet the story reaches beyond the initial setting, swirling past over a century of time as the land that was once used by the Massachusetts and other tribes now “belongs” to others. Ultimately, Little Hawk’s spirit is released as a kind of totem of his–his axe–is melded into a tree.
Ghost Hawk asks us to think about cultural imperialism from a different perspective. Susan Cooper invites us to consider the societal and systemic wrongs that have been done to Native groups and to enter into a conversation about how we can work to change that going forward. Moreover, her care to show different perspectives is admirable. Christians should be reflective of past wrongs and seek mutual reconciliation. We need to be aware of how our own expectations are not equivalent with the expectations of the Bible. Reading Ghost Hawk provides a way to start thinking about those issues.
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Susan Cooper, Ghost Hawk (New York: Margaret K. McElderry, 2013).
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Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss presents a broad, far-reaching analysis of the contact and sometimes conflict between Christianity and Native cultures.
Conflict is a major theme of the book, as Twiss traces the history of interactions between Western Christians and Native peoples. This history involves much wrongdoing, from wanton destruction of Native peoples through disease (which was at some points compared to the plagues on Egypt attacking the Native peoples), to continued missiology that refuses to adapt to new insights from anthropology.
A central question asked time and again through the book is why, in order to be Christian, people must give up all their cultural background and embrace a Eurocentric version of religious practice. The example often used is that of drums in worship. Many argue that this is an example of potentially dangerous syncretism–the incorporation of anti-Christian ideology into allegedly Christian worship. They allege that because drums have been used in spiritual fashions that are non-Christian, they must be tied to non-Christian beliefs. Twiss argues that, instead, it is an example of critical contextualization–integrating the Christian faith by means of cultural expressions. He notes that this is allowed in all kinds of ideas and expressions in Western cultures. He mentions the integration of Platonic and Aristotelian thought into Creedal expressions as one example. Another example could be the general allowance for Christmas trees–themselves once expressions of pagan practices.
Thus, a major aspect of Twiss’ project is to demonstrate that Native peoples must be allowed to develop their own understanding of how to follow the Jesus way. Just as in Western churches, incense, organs, Christmas trees, specific candle lightings, and the like are allowed and even endorsed; so too should Native expressions and critical incorporation of their own practices be allowed in worship. Only then, argues Twiss, can the Gospel be truly integrated into Native life and communities.
Twiss also outlines various ways missions have been done to Native peoples and notes that these have largely changed and adapted in response to new insights from anthropology, but these adaptations have been adapted abroad, not in Native mission fields. This means a continued colonializing is taking place as Native peoples are expected to change everything, without being allowed to keep their own religious expressions. He summons much data to support these claims.
A major chapter in the book features his amalgamation of stories into a fictional sweat lodge ceremony in which nine different Native men are talking about their struggles with following Christ in a Native culture. These provide great insights into the ways in which Native people have worked to integrate their culture and faith together and met enormous resistance.
By the time I finished the book, I realized that I’d had to be fairly introspective and consider my own faults along with all that I had learned. I had, at least in my head, thought of various practices like integrating Native dancing into worship as being some kind of syncretism. I hadn’t thought about how plenty of the things I do (Christmas trees, for example) had sprung from a cultural milieu and come to be accepted in Western Christianity. I had been convicted by Twiss, but also enlightened.
The few critiques I have to offer of the book pale in comparison to its insight, but I’ll note them here. First, there are a couple times in which it seems to repeat the same point more than once–sometimes even with the same quote or citation. I’m sure this is due to it having been finished posthumously, and so the editors drew together works from Twiss’ other materials, but it remains disconcerting at points. Another issue is that there are several points at which Twiss lists a whole slew of relevant scholars and a major work or two from each. It’s the kind of thing that could have been more easily relegated to endnotes in order to clean up the text a bit, but this is a minor nitpick.
The appendices are quite useful, including a list of various words or phrases used to refer to Native American peoples, as well as when they were first used and how they’ve come to be used now.
I recommend Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys as highly as possible. It is filled with excellent information, convicting insights, and hope. Pick it up and read it.
+Touches on a number of important topics
+Deep insights with convicting but guiding words
+Excellent use of stories to illustrate important points
+Provides hope and applicable insights
-Large lists of scholars at points with little context
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. They did not require any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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Richard Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).
Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
Our Cultural Concepts of Christianity
I recently finished Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss. It was a phenomenal, thought-provoking read that I highly recommend. In one section, Twiss argues that:
If self-revelation is the work of Creator and Creator’s engagement with people and nations, then crosscultural communication never occurs in isolation, in a cultural vacuum, but by definition occurs in a crosscultural context. Human messengers are never free from the prevailing cultural influences of their upbringing, worldview values, and sociocultural/political attitudes of their day. (61, cited below)
The point he is making is that humans are tied to their cultural background in such a way that any time we speak to someone from a different context, that becomes a cross-cultural context, no matter how neutral we attempt to be in our understanding. Thus, when applied to missions, it is important to keep in mind one’s own cultural influences and try to avoid imposing those cultural standards onto other cultures. We must not turn Christianity into Christianity + our own cultural understanding and practice of Christianity. Much of the book focuses on how Western culture has been imposed upon Native culture in Christianity as well as how we might break that cycle.
Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys is an excellent read that will challenge most readers’ expectations and presuppositions. I highly recommend it.
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Richard Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).