When I was a tenth grader my family visited some dear friends working among a very remote tribe. This tribe lived on the tops and sides of several remote jungle ridges which sloped down to the roaring convergence of two major rivers. It is one of the more beautiful and remote places I’ve ever seen. As it would have taken three days to walk to this tribe from the nearest road, we were flown in on a missionary Cessna to the airstrip that the villagers had recently built.
Because of lack of space, this airstrip was built on a short slope, complete with a steeper slope and drop-off at the end. When landing, the upward slope would help the plane slow down. When taking off downhill, the pilot had to make sure he had enough speed once he reached the end of the dirt and grass airstrip. If not, his plane would be smashed into the canopy of trees far below. This had already happened to one plane belonging to someone trying to fly out sacks of coffee beans. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the greatest danger to the pilots. Their worst nemesis turned out to be the village pigs that would tear up the airstrip in their search for edible roots and sometimes run out in front of a plane, causing a collision that could be fatal for all parties involved. It may have been at this same airstrip that this type of collision took place in following years. The plane and the pig were totaled, but the pilot was miraculously spared.
The older Korean missionary couple that we were visiting (Papa S and Mama M) had become like grandparents to us. So this visit to their tribal location was a very sweet time. I learned a lot from their wisdom about how to live a lifestyle that was closer to that of the villagers and how to think more communally about our belongings (like tools) for the sake of the gospel. As they worked to translate the Bible with their local teammates from a neighboring tribe, they truly modeled relationships of equality and dignity, even given the vast education, cultural, and material differences.
My older brother and I spent the days sitting outside in the sunny ridge-top yard of their modest tribal house, reading (my first of several attempts at reading Desiring God took place here), having fun with the hornbill bird that had adopted our friends, and telling stories with the small crowd of villagers that were almost always present. While we didn’t know the tribal language, enough of the tribesmen knew the trade language for us to be able to communicate easily. However, most of the elderly and the children did not know the trade language, so our conversations took place with a constant background hum of the tribal tongue as they interpreted and remarked and made jokes. I’ve often characterized my Melanesian tribal friends as quick to laugh, quick to joke, and quick to fight – a fascinating combination of playful and dangerous, honor-bound yet always wearing their hearts on their sleeves. As is also true of so many of my Central Asian friends, they make the most wonderful of friends and the most daunting of enemies.
One afternoon my mom had decided to bake some chocolate chip cookies in a wood-fired stove Papa S had made from a metal barrel, the kind of barrel that gasoline for the generator came in. Her hippy-missionary skills would prove to be remarkably successful, but as we waited we got into a fun conversation with a group of villagers about distances from their village to other places, such as where we lived, and how far it was to other countries. We were struggling to explain to them just how far away America was when I remembered that there was an inflatable globe inside the house. I went and retrieved it.
I sat down on a split-log bench. With my impromptu geography class huddled around me, I began to show them their country, the countries next door, and all the way on the other side of the globe, the country my parents were from. Confusion followed. This may have been the first time they had ever seen distances displayed on any kind of a map, let along one shaped like a ball. We talked about what their village would look like to a bird or a plane (the same word in the trade language), what their province would look like if they went higher up, and then what the round planet earth would look like if someone were able to go even higher. It began to sink in. Or so I thought.
Then, someone shouted something in the tribal language and the distinctive communal laugh burst forth. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in the world, but in that Melanesian country, when crowds laugh, they laugh in unison with a climax of a joyful and high-pitched whoop, something like dozens of voices all together exclaiming, “Hahahahaaha…Ha wheeeeee!” This would happen when someone did something funny or embarrassing in front of church, or when a rugby player got taken down in a particularly epic tackle. But this time apparently I was the joke!
I was finally able to get a translation of what was going on. “He thinks the world is round! The skinny white boy thinks the world is round! This is too much!” My short-lived geography class was falling apart as villagers, still laughing, began to make their way back to their huts to tell the story.
“But,” I protested to the few who remained, “It’s true! The world is round like a ball!” To no avail.
“Son,” One man said to me, “Look around you. Are we not on top of a mountain? Look at the horizon. Is it not flat? The world is definitely flat. We simply cannot believe what you are saying when we see this with our own eyes.”
My geography lesson had been an educational failure, however much comedic relief it may have brought to the village that week. I left scratching my head at the whole thing. Munching on a cookie and trying to place myself in their shoes, I began to realize just how outlandish my claims must have seemed to them. If the oral tradition of your ancestors, the only human source of wisdom and education you’ve ever had, claimed the world was flat, it was going to take a lot more than a random sixteen-year-old foreigner with a ball to convince you otherwise. Such is the power of a community’s self-evident truth.
I’ve often thought of that tribe in the years since as I’ve spoken with those in the West or in Central Asia, challenging the accepted truths of their culture with the universe as the Bible presents it. Incredulity sounds remarkably similar, regardless of language or culture. “What? You actually think homosexuality is a sin?” “What? You don’t believe that Islam is the fulfillment of Christianity? Everyone knows that.”
Group-think is universal. We are each limited in our perspective by our own unique cultural-historical time-slice, just like my village friends who thought I was crazy for suggesting the earth is round like a ball. Hence why we need a God who is outside of creation and yet who speaks his truth into it (props here to F. Schaeffer) – an eternally unchanging source of stable truth that takes things we feel (or learn) are absurd and helps us see that they are in fact true, wise, and beautiful. This is why missions is necessary. Yes, so that we can learn things that are true about geography – all truth is God’s truth, as they say. But even more important, so that we will be able to actually respond to the remnant whispers of conscience and stop trying in futility to save ourselves through appeasing and manipulating the spirits (as in Melanesia), through hoping our good deeds outweigh our bad (as in Islam), and through trying to be true to our authentic selves (as in the West).
The world, the earth, is round. And man cannot save himself through animism, religion, or whatever pop morality is dominating Twitter today. Rather, he must be saved by the Son of God, who became a man, lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to be at God the Father’s right hand. The God who is outside of creation and yet speaks into it has told us that this is the only way to be reconciled to him. Perhaps the way in which we’ve heard that message conflicts with the prevailing wisdom of our tribe – but so be it. The path toward truth often begins with a terrifying realization that our tribe has been woefully wrong about many, many things.