Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski

I first heard about this novel via Stephen King and his column in Entertainment Weekly, where he tried several times to get it a larger readership. King castigated its publisher for not promoting it, and praised Berlinski for treating the missionaries who comprise part of its cast in objective prose. That was enough for me. (Full disclosure - I’ve read Stephen King since I was 14, and have read more than 20 of his books.)

Fieldwork” follows an American writer living in Thailand (his name happens to be the same as the author) who stumbles upon the forgotten murder of an American missionary, David Walker, by another American, Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist studying a native tribe deep in the jungle. By the time our narrator finds out about the crime, the murderess has killed herself while serving in a Thai prison.

Berlinski’s first novel is quite good, and King’s assessment is right. The journey into the murder takes the narrator into a third generation evangelical missionary family, struggling to retain their heritage while they share the Gospel with a pre-literate culture. It also examines the life of the killer, a young woman who traveled halfway around the world to immerse herself the customs and language of a highly superstitious, primitive people. There are long but engaging digressions into the lives of missionaries, tribesmen, anthropologists and nosy freelance writers.

Several themes emerge. Naturally, both the fieldwork of the missionaries and the anthropologist are explored in tandem, as they reject then embrace their callings. Religion lies at the heart of the book, in not only the apocalyptic brand of Christianity shared with the tribesmen but also the tribal people’s tiptoeing fear in the face of a spirit world they have known for generations.

And King was right - the Walker family at no time emerge as wild-eyed zealots, judgmental fanatics, neo-colonialist cultural rapists or emasculated ciphers. They are people, passionately in the grip of a cause - “the sense that daily life was inconsequential…this wonderful sense that it just didn’t matter, the ’it’ being anything but getting right with God.” David Walker, the doomed victim, becomes a Dead Head for a few years in the United States before coming back to Thailand to lead the Dyalo people to Jesus, an act which ultimately spells his doom.

And Berlinski, to his credit, gets in these people’s skins, and their souls. It’s obvious much of this made-up story is based on conversations with actual missionaries. In an interview for the book, Berlinski said he was struck by how “normal” the missionaries he spoke to where - an assessment of evangelicals that is all too absent from public discourse or imaginative literature. He also does an interesting thing - he writes of a spiritual world, that both his missionaries and tribesmen believe in, with total objectivity. While he may not believe in it, his characters certainly do.

This week, an article in USA Today detailed how more Americans are affiliating themselves with no religion, one respondent saying the only time religion comes up in conversation among friends is as the butt of a joke. (We assume that religion is synonymous with Christianity.) An opinion piece, in the Christian Science Monitor, predicts tough times for an American Christianity too prominently married to conservative political causes and at odds with a rising secular rational spirit.

Christianity is going to survive, regardless of how people respond in surveys or how the faith is depicted in fiction. But it is interesting that Berlinski, a Jew, is able to write about evangelicals in a way that I doubt even most evangelical writers can. There’s a sympathy for the cause of winning souls for Christ that never veers into parody nor savors of propaganda. The Walker family doesn’t come off as transplanted hicks intent on transporting their overall clad Christ across the ocean, but as people who want to bring "abundant life." They stand in contrast to the Christians our narrator says he encountered before, Christians who “didn’t seem to take their faith seriously.”

When our Mischa reveals in a footnote that his fictional Walkers never actually witnessed to him, there is a genuine sense of disappointment in his fictional voice. That sense lingers beyond the book, and into a world that still wants to believe.

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