It’s time to return stories
Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys is the most recent – and sadly, final – book we have from an important Indigenous evangelical leader. Richard Twiss, who died unexpectedly in 2013 at the age of 58, was a tireless advocate and creative activist for a more authentically Indigenous expression of the good news. Rescuing the Gospel is essential reading for Canadian evangelicals. This is especially the case as we are now called to ponder and respond to our nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both as individual citizens and as faith communities.
The book is inspiring, informative, provocative – and often frustrating – but the importance of Twiss’s overall message outweighs the frustrations. He unpacks two key concepts that both the evangelical church and Indigenous Christians need to grapple with: contextualization and decolonization. That is, the dual processes of rooting the gospel deeply within “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9), and rooting out the devastating and ongoing impact of colonialism within mainstream North American life and thought.
The need for a book like this comes close to home: last Wednesday evening, I sat in a room full of high school youth groups and leaders, part of MB Mission’s SOAR Saskatchewan event. We listened to a young man, a new father, an aspiring school teacher, an MB mentored by MBs, who is Cree. We listened to his powerful story as he told how he wrestled with the heart-wrenching question: “Should I be Christian, or should I be an Indian?”
This man and thousands of people like him need churches who are not afraid of those who are Christian and Indigenous. Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys does much to unpack this dilemma, by analyzing how we got here and recounting many efforts to express the gospel in Indigenous ways.
The book begins with a biblical discussion of how we might understand God at work in First Nations traditions. Twiss even dares to use the “S”-word: syncretism. He recognizes that the word can’t really be rehabilitated or redeemed. Yet, he urges Christians toward a more nuanced understanding, so that we might distinguish between what he calls “normative” syncretism, which he sees as part of “true conversion… [the] gradual and erratic process of sociocultural change,” the bumpy ride of the gospel transforming a culture, and “counteractive” syncretism, the “mixing of core beliefs that ultimately diminish, fully resist, or finally stop – counteract – one’s personal faith journey as a follower of Jesus.”
If we might be troubled by Twiss’s partial endorsement of syncretism, we can take note that even his Indigenous friends in ministry challenged him on this. Nevertheless, Twiss speaks truth when he talks about the often untidy process of conversion at a cultural or systemic level.
The “heart and soul” of the book is found in the many narrative sections throughout, but especially Chapter 3’s conversation between Christian Native men, envisioned as taking place in a sweat ceremony. Each character is introduced with a brief biography. Three of them are composite figures, created out of many real-life interviews; the other five are apparently real individuals. There’s good precedent for this approach: Acts 15 shows that when Christians need to deal with thorny issues of mission and cultural engagement, personal experience (or “testimony,” as we usually name it) is an essential ingredient.
I suspect that for many readers, a chapter like this may be the first time they have heard first-person stories from an Indigenous voice, Christian or otherwise. I would suggest that it’s time we intentionally seek out such living voices in our own communities across Canada – they are there and ready to speak with us.
For example, in most larger centres, we will find Indian and Métis friendship centres or equivalent meeting places. Schools, libraries and community centres are good places to find connections and contacts. If you haven’t already done so, participate in a KAIROS “blanket exercise” for a church or community group (making sure that you have some Indigenous members in the group).
Find out where there are reserves near your community – you’ll probably be surprised to find out how close (and how invisible) they are. I’ve always been amazed at the warm and generous welcome extended to me when honestly trying to build relationships with Indigenous neighbours.
The book did hold some frustrations: I sometimes found the train of thought disjointed, stories not always chronologically ordered. Sometimes the style reminded me of the Letter of James: a somewhat harsh tone, argument with rhetorical opponents, shifting from topic to topic, speaking to an insider group. Sometimes, it felt like an incomplete editing job.
But I was conflicted – is this perhaps a deliberately non-linear approach? Perhaps an attempt at Indigenous academic writing, throwing off the hegemony (a term Twiss likes to use) of privileged Western forms of discourse? Is the source of the frustration the author, the editors…or me?
Exactly one week prior to my night at SOAR, I was in an evening seminar (call it a “talking circle”) in an inner-city legal aid office, gathered with community members, law students and an Indigenous elder, in a conversation about decolonization. One aspiring lawyer concluded: “Our people have done everything we can to understand the settlers’ ways, how you think and live. The way forward to reconciliation now needs you to start moving toward how we think and live, needs you to move toward our worldview. Reconciliation won’t happen until whites start to think in circles.”
I’m not sure if the communication style of Rescuing the Gospel is “thinking in circles.” The jury is still out, but I’m willing to submit my frustrations to that possibility and continue to listen to the heart of its message.
Another important part of “thinking in circles” is reciprocity. As Twiss says early on, stories “have only been loaned…, and will need to be returned.” The many narratives, the life experiences that made up Twiss’s research and reflection must be acted on, so that the communities that shaped them have some response, some benefit, from Twiss’s writing and our reading. In the memorable words of Thomas King (The Truth about Stories): “Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”
—Randy Klassen lives in Treaty 6 territory, near the South Saskatchewan River, a two-hour walk south of the 5,000 year old Wanuskewin national historic site. He attends Lakeview Church.