Connecting Faith and Life

Bruce Olson: Bruchko

bruchkoThis is an amazing account of Bruce E. Olson, an American missionary, who pioneered among the Motilones of Columbia, one of the most primitive Indian tribes of South America during the second half of the twentieth century. This is an autobiographical sketch and the author’s intention is to let the world know about the missionary work among the Motilones.In the first three chapters, Olson introduces himself and describes the various religious experiences that shaped him as a missionary. The remaining part of the book narrates Olson’s encounter with the primitive Indians and his stay amidst them for more than fifteen years, which eventually transformed the Motilones. The story is arranged in a chronological way and gains momentum with each chapter. I have presented a brief account of Olson’s story in the following two paragraphs, and the later sections of this paper include a critical analysis of the book and its missionary implications.

Olson entered the jungles of Columbia and he first came across the Yuko Indians. After spending a year with the Yukos, he ventured deeper into the jungle to find the Motilones. His initial encounter with the Motilones was frightening. He was pierced by arrows and almost got killed by the Motilone chief. Nevertheless, enduring physical pain and loneliness, he continued to live within their territory with hope. Olson’s patience was rewarded when the Motilones began to accept him gradually into their camp. He began to accompany the Motilone men on their fishing and hunting expeditions. Over a period of time he adjusted himself well with the Motilone habitat, diet, and also learned their tonal language. In the process, he became close to a Motilone young man called Bobarishora. This enabled him to get involved with Motilone social life freely. The Motilones called him Bruchk. Olson gradually introduced medicines and sanitation to improve Motilone way of life.

After winning the confidence of the Motilones, Olson made attempts to share the gospel of Jesus of Christ by making use of some of the traditional stories prevalent among them. Once he saw some Motilone men digging the ground in a desperation to find God. Olson seized that opportunity to introduce Jesus Christ. Similarly, he found out many other Motilone fables and used them as points of contact to communicate the gospel. For instance, to explain incarnation, Olson used the Motilone fable of a man who became an ant. Olson’s friend Bobarishora was the first Motilone to accept Jesus and His way of life. Bobarishora composed new Motilone songs conveying the gospel and sang it during their public gatherings. This led to the conversion of the Motilone tribe over a period of time. The story ends with a sad note of the murder of Bobarishora by the outside exploiters. The book at the end has a short epilogue in which Olson gives a brief account of the developments that has happened among Motilones in field of health care, education, agriculture and so on. He also explains the positive and negative reactions from the outside world for his work among the Motilones.

As an autobiography, this is an excellent work. Olson does not project himself as a missionary without faults. His work portrays events and factors that not only led to his success but also the failures and humiliating experiences of his missionary life. Throughout the book he describes several circumstances where his approaches turned out to be unproductive. He is remarkably honest about his impulsive attitude and his often irresponsible actions. He also shows forth his frustrations. In short, though Olson is the protagonist of his book, he does not paint himself as a superhuman or saint.

Nevertheless, the reader cannot but marvel at the achievement of Olson’s missionary work. His faith venture is what that challenged me the most. It needed tremendous faith in God on the part of Olson to go into an unknown territory without the support of the family or the church or mission agency. Moreover, his commitment to the task in spite of huge setbacks is an amazing lesson to be learned from his life. If patience is an important aspect of missionary life style, Olson epitomizes it. He patiently stayed with the Motilones for a long time before he could get an opportunity to share the gospel. Similarly, Olson’s life is a good example of how a missionary ought to love his people.

More than anything, Olson contextual approach in mission is to be appreciated. He was able to find out vital points of contact in Motilone culture to share the gospel. For instance, he was able to come up with concepts like “Walking in Jesus’ Trail,” “Tie your Hammock strings to Jesus,” and “Jesus the Motilone,” to explain important truths of the gospel to the Motilones. Nevertheless, Olson’s missionary approach raises some important issues for discussion regarding contextualisation of the gospel in a cross cultural situation.

First, the importance of incarnational approach in mission contexts. Olson, in order to share the gospel with the Motilones, entered their territory and almost became one among them. He lived in their homes, ate their food and even participated in their festivals. Only after the people accepted him, he attempted to share the gospel. I think this is an important element in missionary life and it is thoroughly biblical (Jesus’ incarnation). However, it raises questions like – how much time should a missionary spend in studying a people group before sharing the gospel? To what extent should a missionary become one with the new culture? Is Olson’s method universally applicable?

I think cross cultural mission approaches would vary from place to place and situation to situation. Olson’s method perhaps was best suited for Motilones. However, it cannot be projected as the appropriate one for all cross cultural missions. Sometimes, I have come across missionaries who have been in mission fields for a long time without making any genuine attempt to share the gospel directly. They justify their inaction by stating that the right time to share the gospel has not yet come or they haven’t won the confidence of the people yet. Such a situation raises real concern. Therefore, missionaries though need to be culturally sensitive and incarnational, they must also anticipate early opportunities to share the gospel.

Second, the use of existing traditions and myths to convey the gospel. Olson used many of the Motilone stories to communicate the gospel. He found several points of contact between the gospel and Motilone fables. Olson was indeed successful making the Motilones understand the gospel truths. However, the book does not tell us how Olson resolved some the difficulties which would have occurred in this process. I think we need to be very careful in using myths and concepts derived from other cultures or religions. For instance, in Hindu philosophical thought, the concept of Trimurthi exists. If a Christian missionary uses this to explain the concept of Trinity to a Hindu, he or she would run into a lot of complications. Points of contacts are vital for achieving initial breakthroughs but missionaries should be wise enough to qualify such uses in order to avoid misconceptions.

Many critics of Olson have pointed out this flaw. Olson presents Jesus as a Motilone, a dark skinned man with a bow, wearing a G string and so on. Olson’s Jesus could have lived in any time, in any place, and be of any nationality. Olson’s critics are right in pointing out that the historical Jesus is sidelined in this sort of contextualisation. Similarly, the creation and fall stories of Motilones are different from the narrative of the same in the Bible. Olson seems to have compromised this historicity for the sake of contextualisation. This should be avoided.

Third, the conscious effort to develop indigenous Christianity. Olson’s greatest achievement is found here. He was very conscious not to transplant his form of American Christianity among the Motilones. Olson, in the book, points out how some of his contemporary American missionaries destroyed the indigenous cultures of tribes by introducing American civilization under the guise of promoting a Christian culture. This awareness on the part of Olson was crucial for the development of Motilone form of Christianity. For instance, instead of condemning the practise of Witch doctors outrightly, Olson uses them to achieve health care. In short, the native culture was allowed to encounter the gospel. This resulted in the transformation of some aspects within the new culture whereas the gospel itself remained unaffected. The cultural elements continued to find new expressions because of Christianity. I think this is a significant aspect to be considered by all cross cultural missionaries. One should guard himself or herself from transplanting one’s own culture into the mission field as far as possible. The core of the gospel alone must be transferred.

Overall, Bruchko is an astonishing story of God’s power manifested through the work of a simple but strong willed missionary. The author in a self effacing manner narrates the successful event of reaching the Motilone Indians with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The book though written in a simple narrative style, it grips the reader with a sense of awe and amazement. Olson takes much space to narrate the first encounters with the Motilone tribe and limits his narration of the changes among Motilones after conversion to a few pages. This is a bit disappointing. I expected Olson to inform me more of what has been achieved among the Motilones because of their encounter with Jesus. Perhaps, the book, Bruchko and the Motilone Miracle, written by Olson himself a few years later contains more updated information on the developments in Motilone region.

Illinois: Creation House, 1980.  Pages 1-208.

Reviewed by Sam K John

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