Epilogue Decolonising Missions and Preaching: the Implicated Self and the Reframing of the Missionary Phenomenon

In: Missions and Preaching
Michael Marten
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Mission incorporates at its essence the idea of preaching, of communicating to others. In Western Christian terms, this has formed the basis of the discipline of homiletics, but this perspective—of which I am a part, in terms of heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism—represents only a fraction of the wider topic, and in this essay, I explore ways of broadening these horizons.

I argue that we need to decolonise our discourse on homiletics, recognising that in different forms, missionaries and others have sought to persuade and convince others of their own positionality. The language used by Middle East mission historians has varied in describing this, but more broadly the question of how we decolonise reflections on preaching, on homiletics, is deeply problematic: too often is is about simply ‘adding’ (e.g. Jewish or Muslim) perspectives, but this is insufficient. ‘Adding’ leaves the framing intact and suggests that what is at stake is not the framing itself, but the breadth of the framing. That is not decolonising.

Instead, I argue we need to rethink the framing of this discourse altogether, and I seek to offer ways to do that, inspired by Critical Religion and postcolonial scholars. In particular, I emphasise our own positionality as historians and storytellers of missions, and using Spivak and Rothberg amongst others, I argue for an intersectional approach to mission history that involves reflecting on our own positionality in the wider discourse of missions and preaching and thereby re-forming the discourse. This does not make the discourse about us but recognises our place as future historical figures in discussing these questions, therefore more truly reflecting how we engage in decolonising processes that do justice to all the participants in a preaching relationship, both historical and contemporary.


My reflections here begin with a description of part of my own background. This may at first seem an unusual approach to take to a topic such as missions and preaching in the Middle East, but the importance of implicating myself in this way will become clear momentarily.

I come to this topic as a white European cis-male, living in Scotland, with a background in scholarship that began with an undergraduate degree in Christian theology. Although I also spent a year at the Protestant Faculty of Theology in Erlangen in southern Germany, my formal degree title employed the classical Scottish title of “Divinity” and not theology. Divinity—a descriptor of the nature of God—is a conceptual exploration of a key Christian principle, and I fittingly graduated in Divinity with honours in Systematic Theology and Church History. In a Protestant context, Systematic Theology, alongside Biblical Studies, is often seen as being at the core of a classical theological education.

Of course, my degree also included in various different contexts the study of both preaching and of mission, with the differentiation between these generally held to be internal and external: preaching as “open and public instruction in faith and behaviour, whose purpose is the forming of men; it derives from the path of reason and from the fountainhead of the ‘authorities’ (Scripture)”, according to Alain de Lille (ca. 1128–1202/3),1 and mission as the spreading of Christian faith to those without it, an understanding first used by the Jesuits.2 The latter incorporates the idea of preaching, of communicating a message to others, though this understanding developed and changed over time, as outlined by e.g. Jan Jongeneel.3 Kenneth Scott Latourette popularised the idea of mission as oscillating between advance and repetition, a pattern that Andrew F. Walls and others have further developed. At the core of this movement is the discipline of homiletics—the discipline of how to preach. Walls, and many others, have pointed to the intimate connections between conversion and culture. For example, he notes that Acts 11:19–23 suggests that one of the first encounters between new Jewish Christians and Greeks required a substantial revision of the way in which the message about Jesus was communicated:

The Jewish believers in Jesus described in Acts 11 risked a dangerous translation. They presented Jesus by the title their pagan friends used for their cult divinities—that is Kyrios, Lord. That event marked the beginning of the conversion of the Greek world … It was impossible to either ignore the previous system of ideas, or to abandon it, or to leave it as it was. It had to be penetrated, invaded, brought into relation with the word about Christ and the Scriptures which contained it.4

Of course, for many centuries, the discipline of homiletics, the discipline of the art of preaching, was formally reserved to those who looked a bit like me—white European men—who defined its terms, its reach and its main precepts. It is important to understand my self-identification here, as the interlinking of all these aspects places me in a particular space to be thinking about these issues as “the systems of race, class, gender, and sexuality are pervasive in every aspect of our lives … [and] all the systems are operating at all times and in all places, … they are interrelated and complex.”5 Alison Phipps highlights the impact of “relationships between categories such as race, class and gender, and between the associated oppressions of racism, classism and sexism.” She goes on to explain that these oppressions “are produced by intersecting systems: heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism,”6 developing this theme throughout the remainder of her book. With this deliberate and conscious placing of myself, I am acknowledging that I am part of the lineage that has developed what we might call the “settled authorities” of the discipline of homiletics, of preaching. And much of the language used by these settled authorities resembled this confrontational pattern that Walls portrays: penetration, invasion, having to bring things into relation. There is little about mutual respect in such language: it is about correcting and amending others’ cultural frameworks to one’s own ends. What I am suggesting is needed in this essay is the unsettling and disrupting of some of these settled authorities. I want to suggest two broad ways in which this might happen, and then suggest some possible avenues for further exploration, centred in particular on an intersectional understanding of our own positionality in relation to both the historical figures that we are engaging with, as well as the narratives that we are creating. As will become clearer below, I see the role that we have as historians, as story-tellers, as absolutely central to the stories that we are seeking to tell; this then, is why our own positionality is so significant, and why it implicates us in the wider story that we are seeking to tell in our work.

The first way in which this process of unsettling and disrupting some of the settled authorities can happen is by broadening the field as outlined by the editors of this volume, reflecting on the many ways in which preaching and mission took place in other contexts and in forms beyond those classically defined in Christian terms. This is first and foremost about expanding the number and range of the authorities, thereby adding voices and perspectives that might otherwise not be so readily heard. This process of diversification is an essential activity. Understanding, interpreting, and comparing preaching and communication across different cultural contexts is necessary for us in order to accurately portray and take the measure of what preaching might mean (in the context of this volume, it applies specifically to the Middle East, but this diversification process is relevant to any geographical locus). We can only undertake the task of understanding, interpreting and comparing if we know more about the different approaches that have been taken, whether by those identifying as Christian, Muslim or Jew.

On this note, although it may at first seem contradictory to do so given some of the wider comments on language and comparability I want to make in this essay, I want to clarify my use of the terms “mission” and “missionary” in describing efforts at engaging with individuals and communities (an initial working use of the term “preaching” has already been given above). As will become more apparent in due course, I will be seeking to offer appropriate nuance and definition as the need arises, so that although it may at first seem as if I am using a model of comparable language that I also appear to criticise, I am seeking a level of both compatibility and precision that is consonant with the other contributions to this volume. Therefore, in broad terms, I will be using the term “mission” in the sense of sending, performing a function, fulfilling a task (and this could be a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish mission), whilst the term “missionary” will tend to be used to denote a person sent on a mission (and again, this could be Christian, Muslim, or Jewish); in each case, the context will make this clearer.7

Secondly, however, as we seek to unsettle and disrupt some of the settled authorities, we need to understand that the framing we are deploying is itself problematic in several different ways. I want to mention one of these ways briefly, then expand upon another.

The first of these problems is that preaching of necessity tends to involve confrontation, as it is about seeking to persuade, to challenge and to change a person’s perspective. This is not a straightforward question in the Middle Eastern context of the last two or so centuries, where, to varying degrees, a long period of co-existence between traditions had previously existed. This “living alongside” was long circumscribed by Islamic rule, but was nonetheless relatively open to Jewish and Christian citizens, provided they did not try to convert Muslims (and ideally not each other).8 Sidney Griffith notes that the Qurʾan presumes an ongoing dialogue between Muslims and Christians, and “while dialogue, understood as simply conversation … is not always agreeable or friendly, it is nevertheless communication.”9 Western attempts at conversion, especially when introduced with the Ottoman Capitulations enabling a certain measure of freedom of religious practice,10 therefore changed this balance.11

Then it is vitally important also to recognise that although the terms we generally employ in our work might have predominantly Christian backgrounds, especially in the discipline of “religion”, these can be interrogated, deconstructed, and re-imagined in numerous ways. Considerable work has been undertaken by scholars such as Talal Asad, Daniel Dubuisson, Timothy Fitzgerald, Naomi Goldenberg, Mitsutoshi Horii, Tomoko Masuzawa, Russell T. McCutcheon, Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan, Suzanne Owen, myself, and many others exploring the origins of the discipline of “religion” in the West, tracing the connection to theological principles and ways of thinking; by many this has come to be called Critical Religion,12 or the Critical Study of Religion. It is worth outlining some key principles in brief form.

Critical Religion is based around the contention—contra e.g. Mircea Eliade’s Homo Religiosus etc.—that there is no such universal category as “religion,”13 since this very idea essentialises what have been described as “religions” on a supposed compatibility with universal norms, norms that derive from a Western colonial understanding of religion and secularity. For example, Asad argued that these norms were based around an understanding of secular rationality, the origins of which are actually deeply contested.14 Fitzgerald, Masuzawa, and others have argued that this is bound up with colonialism, as the (supposed) distinction between the “religious” and the “secular” or between “religions” is part of a colonial framework of knowledge,15 indeed, these terms are co-dependent and meaningless without reference to each other.16 Modern understandings of religion and the emergence of the secular (not-religion)—being based upon Western Christian understandings and having developed in this arena—are therefore an intrinsic part of colonialism (past and present) and the Orientalist creation of knowledge (and so below I can use this binary co-dependency when seeking to delineate preaching and not-preaching). Critical Religion therefore seeks to engage in a process of decolonising the method and theory of religion, recognising that the colonial encounter and the theological, historical, and legal debates that arise are an intrinsic part of reflecting upon religion and all related terms (this is the origin of the “critical” part of the term). Dubuisson has recently argued for abandoning the term “religion” altogether: he is not seeking to dismiss the study of belief-systems (itself a category, of course), but argues that the term “religion” is now too contested to be useful. Whether the term “cosmographic formation” (his proposed alternative term) is any more legitimate or simply introduces further problematic categories, is an ongoing debate.17

Assessing the significance of beginnings is a particularly fertile avenue for exploration in this regard, such as the beginnings of a discourse, of an interaction, of a mode of thinking, of an origin myth. For instance, McCutcheon discusses the genealogy of origins, noting that scrutinising “our production of knowledge”18 is constitutive of how our knowledge is produced.19 He therefore urges us as scholars to keep our “eyes and ears on the storytellers, and the moves they make, and not get carried away by their tales.”20 Understanding the ways in which terms are used, and what is regarded as novel and important is vital to our processes of writing history: Edward Said describes this in some detail, and this is the basis for what I have above called “settled authorities”:

Every sort of writing establishes explicit and implicit rules of pertinence for itself: certain things are admissible, other are not. I call these rules of pertinence authority … The job of an initial meditation is to sketch this authority with regard to “beginnings” by allowing it to be set forth as clearly and in as much detail as possible … a subject like beginnings is more a structure than a history, but this structure cannot be immediately seen, named or grasped.21

Therefore, if we begin our study of preaching in the Middle East by starting just from a Western Christian male-dominated viewpoint as outlined above, it distorts the entire process of engagement. We should each be reflecting on our own positionality and re-imagining the ways in which alternative perspectives and discourses can shape what we do. This represents but a fraction of the wider topic, and it is in seeking to broaden these horizons—as the editors of this volume seek to do—that our own positionality becomes important, reflecting a need to listen and engage with alternative perspectives and play a part in trying to re-form a discourse. We are, in creating these histories, part of the creation of origins, and therefore an awareness of what it is that we are creating and the basis on which we are doing that creating, is vital, so that we do not ourselves get carried away (to use McCutcheon’s language) by our own storytelling. The remainder of this essay seeks to explore some of the ways in which this might be possible.

1 What “Adding” Perspectives Does, and What It Does Not Do—Is This Decolonisation?

The broadening of perspectives has immediate and self-evident consequences, as well as less obvious ones.

It is primarily about a process of decolonising discourse, recognising that in different forms, Christian missionaries and others have sought to persuade and convince others of their own positionality, articulated in multiple forms. The language used by scholars working on Christian missions in the Middle East has varied in describing this: for example, I have used ideas of (inter alia) inculturation and reculturation, and decolonisation—but many other forms of analysis have been used too.22 I want to call this the “addition model” for expanding our horizons.

Despite the clear successes of these approaches in broadening our views, the question of how we decolonise reflections on preaching and homiletics is deeply problematic. Firstly, it is clearly insufficient to simply “add” to the discourse when it remains framed as noted above, perhaps by discussing e.g. daʿwa with only a superficial reflection on the etymological and practical ways in which the term has been used. Our work is nowhere near complete if this is all we are doing, and whilst I am not suggesting this characterisation represents the work of scholars in this volume, I am sure that this pattern will be recognisable to many of us who have sought to engage with scholars of soi-disant “comparative religion” and related fields. Put very simplistically, for example, we might note that the term “preach”/“preacher” in the Qurʾan usually refers to the prophets sent by God, including Muhammad (pbuh), (as in, for example, Surah 5:19) and that daʿwa is in any case more often translated as “call” or “invitation”. Therefore, whilst adding the concept of daʿwa to a discussion on preaching has the potential to be of value, it can also often mislead. This is because it leaves the pre-conceived (Catholic or Protestant Christian) framing intact and suggests that what is at stake is not the framing itself, but the breadth of the framing. This would mean that homiletics as a discipline—that was developed in Christian terms—is simply one that others can fit into, and if the fit is not very smooth, then that means that the additions need to be adjusted so that they fit better, not that the framing needs adjusting. This, we might say, is a work of decolonisation, not of decolonising—in other words, it becomes a static process, rather than one that involves transitive and transformative actions and responses. This is precisely the problem that Critical Religion scholars have sought to address in thinking about the category of religion, but as is evident here, the questions raised in this way apply in other circumstances too.

I want to expand upon this a little more. The English terms decolonisation and decolonising are themselves noteworthy here, and we find similar terms in German (Entkolonialisierung and entkolonialisieren) and French (décolonisation and décoloniser). On the one hand, decolonisation is a noun, often denoting events that took place in the mid-twentieth century when European empires divested themselves, sometimes violently, sometimes less so, of their colonial possessions, giving rise to independent nation states throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Decolonisation is something that is done to people—it does not recognise indigenous agency and the achievements of independence; similarly, for example, attempts to engage in the “decolonisation of the curriculum” (as so many European and North American academic institutions like to be seen to be doing at the moment) is about something being done to the curriculum, often performatively rather than substantively, since the original scholarly framing often remains entirely intact: we might think here of the adding—or indeed removing—of certain authors from literature syllabi without further reflection on what the syllabi actually mean. On the other hand, decolonising is a verb indicating active participation: someone has to do this: for example, engage in decolonising a text, an idea, a theory—it is not in the past nor is it something that has had something done to it, but it is instead constantly in the process of being made afresh, of being transported into something new. Above all, decolonising is not a process that ever ends, but is something that we continually engage with and reflect upon, perpetually developing and transforming our understandings and our discourses (we might in this context reflect particularly upon Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding of the way in which scholarly exploration should also be self-reflective and involve “radical questioning”, as we continually recreate and develop discourse, in an awareness of the social space that we occupy as scholars23).

Therefore, important as it is to begin with a broadening of the framework and therefore expanding the list of those who are settled authorities, it is also clearly insufficient when thinking about a topic such as preaching in the Middle East.

In what follows, I explicitly want to explore ways of re-forming the framing itself, engaging in decolonising the discourse, rather than thinking it is done by engaging in decolonisation, understood as simply the addition of further voices. I will suggest below that there are several ways of seeing this both more broadly, and more precisely, and that the role we ourselves occupy in this process is critical to the endeavour.

2 Interrogating the Discourse Itself

In order to broaden the discourse, we need to change the focus of our scholarly research so that it addresses topics more openly and radically. For instance, we might already have started to think about questions such as these:

  • “what is preaching?”

  • “what is preaching in the Middle East in this period?”

  • “what is preaching to Jews/Muslims/Christians?”

  • “what is preaching by Jews/Muslims/Christians?”—and so on.

This is insufficient, however.

I am not saying that these are not important questions, because of course they are—not least because we need to understand what it is that we are trying to re-imagine. But these questions tend to reinforce the existing paradigms of enquiry—and the risk is that we find ourselves replicating the structures that the preachers themselves used and adhered to. We need to understand the participants’ framing, but in order to do that we need to ask why these questions are being asked, or perhaps, why these and not other questions also. In other words, as McCutcheon suggests, we need to watch the storytellers—whilst being aware that we too are the storytellers and so we need to be watched, indeed, we need to watch ourselves. That is perhaps the most important part of what decolonising the discourse around missions and preaching actually means, as will become clearer below.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, the idea of preaching, defined for so many of us as originating in homiletics, derives from a Christian understanding of a particular aspect of religion that is largely static. But preaching—and contemporary Christian homiletics acknowledges this too—is not an object, it is a relationship, at the very least between the preacher and the hearer, in the context of the wider relationship between God and humanity. Cocksworth and Brown (writing from an Anglican context) liken preaching to a conversation between the preacher and the hearer: “[a]s we get to know our hearers’ world … then we can help them to hear God and to hear their own voice in the conversation that the sermon brings.”24 If we understand a conversation as the basis of a relationship, we can see that understanding the developing interactions and conversations between different participants is vital to a fuller interpretation of the relationship involved, as well as the ways in which it changes (after all, every relationship involves movement and change25).

If we take our understandings of preaching a step back, seeing them as part of the wider problematic discourse of religion, we will want to ask how we approach these questions from a variety of perspectives. This does not mean simplistically reversing the dominant pattern of Western/non-Western thought (perhaps into a thought experiment such as Eastern/non-Eastern—this might remind us of Sadiq al-Azm’s “Orientalism in Reverse”26 or some interpretations of “Occidentalism”27). Quite aside from the futility of such an exercise, these terms a) are arguably now so broad as to be almost meaningless, so we might easily be diverted or distracted into the addition model of scholarly engagement that I criticised above, and b) ignore the Foucauldian power dynamics inherent in the relationships being discussed. Whilst we might, for example, recognise a broad “Western” dominance to a topic, that frequently breaks down as soon as we move into specificities. To use a very obvious example: I am writing this in my small semi-rural town in the north-east of Scotland looking out of my study window onto a church tower and towards snow-covered hills; this is part of “the West”, just as much as Rome, Amsterdam, New York and Seattle are—but the commonalities are limited, since “the West” is, of course, also a multiplicity of experiences and understandings.28 Sassoon discusses the problems of specificity and the notion that “the centre” (e.g. of “the West”) has nothing to learn since it is the centre,29 requiring us to understand that a “pre-condition for overturning the power relations constituted historically in any constellation of centre and periphery is to take the measure of our ‘otherness’, of our specificity.”30

Acknowledging the importance of the power dynamic in a centre-periphery context is a key element in reflecting on the relationship involved. As just noted, inverting the dynamic is insufficient, rather we need to reflect on the way in which both are constitutive of each other, with the centre and periphery both being participants in a changing relationship. I have argued elsewhere that Foucault’s heterotopias offer a useful way of reflecting on this issue in mission contexts, allowing for other questions, such as gender and the agency of the periphery, to be appropriately recognised in the relationship being addressed.31 That is something that I am seeking to develop further here.

When reflecting upon the question of relationships, we therefore need to reflect upon the ways in which colonialist discourses have been formed, so that we can interrogate these more appropriately. Richard King references Rosalind O’Hanlon in arguing that colonialist discourse about India involved a power dynamic of three parties: “(1) the Orientalist scholar, (2) the native informant and (3) those others among the colonized unable to represent themselves, and, therefore, reliant upon (2) for representation.”32 This automatically leads to an instability in classical Orientalist discourses.

However, even if we accept the breadth of understanding that informs a common basis for an approach to key issues—and I am not, of course, denying that these exist, or that “Western thought” and practice has resulted in colonial and imperial aggression and subsequent ongoing resistance and conflict—it is nonetheless increasingly problematic to try and rely on such simplifying and simplistic framings. Two elements are needed, I would argue. Firstly, a diversity of approach: we “need to diversify our ways of working: to combine traditional, academic, disciplinary modes …”33—this is something that this volume exemplifies. Secondly, we should also seek to understand the diversity of perspectives that then inform the relationship of what religion might be, and therefore also what preaching might be, preaching being primarily about relationships, as argued above.

A key aspect of thinking about “religion” from a Critical Religion perspective as outlined above is to reflect on the relationship with its other: if we define something as religious, how do we know what the non-religious is? By defining something as religious or not, we are ascribing a certain value to it—as well as layering it in a multitude of contradictory meanings that are deeply connected to imperial and colonial enterprises.34 In a Christian mission context, we can see numerous records of missionaries’ views of different societies: the London Missionary Society, for example, sent more educated staff to China and less educated staff to Africa, because Chinese culture was regarded as more advanced (and so closer to European civilisation), requiring more sophisticated measures of engagement and argument.35 The Middle East (often differentiated, in order: Oriental Christian, Jewish, Muslim) was often regarded as on a par with China or just below it in terms of cultural sophistication, as we can see from the extensive language and other requirements specified for many missionaries. For example: Scots were recommended to be able to at least use and in some cases be fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, German, Italian, Judeo-Spanish (for conversing with the Sephardim) and Judeo-Polish (presumably a form of Yiddish, for communicating with Jews from Europe), and “a knowledge of Chaldee and Syriac would also be very useful …”36—a list of the almost-impossible, but it points to certain expectations of cultural sophistication. This also directs us to varying understandings about religion: put somewhat simplistically, Christian missionaries to China and the Middle East wanted to learn and understand the culture, and as they saw it, “the religion” of the regions they were in, even if they knew “the religion” to be false and needing to be replaced by their particular version of Christian belief. In much of the African context, however, local peoples were assumed to have at best just a primitive culture, if it could even be called a culture at all, and although in missionary eyes such cultures and religious understandings were obviously false too, it was not of a level of sophistication with European norms, and required a different approach. Either way, to reuse Walls for these contexts: “… the previous system of ideas … had to be penetrated, invaded, brought into relation with the word about Christ …”37

But this penetration, this invasion, this effort at relating to Christ presumes similarities that are not necessarily there: understandings of what is religious and what is not varied enormously in different cultural contexts, and missionaries’ racist assumptions about cultural sophistication are no basis for our contemporary understandings—so when engaging with these sources, we need constantly to be aware of the danger of aligning ourselves with their assumptions. In particular, we might want to reflect on King’s observations noted above regarding the ways in which local actors’ voices might be heard, and think also more broadly about reading against the grain of texts, as Gayatri Spivak encourages, radically re-reading questions of representation.38 I therefore want to move on to suggest how these questions might be more appropriately addressed, picking up on these theoretical approaches, and drawing attention to our own positionality in all of these questions.

3 Avenues for Rethinking Our Framing

In rethinking what it is that we identify as “religious” discourse in different material and spatial settings, and how might we approach these questions, we will find also that our understandings of missions, mission history and the study of preaching change too. I want to make some suggestions for ways of thinking about these issues, and raise some of the questions we might like to ask, also offering some thoughts regarding possible next steps.

3.1 Preaching—and Not-Preaching

To begin with, if we accept that there is a viable discourse to be pursued around the idea of religion and not-religion, using the intellectual paradigm of Critical Religion outlined above, then we might also do the same about the category of preaching. Reflecting on the question of what “religion” is and is not (and recognising that these distinctions are often not based on anything other than an expression of power) can lead us to think about similar questions in other areas, including preaching. There is a broad assumption (originating in Western Christian thought) about what preaching might be, from Alain de Lille’s description onwards, though in many mission contexts we find examples of this understanding being considerably expanded to cover almost all activity that a missionary might pursue; I offer some examples of this below. But these then lead to the obvious question: if almost all missionary activity becomes a form of preaching, what is not-preaching? Whilst missions in the Middle East were often somewhat circumscribed in their ability to engage in preaching,39 and at times had it defined for them by others (the Sublime Porte tried to do so, for example40), the boundaries were often blurry—and this confusion was also actively fostered by the protagonists themselves. Let us look at one example; there will be many others.

For Scottish missionaries in the Middle East, we find clear patterns of what we might describe as classical preaching: in church services, in morning prayers in missionary hospitals, and so on. For example, an 1894 report describes classical preaching and teaching: “a short service, with an address and prayer … held … in the waiting-room each dispensary day before the medical work is commenced, and also on Sunday an Arabic service.”41 This same text goes on to explain that visits are made to each patient as they await treatment, and “All our agents … try to be living Gospels, using all suitable occasions in conversation with individuals to minister to the soul, and it is in connection with this personal dealing that we look for most fruit [i.e. more converts].”42

We see here the idea of public discourse, but we also see staff engaging with individual patients.43 Clearly then, the missionaries are speaking to and with local people in different ways, seeking, as Walls puts it, to penetrate and invade existing understandings, and relate people to Christ—a form of direct confrontation with the Christian message. Of the three main methods of Western missionary endeavour in this period—confrontation, education, medicine44—we see here one way in which the provision of medicine could be used as an inroad to facilitate confrontation with the Christian message.

But if this is preaching, what is not-preaching? These missionaries were convinced, after all, that they could communicate the gospel message in other ways, often through social services such as education and medicine. It is important to note that these were seen in this way not just when these were used as opportunities enabling direct confrontation, but that it was the provision of these services in and of themselves that was also seen as a form of preaching. The Scots, for example, spoke about their medical work as a form of communicating the Christian gospel, drawing an analogy for their Tiberias hospital with the Biblical conception of the house of God, “Bethel” (Gen 35:15):

Our Tiberias hospital is a wonder and a joy to the Galileans when in sickness. In contrast with their squalid huts and tents, its sweetness and cleanness, its pervading atmosphere of Christian love in that loveless land, its power to bless, and its abundance, seem to them scarcely to belong to this world. Under its roof they feel as if they were in the Paradise of God. To them it is a real Bethel.45

The mere existence of the hospital appears to be a kind of preaching, so how do we identify what preaching actually is? This can only be answered for each specific context—but it also raises more questions. Because defining the term itself is a profoundly contextual question, it makes broadening our perspectives so much more important. If we can reframe our further understandings of preaching to include not-preaching and an understanding of the distinctions being made, we will already be doing so much more than simply pursuing the addition model described above. This becomes an active process, and one that has the potential to be about decolonising the language of preaching (in the next section I highlight examples of the ways in which Muslim, Jewish, and Christian preaching and teaching became intertwined, for example). Therefore, when exploring the specifics of preaching engagement in various fields, we are re-engaging with conceptions and practices that for many of the participants were self-evident, but that can speak to us of particular kinds of interactions that determined relationships and modes of reflection on numerous levels. Our understanding of levels of participation on the preaching/not-preaching spectrum becomes wider and more nuanced, and discerning the nature of these relationships is key to a postcolonial process that moves beyond the addition model. It is therefore to questions about participants and participation that I now turn, examining the human relationships involved in preaching for and amongst Christians, Muslims and Jews.

3.2 Participants and Participation

If, as I suggested above, preaching is about relationships, understood both as a form of power dynamic and as a way for interlocutors to engage, a key question becomes: who is part of that relationship? This question is of importance whether we use a more narrow Christian homiletics perspective, or a broader understanding that includes, for example, Jewish and Muslim preaching. I want to suggest that we should be thinking very broadly about this question. This, classically, is where mission and colonial historians have identified a space of negotiation and interaction, and have then explored the nuances and complexities of such spaces (and I include my own work in this), using concepts such as inculturation/reculturation, friendship, transcultural dialogue, and so on to describe the spaces and their usage. This negotiation took different forms depending upon the context and perspective being discussed. For example, in terms of broad Muslim reactions to Christian influence in the Ottoman Empire, Goddard notes that extreme reactions of both imitation and rejection of many Western practices were clearly identifiable, as well as reactions that were more “intermediate” between these two extremes.46 We can also observe the regularisation of Muslim preachers and missionaries by the Ottomans in the Hamidian era, with religious teachers being used as “a sort of religious secret police-cum-missionary organization whose religious training and credentials would be determined by the centre.”47 By 1892, this involved four years of study and a formal diploma, with preachers then sent out to the provinces to engage in orthodox teaching. A corresponding aspect to this was the ardent pursuit of heretical teaching and rejection of what might be termed adherence to ‘folk-Islam’, where “ ‘the Islam of the local population … consists of nothing more than something they inherited from their ancestors.’ ”48 Such actions took place across the Ottoman Empire, whether in the further reaches of its territories such as Yemen, or at the heart of the Empire in Anatolia.

There are, I would suggest, four broad categories of participant that are traditionally, and in varied measure, the subject of missionary and preaching research. I then want to suggest that there is a fifth category that also requires our attention.

Firstly, there is the preacher. Studies of preaching have often focused much of their attention on preachers and their intentions, but as this volume shows, preaching served multiple purposes, and this opens space for further nuance of the framing. We can trace different Muslim, Jewish and Christian responses here, that follow a line between preaching and school teaching (and not-preaching?), and in so doing highlight the difficulty with attempts to engage in direct comparability and assumptions of the homogeneity of language and terminology:

  • In Christian missionary contexts we find that preaching was perhaps most often to those who had already converted, and it was intended to educate and encourage them in their new-found faith, as well as to prevent them lapsing into their old ways, or succumbing to new teachings from other sources.

  • Muslim preachers performed a related role to this, albeit on behalf of the Sublime Porte, enforcing orthodoxy and ensuring “a consciousness of the honour of being Muslim” in order to stop them being “duped by missionaries and Jesuits who are out to deceive them”49 as well as ensuring on-going loyalty to the Porte. This happened through the creation of mosques and schools in more settled areas that were staffed by centrally-approved individuals who could be relied upon to communicate the appropriate messages. Therefore, as well as being an attempt to strengthen the existing established Sunni order on terms specified by the Sultan, these missionaries were also a preventative measure so that those deemed most at risk of conversion to other traditions and practices due to the influx of new ideas from e.g. Western Christians did not do so.

  • In a different way, we can see similar patterns in the work of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU): although its work was directed to Jews, particularly in the field of education (they operated 34 schools in 1880, expanding to 134 by 1907, catering to 40,000 pupils across the Middle East50), the key emphasis was upon a modern French-style education for Jews that did not pay much regard to the traditions of historical Jewish practice in the Middle East.51 This led to criticisms from many quarters, including secular Zionists, who thought the curricula was “seriously lacking in authentic Jewish content” and did not approve of the “essentially non-Jewish spirit in which they were run.”52 The emphasis in the teaching in the AIU schools was more on the communication of French cultural norms than on a restoration of some halcyon state of religiously-infused historically-determined identity, as the Porte was seeking to do through its own missionaries, or the Christian missionaries were wanting to do in their work.

  • In this abbreviated summary of moves from preaching to teaching, we can contrast the intentions of both the Sublime Porte and the AIU with Christian mission schools; the latter were often seen as a way of communicating cultural norms and seeking inroads into families with the (very) long-term ambition of seeking conversion to Christianity of both Jews and eventually even Muslims too (this latter was, of course, strictly forbidden, but whilst the missionaries always argued in relation to the Porte that they were not seeking to convert Muslims, communications with their own supporters clearly show that they hoped the long-term impact of their work would result in such changes; we need always to be aware of the long timescales that underpinned the work of Christian missionaries).53

Note that even in this short exemplar over four bullet points, the problems with the “addition model” are apparent, as terms such as “mission”, “preaching”, and “teaching” can take on very different meanings in each case, sometimes overlapping and meaning almost the same thing, and at other times pointing to quite different kinds of engagement. It is therefore clear that there is a need for a different approach if meaningful understandings and comparisons are to take place.

For European and North American Christian missions we should also not underestimate the role of preaching for the missionaries themselves: often a lead missionary would preach on a regular basis to support and comfort those who had been sent far from home to the mission, and this was part of how they would have constructed their weekly routine: a Sunday church visit, with an order of service that they were familiar with: hymns, readings and a sermon, and depending on the denomination, more or less frequent Eucharist/Holy Communion.

Whilst the discipline of homiletics has traditionally been dominated by men, women play a key role in Christian and other missions,54 with numerous scholarly examinations in recent decades of the role of women in Middle Eastern and other missions. Most of these women would not have had a classical theological training in the way that many of the missionary men might have had, but they would have engaged in forms of preaching with similar fervour. The framework that they operated within was very similar to that of the men, of course, as this dialogue between Miss Faris, a Biblewoman,55 and a Bedouin woman shows:

“Are you a sinner?”—“No,” indignantly, “I am not a sinner.”
“Do you tell lies?”—“Sometimes.”
“Do you curse?”—“Yes, many times.”
“Swear?”—“Very often.”
“Steal?”—“Well, sometimes—olives.”
“Hate? quarrel?”—“Oh yes, very often.”
“Well, all that is sin.”—“That is sin?”
“Yes; now are you not a sinner?”—“God knows!”56

Whilst the role of women is gradually being more frequently recognised, the study of local mission preachers—who were often local converts—is often still under-researched, though this is also changing.57 There are several prominent examples of converts who worked for missions, but the availability of sources can become an issue. For instance, I have written a little about John Wortabet (1827–1908), a Syrian convert to the American Beirut mission, where he was ordained in 1853 (his father was an Armenian priest, so the conversion was from one Christian tradition to another).58 He was employed by a Scottish denomination (the United Presbyterian Church) on astonishing terms for the time: he demanded, and received, equal pay to European colleagues, a move that the American missionaries strongly objected to.59 Wortabet did not stay with the Scots for long and, as is well-known, went on to a more illustrious career, but the problem for many histories of such individuals is the reliance on Western sources: all the information I have described here comes from Scottish church sources. Identifying other perspectives is gradually happening, but this is an area that would benefit from more attention—as some of the essays here offer.60

Secondly, related to this first category of preachers, certainly for Western Christian missionaries, is the role of the translator and/or interpreter. This would often be a convert too, who may have gone through missionary schooling systems and therefore learnt the relevant language (often English or French). In opening new missions, relying upon interpreters would be essential, and whilst most missionaries recognised the importance of communicating in the local language and so would try to learn it as quickly as possible, it would not always happen: William Carslaw worked in Shweir, Lebanon, for three decades for the Scots and later the Americans, and as far as can be ascertained, never stopped using an interpreter for his preaching.61 The role of an interpreter is clearly pivotal: as Walls noted above, from the first Jewish Christians opening the Greek and Roman world to the gospel message as recorded in the New Testament, the translation of key terminology and ideas has been vital for the way in which the gospel has been communicated (or penetrated, invaded, related to Christ).

This raises interesting questions in the Middle Eastern context. For example, the Qurʾan explicitly states that believers should not say “ ‘Three’ … God is only one God.” (Surah 4:171), making the job of an interpreter seeking to explain the Christian concept of the Trinity, of God in Three Persons, particularly challenging; of course Jews would find this and other ideas difficult too, as it easily suggests polytheism.62 The ingenuity and wisdom of interpreters and translators is therefore almost certainly well out of proportion to their neglected role in missionary accounts: no matter what a missionary might seek to convey, it would be down to the skill of the interpreter to offer meaning to locals. Perhaps we might even say that Walls’ comment about the gospel and the context being “brought into relation” pointed primarily to interpreters and translators, and not the missionaries themselves. Although their skills would likely have been highly valued by the Westerners, the missionary sources tend to ignore these individuals altogether (I could not identify the name of even one of Carslaw’s interpreters in any of the Scottish or American church records that discuss the mission). The presumption also tends to be that interpreters would always have been male, but given that we rarely know the identity of any of these key individuals, we cannot know if that was indeed the case.

Of course, sometimes the translations on offer were banal in their simplicity: there are Scottish records of hymns being translated into Arabic (including “What a friend we have in Jesus” and similar63). The missionaries also noted another popular hymn, “I need thee every hour”, that was “rendered into Arabic, and set to the same tune to which it is set in Sankey’s collection.”64 For anyone who knows the style of music that Moody and Sankey produced, the thought of that, in Arabic, on the shore of Lake Galilee is interesting, to say the least. There was clearly no attempt here to use music that might have been more familiar to locals: clearly it was not only the theology expressed in words that was being imported from the Christian Western context, but Western melodies and rhythms too.65 Questions about the ways in which the relationship between the missionaries and the (putative) converts might be understood here appear to indicate a very clear sense of colonial-inspired superiority.

Thirdly, we come to the congregation or the audience—these are, after all, the targets of preaching and missionary work—or at least, the apparent targets; many of us working in the field have sought to expand upon this, but it is not always a straightforward task, and the understandings of audience agency are multitudinous and complex. Very often, we must read against the grain, ascertain what is written between the lines, to probe and reverse-read texts we encounter. For instance, there are at least two possible readings of the following vignette describing an 1839 encounter between an unnamed Sidon Jew and a Scottish missionary he had invited into his home:

After some preliminary questions, the Hebrew Bible was produced, and the first part of Ezekiel xxxvii. read, from which Mr M. shewed him his state by nature. He seemed a little offended, yet not wanting to shew it in his own house, tried to change the subject of discourse, and offered coffee.66

The first reading, and one that the authors clearly intended to convey given the wider context of their accounts, is about the resistance the Christian message faced when speaking with Jews. However, we can also read the text in such a way as to see clear agency: the Jewish man was being welcoming to the Scottish traveller, Mr McCheyne, only to be confronted with a critique of his world-view. Whilst the Scottish writer noted that he seemed ‘a little offended’ by this, he was nonetheless a gracious host. In other words: the Jewish man took control of the situation, turned the conversation to an area that he was more comfortable with, and then offered hospitality on his own terms. His rejection of the Scottish missionary’s effort was clear, and whilst the account was clearly intended to demonstrate one of the challenges of converting Jews, the text can also easily be read as demonstrating Jewish agency in the encounter with the Christian missionary.

This leads me to the fourth category of participant: those who were not present, who did not participate in the audience, who did not attend the mosque, church or school, but who were nonetheless participants. These people were perhaps the ultimate targets of all preaching and mission work, as they were the ones least likely to convert or return to the established position being represented by the preacher (we might think of the Ottoman missionaries, for example67). Of course, little attention is generally given to such individuals, again because they tend not to appear directly in many records, but we can often discern such individuals and communities indirectly, and certainly the preachers and missionaries would have been well aware of them. For instance, Deringil gives numerous examples of such groups, whether these be distant Yezidi Kurds or others right at the heart of the Ottoman Empire.68

Then we can also point to the parents of children attending Christian mission schools and reflect on how the parents and children reacted to different educational offerings. The reasons for attending these mission schools were many and varied, but the relationship to Christian, Jewish and Muslim institutions often centred on certain key factors, amongst which we can note the following:

  1. the availability of schools, especially for girls—in many areas, especially in more rural contexts, there were fewer schools, and so any kind of school might have been preferable to none at all; but it is notable that the number of Jewish children attending Christian mission schools dropped precipitously once Jewish schools in Palestine proliferated in the later nineteenth century due to the work of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and later still when more Jewish schools were created as the parallel Zionist state structure emerged under British Mandate rule—we could characterise this as Jewish missions competing (usually successfully) with Christian missions;

  2. related to this, the quality of the schools available was a factor for many: Deringil describes the ways in which the Sublime Porte sought to improve the quality of the schools under Ottoman control as a direct attempt to counter the influence of Christian missionaries.69 The teaching of European languages was a key factor in this (including, significantly, which European language was taught, a contested issue in many educational settings regardless of the background of the school70), and made European mission schools particularly attractive to many parents until viable alternatives began to emerge. Deringil described this conflict as “nothing less than ideological war, a war that challenged the very basis of Ottoman legitimacy among Christian and Muslim”71—and all parties were very aware of this.72

These two key factors serve here simply as examples in determining school attendance, pointing to clear agency on the part of parents and children in responding to the various “missionary efforts” from Christian, Jewish or Muslim authorities. When parents thought that their children would benefit in a concrete way from the education on offer they were willing to risk a possible inclination towards Western Christian thought rather than deprive their children of an education altogether, but they often moved their children as soon as a better Jewish or Muslim offering became available, as the Scots recorded with frustration when e.g. AIU schools opened in the area.73 These were calculated moves by the parents of children in Scottish schools, that demonstrate their agency in the dynamic relationship between the missionaries and the target audiences, though the Christian missionaries usually failed to see it as this, hoping always that the involvement of the children would eventually perhaps lead to the conversion of the parents.74

4 Conclusions—the Fifth Participant’s Position

These latter reflections on preaching will not necessarily be new to scholars of mission history, but the key point I wish to highlight here is the significance of alternative readings, whether this be an exploration of non-Western sources, reading sources against the grain, or similar. As I have sought to argue above, this cannot be based upon a static decolonisation process (e.g. based on an “addition model”), but rather involves an active process of decolonising the discourse we are an intrinsic part of—a process that has no end, but has definite waymarkers that we can use to further understand our own engagement in the discourse (for example, by reflecting on the categories involved—e.g. preaching and not-preaching—in the interactions we are studying, re-contextualising participants, and so on). To think about this another way, we might say that this is the difference between a story and story-telling, the latter emphasising “the social process rather than the product of narrative activity.”75 Even if the only sources available to us are by or from those leading the missionary effort of preaching from Christian, Jewish, or Muslim contexts, there is still much that can be gained from them, provided we read them appropriately, discerning aspects of the conversations and relationships that underpin them. More than this, understanding participation, materiality, spaces and questions of power necessitates an intersectional approach, as indicated at the very beginning of this essay (returning to Phipps’ trio of heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism and colonialism, we need to address all three simultaneously and understand their interconnectivity for our work to be truly intersectional76). Our own role is therefore important here in several different ways, because only then can we understand the breadth and depth of mission activity, and specifically of preaching, regardless of the setting and the context of the activity we are studying.

It is in this understanding and reframing of our category of preaching that we of necessity engage in the telling of multiple stories,77 and in comparative, historical, social, anthropological, phenomenological and even speculative approaches we can discern the continual re-framing of preaching and not-preaching. This involves not just using the addition model of research, whereby we add Muslim and Jewish patterns of preaching to a pre-existing (white, European, male-dominated) Christian framing, but rather we become part of reshaping the framework altogether, in order to form something new—this moves us beyond an act of decolonisation and towards a continual engagement in the process of decolonising.

This, then, highlights the key role that we play today in this context. We are the fifth group of participants in the preaching context, beyond the preachers, translators, audiences, and non-participants. McCutcheon says we need to watch the storytellers but, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and so many more remind us, this includes us, for in our discussions we are the ones telling the stories. Spivak shows how relationships to texts change when thinking about her own work on French feminist texts. She does this by reflecting on her own positionality in relation to the subject—one of the points that I sought to highlight at the beginning of this essay. Her summary of the changing patterns of discourse and her relationship to the texts demonstrates acute self-awareness:

When I wrote “French Feminism in an International Frame” my assigned subject-position was actually determined by my moment in the United States and dominated my apparent choice of a postcolonial position … Now it seems to me that the radical element of the postcolonial bourgeoisie must most specifically learn to negotiate with the structure of enabling violence that produced her …

My question has sharpened: How does the postcolonial feminist negotiate with the metropolitan feminist? I have placed three classic texts of French feminism before an activist text of Algerian feminism … I imagine a sympathy with Marie-Aimée Hélie-Lucas’s subject position … She too is revising an earlier position … And I, a non-Islamic Indian postcolonial, use her to revise my reading of French feminism.78

There is continual movement in Spivak’s writing, reflecting on statements made, on positions taken, that highlight her changing positionality throughout her work over many years. In a similar way, we need to be cognisant of our positionality in our own work, for we are creating narratives, not always linear, not always consistent, not always complete—but always with a telos, an ultimate purpose. As historians or historical anthropologists we assemble information and draw conclusions, but we are not impartial observers, and never have been. Nearly 30 years ago David Richards noted that the “subjects of anthropology are no longer mute, or speaking subjects only, but writing presences making their own representations independently from or in defiance of their anthropological representations”79—and the same can be said for historical figures in mission contexts, widely understood.

We therefore need to understand our own role in questions around preaching: Sara Ahmed addresses the ways in which we are situated in space and time, taking shape as we move through the world. How we orient ourselves towards one object or another (or, I would suggest, one text or another) determines who we become and how we tell stories. Ahmed argues that we need to allow queerness to disrupt, challenge, rearrange the relationships between objects: “Orientations are about how we begin; how we proceed from ‘here,’ which affects how ‘there’ appears, how it presents itself.”80 This disruption also changes how we understand missions and preaching, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian.

This, then, is why a deliberate positioning of ourselves is important. My own background, as elucidated at the beginning of this essay, plays a role in how I understand the “here” and the “there”, how I understand my own place in relation to these specific texts and objects, and what it is that I make of them. I therefore myself become a participant in the preaching and not-preaching, not just a neutral observer of historical record. Instead, I am taking on a role: victim/perpetrator/bystander perhaps, to use the terms most commonly ascribed to individuals in contexts of injustice. In the period under consideration here, there certainly were injustices—and my primary subjects of study, Scottish missionaries, were clearly a part of that: they played a key role in perpetrating wider British colonial and imperial ambitions throughout the Middle East, alongside many others.81 Although many missionaries were not necessarily enthusiastic perpetrators of imperialism, they benefitted from the contexts that imperial power projections created—and were therefore perhaps what Michael Rothberg has called “implicated subjects.” By this he means that they were not just “cogs” in the machine, but “ ‘transmission belts’ of domination” playing a more active role than the suggestion of a “cog” in a machine implies. Rothberg goes on to argue that “individual subjects matter, but … they become more effective agents—for good or ill—primarily by acting in concert with others”82 and in the mission context this connection becomes quite clear. We can interpret the missionaries’ activities in this light, for example: much Muslim, Christian, and Jewish preaching brought further discord into the Middle East as divisions between communities became more accentuated, something that was already being fostered by imperial actions centred on division, control, and exploitation.

The idea of “acting in concert with others” also applies to us. We are the storytellers that today immortalise the memory of preachers and their targets. Awareness of our own positionality is therefore key to understanding the ways in which we relate to the stories we are seeking to tell here: to use Ahmed’s terms, we need to be aware of our “here” (e.g. our engagement with the texts) so that we can better understand how we get to “there” (a story about Jewish, Christian or Muslim preaching that we are wanting to tell). For that, we must watch our own storytelling, as McCutcheon and Spivak remind us. It is in telling the story that we become participants in the missionaries’ and preachers’ work. The novelist Christa Wolf argues story-telling is “a process which continuously runs alongside life, helping to shape and interpret it: writing can be seen as a way of being more intensely involved in the world”83 and as such, it is also a collective enterprise. We might write and research on a particular theme or area, but we are doing so in a discourse and a framing that is set by others, including the preachers of the past that we are seeking to understand:

We depend on others and are formed by others as we learn from them and engage in debate with them. Whereas the actual production may be in an individual form, and the specific content the result of individual insights and creativity, that work is always the product of a particular history and culture, and it always intervenes in a specific preconstituted space or spaces and connects with some aspects and not others.84

Sassoon argues that we need to allow a wider range of sources to impact upon us, including “our own experiences, thinking and reflections”85 and not just the classical sources that we might encounter in scholarly contexts. This might seem in some form somewhat unscholarly, but it is about recognising the positionality we have as authors, seeking to build a relationship with preachers and missionaries of the past. All relationships of necessity involve some form of giving of ourselves/our selves, and we need to acknowledge this in the development of a relationship in historical preaching contexts.

There is, of course, a difference between storytelling and the telling of a tale. Telling a tale, as a form of hagiography, is about retelling in the pattern that the preachers originally created86—and that simply perpetuates the existing discourse, making us “implicated subjects” (in Rothberg’s terms). Even retelling with further and broader perspectives (i.e. using the “addition model”) is insufficient in telling a story as it is not a meaningful process of actively decolonising our work, simply because it fails to recognise our own role vis-à-vis the missionaries, preachers, and their putative audiences. Rather we need to understand our own positionality and role in the missions as the “fifth participants” in the narrative we are working on. This is not to make the narrative about us, but to give voice to those we are seeking to understand, as Spivak puts it in describing feminist responses to depicting women:

I should not … patronize and romanticize these women, nor yet entertain a nostalgia for being as they are. The academic feminist must learn to learn from them, to speak to them, to suspect that their access to the political and sexual scene is not merely to be corrected by our superior theory and enlightened compassion.87

As scholars, we have a role, Spivak goes on to argue:

The pioneering books that bring First World feminists news from the Third World are written by privileged informants and can only be deciphered by a trained readership. The distance between “the informant’s world,” her “own sense of the world she writes about,” and that of the non-specialist feminist is so great that, paradoxically, pace the subtleties of reader-response theories, here the distinctions might easily be missed.88

As a “trained readership” we need to reflect on how this might happen in our work. Spivak argues that postcolonial feminists need to ask multiple questions, and these questions, I want to argue, can be adapted and apply to our contexts too:

However unfeasible and inefficient it may sound, I see no way to avoid insisting that there has to be a simultaneous other focus: not merely who am I? but who is the other woman? How am I naming her? How does she name me? Is this part of the problematic I discuss?89

The focus then, is not merely who am I? but who is the preacher/translator/congregation/non-participant? How am I naming them? How do they name me? Is this part of the problematic I discuss? My purpose here has been to argue that these are precisely the kinds of additional questions that we need to be asking, that as storytellers with a clear positionality, decolonising our work involves turning to these issues.

Ultimately, this is why it is not enough to use an “addition model” for describing the multiplicity and variety of perspectives of preaching in the Middle East, and it is why we need to reframe the entire discourse that we are seeking simultaneously to portray. Although I began this essay by seeking to emphasise the importance of our own positionality, the questions we need to ask are not primarily about us: we do, however, need an awareness of our own positionality in order to be able to ask the correct and appropriate questions, to better understand the positionality of those historical figures we are in dialogue with. Others will, in time perhaps, understand our discourse with the historical figures we are examining as a historical moment in and of itself, highlighting our relationship to the figures we now regard as historical. Understanding that we are historical too (albeit: in the future) involves a conscious reckoning of both our own positionality and the ways in which a preacher in the Middle East might relate to it. This is therefore the beginning of a discourse that more truly reflects how we engage in a decolonising process, one that does justice to all the participants in a preaching relationship.


The Free Church of Scotland records are held at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh:

Free Church of Scotland. General Assembly/Jewish Mission Committee, 1894: 26–27.

Free Church of Scotland. Monthly and Missionary Record, 1.3.1887: 74.

Free Church of Scotland. Monthly and Missionary Record, 2.1.1898: 9.


This is often described as the first formal definition of preaching: John Drane and Olivia M. Fleming Drane, “Worship and Preaching,” in This is Our Story: Free Church Women’s History, ed. Janet Wootton (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2007, 2012), 54.


The term has changed usage over time; for a succinct summary, and pointer to the meaning now most commonly used, see, for example, the introductory chapter in David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991, 2011), 1–2 and 9–11.


Jan A.B. Jongeneel. Philosophy, Science, and Theology of Mission in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Part II (Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1997), pp. 267 ff. (section 5.4.8).


Andrew F. Walls, “Culture and Conversion in Christian History,” in Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll/Edinburgh: Orbis/T&T Clark, 1996), 52–53. The essay on “The Translation Principle in Christian History” in the same volume (26–42) is also worth exploring here.


Lynne Weber, Understanding race, class, gender, and sexuality: a conceptual framework (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6.


Alison Phipps, Me, Not You. The trouble with mainstream feminism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020), 7.


This picks up on a broadly Protestant understanding of the function of “sending”, as Jongeneel discusses (59 ff.), highlighting the shift from missions (e.g. missio Dei, missio Christi, missio ecclesiae, missio hominum etc.) to mission (with reference to e.g. Stephen Neill and citing David J. Bosch: ‘missionary activities are only authentic insofar as they reflect participation in the mission of God’ (61)). Such understandings are based on contemporary scholarship and interpretations of the activities of historical figures. Philosophy, Science, and Theology of Mission in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Part I (Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1995).


As Selim Deringil put it in reference to the 1839 Tanzimat and 1856 Reform rescripts, ‘the Ottomans interpreted “freedom of religion” as “the freedom to defend their religion” ’ not as the freedom to convert or change from Islam, and was later laid down in those terms in the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. The Well-Protected Domains: Ideology and the Legitimation of Power in the Ottoman Empire, 1876–1909 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1998), 115.


Sidney Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 160.


The Capitulations (or concessions) developed from a first agreement between the Ottomans and the French in 1536 regulating trade and taxes, whilst granting extraterritorial privileges to French nationals. Although initially broadly equal, later Capitulations gave ever more authority to the European powers, including rights over particular religious communities. Numerous descriptions of the Capitulations are available, a brief introduction can be found in William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004, 3rd edition), 50, 59.


Of course, I am very aware that these broad brush strokes over-simplify a complex of inter-related issues, but I am simply seeking to offer a basic outline of the situation here; Griffith and numerous other scholars offer considerably more detail and nuance.


An overview of some key approaches by a number of these and other scholars, including myself, has recently been published: Melanie Barbato, Cameron Montgomery, Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan (eds.), Critical Religion Reader (Studio Dreamshare Press, 2020, Open Access, available as a free eBook: https://books2read.com/u/49MGg8; a print version is also available).


Arguably, many of the categories we use to define and analyse human behaviour, such as “politics” or “economics”, etc. are not universal, but have a similar lineage to conceptions of “religion”—though that need not detain us further here.


Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.


Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.


Daniel Dubuisson, The Invention of Religions, Sheffield: Equinox, 2019.


Russell T. McCutcheon, “A Genealogy of the Past: Writing a History of Origins,” in Fabricating Origins, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (Sheffield: Equinox, 2015), 72.


Michael Marten, “On Knowing, Knowing Well and Knowing Differently: Historicising Scottish Missions in 19th and Early 20th Century Palestine,” in Transnational and Historical Perspectives on Global Health, Welfare and Humanitarianism, eds. E. Fleischmann, S. Grypma, M. Marten, I.M. Okkenhaug (Kristiansand: Portal Books, 2013): 210–238.


McCutcheon, “Genealogy,” 73.


Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Basic Books, 1975), 16.


Examples of recent work developing alternative perspectives might include, amongst others: Julia Hauser, Christine B. Lindner, Esther Möller, Entangled Education. Foreign and Local Schools in Ottoman Syria and Mandate Lebanon (19–20th Centuries) (Beirut/Würzburg: Orient Institut/Ergon, 2016); Bernard Heyberger, Hindiyya, Mystic and Criminal, 1720–1798. A Political and Religious Crisis in Lebanon, trans. Renée Champion (London: James Clarke, 2013); Roland Löffler, Protestanten in Palästina. Religionspolitik, Sozialer Protestantismus und Mission in den deutschen evangelischen und anglikanischen Institutionen des Heiligen Landes 1917–1939 (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2008); Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (New York: Cornell University Press, 2008); Inger Marie Okkenhaug, The Quality of Heroic Living, of High Endeavour and Adventure. Anglican Mission, Women and Education in Palestine, 1888–1948 (Leiden: Brill, 2002); Karène Sanchez, Jerusalem: Politiques, Education et Identités linguistiques. Le collège des Frères des écoles chrétiennes de Jérusalem (1922–1939) (Utrecht: Lot, 2009); Heather Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Maria Småberg, Ambivalent Friendship: Anglican Conflict Handling and Education for Peace in Jerusalem 1920–1948 (Lund: Lund University, 2005); Nancy Stockdale, Colonial Encounters among English and Palestinian Women, 1800–1948 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007); Deanna Ferree Womack, Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance in Late Ottoman Syria (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020); Uta Zeuge-Buberl, Die Mission des American Board in Syrien im 19. Jahrhundert. Implikationen eines transkulturellen Dialogs (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016).


Pierre Bourdieu, Homo academicus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 30; but see more broadly the discussion in the second chapter on ‘The Conflict of the Faculties’ for a development of some of these issues.


Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Being a Priest Today (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006, second edition): 93. See also Christopher Cocksworth, Holding Together (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008), 22–53, and John Barton, People of the Book. The Authority of the Bible in Christianity (London: SPCK, 1988), 59–79. Nicholas Taylor, Lay Presidency at the Eucharist (London: Mowbray, 2009), 142–266 addresses a number of issues to do with preaching and pastoral relations that tend to be overlooked in contemporary discussions seeking fast-track solutions to “eucharistic deprivation”, thereby highlighting the importance, inter alia, of relationships in this context.


We can draw here on many other contexts that highlight similar ways of thinking. For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that “American notions of race are the product of racism”, thereby making “race” a “state” rather than an “action”, as shown by the different notions of “black” in various contexts and across time. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “How Racism Invented Race in America,” The Atlantic, 23 June 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations-a-narrative-bibliography/372000/ (accessed 10.9.20). Reni Eddo-Lodge argues similarly in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (London: Bloomsbury, 2017, 2018).


Sadiq al-ʿAzm, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse”, Khamsin: Journal of Revolutionary Socialists of the Middle East, 8 (1981), 5–26.


See, for example, James G. Carrier’s edited collection: Occidentalism. Images of the West (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).


There is a banality to stating the obvious here, but even in this context, closer examination brings significant levels of complexity to understandings. For instance, Joe Webster in The Anthropology of Protestantism: Faith and Crisis among Scottish Fishermen (New York/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) points to some key issues for communities quite close to where I live—but I would be hard-pressed to relate my experience of daily living to that represented in Webster’s work. It is stating the obvious that there is no uniformity to “the West”—but that does not mean the term is without meaning. More broadly, we might think of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reflections on language usage in different parts of “the West” (describing her own positionality: “ethnic in the U.S., racial in Britain, negotiating for decolonized space”)—a constant reminder of fluidity and change; Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York/London: Routledge, 1993), 144.


Anne Showstack Sassoon, Gramsci and Contemporary Politics. Beyond pessimism of the intellect (London/New York: Routledge, 2000), 131.


Sassoon, Gramsci, 132.


Michael Marten, ‘Re-imagining ‘metropole’ and ‘periphery’ in mission history’, in Protestant Missions and Local Encounters in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, eds. Hilde Nielssen/Inger Marie Okkenhaug/Karina Hestad Skeie (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 293–315.


Richard King, Orientalism and Religion. Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 1999), 206.


Sassoon, Gramsci, 133.


Whilst the examples here discuss religion more widely, and then focus primarily on missions, we can also see this pattern expressed in more popular forms, such as the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, held as part of the Chicago World Fair. Whilst it introduced many Americans to traditions beyond the Christian patterns they might have been aware of, it did this through a Christian and colonial lens, as the only form of religion that was deemed truly universal (even the Christian Lord’s Prayer was said daily by all participants, as if it represented a universal understanding of religion). For a brief critique, see the summary page at Harvard University’s Pluralism Project: “Parliament of Religions, 1893” https://pluralism.org/parliament-of-religions-1893 (accessed 8.7.21).

That the full name of the World Fair—often overlooked today—was the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition (regularly shortened at the time to the World’s Columbian Exposition), commemorating 400 years since the arrival of Christopher Columbus on American shores, only serves to emphasise the colonial connections of the event.


Jonathon Bonk, The Theory and Practice of Missionary Identification, 1860–1920 (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989), 28–29.


Andrew Bonar and R.M. McCheyne, Narrative of a Visit to the Holy Land, and Mission of Inquiry to the Jews (Edinburgh: William Oliphant & Co., 1843), 139 f.


Walls, “Culture and Conversion,” 52–53.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 264 ff., but see the entirety of the chapter for a fuller exposition.


As noted above, conversion was frowned upon—freedom to convert was not seen as part of the conception of freedom of religion.


This is discussed in detail in Deringil, Well-Protected Domains.


Free Church of Scotland: General Assembly/Jewish Mission Committee, 1894: 26–27.




I have not encountered Goldenberg in any other texts, but he was presumably either a convert of the mission, or, perhaps, if we make an assumption based on his name, a German Jewish convert who had come to Palestine.


Michael Marten, Attempting to Bring the Gospel Home. Scottish Missions to Palestine, 1839–1917 (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2006), 146–156.


James H. Wilson and James Wells (eds.), The Sea of Galilee Mission of the Free Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1895: 38.


Hugh Goddard, A History of Christian-Muslim Relations (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 127 ff.


Deringil, Well-Protected Domains, 75.


Deringil, Well-Protected Domains, 76, citing archives.


Deringil, Well-Protected Domains, 76 (citing Ottoman documents).


David Vital, A People Apart. A Political History of the Jews in Europe 1789–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 480.


See the essay by Vincent Valmain in this volume.


Vital, People Apart, 481.


Marten, Attempting to Bring the Gospel Home, 149–153.


See the essay by Naïma Bouras on Salafi women preachers in this volume.


A “Biblewoman” was traditionally a lay women, often a widow, who would combine simple instruction of nursing, needlework and cooking with scriptural teaching. Training was minimal: there was a reliance upon the strength of faith of the individual involved.


No substantive further context for this snippet of dialogue is given: it comes in a section describing some of the local reactions to the Christian message, according to the missionaries, amongst which was “an absence of a sense of sin on the part of all” (i.e. Muslim, Jew, Oriental Christian). It is not at all clear when this dialogue took place, but if it took place in the form presented here (rather being than a missionary summary of multiple conversations) it will almost certainly have been sometime between the 1890s and 1914. William Pringle Livingstone, A Galilee Doctor. Being a Sketch of the Career of Dr D.W. Torrance of Tiberias (London: Hodder & Stoughton, nd but probably 1923), 230–231.


I note, for example, work such as Heyberger, Hindiyya; Hauser, Lindner, Möller, Entangled Education; Womack, Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance.


Born into the Protestant community of the Americans, he visited their Beirut school for boys, formally joining the congregation in 1847. He studied medicine and theology, and was ordained in 1853. He married Salome Wortabet (daughter of John Carabet, a Syrian Protestant), who later helped to run a school, and he worked as a minister in Hasbeiya for the Americans. After a short period working for the Scots (from 1860) he returned to the American mission and worked for the Syrian Protestant College from 1866, where he was the professor for medicine, being regarded as one of the seminal figures in the early years of the SPC.


Marten, Attempting to Bring the Gospel Home, 49–50.


A more recent and much more detailed summary of his life and work can be found in Zeuge-Buberl, Die Mission des American Board in Syrien, 211–243. Even many of Zeuge-Buberl’s references are to missionary sources, however.


Michael Marten, “The Free Church of Scotland in 19th-century Lebanon,” Chronos. Revue d’Histoire de l’Université Balamand, 5 (2002), 77.


Regarding ways in which Christian writers have sought to enlist the Qurʾan to validate Christian messages, including about the Trinity, see Griffith, Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, esp. 166–169. Griffith is scathing in his criticism of the ways in which much contemporary Christian communication with Muslims ignores the efforts of the many Christians in the Middle East who have, over centuries, engaged in meaningful and creative ways of interacting positively with Muslims: 176–179.


Free Church of Scotland, Monthly and Missionary Record, 1.3.1887: 74.


Free Church of Scotland, Monthly and Missionary Record, 2.1.1898: 9.


As noted, this is a very specific example, and was not a universal pattern for all missions in the Middle East. See, for example, Maria Chiara Rioli, Riccardo Castagnetti, “Sound Power: Musical Diplomacy Within the Franciscan Custody in Mandate Jerusalem”, in European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine, 1918–1948, eds. K. Sanchez Summerer, S. Zananiri (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-55540-5_5, 79–104.


Bonar and McCheyne, Narrative, 254–255.


See the essay by Necati Alkan in this volume.


See, for instance, Deringil, Well-Protected Domains, 77. There are many other examples developed in this chapter.


See also Benjamin C. Fortna, Imperial Classroom. Islam, the State, and Education in the Late Ottoman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), especially chapter 3.


See, for example, Sanchez, Jerusalem.


Deringil, Well-Protected Domains, 115.


Marten, Attempting to Bring the Gospel Home, 150–151.


Ibid.; see also Stanford J. Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), 164 (and the chapter).


See the examples given by Stockdale Colonial Encounters, 116–118. Anthony O’Mahony notes that for Anglican schools, “education work tended to foster a desire to join the church of the teachers”—further discussed in “Church, State and the Christian Communities and the Holy Places of Palestine,” in Christians in the Holy Land, Michael Prior and William Taylor, eds., (London: World of Islam Festival Trust/Scorpion Press, 1994), 17. Whilst this was not the case in all mission contexts, there are sufficient examples, particularly from the Protestant milieu, to indicate clear patterns occurring here.


Michael Jackson, The Politics of Storytelling. Violence, Transgression, and Intersubjectivity (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2002), 18. Jackson also highlights the different ways in which story-telling takes place in contexts other than the (generally) linear Western form, see e.g. 22–23 (and then passim).


In discussing contemporary White feminism, she notes that it “fails to interrogate two of the three.” Phipps, Me, Not You, 161.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously warned of “The danger of a single story” in July 2009: TEDGlobal, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story (accessed 10.9.2020). Her fiction reflects her concerns in this regard.


Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, 145.


David Richards, Masks of Difference. Cultural Representations in Literature, Anthropology and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 237.


Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2006), 8.


Småberg, Ambivalent Friendship analyses Anglican missions in the Mandate era highlighting key aspects of complicity and cooperation with British imperial power.


Michael Rothberg, Implicated Subjects: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019): 200.


Cited by Sassoon, Gramsci, 124.


Sassoon, Gramsci, 130.


Sassoon, Gramsci, 134.


There is a long history of such writing in mission contexts. I have written in some detail about Scottish examples of missionary biography in this regard, highlighting the purposes underpinning hagiographic writings and the purposes to which these narratives were put: “ ‘The loneliest woman in Africa’—missionary biography as a form of Scottish Protestant sainthood,” in Saints and Cultural Trans/-mission, Michael Marten and Katja Neumann eds. (Sankt Augustin: Anthropos/Academia, 2013). Of course, we are writing narratives as well, but as I am arguing here, we are hopefully seeking to avoid hagiographic writing, and offering a more reflective and engaged form of story-telling.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds. Essays in Cultural Politics (New York/London: Routledge, 1988), 135.


Spivak, In Other Worlds, 135.


Spivak, In Other Worlds, 150.


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Missions and Preaching

Connected and decompartmentalised perspectives from the Middle East and North Africa (19th-21st century)



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