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At play in the fields of the Lord

4 October 2018

Back in 1992 a colleague in the faculty of theology at Unisa, Mark Hestenes, recommended that I go and see a film At play in the fields of the Lord. I was then teaching in the missiology department, and he said it made some interesting missiological points. It was set in South America, and another film in that setting, The Mission, made a few years earlier, also had some missiological significance.

I urged my colleagues in the missiology department to come and see it and discuss it afterwards, but none of them did, and I and my family went to see it. We arrived late and missed the beginning, and so went to see it again the next day.

It made more sense with the beginning in. Some of the inconsistencies became more apparent the second time round. They showed a mission station separated from the village of the people they were trying to reach by virtually impassible mountains and valleys, yet they were able to walk there in a few hours. And a half-Indian mercenary from North America who joined the tribe was not really convincing. There were two Protestant missionaries and a Roman Catholic one. The Roman Catholic one had given up after his companion was killed.

One of the Protestant missionaries was culturally sensitive and the other, his superior, was not. In a sense the missionaries were stereotyped, with rather exaggerated characteristics, but not in an unbelievable way. And in a film there is inevitably some stereotyping. It’s not possible to reflect the infinite variety of people in a three-hour film.

One of the things that was good about it was that there were no “good” guys and “bad” guys, and at the end the film presents no solution. In that sense it would be a good starting point for a discussion. I would like to have been able to show it to first-year students and ask them to write an assignment on it.

As the film was based on a book, I tried to get hold of the book, but could not. Eventually I found a copy in a second-hand book shop fourteen years later. By then I was no longer teaching missiology at Unisa, so it was no longer even of academic interest. It was just a story read for entertainment.

At play in the fields of the LordAt play in the fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now I’ve just read this book for the second time, after 12 years. I re-read I have been asked to write an article on missiological themes in fiction,  and I wanted to remind myself of the way it dealt with the missiological issues.

The motivations of the American mercenaries and the local administrator who hopes to use them to subdue the Indians by force are made a little clearer in the book than in the film.

It is well-written,and though the characters seem in some ways to be caricatures, representative types rather than real people, the dilemmas they face, and the way they face them are real.

In the book the issues can be expressed more clearly than in the film, as the characters’ thoughts can be examined, and not merely through the dialogue and their actions.

I still think that the film would be a good introduction to missiology for first-year students, though the book might be heavy going for some, but could perhaps be useful in the third year.

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