Books I Have Read: God in the Rainforest

Above everything else, God in the Rainforest seeks to tell the story of the Waorani from their own standpoint.

Life in the rain forest is precarious and leaves little space for the development of permanent structures or enduring culture. As a result, the Waorani were entirely pragmatic in their response to outside influences. They adopted western dress and the use of firearms for hunting incredibly quickly – much to the frustration of the anthropologists and tourists.

 

This is an absolutely excellent book and anyone who is interested in the recent history of the evangelical mission movement should read it (see some thoughts here). God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador gives a warts and all overview of the story of mission to the Waorani (or Auca) in Ecuador. As the subtitle says, it tells a tale of martyrdom and redemption – but it may not be the tale that you are familiar with.

This is a substantial book; a medium form hardback of over 400 pages, with a significant number of endnotes and a comprehensive index. Currently, it will set you back about £25, but I assume that a paperback edition will be released soon. As the index and notes indicate, this book is essentially an academic one, written by a professional historian. However, this shouldn’t discourage the average reader, the book is well written, flows well and tells a good story. The way in which the author’s academic credentials are demonstrated lies in the exhaustive story that she tells; one that goes well beyond the standard missionary texts about the same subject. The book also handles criticism of the Waorani mission and of the agencies involved in an even-handed way.

Above everything else, God in the Rainforest seeks to tell the story of the Waorani from the standpoint of the people themselves, rather than explaining their lives through the eyes of others. They are presented as people with a complex and self-consistent society, in which violence is endemic. Far from being irrational savages, they come across as people like us, albeit living in a situation very unlike our own. The background of the story lies in the massive social changes that the Waorani lived through in the decades following their initial contact with missionaries in the 1950s. They faced massive pressures from contact with the West; oil exploration disrupted their home range, the government where ambivalent in support of Waorani rights, tourism brought dubious benefits while missionaries and anthropologists had different visions of the future for the Waorani – who faced all of this while being ravaged by contact diseases that they were ill prepared for.

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