It is a little reflected on fact, a least within Protestant circles (at least by me) that Christianity as a religion has been spread by men and women willing to die for it. Nearly all of Jesus’ first followers were martyred, and nearly every advance and development of the faith since then has been accompanied by the death of the faithful. Perhaps martyrdom is somehow embedded within Christianity, based as it is on the God who died for what can sometimes seem the most unworthy of all causes – us.
In one sense then, there is something very natural to Christianity about telling the story of those who died. Nevertheless, when I was asked to adapt the story of the Elim missionaries, murdered in the Vumba Mountains of Rhodesia in 1978, I felt a range of emotions. Of course, I was honoured to be asked. The more I learned about the Elim team the more I admired them. It was a well-documented story too (always a plus for a writer) with Stephen Griffith’s brilliant book The Axe and the Tree providing a model of diligent research and superbly evocative writing. Nevertheless, there was something about the story that troubled me – I couldn’t work out why they died.
I don’t mean that literally, of course, the political reasons for their murder were all too clear. What troubled me was why did God let them die? And what does their death really mean?
As I wrote, I was inspired not to try to answer those questions exactly, at least not at first, but to ask them as honestly as I could both through the content of the play, and also its form. Often when I’m writing I find that ideas come at the strangest moments. In this case I was watching a documentary about the soldier poets who fought at the battle of the Somme. The narrator said something like this:
“…each of the poets found their experiences so extreme that they almost had to invent language anew just to try to capture it.”
The line stuck with me. Of course language and representation cannot capture what the Elim team experienced it. Of course the play can’t be a neat little well-told tale of heroism with a tidy comfortable moral at the end. So instead, I have tried to write a broken play, a play in which language, at times, strains at the edges of my capacity to use it; a play that deploys many voices – straight narration, dialogue, poetry, dream, knowing that no single voice can do justice to the story, but a fractured telling might provoke an audience into greater engagement, into seeking their own answers in the gaps left by the telling.
If there is hope and redemption in the play, and I believe that there is, then I wanted it to be hard-won and for the audience to have to seek it for themselves.
The working title for the play is: And you shall answer me. The line is taken from the book of Job. It comes after Job and his friends have exhausted their questions and arguments and Job stands before a God who speaks out of the storm demanding His own answers. The point is, although, like Job, I may think that the events of 1978 ask difficult questions of God the deeper you go into the story the more you get the troubling sense that the burden of explanation is mine. It is the God who was known by the Evans family, by the McCann family, by the Lynn family, by Catherine Picken, Mary Fisher and Wendy Hamilton-White, it is this God who would demand answers of me.
Because the missionaries had every opportunity to leave Rhodesia. Time and again they assessed the risks and chose to stay and they did so because they knew the God whom they served and they believed that Christ was worth risking everything for.
There were survivors from the Elim team: people who, if anyone had the right to blame God, could surely have done so. But they did not. They carried on their work in dangerous and difficult contexts because they felt, like the Apostle Paul, that to live is Christ and to die is gain.
And that asks some troubling questions.
Do I know this Jesus so well?
Do I love Him so dearly?
I hope the play tells the story well and pays honour to those who died for Christ and I hope it asks difficult questions of its audience. That’s not much of a sales-pitch is it? But it’s all I’ve got.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!