The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever by Jamie Wright – a book review by Jennifer Bell

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Oh, man. This book hit me hard. I really loved it, so there’s that. But I’m also already haunted by it (even though I finished it, like, five minutes ago—so the haunting might actually be indigestion or gas). I’m haunted by writer issues. Let’s talk.

A friend’s book review on goodreads drew my attention to this blog-turned-book. My friend mentioned that the book was raw, and the language was strong—meaning unsavory?—but altogether authentic. And the book made her think, think about missions and service.

Well, we all know that I’m okay with a little unsavory verbiage. I hesitate to even quote our good missionary friend because she is salty, indeed. I seriously think I either met my rival or my best friend. I mean, is there another living Christian woman who punctuates her prose with f-bombs and indictments against the Church, the only body of people who will actually have her, the way I do? What if it’s this woman, this Jamie person? With all her living abroad experience? All her talk about Costa Rican kittens and parrot feathers in the backyard and mango and butterflies and geckos?

All I do is get crazy about Trump on facebook.

Jamie, you are the real wild woman.

So this is a raw book in which Wright and her family take off to Costa Rica as missionaries on a five-year-stint. As they adjust and interact, Wright begins the ubiquitous missionary blog for the sponsors. Dealing with her own increasing awareness of the dissonance between the reality and the mythology of missions, Wright ends up critiquing the Church and its dip into bad behavior, ranging from crazy-nasty imperialist tendencies that are totally condescending to the rampant inauthenticity often present in the way we Christians speak to each other. She posits herself as a bit of an outsider, and—yeah, I recognized the stance. I was uber-comfortable with her sharp-tongued social critique.

What I would urge Christians to do is read Wright, and consider her ideas. I have some missionary friends—they’re pretty chic—and I’d love to give them this book, and hear what they think.

That was one of my responses. Then, there were the writer issues. I loved her style. It definitely has the authentic-thing going, and I’ve been on a big candor-kick, as some of you know. I’ve especially been smitten with the kind of writing that makes an aesthetic out of pushing up against the boundaries of decorum. In secular writing, I’ve been impressed by David Sedaris and Elena Ferrante. I’ve been smitten with confessions, self-deprecation, vulnerability.

And you know what? You almost never see Christian writers get so honest! They almost always resort to spiritual platitudes that leave big sinners Like Me out in the cold, feeling like a freak—because, for whatever reason, I just can’t do that Ideal Christian Woman Thing.

What I loved about Wright is that she was bold and blemished, candid and inclusive.

I did wonder a few things. I wondered about the bad words. I pretty much write bad word upon bad word, but as I read—or listened to the audiobook—I did have a hint of doubt about its use. I am, generally speaking, pro-cussing if used well. Which means that it should be used sparingly to add punch and not as a name-calling device.

However, ironically, as I listened, I wondered, Is it too much?

But if it is, why?

I have this friend who edits my writing—and, I kid you not, for about a decade she’s been scratching out every instance of profanity in my writing that she can. I think she says that cussing is lazy. We could work harder and reach for a more vigorous vocabulary to express the same thing. I’m, like, Whatever. [Insert Bad Word Here.]

Just the same, I admit to hesitating over Wright’s colorful language. I had my kid in the car, listening, at one point—and I turned it off. So, well, I’m still contemplating. I think it would be a shame to dismiss this book over that, and I know many people do. Wright has many wonderful insights to share. On the “raw” stuff . . . I still believe in context and candor and linguistic punch. It isn’t always lazy; sometimes, it’s powerful and poetic and true.

And one more thing. My timing. It just so happened that I read her book at the end of July 2018. I looked her up, found her blog, and learned that Wright is getting a divorce after twenty-five-plus years of marriage.

Insert Bad Word Here.

I was really, truly, disproportionately upset (for not knowing her) about it. Because this book was about her marriage too. This was a book about a husband and wife, about a family. And now, what? Would this affect her story? My reading of it? What was I to think?

Okay, well, I’ll try to be a bit careful here. I have no clue what’s going on in her life now, and I can assure you that I’ve encountered many “real” Christians with lousy things happening—things, frankly, that are mind-blowing and make a divorce look like a tea party. Like, in the past year, it seems as if the deviants are all creeping out of the pews. Which isn’t to say that divorce isn’t awful. It is. And it’s sad. And it hurts. And there are often children involved. What I’m trying to say is that we are not in a position to judge, and she’s still got this great story . . .

As a writer, I confess to really wrestling with this, though. I’ll share my struggle, which is personal. It’s connected to the kind of writing this is. It’s a memoir. Had it been billed as fiction, we might breeze over the autobiographical events of the author. Fiction is different, yes? But what about the memoir? Does this personal brokenness negate the power of her narrative?

It’s a tough one, and my guess is that Wright has probably wrestled with it herself.

I have this unpublished memoir about my breast cancer saga, completely written—waiting in the wings for my novel to come out first. It’s heavily inundated with scenes from my marriage. I have definitely thought to myself, If we got a divorce, my whole book will be ruined.

(We’re fine. Don’t worry. Though I did send Tim the following text THIS MORNING: We can’t ever get a divorce. He just pretty much ignored me, apparently not knowing that he’s supposed to text back, I love you and I’d never ever leave you.)

I offer no conclusions here, other than this: Wright, even in her biography, offers many super worthwhile challenges to churchy-thinking. So many great bits . . . on Jesus going through a selection process with His disciples . . . on the effect it might have on a family to have a bunch of teenagers from North America swoop in to build homes for them . . . on the financial abuse and the falsity in language and the systemic inefficiency of our politics and missions. This book challenges our thinking, and I’m with my friend on this. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time.