Yesterday I finished re-reading “Eternity In Their Hearts” by Don Richardson. It is an Aristotelian exploration of the kernels of monotheism deposited carefully in hidden corners of the cultural traditions of faraway peoples and diverse, a legacy of the one true God. A testament to how we can reach out sensitively and generously to the lost peoples with the Christian faith. Oh, I know that this goes against the spirit of the times: relativist and post-modern and post-enlightened as they are. Post-history in most cases; post-thought in all. Times when the west has become comfortable foisting fake elections or family planning or our thick stifling anti-culture on a diverse and fascinating world but consider it anathema to tell them gently of our faith and of how it made our lives better and gave us a life more abundant while serving as the building blocks for an amazing country that we call home, though we are far away.
I myself studied missions, and have always been baffled by the ‘godless missionaries’ enthusiasm in imposing the principles of their secular faith, Margaret Sanger and Friedrich Nietzsche and Abraham Maslow but are breathless in faux astonishment when they encounter those who wish to transcend in order to speak to a hurting world about their broken hearts and a loving savior who can help ease the pain.
At any rate, just as I finished the book I received the news that Richardson passed from this earth; and with him maybe the last of the great men of faith. It is fitting, I think, that Richardson died at Christmas. The greatest gift for which he could have hoped I’m sure would be to spend Jesus’s birthday with the God he served so faithfully. Nevertheless, as with the passing of all great men (most often unsung these days), he will be missed.
Richardson was a renaissance man in the spirit of the great missionaries of old. Born in Canada in 1935, he studied at Prairie Bible Institute (where my uncle and aunt went to school) and also the Summer Institute of Linguistics, part of Wycliffe (where my brother works). He spent fifteen years in Indonesia learning the language of the Sawi, learning their customs and translating the Bible into their language. He was a writer, his books “Peace Child” and “Lords of the Earth” became anchors for the Christian missionary movement. Richardson was also a public speaker, professor, and academic. As all great men, and in the spirit of Winston Churchill he was also an amateur painter. He was a faithful husband, leading by example as he taught us all to persevere even in tough times. I met Richardson only once, when he came to speak in Caracas, Venezuela in the early 2000s when I was there. This was before the towers fell and he was already talking about how to reach out to Islam with his faith; and the terrible challenges this posed.
Richardson was part of what Peggy Noonan has called a “Genius Cluster”; moments when culture and tradition and understanding and philosophy form an enabling mulch out of which emerge groups of great men and women who cluster together to challenge the darkness and in doing so together change the world. Sometimes this has been in literature: Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Pound. Often in politics; Reagan and Thatcher and Gorbachev and Mandela. But the 20th century also gave us great men of missiology and religion who occupied the center of American cultural tradition during much of the century and were the footsoldiers of one of the greatest missionary advances in history. Don Richardson was one of these, him and his greatest generation; Jim Elliot and Elizabeth Elliot and Eric Liddell and Billy Graham – those who through their sacrifice and their tenacity and their brilliance showed the way for the rest of us.