Book review: Constructing Mission History

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Stanley H. Skreslet, Constructing Mission History: Missionary Initiative and Indigenous Agency in the Making of World Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2023)

reviewed by Steve Taylor, Director AngelWings Ltd, Aotearoa New Zealand

Missionaries. Are they saints of God? Or agents of colonisation? Stanley Skreslet begins Constructing Mission History with two common understandings of mission history. One places foreign missionaries at the heart of the story as heroes of God’s expanding empire. A second understanding emphasises the colonial aspect of modern missions, implicating missionaries as agents of empire in the destruction of cultures.

Uneasy with the way that both understandings centre on the missionary, Skreslet outlines a third approach. Constructing Mission History argues that speech-act theory offers a fresh account of mission history that respects indigenous agency and the complexity of interactions across cultures. 

Speech-act theory, developed by J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle, treats language as an action. It analyses what is said (locution), as well as the intentions (illocution) of those who communicate and the consequences (perlocution) of what is communicated. Applying speech-act theory to mission allows Skreslet to recognise multiple sources of agency. He looks for surprises, including unanticipated consequences and how political, social and economic forces shape the entangling of cultures.

Having introduced speech-act theory, Skreslet develops the implications over seven chapters. Three chapters explore illocutionary intentions. Missionary motivations are grouped in chapters on salvation, knowledge-sharing and benevolence. Of particular interest is how Skreslet works with Aquinas’ writing on charity and sketches a Catholic missiology of social concern. A question for further research is whether these historic motivations will provide adequate resources for the contemporary challenges of climate change and global injustice. 

Four chapters explore perlocution, the performance of mission in history. A chapter on power encounters explores the political forces within which missionary activity is always unavoidably entangled. A chapter titled “Constructing Christianopolis” analyses the nature and shape of intentional Christian communities in America, Africa and Asia. A chapter on vernacular Christianities charts the impact of translating not only Scripture but also art, artefacts and architecture. A chapter on subversive witnessing considers how missionaries and indigenous communities creatively drew on Christianity to resist imperialism. Of topical interest is a close reading of the Christianities that emerged in the United States as enslaved people exercised agency as they responded to Christ.

Constructing Mission History offers significant resources for church leaders, mission partners and those interested in fresh expressions, pioneering and cross-cultural ministry. First, it affirms the value of archives and the potential of archival research to uncover ethnographic data that can be illuminated by multiple academic fields, including material cultures, the sociology of religion and the history of science and medicine. Indeed, the book is of value for the footnotes alone.

Second, locating mission as action provides ways for the past to enrich the future. In Aotearoa New Zealand, a Māori proverb, “Ka mua, ka muri”, affirms the wisdom of looking back to move forward. Constructing Mission History provides new ways to look back and, in so doing, offers wisdom to those sharing in God’s unfolding mission. What can those who pioneer in fresh expressions learn from historic mission performance patterns in areas like the vernacularisation of Christianity, particularly when the most dynamic outputs emerge not from those sent but from those embedded in local cultures? How will the church today respond to what Skreslet calls the “uneven impacts” of mission in which external cultural shifts are more influential than the work of individuals? These questions demonstrate the possibilities emerging from Skreslet’s argument that mission is a verb, a set of past performances able to inform those willing to act forward. 

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