End of the Spear

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I read about End of the Spear when it was first released, but didn’t get a chance to get to the theatre to see it. It’s a famous story among Evangelicals, the martyrdom of a group of missionaries in 1956 as they tried to make contact with an native Ecaudoran people known as the Waodoni. Jim Eliot is the best-known of the missionaries who lost their lives on the sandbar that afternoon, but this story emerges through the eyes of another man, the aviator of the group with the oh-so-appropriate name Nate Saint. But the story doesn’t end with the death of these men, each of them pierced by a pike wielded by these fierce and proud people–their martyrdom is a launching pad for a journey of staggering grace and change.

Spoilers ahead

The central journey of the film concerns a regal looking man named Mincayani, a Waodoni leader who makes the decision that these foreigners who have landed their “wood bee” (airplane) near the river must be speared. Mincayani and his men believe the missionaries to be cannibals who years before captured, killed, and ate a member of their family (a Waodoni woman still very much alive and who will eventually prove to be the bridge between the families of the slain men and their killers). After the missionaries’ death, astonishingly, some of the their family members eventually make contact with the Waodoni and end up living among Mincayani’s tribe for many years. Many of the Waodoni come to faith, but the real transformation is in Mincayani, who desperately tries to hang on to his understanding of life and the ways his people have always known. But as he comes to know these foreigners, he finally grasps that they come hoping for nothing but friendship and to teach these people that their God had a son who was “speared” so that they could “live well.” Mincayani begins to suspect that killing is not the only way to gather strength. When the aviator’s son, Steve Saint, grows up, he and Mincayani forge an unearthly friendship, in which they together face the murder of Saint’s father in a dramatic scene on the very ground where Mincayani killed him, some 30 years before.

A clunky synopsis to be sure, but its a story sure to haunt me. For courage and grace, and unearthly love, its hard to beat. As a film, it is much more successful than say, Facing the Giants, though from a storytelling point of view, there are still holes. But the production values were high (the musical score was a bit over the top for my taste), and the acting was seamless. The controversy over actor Chad Allen’s sexuality (he is a openly gay man who many Christians resented playing one of their heroes) doesn’t interest me–I was so thankful his character was so beautifully drawn. The women of the film, the Waodoni and the Americans, were especially affecting, their loss and struggle–and love–palpable and deep.

Where the film needs work is in the story telling itself. There is something missing in Mincayani’s journey. What I’m interested in is what happened in the years between the missionaries’ arrival into the Waodoni life and the encounter with Steve Saint years later. Wisely, the film skirts an explicit attitude of proselytizing, presenting the gospel much as the missionaries initially did, using the language and symbols systems already present in Waodoni belief. But there’s something about the soft edge of this presentation that, in my view, undermines the intended emotional impact of the film. Why does Mincayani change? We see him come to regret his action, largely because of the friendship and kindness of these Americans. But because faith in Christ is present only on the level of pre-assumption, the film becomes a testimony to what can easily been seen as something that actually transcends religious faith. In other words, it is a human story, which is its strength (and of course, that’s exactly what I want it to be), but in the end, it only points the faithful to God, because we’re already in on the pre-assumption. I’m not sure what I’d think if I didn’t already believe in Christ. As a film audience member, I’m not satisfied that I’ve the final piece of Mincayani’s journey. I want to see the decision that makes him decide to face his past, take Steve Saint to that sandbar, and beg for a cleansing death.

I’m pretty sure I’m not saying what I want, but what I take away is that flawed films well done, which is how I’d classify End of the Spear, can haunt us just as much as the masterpieces.

All that said…

…watch it.

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