Brian Howell, interviewed by Joshua Brahinsky

The following is an interview with Brian Howell conducted by Josh Brahinsky in September 2013.

Josh: What motivated this book?

Brian: I would ask students at the beginning of an intro class and would hear about these really extraordinary travel opportunities that they had to places where people don’t normally go: northern Ghana and Mongolia and such places, but what was most striking about it was the ways that they talked about their trips, that they were similar to one another regardless of where they gone in the world including people who gone to Europe versus people who gone to Latin America or remote parts of Asia or Africa. I was struck that something was going on that either these trips had converged in some way, or had been produced in some way. The narratives about them were coming from somewhere, and I was really curious how that happened.

Josh: Was this one of the founding questions of the book? Narrative versus experience, or how was this made? How did this come to be spoken this way?

Brian: When I started doing research into the literature, particularly the anthropology of tourism, I could see that this was an idea many anthropologists have followed up on, looking at how the narratives of particular places shape those experiences of those places. So, what you could call my hypothesis was that the narratives produced around short-term missions were strongly influencing the experience people had of the places that they went when they were calling these short-term missions.

Josh : My sense is that you found that, yes, this is true?

Brian: Yes it is. Of course it wasn’t as simple as a one size fits all narrative that shapes things in a direct way. But what I found is that the narratives had the effect of directing the attention, in some ways limiting, and in some ways facilitating, their perception of what was happening in the cases that I used, and also the cases that I studied. And then, from talking with my Wheaton students, this is something that I saw as relevant to trips elsewhere in the world.

Josh: There is a flavor of false consciousness type questions that surround this issue: how real is the sort of narrative when it is so clearly produced? How do you end up dealing with these kinds of questions?

Brian: I think of it more in terms of how culture is always at work as a kind of enabling and limiting structure.  At the same time that obviously we can’t experience anything apart from the cultural framework in which we engage it that cultural framework creates a kind of limit, not a hard and fast limit, not determinative, but the practices that we put together shape us in many ways. So I don’t see it as a matter of what would be the real experience apart from the narrative, but rather, that there always must be a narrative.  There always must be a cultural context.  The question is what kind of cultural context is it? How is it being produced? And for the people engaging with this trip, is it the kind of process that they are looking for, that they are hoping for? Are there other ways in which they would like to self-consciously reshape these experiences by refashioning or reimagining the narrative?

Josh: Does that story that you just told of conscious fashioning conflict with Evangelical notions of spontaneity and God’s vision for the journey?

Brian: Yeah it definitely does. Really any conversation of culture as a kind of limiting, or determining factor in people’s lives, any talk of structure, really works against Evangelical narratives of spontaneity and freedom and individuality. I should say North American Evangelical narratives. In other places it is very different, but for white North American Evangelicals this whole notion that we live within a cultural context that shapes us is a very difficult one in many cases to wrap their heads around.

Josh: Have you encountered any of that directly in people reading the book or talking about the book? How is that working out?

Brian: I haven’t had a lot of interaction with practitioners yet. I have a few things on my schedule coming up where I will have a chance to interact with church leaders about this. Most of the people who pick up the book are people who are already interested in questions of culture and looking for a critique of short-term missions. They’ve been really open to it this; it helps them to understand some things that they’ve intuited or maybe begun to work out themselves.

Josh: If you were going to try to boil this down to a central message, what is the take away from reading your book? What do you want people to know?

Brian: I would hope that the take away would be that we have a narrative of short-term missions that has been produced and is being produced and this narrative has limited some of the ways that people can experience these trips. So, we should critically engage the narrative and figure out how we want to change it so it actually helps people to see the things that are best to be seen, if that makes sense. I hope that the people come away with the sense that there is a possibility of changing these trips, but it may be a bit more complicated than we first thought.

Josh: It seems that what you’re suggesting is that there is a pretty vital debate within missions about how to make short-term missions something that is viable, powerful, meaningful, godly etc. and that’s where the work is happening for this book?

Brian: Yes, part of it is that people are thinking about what does it mean for the North American church to engage the church elsewhere in the world in a productive way that avoids some of the past problems of paternalism and colonialism. To help people to see ways in which that might be inadvertently reproduced and ways that can be avoided

Josh: What is the story that you like the most, you tell people the most, your favorite piece of the book?

Brian: I think one of the stories that I’ve told a number of times is from after I had done my trip with the team I was sitting in a board meeting of the group that oversaw the short-term missions program of the church. They were talking about a Costa Rican group that was going to come visit them, and this Costa Rican group was actually kind of a middle-class group from a private school in Costa Rica coming in the winter term, their summer break. They wanted to come and work with the poor. They had come the year before and worked with high school kids but also sometimes at a daycare program and an ESL program and they wanted to do more of that.  So they asked about soup kitchens and other possibilities of working with the poor here in the United States. And for about twenty minutes the board talked about how they didn’t want these people to interact with the poor because “we have all that taken care of ourselves,” and “we don’t want them to see the ugly side of Wheaton,” and “it’s not like we are a poor town, we don’t want them to think that we are all like that.” They had this conversation kind of unselfconsciously for about twenty minutes until finally somebody said “I wonder if that’s how they feel when we come down there?” It struck me as a kind of encapsulation of the ways in which these narratives of mission – going to the poor and then discovering that they have something to teach us in spite of the poverty and that we came back changed – made it very difficult for us to imagine what others would do when they came here. The fact that this particular congregation was having a group from Costa Rica come here and did have to grapple with that question, even though it took twenty minutes for them to get there, allowed them to have at least this modest insight that there might be a similar dynamic that’s going on when we visit them that is also at work here. So I thought that was a really interesting moment, kind of illustrating two parts of what I was learning.

Josh: And, twenty minutes is not that long for learning something.

Brian: No, no it’s not bad.  It just was striking to me that these things were so reminiscent of exactly how people in other countries talk about short-term missions, and they didn’t realize that. But the fact that somebody finally came up with that shows that it was important that they were engaged in bidirectional program, which most churches are not. Most churches do not have people coming from other countries and it makes me suspect that a lot of churches never get to the point of the conversation that would illustrate that, oh yeah these conversations are rooted in our very specific narrative.

Josh: Is there anything in the book that you don’t like, you wish you hadn’t said, or would now say differently?

Brian: That’s an interesting question. I do think that because I decided to pitch the book at a Christian as well as an academic audience that I might have soft-pedaled some of what I wanted to say. I toned it down more than maybe I wish I would have. Which is to say that the ways in which the narrative of short-term missions narrative serves, as Ferguson would say, as an anti-politics machine, that it depoliticized the poverty that people encounter.  I think about writing something in a more clearly anthropological academic voice that would make that argument directly but then I don’t expect Christians would encounter it at all so I’m not sure how exactly I would do it.  But sometimes I think I wish I would’ve been a little stronger. I can’t think of anything that I wish I wouldn’t have said.

Josh: my next question was how would you critique the book. Is your main critique that the missiological content is weaker than you’d like it to be?

Brian: Well I guess I would say the anthropological content is more downplayed than I’d like to be.  The anthropological critique could be stronger, but because of the missiological element I felt I needed to be more gentle with the people who had not encountered a critique like this before and would see it as too harsh.

Josh: My experience in reading the book was that I read the beginning and it felt like it was affirming this STM experience but there was this subtle critique of the narrative. You could see the tension that would emerge in the Evangelical community over a produced narrative as opposed to a spontaneous godly one but it wasn’t really drawn out, just suggested. And then there was this further tension over whether short-term missions was a good thing in the way it is presently done but this critique also was very much underneath. Finally, the last two chapters get much more clarity in the history of missiology and the theological literature and debates over short-term missions and move towards a solid critique that you seem to feel strongly about.

Brian: I’m glad that that’s clear at the end.

Josh: Was that part of the strategy? Was it to have a really powerful positive image people of people transforming, having good experience, and the critique comes later?

Brian: Yes, well I went through it initially thinking that I would present this as a kind of anthropological study, which I think has a tendency to have a more neutral voice, to present the voice of my informants more than my own. But then the decision to speak to the practitioner audience as well meant that I was going to bring in a more direct advice, if you will.  And, of course, advice was given in the form of critique. So that’s why it came in at the end for sure.

Josh: So when you talk about your advice. If you are just to speak to the missiological concern, what is it?

Brian: I think my big take away is that we have to think very concretely about power.  About how resources shape the relationships that people encounter, and how those need to be confronted and dealt with in the experience of a short-term missionaries themselves. They cannot be naïve about the ways in which their position is one of economic inequality in most cases and how that shapes the way that the narrative guides what they see and do. So we need to be a lot more cognizant of the power dynamics at work.

Josh: Have their been critiques of your book?

Brian: Not so much.  A number of reviews came from pretty sympathetic readers, either anthropologists, or people in the Evangelical world trying to engage this work, or from development people like Chalmers Institute who appreciate this. I haven’t gotten any real pushback yet. I am anticipating some. What I’m also hoping is that as more people do research on this and as they encounter my work that through their own ethnographic or quantitative studies there’ll be able to either add to or elaborate on the things I’ve done so far.

Josh: What critique do you anticipate, you probably can guess what some of the critique will be?

Brian: I imagine that one of the critiques would be that as an academic I don’t know what people are really dealing with; I cannot speak to the reality. There is a pragmatic reality that I don’t know and this is not helpful. I saw some critique from reviews online and the comments underneath.  Somebody will invariably say something like “I’ve seen high schoolers go to wherever, Mexico, etc. and preach the gospel and they been transformed and it is a mighty work. God works through short-term missions.” That’s the kind of pietistic anecdote that is often a strong comeback, “quit your academic mumbo-jumbo and just trust Jesus” kind of thing. But in terms of an academic critique I’m not sure what the line will be other than perhaps those coming from another discipline might have something to add to or change what I said.

Josh: How do you respond to the pietistic anecdote?

Brian: It is really hard to have much of a response other than I am not denying the individual cases of STM can be powerful. I would say they are perceived as powerful.  Whether or not we have any real evidence that what somebody thinks happened actually happened I think is another question. And I can certainly think of lots of ways in which the experience that the North Americans are reporting would be reported or be understood very differently on the side of those host communities where the teams went and I would want to know beyond just the summary reports what are they thinking about these things later. How were they primed to have the experience that they did by the narrative that they took with them? I suspect that most people telling me the stories wouldn’t be able to tell me that. Or they would say that that was an irrelevant question; this was the work of God and the narrative has nothing to do with it. But, I think there’s a more critical approach to short term missions in the church.  Certainly there are very big pro-short-term missions people, but I’m not even sure they’re in the majority.

Josh: That sounds like you laid out an interesting research agenda: go ask the folks who are being missionized what they experienced, and talk to folks many years after they return about what they experienced, are you imagining doing that?

Brian: I am in fact. Yes, my plan is to go to Costa Rica or somewhere else in Latin America next summer and do a little preliminary fieldwork to figure out if there’s a place where I could hang out in the community to understand from the perspective of the host community on these trips. I’m interested in the people who don’t directly host the trips, not in the receiving churches, not in the host families, but those who see the trips coming going and the ways in which they understand these groups, the ways in which they might seek to either connect to, avoid, benefit from, or critique the comings and goings of the trips. I am sure there is a whole other story of how these trips are understood in the places where they often go.

Josh: thank you so much.

Brian: Thank you