The South Pacific brings to mind light-hearted musicals, uncomplicated lifestyles, and Gilligan’s Island. For those of us born in the eastern parts of North America it can seem pretty exotic. Especially since we can seldom afford to go there. Since my income has wavered around the subsistence level of a reluctant urbanite, I instead travel there in my mind. I came across Charles Montgomery’s The Shark God at a recent book sale. I generally scour the anthropology tables since I find the belief systems of others so fascinating. Montgomery, a journalist, traveled to Melanesia to trace the route his great-grandfather took as a missionary. A non-believer himself, Montgomery wanted to see the magic that a former generation believed in firsthand. Noting that missionaries often despoil the cultures they are trying to “convert,” his tale is full of insights and observations and disappointments. My kind of book.
Montgomery is remarkably open minded. Like many of our generation, he outgrew the religious fervor that seemed so strong just a few decades ago. Still, he is open to the possibilities in the lesser understood cultures of the South Pacific. He notes that E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the famous anthropologist, opined that non-believers made poor anthropologists. Even missionaries might make better, he suggested, since at least they know what it is to believe. And here is the driving tension of Montgomery’s narrative. Sometimes you simply have to be open in order to see. Not all evidence is empirical. He recounts little “miracles” that he later reflects may have been mere diversions. Nevertheless, the world opens up when it is seen through native eyes.
Missionaries, although they may be better equipped to understand foreign (or native) believers, nevertheless try to change them. What I found most fascinating is how even those who fully identify as Christians in the south seas have combined that belief with their indigenous religions. Christianity, even among the clergy, is an overlay for culture. In ways that shock and frustrate missionaries, those converted maintain elements of their culture that fit uncomfortably with doctrine. How do you convert the converted? Or maybe the word is more properly “pervert.” Belief systems grow in cultures and tend to introduce high moral standards, no matter the deities (or non-deities) known. The Shark God is a wonderful window open on the South Pacific, a place to which some of us will only ever be able to travel in our limited minds. We are, after all, products of our culture.