Columnists > Voices

Buck passing

Rediscovered activist-author left a devilish legacy

Issue: "When the base cracks," July 21, 2007

Pearl Buck made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer this month, 34 years after her death. The Philadelphia FBI had recovered the manuscript of her Pulitzer Prize--winning The Good Earth (1931), gone missing since 1966. (The loss prompted the author's conjecture before her death in 1973 that "the devil has it.")

The sleuth agency held a news conference to announce the joyous event, calling the document "priceless." The discovery further inflamed an already bitter relationship between Buck's children and her foundation, because now the parties can fight over ownership of the manuscript-but there's a much more important legacy. (We shall see that the devil has been busy indeed.)

Pearl S. Buck (née Sydenstricker) was born to laborers for the gospel in China, missionaries of the narrow-minded variety who believe that Jesus is the only truth, the way, and the life. In 1930, missionaries of another stripe commissioned Harvard professor William Ernest Hocking to head a study-"Rethinking Missions: A Layman's Inquiry after One Hundred Years" (1932)-that rocked the world of the older Sino-spiritual sowers.

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Hocking's conclusion was that a new direction was needed: Christian missionaries should henceforth join with other peoples as "co-workers . . . for righteousness within every religious system" as part of "a unified aspiration for completest religious truth."

Here's how James H. Smylie in Theology Today (January 2004) connected Buck and Hocking: "Anticipating the Hocking report, Buck made known some views about missions in 'Is There a Place for the Foreign Missionary?' published in The Chinese Reporter (February 1927). She affirmed the Christian message, as she understood it, and mission endeavors carried on with a Christian 'spirit.'. . . She herself was tired of doctrinal preaching."

Smylie continued, "When the commission's work finally appeared, she wrote a laudatory review. . . . In 'Easter 1933,' Buck stirred the boiling pot by dismissing Christian dogma, likening Christ to Buddha, as did her father in some ways, and proclaiming her 'creedless faith' in Christianity as 'the essence of men's highest dreams.'" Buck became a tireless worker for civil and women's rights.

From Christianity to social activism in one generation. Plenty of déjà vu where that came from: Follow the bouncing ball from Puritan to Unitarian to social worker, and the metamorphosis of Harvard and Yale from schools for the training of Christian leaders to bastions of the intellectualism that trains its guns on Christian leaders.

God seeks "relationship not religion," someone told me three years ago. It was the first time I'd ever heard that expression, and it is perfect-succinctly conveying what authentic Christianity is, and what it is we tend to lose. Pearl Buck was still lauding Bible "principles" long after she'd sold out. To the trained ear the word principles is a bellwether. It is "a hot friend cooling" (Shakespeare). It is "human tradition" and being "ashamed of the gospel" (St. Paul).

But so subtle that how would you know you were succumbing? Will we know when our "first love" ardor has become church programs, when talk of "renewal" is a weak substitute for panting after "revival," and when tender expressions of affection for Jesus are either tacitly censored or cordoned off to smaller and smaller islands of church life?

Oswald Chambers wrote, "Today we have substituted creedal belief for personal belief, and that is why so many are devoted to causes and so few devoted to Jesus Christ. People do not want to be devoted to Jesus, but only to the cause He started. Jesus Christ is a source of deep offence to the educated mentality of today that does not want Him in any other way than as comrade. The Lord's first obedience was to the will of His Father, not to the needs of men. The saving of men was the natural outcome of His obedience to His Father. If I am devoted to the cause of humanity only, I will soon be exhausted, . . . but if I love Jesus personally and passionately, I can serve humanity though men treat me as a door-mat. The secret of a disciple's life is devotion to Jesus Christ."

I've had to say to my soul: Ask not for whom such warnings toll; the warnings toll for thee.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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