Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Recently, as part of its 2014-15 Religion and Politics Film Series, the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis held a film screening and discussion of The Tailenders (2005) with filmmaker Adele Horne. The documentary follows missionaries from the Global Recordings Network (GRN), an organization founded in Los Angeles in 1939, as they travel to the Solomon Islands, Mexico, and India to produce gospel messages in as-yet-unrecorded languages. According to their website, the GRN has recorded Bible stories in over 6,000 languages. They estimate that there are over 8,000 languages or dialects spoken in the word, more than half of which exist in just eight countries. The Solomon Islands, Mexico, and India are home to 769 different languages. In an effort to spread the gospel to all people in their native languages, GRN travels to remote areas or to migrant worker communities to record Bible messages in these “tailender” languages—some of the last, they claim, to be reached by missionaries and recorded.
The documentary provides a glimpse into the methods by which GRN operates, including the fascinating creation of low-tech, hand-wind media players that missionaries distribute to the people they are seeking to evangelize. Horne’s interest in the interrelationship between mass-media technologies, missionary activity, and global capitalism shines through the film. At one point she asserts, “American Protestantism…is a fusion of belief in the power of God and the power of machines. American evangelicals pioneered marketing and mass communication. They sought to deliver to glory the maximum number of souls possible, using the most effective mass-media technologies available.” Horne details how GRN designs its recordings and playback devices to encourage repetitive listening, and, thus, more effective evangelism. She also notes that GRN focuses its missionary efforts on reaching people displaced and impoverished by the spread of global capitalism. In the film, the missionaries state that they believe that displacement or the threat of displacement renders the individuals they target more receptive to the gospel. Horne acknowledges this as well, but also highlights the manner in which conversion to Protestant Christianity ties converts to global capitalism, stating, “Where Protestant missionaries go, industrial capitalism follows. To convert to evangelicalism is to replace indigenous collectivity with the pursuit of individual economic gain.”
This is a key theme of the documentary, though Horne does not always effectively draw it out or analyze it in sufficient detail or complexity. In the film, she often lets such statements hang for her viewers to contemplate, without probing deeper. During the question and answer period, she noted that she did so partly strategically, and partly because the limitations of her agreement with GRN prevented her from conducting independent interviews with the men and women they encountered in the Solomon Islands, Mexico, and India. As such, she could not gauge how the recipients of GRN recordings interpreted the message and meaning of the materials, nor could she ask what they thought of the GRN missionaries. In highlighting (at time humorous) errors of translation—not to mention the impossibility of translating culturally-specific notions which do not exist in all languages, such as “sin” or “punish”—the film hints at moments of potential resistance to the missionary enterprise, as well as to the methodological deficiencies of the GRN recording model from a translation perspective. Furthermore, toward the end of The Tailenders, Horne opines that, rather than the intended gospel message, “the strongest message received may be the technology itself. An emblem of wealthy machine culture and its power. To convert is to be joined to this power.”
For scholars of religion and transnational history, the film raises a number of questions about how Protestant missionary work has changed communities, cultures, and the lives of those who decided to convert, as well as the lives of those who did not. It also raises questions about the relationship between evangelism and the flows of global capitalism. Of course, these are topics of inquiry that many historians and sociologists of religion have explored in the past, so I could imagine pairing excerpts of this film with a critical discussion of Weber and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or recent monographs that address this issue— Elizabeth Brusco’s The Reformation of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion and Gender in Colombia and the second half of Harvey Cox’s Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century sprang immediately to my mind, but there are many others.
Though it has its limitations, this documentary is fascinating and well worth watching if you have not yet had the chance to see it. I have embedded the trailer below, and there is also a preview available on PBS.