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The Mission

DOCUMENTARY | Was John Allen Chau a reckless thrill-seeker or a man doing God’s work?

National Geographic

<em>The Mission</em>
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Rated PG-13

John Allen Chau was martyred in 2018 at age 26. As the new documentary The Mission recounts, the Washington state native was seeking to evangelize the Sentinelese, a highly isolated community of 200 people on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. On just his ­second encounter with the island’s inhabitants, one or more of them shot him to death with arrows. The saddest part about Chau’s story, though, may be in the opposition he faced at home.

In this National Geographic documentary (which has several images of National Geographic–type tribal nudity), producers Simon and Jonathan Chinn, who have two Oscars and two Emmys between them, paint Chau as a thrill-seeker. Repeated references to Chau’s fondness for stories such as Jim Elliott’s biography and Robinson Crusoe present a secular motivation for his dangerous mission. Video clips and animated reenactments chronicle Chau’s teenage and college years, including several outdoor exploits. Voice actors read excerpts from Chau’s diary and a letter his father sent to the producers.

Friends, and an anthropologist who wrote a book about the Sentinelese, remember Chau with a mixture of admiration and disapproval. A member of his anti-porn accountability group laments, “My friend did something stupid and courageous he knew he had no business doing.” Chau’s pastor declares, “Odds are [Chau’s mission was] idealism masquerading as God’s calling.”

The film brings in Dan Everett, who spent 30 years ministering to an Amazonian tribe, as its missions expert. Everett initially sympathizes with Chau, but then reveals he “abandoned” his Christian faith. In his view, missionary activity “should not be allowed.” (One wonders whether this is an unsubtle message from the film’s producers.) It’s Chau’s father, however, whose pain stings the most. Never a supporter of the mission, he blames the ­“radical evangelical extreme” for his son’s “reckless mistake.”

I wonder, though: Chau didn’t wake up one morning and storm North Sentinel’s beaches. And the film shows he researched the Sentinelese people for years, crafting a detailed plan to reach them. His skills as an outdoorsman and marathoner made him readier than most to live in dire conditions. Chau also worked through All Nations, a missionary sending agency. In the film, a representative assures viewers they’re “careful to screen [out] candidates who might have a Messiah complex.”

So there’s evidence Chau had planned carefully. And his death in the field may not invalidate his mission any more than his having lived would have proved his calling. Still, perhaps he shouldn’t have gone alone, which isn’t the Biblical norm.

Chau’s first arrival on the island had resulted in violence, but he escaped unscathed. He wrote in his diary that though he feared a second trip might mean his own death, he accepted God’s will for him: “I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people.”

Bob Brown

Bob is a movie reviewer for WORLD. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and works as a math professor. Bob resides with his wife, Lisa, and five kids in Bel Air, Md.



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