Amy Peterson reflects on the two years she worked overseas in her memoir Dangerous Territory with care and vulnerability. As part of her graduate studies, she went to Southeast Asia to teach English and quietly share the gospel. What followed disassembled everything she though she knew.
A childhood spent reading missionary biographies caused Peterson to believe “that the most important, most spiritual, Christians were the pastors and missionaries” (21). At first, Peterson enjoys seeing her identity as “one of heaven’s heroes,” bringing the message of Jesus to her students (155). Several difficult situations eventually lead to grief and emotional turmoil unlike any she had previously experienced. But, the impressions of missionary life from her childhood make her feel guilt over these natural emotions. She writes, “When you’re a missionary … people think you should be spiritual enough to overcome it [grief],” which only makes her grief harder to bear (195). Her story shares how she was able to move through her turmoil and develop a more three-dimensional view of serving God.
Peterson is aware of her memoir’s place in the genre of missionary biographies, but also of its many points of difference. She includes quotes from these biographies and chapters she titles “Interlude” to discuss the history of missions and broader ministry. This effectively provides context for her glamorized view of missions, as well the tensions between the faith she grew up with and how her experiences challenge that faith. She is also able to admit her discomfort with aspects of this history and desire for future change, including interesting observations about how she, as a woman, is supposed to operate in a male-dominated history. Most importantly, this layering of histories serves to highlight Peterson’s journey of redefining how she understands her faith and identity.
Dangerous Territory is full of layers: missionary history, Peterson’s emotional growth, the cultural background of the countries she serves, her realizations of faith, and more. While reading, I wasn’t sure why all of these varied elements were included; some anecdotes and detailed histories occasionally felt superfluous. But, by the time I finished it, I realized that her story is intelligent, honest, and constructed purposefully. Each component works with the others to illustrate Peterson’s changing perspective. So, by the end, I didn’t sense any heavy-handedness when she writes, “It was a message I had heard in churches all my life. But it had usually been followed by something – a but, an and, a so. … God loves you, so you shouldn’t worry, doubt, or fear. … I finally understood … that the sentence didn’t need anything added. God loved me. Full stop.” She shows her readers what she learned through experience, inviting them to learn with her rather than preaching at them with the clarity of hindsight.
I have been a part of the church since childhood, and, like Peterson, my faith has grown through study and various experiences. For many years, I’ve felt a disconnect between how Christians talk about what we believe and how it actually works in the complexity of our lives. Thankfully, Peterson is one of a growing group of writers, both storytellers and theologians, exploring what happens when, as she puts it, we release “ownership of the language of faith” (241). By sharing her story, Amy Peterson calls Christians to explore new ground, rebuilding ourselves and our faith in the process.
Megan Pooler is the Book Review Editor for Relief journal and is grateful to be part of a community celebrating the intersection of art and faith. A creative nonfiction writer and graduate of Whitworth University, she lives in Bend, OR where she works as a digital content curator for a travel company. When not agonizing over the right word choice for her essays, she can be found cooking with her family and friends, playing on the water, or curled up with her dog and a classic movie.