Burma has always intrigued me, though I have only visited once, and that visit lasted about five minutes. Our Youth With a Mission team was putting on an evangelical show on the Thai side of the river that flows by Maesai along the northern Thai border. We sang, acted, and preached on the Thai side, with about a hundred watching on the ground below our bamboo hut, and our preacher yelled across the river (in Thai) to a few dozen observers on the far bank. He called on some people to be healed of diseases, and I waded across the river to hand out a few tracts.
I've always wanted to see more. Living in Yunnan along China's southern border, I've met smugglers of jade, precious gems, cars, had my wallet stolen probably by an addict of smuggled opiates, heard about Bible-smuggling on elephants across the border. Burma is a land of tall mountains, jungles, dozens of ethnic groups with their own languages and dress, tigers, elephants, opium, sex trade, and cruel government oppression.
Last fall, I visited an American pastor who told me about some friends of his who are helping the Karen people in Burma resist the brutal Burmese army. After my visit in 1984, I used to pray for the tribes of Burma, who had already endured mortar fire, strafing, enslavement, rape, and mass murder, since for more than two decades by that time.
Or so I thought, until I read this book. As it turns out, the Burmese have been treating the hill tribes much the same way at least since the early 19th Century.
Francis Mason, himself a missionary to the Karen after the fire had already started to spread, tells the story of this remarkable "people movement" in a book called The Karen Apostle; or, Memoir of Ko Thah-Byu, the First Karen Convert .
The story focuses on the first Karen Christian, a former robber, murderer, then slave, named Ko Thah Byu. Having been enslaved, Ko was purchased by that long-suffering Baptist, Adoniram Judson, who then educated him and, of course, gave him his freedom. Thah Byu set his whole heart on preaching the Gospel to his fellow Karen. Nothing animated him more than this work -- in fact, Mason repeatedly makes the point that he wasn't much good at anything else, not being very bright, or really that good of a preacher. But he preached the Gospel with all his heart, traveling in dry season and wet, from one district and town in Burma to another, winning thousands to the faith.
Mason does not limit himself to telling Thah Byu's story. He also explains some of the historical background, and, most interesting, writes a fairly detailed description of the remarkably detailed understanding the Karen people had of God, of creation, God's commandments, and so forth. In fact, skeptical readers will find it hard to believe Mason or someone didn't just copy long stretches of the Genesis story and paste them into Karen culture. Others might suppose, as Mason himself does, that the Karen had somehow gotten news of the Bible, and that's why "the elders" were able to give them such remarkably detailed preparation for the coming message.
I've heard bits and pieces of the story from several books -- the first being Don Richardson's Eternity in Their Hearts -- but found more of it here, than in any other source.
It is almost always extremely difficult to transmit a religion to a totally new people. Sociologist Rodney Stark seems almost to deny that so quick a spread of faith as Mason describes, is even possible, without miracles. So the "redemptive analogies" Mason finds in Karen tradition help explain what does seem to require explanation.
Mason also tells a little about his own experience as a missionary, including one fascinating example of "divine preparation," that invoved him getting lost in a jungle, then blundering into a village in which the locals were expecting him (apparently without any human advance warning) and had even built a hut for him to stay in -- like Cornelius in Acts.
Early Karen Christians often seemed to suffer quite a bit for their faith, also as in Acts, which has not changed all that much in the last two hundred years.
The book is a bit of a hodge-podge, with long portions quoted directly from other sources, slightly off-topic chapters, sometimes over-written, but some good writing, too. It all seems to hang together, though; the added letters and quotes give it a sort of immediacy. Surprisingly, Mason says almost nothing about ethnic groups other than the Karen, the "Burman," and the Shan.
I read an 1884 hardcover edition of this book, rather than this edition, which is apparently illustrated; a good idea. The book is no literary masterpiece or great psychological study, but it is a moving and fascinating read. It also reminds me to pray again for the much-suffering minority peoples of Burma.