It’s beach-reading season—and I have a can’t-miss recommendation. Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya, the debut novel of St. Mary’s College (Ind.) history professor Bill Svelmoe, is a hysterical account of the foibles of good-hearted, but sometimes naïve missionaries.
I recommend the book for several reasons. First, it offers texture and empathy. I grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, but I could just about imagine what it must be like to live as part of a religious colony in an utterly foreign place like the jungles of Asia. The characters embody sacrifice, loneliness, adventure, emotional frailty, and uncommon strength. Given the novel’s humanity, it is no surprise to learn that Svelmoe himself grew up in a missionary family in the Philippines. If this story is any indication, he seems profoundly ambivalent about his own history. The narrative careens from exasperation to affection. Consider this passage between the book’s protagonist (a young rebel named Philip who is questioning his faith) and a kind-hearted missionary who sympathizes with Philip’s critiques of the missionary base (and who boasts a hidden cache of Bob Dylan and Beatles records):
Joseph stood to go. But Philip had a question. “What about you? You seem to have an interesting perspective on all this? Why are you here?”
Joseph picked up their bottles and put them in a case already half full of empties [to clarify, these bottles contained orange sodas, not beer–the missionary agency would not have allowed that]. “Because the foibles and follies of evangelicalism aren’t the sum total of the gospel. What these folks do is great work. And they’re the only ones doing it. Only evangelicals and fundamentalists, like your Dad for instance, care enough to do this kind of thing. So I support their work, I support them, and, most of the time, I keep my opinions to myself.”
Second, the novel features an historian’s eye for context and significance. Svelmoe, who has also written a scholarly monograph on Wycliffe founder Cameron Townsend, paints a twentieth-century evangelical landscape of missionary outposts, suburban California mega-churches, ambivalence toward modernity, practices of intense individual spirituality, and strict cultural codes. I can imagine this novel offering good fodder for discussion in a college course in American religious history.
But mostly Spirits Eat Ripe Papaya is just a lot of fun. There’s a urinating monkey, a budding romance between Philip and the missionary school’s librarian, and a withering description of the fundamentalist apocalyptic horror film Thief in the Night:
[It] was a train wreck, but fun in that “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” sort of way. Several lightly groomed Christian teenagers lamely attempted to convince a group of equally homely heathen teens that Jesus was about to return and they’d better get right or they’d get left. Philip would have left the entire lot of them. Their hair will get grease on the heavenly sofas, he thought. It was easy to tell the soon-to-be-saved heathens from the soon-to-be-left-behind heathens. The good heathens listened to the speaker’s tedious lecture about the end times with intense looks on their faces, while the bad heathens just wanted sex. The heathen boys leered indiscriminately at girls both righteous and unrighteous, while the Christian boys had clearly been neutered. The most unconscionable scene in Philip’s opinion was when a little girl woke up in a seemingly empty house and, freaked out by all the rapture talk to which she’d been exposed, began to shriek, thinking she’d been left behind. When her parents rushed in they capitalized on their daughter’s terror to lead her in the sinner’s prayer. Now there’s a genuine conversion, Philip thought.
And then this priceless commentary: “The Antichrist did not appear to be well funded, as his forces consisted of about five people driving second-hand vans.”
We can only hope that Svelmoe, who is beginning a sabbatical this summer, is reclining on a chaise lounge on his deck armed with a laptop, a drink that is not orange soda, and a childhood of memories as he dreams up new plotlines of fundamentalist hijinks in the jungles.