I just finished reading “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time” by Greg Mortenson and David Olive Relin. Here are some thoughts on it.
What’s it about? A biography of the life til now of Greg Mortenson, founder of Central Asia Institute.
The book itself is, imo, very well written. It takes a journalistic style and mixes it with biography; events are placed around narrative cleverly to keep the reader going. I don’t have a whole lot of free time to read and found myself sacrificing some sleep to keep going on this one. The reader is made very comfortable in the lands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is not exactly easy!
On the content of the book….It is clear from the book that the life of Greg Mortenson is one of missionary zeal, in the cause of building secular schools (especially for girls) in the Pakistan/Afghanistan areas. A vision and mission most Americans can certainly approve of, as can be seen by the NYT #1 bestseller status of the book. And since Mortenson’s work has been approved of by Shariat law, obviously a mission that the people of central Asia agree with as well. It is very clearly humanitarian in theology, sharing the belief that education will be the savior of the world’s poor. And why would the people of Asia disagree? Here’s an American devoting his life to building them schools, schools that they are either too poor or too corrupt to build for their own people. Who’s gonna fight that?
What struck me is how I found myself agreeing with the conservative Muslim judges who looked into Mortenson’s schools. Their number one concern was not how many schools, where, who, etc, but with what is actually taught in the schools. And to me, that is really a more important question. I do not believe education is the savior of the world’s poor; certainly it can give them more economic clout but it has no salvific power. If schools are set up to teach these women how to be like Western women (and it seems so from the end of the book, as the first graduate is described glowingly for interrupting a meeting of her elders to demand money for more schooling), then I would be nervous if I were the “natives”. Western society has much to learn from community-based societies and I don’t necessarily agree that turning those societies’ women into individualistic clones of Westerners is a good thing. Giving women more options than what they currently have is great; teaching them to disrespect their elders and believe that their own personal life satisfaction is more important than their communities’ good is not. And please understand, I’m not saying that that’s what CAI is doing. It just seemed like that at the end of the book.
As a Christian, finally, I felt sad reading the book. Obviously, I believe that only knowledge of Christ and his power to save is the only truly empowering force in the world. It is when a person’s heart changes, to love God and love his/her neighbor, that the world ever improves. All the education in the world has not stopped Western society in its self-destructive path. And hearing, through this book, of Mortenson’s great zeal for these people I wondered “What if he was as worried for their souls?” Mortenson, although raised as a missionary kid, does not seem to hold to an exclusively Christian faith (probably why he’s popular in Islamic cultures). Yet there is a point he/they make that I agree with 100%; they say that in war, while leaders of both sides claim God is on their side, God is really on the side of the poor, the widow, and the fatherless. And that is something that the Bible agrees with over and over. So I would feel no compunction in supporting Mortenson’s mission but as a Christian I also feel that teaching others of God’s love for them is more important than the multiplication table. My two cents.