The men stacked rocks to make a crude rectangular windbreak, and then turned their longboat upside down on top to create a roof for their shelter. This shelter became home for the men of the Greely Expedition during the winter of 1883-84. Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely and his 24 men had abandoned their camp on the shore of Lady Franklin Bay, on the north-eastern coast of Ellesmere Island, and traveled by boat and ice floe to Cape Sabine, where they hoped to find a cache of supplies. Tragically, they only found a few weeks of food, and a note detailing the failed attempts to reach them. One by one, the members of the expedition succumbed to the elements and their own hunger, leaving only seven of the original team to be rescued the following spring. They had been trapped in the Arctic for three and a half years.
The Greely Expedition was only one in a long line of failed explorations in the Arctic. Perhaps the most notorious was the attempt led by John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage that ended in the loss of the entire expedition. Rather than learn from the mistakes of Franklin, the Greely enterprise essentially copied many of the same failures of their predecessors. For a somewhat favorable account of Greely, you can read about the expedition on the Army Heritage Center Foundation’s website (Greely was sent north under the auspices of the U.S. Army Signal Corps), and for an account that highlight’s the Navy’s role in bailing out the hapless Army, you can go to the U.S. Naval Institute’s record of the “Disaster at Lady Franklin Bay.” The explanation for the failure of the expedition points to causes as diverse as poor leadership, faulty assumptions about the weather, inadequate resupply and rescue efforts, and a lack of political will to support the endeavor. There are a lot of opinions and finger-pointing, even a hundred and forty years later.
Barry Lopez, who has written extensively about life above the Arctic Circle, touches on what it perhaps the real reason for Greely’s failure. In his book Horizon, he calls attention to the two Inuit men who accompanied the Expedition. On their way to their final camp on Cape Sabine, he writes: “The Inughuit [sic] hunters, who were described by the party’s second-in-command as ‘worth their weight in gold,’ killed a 600-pound bearded seal, which greatly improved their overwintering prospects.” It is a tragic irony that expedition after expedition perished in a region that was populated by groups of people who lived there on a regular basis, and who had survived just fine for centuries. These two men who accompanied the expedition had the necessary knowledge and skills, but the cultural biases of the expedition leaders kept them from tapping into the indigenous wisdom of the people who knew how to thrive in that hostile environment.
Every culture has an indigenous wisdom that allows them to thrive in their given context. I can walk out my door at home, and take a nice, long walk on the ditch-bank behind our house. But there are places where it would be foolish and dangerous for me to step outside and go for that kind of walk. If I were to assume that I can to anything I want because I do it at home—in my native habitat—then I’m setting myself up for failure when I encounter a context that is foreign to me. The knowledge of what to do and how to live in a particular setting is indigenous wisdom. And the process of acquiring this indigenous wisdom is the process of discipleship. It’s not enough to be in the place, or invited into the “tribe”—you have to discipline yourself to learn the things you need in order to thrive.
This is why Christianity is so much more than just “being saved.” You could used the analogy of Arctic exploration. The world becomes a significantly hostile place when one becomes a Christian. Jesus said that the world would hate us. And if we think we are going to be able to navigate this hostile world with the same habits and patterns of behavior that we embraced before we were saved, then it’s like we’re going around in the sub-zero weather with our thin leather boots and cotton jackets instead of fur parkas and seal skin mukluks. Lopez writes: “The two Inughuit [sic] has served the expedition well and faithfully when they might easily have put themselves first and walked away. Still, Greely wrote that these Eskimos were ‘unable to appreciate the objectives’ of his expedition. Most of Greely’s party, too, condescended to the Inughuit’s [sic] knowledge of how to survive in these circumstances, feeling it beneath them to inquire among such people, to adopt their strategies or their methods.”
Christians who reject discipleship are rejecting the indigenous wisdom of generations of sisters and brothers inspired by the Spirit who have learned strategies and methods that have allowed them to survive in hostile spiritual environments. They may have—by accepting the gift of grace provided by Jesus—been adopted into the tribe, but if they feel it is unnecessary to go further, if they are disdainful of the indigenous wisdom of Christianity, then they can become a burden on the group and they endanger themselves in an unforgiving environment. But survival in a hostile world may not be the only concern. There is great risk in losing our indigenous heritage, of corrupting the Christian life-ways to the degree we no longer know what to pass on from generation to generation. If Biblical literacy is important to our Christian survival, then what are we to do when Christians de-prioritize Sunday Schools and Bible Studies because we’ve come to believe that all we need to do is be saved? We trade a robust and healthy Christian life for an anemic and sickly religiosity—trading our parkas for the old, thin jacket.
If the current state of our culture isn’t enough to convince you that the world is a harsh environment for Christians—full of hate and violence—then you probably haven’t been paying attention. But what do we need to survive, even thrive, in this harsh environment? It’s not the old way of doing things—the patterns of behavior that were comfortable and seemed reasonable back in our old life, our old habitat. We need new ways—new to us, perhaps—of living in this place, a place we can now see as hostile to our Christian commitments. We need to tap into the wisdom of the tribe, we need to acquire the indigenous knowledge and heritage that has served our Christian forebears well as they learned to live in this place. We need to protect that indigenous wisdom from the corrupting influence of worldly perspectives. We need to embrace discipleship. Then we can not only live, but thrive, in an otherwise dangerous land.