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Lunch » Tags » Religion » Reviews » The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice » User review

Hitchens' Missionary Position is a natural one

  • Mar 1, 2000
  • by
Pros: A genuinely needed 'expose' rather than a gratuitous one

Cons: Too brief -- Hitchens is best in essay format, and unquestioning religious types will not be willing to hear a word of this

Sitting down to write about Missionary Position : The Ideology of Mother Teresa, I am both cheered and dismayed to find that somebody else has beaten me to the punch, and done a bang-up job. In many ways I have little to add, in no small part because my motivations are selfish: I think this book needs a wider audience because I like this book, and it validates a lot of my thinking vis-a-vis Mother Teresa, which, summed up, is that she has always seemed to care more about poverty than about the poor.

That is somewhat awkwardly phrased: what I mean is that she has never struck me as being genuinely interested in helping the poor in the sense that you or I might, but in martyring them for reasons only understood by herself.[*]

The opening paragraph sums up the book excellently:

Who would be so base as to pick on a wizened, shrivelled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and destitute? On the other hand, who would be so incurious as to leave unexamined the influence and motives of a woman who once boasted of operating more than five hundred convents in upwards of 105 countries -- "without counting India"? Lone self-sacrificing zealot, or chair of a missionary multinational?

That last part has always been the part that has tripped me up: I find charity-with-proselytization repellent, and Mother Teresa has always seemed to me to be the epitome of this sort of practice. To call her 'selfless' is absurd: nobody, but nobody, would hesitate to criticize me if I printed up Dr Bronner-style labels riddled with propaganda espousing my own beliefs, slapped them on cans of creamed corn, and started flooding food banks continent-wide with creamed corn flogging the Word of Kmennie. Hence my problem with Mother Teresa: she was never able to leave the label off the creamed corn, or so it goes in this truly abominable analogy.

Her enormous influence disturbs me and makes Hitchens' book all the more necessary: even small children are quick to name her as a role model. From her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, with my comments in square brackets:

I was amazed when I learned that in the West so many young people are on drugs. [In what part of the world are drugs unheard of? Is she deliberately obtuse?] I tried to understand the reason for this. Why? The answer is, 'because in the family there is nobody who cares about them.' [I will remind my little brother how much I and everybody else in the family hate him if I find out he is smoking joints at parties.] Fathers and mothers are so busy they have no time. Young parents work, and the child lives in the street and goes his own way. [I never knew my benign suburban childhood was so detached from the hardships of the majority living 'in the street'!] We speak of peace. These are the things that threaten peace. I think that today peace is threatened by abortion, too, which is a true war, the direct killing of a child by its own mother. In the Bible we read that God clearly said: `Even though a mother did forget her infant, I will not forget him.;

Today, abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace. We who are here today were wanted by our parents. We would ot be here if our parents had not wanted us.
[How a woman with such poor rhetoric skills managed to wield such influence is beyond my ken.]

We want children, and we love them. But what about the other millions? Many are concerned about the children, like those in Africa, who die in great numbers either from hunger or other reasons. But millions of children die intentionally, by the will of their mothers. Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another? Nothing.

It is important to remember that this inflammatory speech was part of her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance. Being already bent the way I am regarding Mother Teresa, I would've found value in this book just for pointing out these sorts of absurdities -- the book is mostly a collection of chapters collecting her peculiarities, transgressions and shady alliances -- but Hitchens, frustratingly brief as he is at times (the book is a read-in-one-sitting deal), provides invaluable commentary. Most of it, like the above, speaks for itself, but Hitchens' writings are sufficiently erudite that he doesn't come off as completely secondary. After addressing the irony of a woman ministering to masses of obviously unwanted children allying abortion with infanticide, he brings up some of Mother Teresa's unfortunate comments made in Ireland on the topics of peace and abortion, and it is probably safe to say that she has done absolutely no favours for Ireland in either of those spheres.

The criticism that (quietly) surrounded this slim volume when it came out was predictable, pathetic, and telling: if there was legitimate criticism of The Missionary Position that did not involve what had already been admitted by Hitchens -- that going after a frail old woman was pretty low -- it has completely escaped my radar. What few negative comments I can find on the book simply decry Hitchens for being "hateful" and so on. Other would-be dissenters complain that the book is attacks the traditionalist Catholic church activities in contemporary society, which just serves to make the dissenters look like boobs: of course a book critical of a figurehead of a major religion is going to end up being critical of that religion.

The third critique is that is making dubious alliances with dictators is kosher so long as you minister to the sick and dying. Remind me to tell my general practitioner just how much leeway he has for sin -- given his chosen career, the man probably has a get-out-of-jail-free card coming to him!

None of the facts Hitchens uses to make his point have been discredited. If anything, the reaction to the book almost futhers the points Hitchens makes, if somewhat inadvertently, about the relationship of the 'first world' with the rest of it: guilt-ridden yet quick to be self-righteous, needy of control yet still utterly impotent.

[*] I have never pretended to subscribe to organized religion or to even understand it, but a modern-day Catholic apologist could make a full-time career out of Mother Teresa. The one thing this book lacks is an answer.


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review by . March 10, 2004
The very first book I ever reviewed on Amazon was this one. At the time I had never heard of Chris Hitchens and doubted his motives. I now am very familar with him and his opinions and looking at this book a 2nd time come to the following conclusions:Hitchens has as always written an honest book as in my review of many years past I don't dispute the facts he detailsHitchens is not convinced of a vast Vatican conspericy as I thought he is instead the classic anti-theist. He has no use for religion …
review by . June 17, 2000
As a Catholic after recovering my shock at this book and the various reviews (AH HA NOW WE SEE THROUGH THAT CHARLITON etc...!) I decided to read this book myself to see what was being said. I found the book compact and easy to read and much to my surprise VERY AMUSEING! It wasn't the facts as presented that amused me. They were presented in a fairly straight forward manner. It wasn't the attacks on Mother Teresa's order methods from the doctor or the nurse. Both have the right to their opinion aquired …
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What's next--The Girl Scouts: The Untold Story? How could anybody write a debunking book about Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity order? Well, in this little cruise missile of a book, Hitchens quickly establishes that the idea is not without point. After all, what is Mother Teresa doing hanging out with a dictator's wife in Haiti and accepting over a million dollars from Charles Keating? The most riveting material in the book is contained in two letters: one from Mother Teresa to Judge Lance Ito--then weighing what sentence to dole out to the convicted Keating--which cited all the work Keating has done "to help the poor," and another from a Los Angeles deputy D.A., Paul Turley, back to Mother Teresa that eloquently stated that rather than working to reduce Keating's sentence, she should return the money he gave her to its rightful owners, the defrauded bond-holders. (Significantly, Mother Teresa never replied.) And why do former missionary workers and visiting doctors consistently observe that the order's medical practices seem so inadequate, especially given all the money that comes in? (Hitchens acidly observes that on the other hand, Mother Teresa herself always manages to receive world-class medical care.) Hitchens's answer is that Mother Teresa is first and foremost interested not in providing medical treatment, but in furthering Catholic doctrine and--quite literally--becoming a saint.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ISBN-10: 185984054X
ISBN-13: 978-1859840542
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: Verso
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