The Missionary Position

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The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Missionary Position book Mother Teresa.jpg
AuthorChristopher Hitchens
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
SubjectMother Teresa
PublisherVerso
Publication date
1995
ISBN1-85984-054-X
OCLC33358318
Dewey Decimal271/.97 B 20
LC ClassBX4406.5.Z8 H55 1995
 
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The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Missionary Position book Mother Teresa.jpg
AuthorChristopher Hitchens
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
SubjectMother Teresa
PublisherVerso
Publication date
1995
ISBN1-85984-054-X
OCLC33358318
Dewey Decimal271/.97 B 20
LC ClassBX4406.5.Z8 H55 1995

The slim paperback volume entitled The Missionary Position : Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice was first published in 1995 by Verso, the sole imprint of New Left Books launched in 1970 by the New Left Review, a British journal of left-wing theory.[1] Verso claims to be "the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world"[2] Its author was the journalist and writer Christopher Hitchens whose first best selling book was God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007).[3]

The subject of the book is what the author considered were the shortcomings of Mother Teresa. He was not the first to censure her for her beliefs, for some of his themes had been anticipated by others.[4] Nor was the book the first occasion on which Hitchens verbally attacked Mother Teresa. In 1992 he wrote a polemical piece for his regular column in The Nation;[5] in 1993 he aired his views on her in the course of an interview on C-SPAN's Booknotes series;[6] in 1994 there was broadcast on British television a 25 minute television essay;[7] and in early 1995 he wrote a piece in Vanity Fair describing the making of the television essay.[8] These are all noticed in the Foreword where he describes his work as part of "a battle".[9]

Small in compass, the book was promoted as being 98 pages long, but authorial matter occupies no more than 72 pages.[10] It has been likened to a pamphlet.[11] In 2012 it was re-issued in both paperback and ebook form with a foreword by Thomas Mallon.[12] Although the publishers of the 2012 re-issue described it as "a meticulous study of the life and deeds of Mother Teresa" and "a measured critique", the general consensus is that it is polemical.[13]

Structure[edit]

The book sets out to provoke a reassessment of Mother Teresa's reputation by advancing various arguments most of which had been previously ventilated by Hitchens in what he termed "early polemics" in magazine articles in the USA, and in a TV programme written and presented by him which was broadcast on British television in November 1994. Hitchens' own estimate is that the book represents an expansion of the TV script "by about a third".[14] These arguments are not developed or pursued in the book in a scholarly way and, for the most part, lack cited sources.[15] Vague and unsubstantiated imputations of personal impropriety, in particular, are diffused throughout the Introduction and throughout the three main sections entitled respectively "A Miracle" (treating of the 1969 BBC documentary Something Wonderful for God which brought her to the attention of the general public), "Good Works and Heroic Deeds", and "Ubiquity", leading one reviewer to object: "Much is insinuated but nothing quite alleged"[16]

The second section of the book is divided into three untitled sub-sections addressing: (I) the finances of the religious order she founded (the Missionaries of Charity), and conditions at the famous Home for the Dying in Calcutta; (II) Catholic moral teaching and her espousal of it, focussed on abortion and contraception; and (III) the awards and donations Mother Teresa accepted in the last 20 years of her life. The third section, "Ubiquity", has two sub-sections: (I) a treatment of political events in the Balkans, presented as background to a one page account of her childhood, and (II) the claim, based on her extensive travels, that Mother Teresa was politically active and gave solace to what Hitchens perceived as reactionary and repressive governments. The book ends with a short Afterword.

Method[edit]

Hitchens' argument is based on: a handful of eye-witness accounts (all of them by Westerners);[17] a few photographs (not reproduced) of Mother Teresa with certain individuals; and some video footage of her in Haiti and Albania, and at Bhopal and Madrid. Mother Teresa's own words are reported, but, except in three instances, not extensively.[18] In developing the arguments, Hitchens frequently relies on hypothesis and speculation, insinuation, innuendo, guilt by association, gratuitous use of prejudicial terms, and adverse conclusions drawn from Mother Teresa's silence on various topics.[19]

Rhetorical devices, including hyperbole, litotes and bathos, are employed to disparage Mother Teresa further.[20]

Reviews[edit]

In The London Review of Books Amit Chaudhuri praised the book: "Hitchens’s investigations have been a solitary and courageous endeavour. The book is extremely well-written, with a sanity and sympathy that tempers its irony." He commented that the portrait "is in danger of assuming the one-dimensionality of the Mother Teresa of her admirers", and that he finished the book without much more of an idea of the character and motivations of Mother Teresa.[21]

The San Francisco Bay Guardian said: "Anyone with ambivalent feelings about the influence of Catholic dogma (especially concerning sex and procreation); about the media's manufacture of images; or about what one can, should or shouldn't do for someone less fortunate, should read this book."[22] In 1996, The New York Times published a favourable review by Bruno Maddox in which he wrote: "Mr. Hitchens, a columnist at Vanity Fair and The Nation, is rather convincing" and "Hitchens argues his case with consummate style".[23]

The Sunday Times said: "A dirty job but someone had to do it. By the end of this elegantly written, brilliantly argued piece of polemic, it is not looking good for Mother Teresa."[22] Also in 1996, a critical review of the book was penned by William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League, who comments: "If this sounds like nonsense, well, it is."[24]

Replying to a positive review of Hitchens' book in the New York Review of Books by Murray Kempton, Jesuit author James Martin offered a defense of Mother Teresa against the criticisms brought against her. Noting the difficulties involved with offering aid to the destitute in the developing world, he concluded by writing, "[R]egarding the 'poorest of the poor,' those who today die neglected, there would seem to be two choices. First, to cluck one’s tongue that such a group of people should even exist. Second, to act: to provide comfort and solace to these individuals as they face death. Mr. Kempton chooses the former. Mother Teresa, for all of her faults, chooses the latter."[25] In another letter in the same issue, literary critic and sinologist Simon Leys criticised Hitchens' portrayal of Mother Teresa, stating, "Bashing an elderly nun under an obscene label does not seem to be a particularly brave or stylish thing to do. Besides, it appears that the attacks which are being directed at Mother Teresa all boil down to one single crime: she endeavors to be a Christian, in the most literal sense of the word—which is (and always was, and will always remain) a most improper and unacceptable undertaking in this world."[26] Hitchens replied to Leys' letter in a subsequent issue,[27] and Leys in turn defended his original stance, writing that Hitchens' book "contain[ed] a remarkable number of howlers on elementary aspects of Christianity" and accusing Hitchens of "a complete ignorance of the position of the Catholic Church on the issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage" and a "strong and vehement distaste for Mother Teresa."[28]

References[edit]

  1. ^ See the entry in the online summary of publishers maintained by Penguin Books, accessed 27 January 2014
  2. ^ See the "about" page of the publisher's website, accessed 27 January 2014
  3. ^ Michael Wolff, GQ Magazine", 3 April 2013, The damnation of St Christopher, accessed 2 February 2014
  4. ^ Barbara Smoker, ex-President of the UK National Secular Society, wrote a piece in 1980 entitled "Mother Teresa-Sacred Cow?" The Freethinker, February 1980, deriding her stance on abortion and contraception. Nevertheless (and despite the demeaning title of her piece), she conceded Mother Teresa's "obvious sincerity" and called her "an amazing woman, a warm human being . .". Germaine Greer chose Mother Teresa as her "villain" in a "Heroes and Villains" feature in the Saturday magazine of The Independent, 22 September 1990, claiming she was a "religious imperialist" who used her charity to foist Catholicism on the vulnerable
  5. ^ "Mother Teresa: Ghoul of Calcutta", The Nation, April 1992, reprinted in a collection of essays entitled For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports, Verso, (August 1994)
  6. ^ Interview by Brian Lamb, broadcast 17 October 1993
  7. ^ "Hell's Angel", shown on 8 November 1994 on Channel Four in its arts series "Without Walls"
  8. ^ Christopher Hitchens, "Mother Teresa and Me", Vanity Fair, February 1995
  9. ^ Foreword, page xii, where he calls the articles "early polemics" which he expected would evoke "a hostile response" (the TV essay did, but according to him, he was surprised that the articles did not); he cites at pages xii-xiii "an unending argument between those who know they are right . . and those who suspect that the human race has nothing but the poor candle of reason by which to light its way", and acknowledges (p. xiii) support he received "in this battle"
  10. ^ It was promoted by Verso as a 98 page book, but, leaving aside the Foreword and Acknowledgements section (pp. xi-xiii), and taking account of blank pages, the pages of quotes, those places where text occupies less than half the page, and the two letters on pages 67-70, the authorial material extends over no more than 72 pages.
  11. ^ See Bruno Maddox's review, The New York Times, 14 January 1996: "Like all good pamphlets . . it is very short, zealously over-written and rails wildly . . "; Scott Stephens called it a "scandalous pamphlet", in a feature posted on the website of ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation), accessed 27 January 2014; Michael Wolff called it a "pamphlet-like book" in a piece for GQ Magazine", dated 3 April 2013, The damnation of St Christopher, accessed 2 February 2014
  12. ^ In the United States, by Little, Brown & Company under its imprint Grand Central Publishing. See the product details on, e.g., the Barnes & Noble website, accessed 27 January 2014
  13. ^ See the "overview" and extracts from the contemporary reviews in Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, Library Journal, and The Sunday Times (London) all as gathered on the Barnes and Noble website, accessed 2 February 2014
  14. ^ Reference to the "early polemics" and to the TV programme is made at p. xii of the Foreword. The 25 minute feature, entitled Hell's Angel, was shown on Channel Four on 8 November 1994. In an interview with Matt Cherry (Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 16, Number 4. Fall, 1996), Hitchens said: "The book is the television program expanded by about a third."
  15. ^ See the undated review of The Missionary Position by Charles L. Lumpkins in Library Journal : "This readable, caustic polemic is very short on biographical data and cited sources and lacks scholarly development"
  16. ^ David Warren, "The Muckraking of Mother Teresa", , Saturday Night (a Toronto magazine no longer extant), Vol. 110, Issue 9, November 1995, pp. 46-50
  17. ^ Dr Robin Fox, pp. 38f.; Mary Loudon, pp. 39-41; Elgy Gillespie, pp. 42f.; Susan Shields, pp. 44-48; Emily Lewis, p. 49
  18. ^ Three brief quotes in the Introduction (pp. 4, 5 and 11); three short interchanges with Malcolm Muggeridge taken from the BBC TV documentary Something Beautiful for God (pp. 29-31) with two further quotes from the same source (pp. 60, 79); an extended passage from the Nobel lecture Mother Teresa delivered on 11 December 1979 (pp. 56f.) incorrectly said by Hitchens to have been part of her "address to the ceremony of investiture" (which occurred the previous day); a sentence from a speech in Knock, Ireland (p. 58); a short anecdote as reported by another person (p. 61f.); a one page letter from her dated 18/1/92 (p. 67); 16 lines spoken by her when receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom (pp. 90f.); and two lines from her visit to Guatemala (p. 93)
  19. ^ Hypothesis and speculation : Alluding to a quote recorded on page 60, he surmised (p. 64): "if she is claiming that the order does not solicit money from the rich and powerful, or accept it from them, this is easily shown to be false." "It is at least worth considering whether Mother Teresa made [foreign trips] in furtherance of the more flinty political stands taken by hard-liners in her own Church" (p. 83). The respectful obeisance shown to Mother Teresa at an orphanage : "perhaps it was a local custom that I understood imperfectly" (p. 24). Insinuations of involvement with or approval of extremists : local zealots in Kosovo "flourish their pictures of Mother Teresa", (p. 85); she is "a fund-raising icon for clerical nationalists in the Balkans" (p. 98). Innuendo : "[Mother Teresa] checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West" (p. 41); "without an audit it is impossible to say with certainty what becomes of Mother Teresa's hoards of money" (p. 47); "the affectation of poverty" (p. 61). Guilt by association with "frauds, crooks, and exploiters" – "At what point . . does such association cease to be coincidental?" (p. 8). Gratuitous use of prejudicial terms : One eye-witness account begins by comparing the Home for the Dying in Calcutta to Belsen, the Nazi extermination camp although the sole point of comparison was that the inmates had shaved heads (p. 40); elsewhere he wrote that she "danced attendance" on Mengistu, the Ethiopian head of state accused by Hitchens of using starvation as a weapon even against his own people (p. 91). Silence treated as self-incriminating (friendship with despots, pp. 5, 98)
  20. ^ Hyperbole : The photograph of Mother Teresa in Haiti is first described (p. 4) as showing Mme Duvalier's "bangled arms . . being held in a loving clasp by another woman, who is offering up a gaze filled with respect and deference." The next reference to it appears on page 11 where it is said to show "Mother Teresa locked in a sisterly embrace with Michèle Duvalier". The photograph is not reproduced in the book, but it was shown in the TV programme. In it, Mother Teresa (who is looking straight ahead) is holding Mme Duvalier's hands in her own, and the respect and deference is being shown by the latter to the former. Litotes : the British newspaper The Daily Mirror raised money from its readers in support of Mother Teresa but Robert Maxwell, the man who controlled the newspaper stole the donations according to Hitchens, who commented (p. 64) ". . it can still be argued with some degree of plausibility that she was a blameless party to his cynical manipulations." Bathos : Reference to Mengistu's use of "the weapon of starvation" against Ethiopians and Eritreans is immediately followed by the claim that this "had not prevented Mother Teresa from dancing attendance upon him . ." (p. 91); reference to the "killing fields" of Guatemala and the "extirpation" of Guatemalan Indians is immediately followed by a report of something which Mother Teresa is said to have "purred" (p. 93)
  21. ^ Chaudhuri, Amit. "Why Calcutta?". London Review of Books. Archived from the original on 15 March 2012. Retrieved 15 March 2012. 
  22. ^ a b "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice".  Verso Books
  23. ^ Bruno Maddox (14 January 1996). "New York Times book review". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 30 January 2013. 
  24. ^ William Donohue (19 March 1996). "Hating Mother Theresa". Catholicleague.org. Retrieved 30 January 2013. 
  25. ^ James Martin. "In Defense of Mother Teresa". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  26. ^ Simon Leys. "In Defense of Mother Teresa". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  27. ^ Christopher Hitchens. "Mother Teresa". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  28. ^ Simon Leys. "On Mother Teresa". Nybooks.com. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 

Sources[edit]

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