My student is writing about the missionaries that tried to take what they considered the Word of God to Native American tribes. He’s using the term “savages” because that’s the term frequently used in the Christian literature, especially the Puritan literature, that discusses the indigenous peoples of New England. In American Literature I, we have read a lot of this literature, and also some of the eloquent testimony and commentary of Indian leaders. My favorite is the reply of Red Jacket, an orator and negotiator of the Seneca people, to the Massachusetts missionary Joseph Cram in 1805: “BROTHER: We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.” If only people in the 21st century could think like that!
It is perhaps unfair to take a sentence from a midterm exam for discussion here, but what interests me is not the relatively minor writing error, which should probably be excused on a test; it is the shining evidence of a tin ear (or a blind mind’s-eye), the kind that afflicts people writing under pressure.
Here’s the full sentence, the completion of what I’ve teased you with above:
“They tried to force the ‘savages’ to convert to Christianity by throwing the Christian bible in their face.”
We’re not talking friendly persuasion!
The actual error is the number disagreement between “savages”/”their” and “face.” Attending to the plural might have made my writer pause and rethink his cliché. But he did not notice the mistake, and so he gave me a moment of hilarity in the midst of my midterm tears.
“Don’t throw that in my face,” we say, when someone we’re arguing with refers to a past gaffe or stupidity and thereby scores a point. I think that’s the principal usage for this phrase, isn’t it? If so, it’s not the cliché my student should have chosen (as long as he was determined to choose a cliché at all). Still, any reader knows he wasn’t speaking literally: we have no record of someone actually throwing Bibles at Indians, nor would my student have tried to claim anyone actually did. He just meant, I’m sure, that missionaries and others pushed the Christian message again and again, unremittingly, brooking no protest and engaging in no debate—for the “savages'” own good, assuredly, the missionaries must have believed.
Still, I did laugh at the ridiculous image, the cartoon that flitted across my mind’s eye, Chingachgook throwing up his hands to protect himself from the barrage of airborne Bibles being flung by the hot-eyed, high-collared holy.
Well, we would all have been better off if the only ammunition had been Bibles. Still a spiritual assault, true, but causing much less bodily harm, and less permanent harm, than the bullets from the muskets of settlers and the rifles of soldiers.