The Story of Radio Mind

A Missionary's Journal on Indigenous Land

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Pamela E. Klassen
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , April
     2018.
     336 pages.
     $27.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780226552736.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“Radio mind” is a term coined in the 1920s by the Anglican Archbishop of British Columbia to describe the transmission of thought across space and time. As proof of this transmission, Archbishop Frederic Du Vernet found thoughts from his daughter passing through his hand as he held a pendulum above a spelling chart. Du Vernet understood this experiment in telepathy to be evidence for the power of the spirit famously celebrated by the Apostle Paul. An early radio enthusiast, he appreciated the new form of broadcasting as a metaphor for the mind. 

In this deeply researched and thoroughly engaging book, Pamela Klassen explains how Du Vernet came to the idea of “radio mind” at the end of a long career as a missionary, church leader, and government liaison. After decades striving to bring together different cultures, opposing ideologies, and conflicting interests, “radio mind” reflected Du Vernet’s own experience as a receiver and transmitter of stories, some of which he downplayed or did not hear clearly, others of which he reenergized by retelling. The tragedy of Du Vernet’s life, Klassen suggests, was that his mind operated at non-intersecting frequencies. Despite the many efforts he made to hear different voices and care for the people to whom he considered himself responsible, his own waves of thought were never fully integrated. Most tellingly, the critical force of indigenous voices never penetrated Du Vernet’s confidence in the power of Christianity transmitted through British colonization. He empathized with the Nisga’a, Ts’msyen, and Haida people who protested the abuses suffered by their children in residential schools. But he never recognized the extent to which his own work promoting Western education, encouraging white settlement, and converting indigenous people to Christianity contributed to those abuses. He never saw how deeply implicated Christianity was in the dispossession of First Nations lands, or in the mentality that drove white settlement in British Columbia and relegated indigenous peoples to inferior status.

Klassen understands Du Vernet and his situation better than he did. Working a century later, she has heard more indigenous voices and been able to draw upon postcolonial scholarship and activism. Invoking the spirit of the 2015 report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she overlooks no opportunity to expose the role that Christianity played in justifying colonization and rationalizing the seizure of indigenous lands. But she also pays close attention to the ways indigenous people worked with the material culture and ideas associated with Christianity to assert their own sovereign rights, preserve their societies, and contribute to the meaning of religion and spirituality in Canada, and indeed to the meaning of Canada itself. If there are elements of romanticism in Klassen’s depiction of indigenous life, they are contained within the inescapable context of Christian colonization that made them so. She also treats Du Vernet with empathy, recognizing that however flawed and incomplete his understanding, he did care deeply about the land and peoples he lived with. Klassen’s fellow feeling for Du Vernet makes his story hopeful as well as tragic. 

In the spirit of fellow feeling that informs her book, Klassen includes stories about pivotal moments in her own research into Du Vernet’s life and situation. And to drive home the organizing theme that stories shape our worlds, she describes her own storytelling as a mother. Her youngest daughter’s preference for the improvisational intimacy of stories “from the mouth” helps the reader relate to Du Vernet, who was often praised for his sociability and speaking ability. If there is a flaw in this masterful work, it lies with the ambivalence in Klassen’s handling of her own position with respect to the stories she tells. This ambivalence extends to the larger project of truth and reconciliation she seeks to advance. Truth and reconciliation may serve each other in certain cases but to borrow a metaphor, they operate on different frequencies. Klassen is clear and insightful on both frequencies but her double purpose ruffles the narrative. This effort to bring two inherently different purposes together is indicative of the irresolution within the field of North American religion, which Klassen represents at its very best.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda Porterfield is Professor Emerita of Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Pamela E. Klassen is Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, cross-appointed to anthropology. She is the author of several books, including Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity, and Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, with coauthors Paul Christopher Johnson and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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