Our globe has few blank spots today. On a map, roads look like webs. Satellites circle, watching every square foot of Earth. The internet connects people from opposite ends of the world in fractions of a second.
But even now, pockets of unknown exist. And one of those is North Sentinel Island.
Oh, the geography is simple enough: It’s about five miles long and 4.3 miles wide, located about 750 miles from mainland India. But the Sentinelese who live there? We know virtually nothing about them. They might number in the dozens or hundreds. Their language is inscrutable, and that’s how they like it.
They seem to have have no desire to talk with outsiders. Those who venture too close could be met with angry shouts and arrows. And it’s illegal to go there—to even come within five nautical miles of the island.
But in 2018, 26-year-old John Chau went anyway—to preach the Gospel.
He never came back.
The Mission pieces together John’s arguably quixotic, ultimately fatal attempt to reach the Sentinelese for Christ. It explores the tension between the Sentinelese’s desire to be left alone and the Christian desire to share the Good News. And it forces bigger questions of how the modern world has historically interacted with its blank spots and untouched peoples, as well as how—and if—we should.
Momentarily setting aside the question of whether he should’ve visited the Sentinelese, John Chau seems like a great guy. He was smart, kind, friendly and idealistic—a Christian who walked the walk admirably, according to those who knew him best.
A high school friend, Levi Davis, recalls an accountability group that he and John belonged to. And while he admits to “doing all of the things that we shouldn’t do,” John was committed and consistent.
Another friend—this one from a post-college job—talks about how she was in “a very dark part of my life” when she worked with John. He reached out to her when he noticed she was not doing that well and invited her to go on a backpacking trip with him and a couple of female friends. His motives were pure and altruistic, it seems: He simply wanted to help her into a more positive space.
John’s motives to visit the Sentinelese were just as honorable and well intentioned. The documentary shows us how hard he worked to prepare himself for the mission. He was adamant that he’d avoid “any colonizing mentalities to the mission.” And he apparently committed to the mission with the very purest of motives.
John wanted to learn as much about the Sentinelese as possible, not impose his own Western ideals on them. A friend of his recalls, “John said, ‘I want the Sentinelese, if they want to accept this story, to do it in such a way that is honest to their own culture.’”
Because the whole movie is predicated on religion and faith, it’ll be impossible to list every instance we see it in play. But here’s a general overview.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about John’s positive traits—or, any negative ones, for that matter—without talking about his Christian faith. It seems to have been, hands down, the most important aspect of his life. And while atheists will suggest his faith was without merit and his death without meaning, no one can accuse the guy of hypocrisy.
Even if some might consider John’s sense of his call questionable, his commitment to God was unmistakable: His trip to North Sentinel Island was motivated entirely by the Great Commission (wherein Jesus commanded His followers to “make disciples of all nations”). John also believed that by following the Great Commission, he might help nudge Jesus’ Second Coming, as well. We hear John (through his diary entries, emails and social media posts) make dozens of references to his faith and what he saw as his “calling.”
John expressed doubts in that calling at times, but he believed that God supernaturally addressed those doubts. When John wrestled with his doubts during an airplane ride, he reports being overcome with a feeling of peace and certainty. When he made his first abortive trip to the island, he believes that God supernaturally hid his ship from the Indian patrols guarding the island. When the islanders fired an arrow at him—an arrow which hit the Bible he was holding in front of his chest—John was having second thoughts about his mission. But then he had a dream that he interpreted as a clear sign that God wanted him to go on.
“I suppose John Chau felt like he was in the palm of the Lord’s hand somehow,” said Adam Goodheart, author of a book on the North Sentinel Island. “There’s a fine line between faith and madness.”
Indeed, The Mission also interviews a handful of people who believe that his mission was close to madness. Dan Everett is perhaps the most vehement. We learn that he was a missionary for 30 years to another group of relatively isolated people. Ultimately, that work didn’t lead people to Christ, but rather led him away from the faith. He’s now an advocate against missionary work, and he views John’s mission as the equivalent of him giving his life for any other imaginary being, such as “Zeus or Thor or Santa Claus.”
John’s own father says that he’s also a Christian, but that he’s not a part of the “radical evangelicals and don’t agree with their views on the Great Commission—the biblical-based slogan distorted for the hidden colonial or imperialist agenda.” A former pastor of John’s admits that he believed that John was “pursuing a fantasy. … In discerning the call, we can mess it up.”
That said, we also we hear from those who believed in John’s mission. He worked with a missionary group called All Nations International, and representatives from the group talk about how John was trained. To say that the Gospel should be automatically barred from certain peoples, says All Nations’ Pam Arlund, “that’s a basic violation of their human right.” In other words, they have the right to accept or reject the message once they hear it. Arlund says that all of the group’s applicants are carefully screened for a “Messiah complex.” And she also notes that’s “really important, because we already have a Messiah.” We hear from plenty of others, too, who knew John and know the Bible.
The documentary illustrates various religious and biblical principles and motivations by using clips from religious films—most of which feel pretty antiquated and even silly. Scenes from End of the Spear (which chronicles the story of Nate Saint and Jim Eliot’s martyrdom reaching out to an isolated tribe in Ecuador) was one of John’s favorite films. And it finds its way into the doc, too.
We see baptisms. We hear Bible verses and quotations. Dan Everett says with sadness that John’s death will “become famous in the Church” and fuel more missionaries. And, indeed, we see someone from Oral Roberts University exhorting an auditorium full of people to go out and, in some manner, follow John’s example.
The Sentinelese live in a warm climate absolutely isolated from the rest of the world. As such, they wear very little, if any, clothing. And because the documentary wants to illustrate how society interacts with isolated people groups, we see scenes with other, similar communities that eschew clothes, as well: Viewers can expect to see fully or mostly nude men, women and children, including breasts and shadowy glimpses of male genitalia.
As mentioned, John goes on an extended backpacking trip with three women. The trip appears to have been completely platonic, but the woman whom John invited (Arin Okada) admits that she “had a bit of a crush on him.” When she gave John a note that unpacked her feelings for him, John was apparently embarrassed and told her that he was “focusing on myself right now.” (The truth is a bit more complex: Already, he was concentrating on his mission to North Sentinel Island.)
Dan relates how his relationship with the tribe he was evangelizing came to an end. After showing the tribe filmstrips explaining who Jesus was, the tribespeople claimed that Jesus had come to them in the night: They told Dan that he had a three-foot-long penis and was trying to have sex with everybody. “This was their way of rejecting it,” Dan recalls.
We see John and his friends occasionally shirtless. Levi says that his and John’s accountability group was essentially to help the guys involved to stay away from pornography. Levi admits that it didn’t work for him.
We know from the outset that John died during his mission. (His body was never recovered, for obvious reasons.) We see previous encounters the Sentinelese have had with outsiders, brandishing weapons and shooting arrows. One anthropologist, who managed to interact with the Sentinelese decades earlier, recalls how after one interaction, a boy took out a knife and made a cutting motion across his chest. The anthropologist said that he interpreted as, “If you stay on, I will carve out your heart.”
But we also hear some reasons for why the Sentinelese might be resistant to outside contact. This is especially vivid in the work of Maurice Vidal Portman, who documented several tribes around the island group. In 1888, he seemingly kidnapped six Sentinelese—an older couple and four children—and took them to his homebase at Port Blair (on a neighboring island). In his own account, he says that “they sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents.”
In a later passage in his own book, Portman writes of previously untouched island peoples, “When we came amongst them, they lost their vitality, which was wholly dependent on being untouched, and the end of the race came.”
We hear about how diseases can be introduced into people so long separated from the rest of the world. One man (from another nearby island group) talks about how an evil spirit would sometimes take men away. We see pictures of a fire raging through a wilderness area. Woodcutting illustrations in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs depict many horrific ways in which Christians have come to their ends. (Clips from movies illustrate others.) Other film clips showcase acts of swashbuckling violence.
John’s mission is called “suicidal” by some.
We hear one misuse of God’s name.
From the outset, John knows that his mission to North Sentinel Island will be illegal, and he engages in various acts of subterfuge to keep authorities and the world at large in the dark about his true intents.
We learn that John’s father, Dr. Patrick Chau, was on medical probation for 11 years for improperly prescribing medication. He blames that fight to return to his psychiatry practice in good standing, as a huge contributor to John’s ultimate decision to evangelize to the Sentinelese. He feels as though he wasn’t a good enough role model for his son, so he looked for one elsewhere.
If I had to guess about how The Mission’s filmmakers, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, felt about John Chau’s desire to convert the Sentinelese, I’d surmise they’d be critical of it. The Mission begins with a quote from an anthropologist, gives its last word to a skeptical historian and sprinkles in hokey scenes from Christian films several decades past their prime.
But let’s give the filmmakers credit, too: While they might’ve questioned John’s goals, it never doubted his heart. They’ve allowed John, his friends and his religious associates speak for themselves—and they often speak powerfully.
“My friend did something stupid and bold,” Levi tells us from the outset. “And I wish that I was that bold. I wish that my faith was that solid, where I believed the Gospel was real.”
Faith, when given full expression, can be a beautiful and terrifying thing. It can sweep you to the far corners of the globe and do things undreamt. I’m sure that some of you out there know that feeling. I’m sure plenty of others, like me, look and marvel from the comfort of our desks or recliners.
The Mission certainly has some issues that’ll make it a difficult, uncomfortable watch. You’ll need to navigate the tribal nudity, of course. On a deeper, more spiritual level, we must grapple with the tension inherent in spreading our faith to a world often unwilling to hear it. And in many respects, the way you perceive and receive this film is very dependent on what you bring to it. Some missionaries may look at this flick as a hatchet job. Others may acknowledge how difficult, and even contradictory, their work can be.
The best documentaries don’t pound the table and demand its viewers follow their lead. They ask those tough questions, and they force you to ask them, too.
John Chau’s story is complex and, perhaps, contradictory. And ultimately, The Mission triggers far more questions than spoons out answers.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.