Kurt Pankau's Reviews > The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens
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's review
Jan 26, 2012

it was ok
Read from January 26 to 28, 2012

This is an ambitious attempt at iconoclasm from a world-class iconoclast that is absolutely undone by the author's style of writing. From the overly catty title to the confused layout, the book is frustrating when it should be enlightening and only works for about fifteen pages in the middle when substance is finally allowed to triumph over style.

Hitchens has some fantastic observations about the misguided ways in which Mother Theresa "helps" the poor but in fact just makes them suffer. Those fifteen pages are worth reading, without question. But he works them towards a flimsy thesis that Mother Theresa was some kind of diabolical genius. In doing so, he assumes that the reader knows quite a bit about Mother Theresa and the Catholic Church already, and disdains them both. He doesn't give any kind of history of the woman until 4/5's of the way through, at which point he assumes that the reader knows the major players in 1930's Albanian politics. His scattershot rambling approach to an argument really does him no justice. It's a boon to his work as an essayist, but it's the reason his books are all slight, pithy, and dense. This book needed to guide the reader, but Hitchens never constructs anything like a narrative.

I view this as a blown opportunity. The evidence of Mother Theresa's woes on humanity are not hard to find. You can see a nice overview in the "Criticism" section of her Wikipedia page. Her goal was not to heal but to convert. She would give deathbed baptisms to Hindus and Muslims without their explicit consent. She would deny antibiotics to the sick and painkillers to the dying--she seemed to think suffering was making her charges more Christ-like. She viewed the influx of donations as an endorsement of her methods from God, but the money went unspent and/or unaccounted for. People suffered needlessly under her care. There is no question that she did horrible things and was never held to account by the world at large.

But the stronger argument is not that Mother Theresa was a bad person, but that she was an exemplary Catholic and that Catholic doctrine writ large is as great an evil now as it was during the Inquisition. Hitchens dances around this, but never quite nails it. The Catholic prohibition on contraception--largely ignored in the first world--is one of the issues Mother Theresa championed alongside abortion. And to this day those prohibitions are a direct cause of the third world being flush with the starving children that Mother Theresa's nuns look after. The irony is flabbergasting, but Hitchens would have us believe that it's all part of some evil scheme towards beatification, and I don't think he argued it strongly enough.

It pains me to rate this as low as I did. I'm a fan of Christopher Hitchens and view his death as a serious loss to the intellectual world. But this is far from his best work. It's too long and too comprehensive to work as an essay, but it's too short and disorganized to work as a book. In the end, I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed.
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Reading Progress

01/27/2012 page 21
01/27/2012 page 51
52.0% "Hitchens is a marvelous essayist, but I don't think the man could construct a narrative with both hands."
05/02/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

It looks as if we both expected better from this book.

Kurt Pankau I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed. (review forthcoming)

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I was pretty disappointed as well, but some of the content was good. :)

David W. If it was just a nun doing charity work while backed by her Catholic beliefs, then it wouldn't matter too much, but M.T. has been blown up into something larger than life, and deserves to be criticized and censured (i mean this in the neutral sense). Leaving anyone without check is a dangerous thing to do.

message 5: by Louise (new)

Louise Culmer how on earth can a Catholic prohibition on contraception have any effect in a country that is largely Hindu?

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