Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Blind Men and the Elephant

The Blind Men and the Elephant

retold by Robin Wood 1999

Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant.

"What is this?!" asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side.

"It's an Elephant." said the elephant's keeper, who was sitting on a stool, cleaning the elephant's harness.

"Wow! So this is an Elephant! I've always wondered what Elephants are like!" said the man, running his hands as far as he could reach up and down the elephant's side. "Why, it's just like a wall! A large, warm wall!"

"What do you mean, a wall?" said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant's leg. "This is nothing like a wall. You can't reach around a wall! This is more like a pillar. Yeah, that's it! An Elephant is exactly like a pillar!"

"A pillar? Strange kind of pillar!" said the third man, stroking the elephant's trunk. "It's too thin, for one thing, and it's too flexible for another. If you think this is a pillar, I don't want to go to your house! This is more like a snake. See, it's wrapping around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!"

"Snakes don't have hair!" said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant's tail. "You are closer than the others, but I'm surprised that you missed the hair. This isn't a snake, it's a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes."

"I don't know what you guys are on!" the fifth man cried, waving the elephant's ear back and forth. "It's as large as a wall, all right, but thin as a leaf, and no more flexible than any piece of cloth this size should be. I don't know what's wrong with all of you, but no one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything except a sail!!!"

And as the elephant stepped aside, they tramped off down the road, arguing more loudly and violently as they went, each sure that he, and he alone, was right; and all the others were wrong.

The Elephant keeper sighed, and went back to polishing the harness, while the elephant winked solemnly at him.

One of my favorite parts of blogging is the interaction I am able to have with several other "m-bloggers" around the world, most notably (although there are quite a few others out there) Guy Muse in Ecuador, Ken Sorrell in Guatemala (*correction: Mexico), mr. t in South Asia, and Stepchild in Western Europe. I appreciate very much this opportunity to dialogue with others in other parts of the world.

I believe a lot of discussion on world missions, though, bears a haunting resemblance to this well-known story of "The Blind Men and the Elephant." Many of the problems in world missions come when we insist on our part of the elephant as the most accurate and legitimate description of the whole. The reality is that all of us (myself included), to some extent or another, are "blind men describing an elephant." Some areas of the world are more responsive; some are more resistant. Some have more obvious physical needs; some are bound by materialism. Some have practically no churches at all; some have highly developed denominational structures. As a result, the strategies that will be most effective will be different for each area.

As a missionary, I am grateful for blogs, and especially grateful for my fellow "m-bloggers." I believe that interacting with each other on these issues is generally encouraging and stimulating, and also helps us to get a better picture of what the "entire elephant" really looks like.


Ken Sorrell said...


As I have come to expect, an excellent post and accurate description of the bias that we all bring to the discussion of missions and missions strategies. This is why I too am grateful for this medium of communication. As long as folks will focus on the issues and not make personal attacks, then we all can learn from each other.

I actually find it invigorating when I am challenged in my thinking by differing views. The Bible speaks of "iron sharpening iron". I'm not sure most people understand that for iron to sharpen iron, two pieces of metal must generate friccion and heat. This means that to be sharpened may not always be a pleasant experience. However, I like what Ravi Zacharias says when opening many of his debates. It is his intent to cast more light on a subject than to generate heat.

There are definitelly significant differences around the world that cause us to look a the missions elephant from various perspectives. I am hoping though, that through this process we will also find a long list of similarities that will encourage everyone.

Thanks for your thoughts and for including me in your circle of M-bloggers. By the way, we are in Mexico now after 12 years in Guatemala.

Bryan Riley said...

Very thoughtful post. We are at the infancy stages of missions work, but God led me to blogs before I had realized where he was leading me and I can see how it will continue to be a source of wisdom, encouragement and communication/relationship.

GuyMuse said...

I believe a lot of discussion on world missions, though, bears a haunting resemblance to this well-known story... SO TRUE!

I agree with you and Ken about the encouragement and invigorating interaction with fellow M's and Stateside blogger brethren. I have found blogging to be informative, edifying and helpful. I have learned much from fellow M and other SBC bloggers. There have been several key ideas and concepts expressed that have reinforced our own beliefs and helped to clarify issues that were cloudy in my own mind. Some of these ideas have had a direct positive impact upon our local ministry.

I love the wide array of ideas shared that have challenged my thinking. Many times I have said to myself, "I can't believe they actually came out and said it--YES!" and wishing everyone I know could read it too!

It has been refreshing to discover there are others out there much more bold and articulate than myself willing to address the tough questions and deal with them head-on. I have often wished I had the intelligence and guts to come out and say some of the things others are saying. Many of these are things that go through my own mind, but don't have the facility with words to express them properly. You, David, of course, are one of those who do this so well, along with the other M bloggers you mention (I would add Kiki to your list as well, along with several others that I have benefitted from over the past several months.)

I have heard it expressed more than once, but more and more people are getting their missions education from blogs. This is pretty scary, but not surprising in that blogging is an interactive medium and allows the reader to directly dialogue with the writer.

Keep doing what you are doing so well. It is having a positive impact on us all.

mr. t said...


You are right on! I think I am holding on to the tail of this missions elephant! It sure smells like it where we live ;-)

I look forward to more dialogue. Blogging helps me to better evaluate what we are doing. I tend to have blinders on as I focus on our little corner of the world. Other blogger's perspectives help bring me back to a more balanced understanding and approach.

Muchisimas gracias to all you M bloggers.

stepchild said...

I'm sure you all can relate to that odd feeling I get just before I hit the "publish" button on a post. I always wonder if I should have said something differently or how what I've written will be received by anyone who might read it. It's nice to know that I have co-workers that can add balance, encouragement, and accountability to what I post. Thanks, guys.

And thank you, David, for this one.

Tim Sweatman said...


This post goes along quite well with a comment I made on Wade's blog about how blogging has had a positive effect on our missions work. It is only when we become aware of the various parts of the puzzle that we can see the entire picture. You and other missionaries have described the benefits that come from being able to dialogue and network with other missionaries in different areas of the world. I can attest to the fact that blogging has done much to increase awareness of missions here in the USA. Through blogging I have learned much more about missions in the past 8 months than in my previous 20-plus years as a Southern Baptist.

Kiki Cherry said...

Great story, and a good reminder. I'm afraid I've been caught up recently in only considering one small part of the elephant. And it's taken some pretty harsh comments on my blog to help me see it.

I've allowed my frustration to come out in my attitude towards the Bible Belt, rather than seeing it as another part of the elephant.

Thanks for keeping us in check. As always, I appreciate your posts.

Paul Burleson said...


You were prayed for this week.