Eider Books, 2017
Reviewed by Peter Barnes
In May 1941 on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu), Presbyterian missionaries, pastors and elders went to their churches to preach, and found that hardly anyone had turned up to worship God. There was a widespread apostasy to the Jon Frum (or perhaps ‘Brum’, meaning ‘broom’) cargo cult. This cult called for a repudiation of Christianity and a return to traditional pagan customs while waiting for Jon to come from America with all the cargo required for an earthly paradise – rather like the platform of many a modern Western political party.
If Tanna proved hard going for J. G. Paton in the 1850s and ’60s, it proved no easier for Christian evangelists to reclaim lost ground since the emergence of the cult in World War II. The hero of this story, Maliwan, was born into the Jon Frum cult in 1973. Despite not being a Christian, he was urged to study at the Talua Ministry Training Centre. He was drunk when he agreed to go, but it led to his conversion and his baptism in 1995, and his subsequent taking up Christian work in Tanna.
The story is yet to be completed, but in 1999 Fred Nase, a Jon Frum devotee who was working on a Taiwanese fishing trawler, had a vision where some kind of spirit told him to seek to bring the cargo cult and the church closer together in unity. Pastor Maliwan was understandably very wary of this overture, but in a sense he was already a product of this movement towards unity.
The tide was flowing in the Christian direction. In May 2000 a dam wall on Lake
Siwi broke, and villagers of all beliefs took refuge in Maliwan’s church. In 2003 Maliwan was imprisoned for a time, and then a yam controversy broke out, as Jon Frum insists that yams can only be harvested in April. There were reports in 2006 and after that perhaps 7000 Jon Frum members had become Christians, but more sober analysts, like Robert himself, see these as wild exaggerations. Nevertheless, the work goes on, and Maliwan is something of an Arthur Stace, making inroads into the kingdom of Satan and adding to the kingdom of Christ.
Peter Barnes is editor of AP