Three Cups of Tea

A couple days ago I finished reading Three Cups of Tea, a book about a mountain-climber turned philanthropic school builder in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s been on the New York Times #1 Bestseller list for a while (as evidenced by the fact that my library chain has an 

three_cupscoverunheard of 23 copies of the book!)

After giving up his hope of making it to the summit of K2 in order to save the life of an altitude-sick fellow climber, Greg Mortensen gets lost during the descent. He winds up in a remote village of Korphe, where he is cared for by the chief’s family. After learning that the children of the village have no school, Mortensen promises to raise money in order to build them a schoolhouse and hire a teacher. 

So begins a twisting journey through Islamic customs, Taliban threats, corruption, and the transition from the pre- to post-9/11 Islamic world. By the end of the book, Mortensen not only has built the Korphe village school, but also oversees nearly 100 other schools and institutions that his organization has built.

Three Cups of Tea is a challenging book to read. Not in a literary sense, but rather in a philosophic sense. What Mortensen has done is simply incredible. His passion and devotion to seeing children forgotten by the world receive an education produces a dogged determination that shames my own work ethic.

Twice Mortensen had a fatwah (labeling him to be an outlaw who could be killed on sight) issued against him by jealous or corrupt clerics. Despite the danger to his own personal safety, he continued to labor to build schools, and eventually the fatwahs were dismissed by Islamic religious panels.

Though he is considered an infidel by the Muslims in the book, repeatedly they allow him to continue his work because his schools because they push no religious instruction, but rather remain faithful to Islam. Mortensen argues that education will ultimately defeat Islamic extremism. Oftentimes the only education provided in the rural regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan is steeped in religious extremism. By building schools that are focused on true education–reading, writing, mathematics, science, etc.–religious extremist schools will be forced “out of business” so to speak.

This book has challenged my thinking about overseas missions and evangelism. A Christian simply could not have accomplished what Mortensen has been able to do. Though not Muslim himself, Mortensen has no trouble practicing the prayer rituals of Islam alongside his friends and contacts in Pakistan. As Christians, we simply can’t do that! And for good reason! And yet the results–education that will raise the living standards of thousands of children–make tolerance attractive as a way of life. 

And yet, we can’t live that way. The gospel is a way of life. It is what motivates us to care for the poor and the suffering and to seek to help those in physical distress. But the same thing that compels us to live that lifestyle also compels us to open our mouths and share the even better news of Jesus Christ. If we minister to the physical side only, we are not serving the Lord Jesus Christ for we are called to be watchmen warning of the impending fires of Hell (Ezekiel 33-34). 

Christ-centered missions will always be balanced between relieving both the physical suffering and the spiritual suffering of people. There are equal dangers on both sides of the highway. To seek to minister only to the physical is to ignore the oncoming reality of eternal judgment. To minister only to the spiritual is to ignore the fact that authentic faith always motivates to action on behalf of the suffering, not just a “be warmed and filled and go in peace” shout as they head back out into the cold.

If you get the chance, read this book. It will challenge you. Most of us won’t agree with a number of conclusions Mortensen draws. But better than simply reinforcing everything you already believe, it will force you to think about how we ought to evangelize a window that is vehemently opposed to the gospel. I hope that Christians will read this best-seller and think about the call to evangelize every tribe, tongue, and nation. 

The question is, are we willing to go where the conclusion leads us?


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