During my doctoral studies in the early 2000s, Paul Hiebert shared a story that I have never forgotten. Dr. Hiebert was a master at using illustrations and case studies to highlight essential missiological principles. His years of experience in India and as a world renowned missiological anthropologist made those attending his classes sit on the edge of their seats waiting for some anecdote apropos to our own missions experiences. We just knew that whatever would usher from Dr. Hiebert’s mouth would be formational to our missiology.
I do not know where the story of the monkey and the fish originated. Some have suggested India. Nevertheless, it was certainly from Dr. Hiebert that I learned it. I have actually never heard anyone else tell this story or even use it in an illustration except for him. In essence, everything I learned about crossing cultures can be attributed to this story of the monkey and the fish. It’s an unlikely tale of the meeting of two of God’s creatures in a fantastic way. As I recall, it goes something like this, with certain embellishments I’m sure:
There was once a monkey and a fish. The monkey lived on a deserted island in the middle of a vast ocean. The island had, with its pristine beach, a single palm tree which occupied the monkey’s day. He would climb up and down and swing on branches endlessly in the complete joy of his monkey-ness.
One day, a violent storm raged toward the island. With hurricane force winds, the giant waves crashed onto the island and the sandy beach would momentarily disappear from the monkey’s sight. The monkey, however, was safe in his palm tree and enjoyed the battering winds that made the branches dance in the sky. Suddenly, the monkey saw the waves throw up a fish onto his beach. The fish, in a desperate attempt to return to the ocean, flapped its tail frantically. The monkey, seeing the fish in distress, scurried down the tree at great personal risk and picked up the fish. And just as quickly as the monkey came down from the tree, he went back up again, carrying the fish to safety.
The fish was still in obvious distress once the monkey reached the top of the tree, flapping its tail back and forth, nearly falling from the monkey’s hands to its certain death back in the water. But the monkey held tightly knowing it had rescued the poor creature from a perilous destiny. While still flapping its tail, the monkey gently caressed the fish, stroking its side in hope that the fish would know the peace and security of being with him in the top of the tree.
After a short period, the fish finally came to rest. Oh, there was an occasional twitch. But the monkey ensured the fish, with his gentle stroke and secure grip, that he was still caring for it. Eventually, the fish quieted down completely as did the storm. And the monkey came down from the tree to lay the fish back where he had found it on the beach. He scurried back to the top of the tree, and looking down at the peaceful fish lying in the sand, the monkey knew he had helped the creature and rejoiced at his efforts.
There is, of course, a moral to be learned in the application of the story of the monkey and the fish. Perhaps most appropriate in our current cultural climate is to ask, not whether or not the actions of the monkey were right or wrong, but “How would you feel to be the fish?”