Culture At Large

Don't throw 'Three Cups of Tea' out with Greg Mortenson

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Perhaps you’ve been following the controversy about Greg Mortenson’s books, "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools,"and the non-governmental organization he co-founded, the Central Asia Institute.

A recent “60 minutes” episode presented a number of accusations about the books and the organization, including that funds were mismanaged and that the books do not accurately represent all of the events as they happened. Mortenson defended himself, saying that the Central Asia Institute has been making an effort already to fix the financial confusion and that the alleged misrepresentations are a result of artistic license, not malice.

My friend Rebecca Kuehl is a scholar in Communication Studies and recently finished a dissertation on the topic of global citizenship, including a chapter about the persuasiveness of "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools." I asked her some questions about what we can learn as Christians from the controversy and what’s still valuable about Mortenson's movement.

TC: Can you tell me a little bit about what the Central Asia Institute does and how the books fit into that mission?

RK: The Central Asia Institute is a non-governmental organization that was co-founded by Greg Mortenson in the 1990s, with the goal of building schools for girls and boys, first in rural Pakistan and later expanding into rural Afghanistan. The Institute provides money and employees who help local people coordinate building the school, but it prides itself on building long-term relationships that give local people some freedom in how they build. Local communities must provide resources that supplement CAI’s funds, often including building materials, land and/or labor.

Both books are written to educate U.S. citizens about the efforts of building schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. The books illustrate the long-term relationships upon which the Central Asia Institute is built, stressing that global relationships are crucial to advancing women’s access to education in these remote areas of the world.

TC: In your dissertation, you write about the books’ ability to connect people across cultures. Can you tell me a little bit about why you think they do that?

RK: I suggest that the persuasiveness of the books lies in their ability to articulate global relationships based on caring and trust. Even if Mortenson has exaggerated some of these stories, the overall message and mission of the Central Asia Institute lies in global citizenship education and building relationships with people who U.S. citizens may not know. These relationships have to be nurtured and certainly some relationships might not last. But the fact that the books articulate the people who work for CAI as working across these differences successfully, for the purpose of building schools, sheds light on how we all might be able to work together across our differences.

TC: What do you think these relationships have to do with Christian virtues?

RK: The books foster cultural sensitivity by illustrating different religious and cultural traditions while relating these traditions to U.S. readers, many of whom are Christian. For example, one of the stories in "Three Cups of Tea"focuses on Mortenson praying with a Muslim, which stresses that despite religious differences, both faiths require prayer and meditation and submission to God. Additionally, Christian virtues such as helping the least of these or loving your neighbor are a strong basis on which to foster global relationships in order to build schools for girls in these areas.

TC: What do you think about the recebt accusations? Do they undermine the Central Asia Institute’s reputation?

RK: The accusations are certainly serious, especially in conjunction with Jon Krakauer’s short book, "Three Cups of Deceit." However, I don’t think these accusations undermine the message of CAI or the persuasiveness of both "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools." Both books advocate the importance of women's right to education in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan, shed light on different cultural and religious traditions and illustrate the potential of global relationships and working together across differences.

Perhaps the accusations show how different people have different gifts.  Greg Mortenson has the gifts of charisma and building relationships with strangers, but one of his gifts is not financial management, which he readily admits. CAI is currently working on separating Mortenson and the Institute, especially in their finances, so I think that will improve in the future.

Rebecca Kuehl is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. She is looking forward to a new position as an Assistant Professor at South Dakota State in Brookings, S.D., in the fall.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Evangelism, News & Politics, World, North America