Learning from the stranger

(Thanks to two good friends – David Smith, for once again enriching the Christian education community via his newest book, and to Bruce Hekman, for providing this review of the book!)

In my city of Holland, Michigan, where the annual celebration of Tulip Time celebrates our Dutch beginnings, I was startled to learn recently that fifty-one percent of young people, aged eighteen and under, are Hispanic. What’s happening in Holland is being replicated across North America, in rural areas, cities and towns.

We’re been hearing it and reading about it for years: North America is becoming increasingly multicultural. Some schools, such as those in urban centers and along the coasts, have experienced a steady rise in the number of non-North American students for some time, and have added staff and programs to help them adjust and become full members of the school community (English as a Second Language programs, tutors, new admissions policies for International students, school to school partnerships, immersion language programs.

A number of schools have added out-of-country short-term mission trips to their programs, where students and staff spend a week on projects (often building) through programs such as the Hands program offered and facilitated by World Wide Christian Schools. Other schools, such as Fraser Valley Christian High School and Zeeland Christian School have developed partnerships with schools in other countries.

But many schools have found their attempts to work interculturally to be like building a bridge as they walk on it. They want to find ways to welcome the strangers and to equip their students and faculty to be sensitive to the needs of these new, often non-English speaking members, but it’s often discouraging work and the bridges don’t lead anywhere (as we discovered with the trendy workshops on “diversity training” that proliferated for a decade or more).

Now there’s a wonderful new resource for all schools and churches interested in a deeper, better way to imagine intercultural learning from a biblical, Reformed world view.

In his recent book Learning From the Stranger (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), David Smith makes a detailed biblical argument that “hospitality, humility, and hearing belong together.” “If they part ways, then the idea of hospitality easily becomes a new form of condescension in which I am always the host and the other is my needy guest.” At its best, intercultural encounters move us from learning about others to learning from them and finally to learning with them.

Smith, from Britain, teaching German at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has thought for a long time about “the need for a framework for thinking in Christian terms about learning other languages and cultures in a way that takes seriously learning from the stranger.” (p. 149) In the seven chapters of the book he lays out such a framework and attempts to ground it theologically in scripture, looking in great detail at the story of the nomad Abraham’s fears and failures, Jesus’ challenges to the teacher of law to learn to obey scripture from an outsider, a Samaritan, and finally at the birth of the early church at Pentecost.

Learning from the Stranger articulates what “culture” is, and discusses the ways in which our cultural differences affect our perceptions and our behavior. His analysis and his stories resonate because virtually none of us interacts exclusively with people who look, talk, behave, and think like we do in our culturally interconnected world.

To be Christian, Smith argues, means first, “that on theological grounds, …to profess Christian faith implies a willingness to grow together with fellow believers whose ethnicities, languages, and cultures are different from my own….to be Christian is to imitate Christ’s open-armed embrace of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, barbarian, Scythian, African, European, Latino, Asian. To be Christian is, furthermore, not to reserve for oneself the role of host, the one who sets the table, but to learn to see Christ in others, to receive correction from them, to be joined to them, to learn from the stranger.” (p. 145, 146).

Smith’s insights into the biblical story are supported by his experiences as a teacher of German language and culture, his experiences as a stranger to North American culture, and his wide travels around the globe. He persuasively argues that learning other languages and cultures is a task for everyone, not just those who hope to serve as cross-cultural missionaries.

I highly recommend this book to any person or organization who is looking for a biblically grounded way to think about the growing multicultural nature of our lives and our work. It’s a challenging, and very helpful book that points us in the right direction as we struggle to understand what it means to “love our neighbor.”

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Filed under classroom, curriculum, discernment, kids/culture, resources, staff development

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