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Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas

Mary Shepard Wong and Suresh Canagarajah, eds
Published by Routledge in 2009

In recent years there has been criticism of Christians working in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), particularly as a platform for Christian evangelism. While the critiques have been remarkably strong by non-Christians,1 a few Christians2 have also chosen to share some problems in this area. Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue is thus a welcome addition to the current literature, because it offers a wide-ranging collection of essays by thirty-one scholars, about half of whom are Christian, while the other half self-identify as atheist, Buddhist, spiritualist, or of no or some other faith.

In their preface, the editors Mary Shepard Wong (of Azusa Pacific University) and Suresh Canagarajah (Penn State) state that the book is “a critical examination of how Christian English language teachers integrate their spiritual identities and their pedagogy and grapple with the dilemmas created when their faith agendas conflict with their professional ethic of respect for host countries and students” (xvii). Following an introduction by Canagarajah, the collection is divided into four parts, each of which includes three or four chapters, followed by three or four response papers and then twelve to fourteen discussion questions concerning various issues dealt with in those chapters. The editors offer a two-page conclusion, and there is also an Afterword.

Part I, “Setting the Tone: Dialogue and Discourse,” leads off with Julian Edge outlining a non-judgmental approach to discourse, which involves reflecting (mirroring back what one understands), relating (drawing attention to possible relationships between elements), and focusing (encouraging more depth). Unfortunately, the examples are drawn from research conducted with colleagues who worked together, which seems distinct from the Christian and critical groups represented here, as the latter appear less inclined to dialogue with the former. Next Bill Johnston asks if dialogue is possible. I confess I found his early statement “I feel I have earned the right to speak in this [harsh] way” (35) unconvincing, since he envisions “conciliatory dialogue” but then presents a series of challenges to evangelical Christians and non-evangelicals. In contrast, the chapter by Michael Chamberlain is a personal narrative that begins with Luke 6:41-42 and the confession, “I was part of the problem” (46). It goes on to describe problematic examples of recruitment of teachers by Christian missions, violations of teacher-student boundaries through friendship evangelism, and critiques the “acrimonious tone and unfounded assertions” of secularist criticisms of Christians in TESOL(50). Karen A. Loptes’ chapter reports on a preliminary survey of forty-four foreign Christian English teachers (CET) working in twelve countries in various regions. Though four “used teaching as a cover” (55), 90 percent were doing exactly what their visas stated, most indicated respect for the religious beliefs of the countries where they worked, and many described dilemmas involving religion or religious topics in classes.

Part I response chapters begin with Alaistair Pennycook’s, who notes that “to have to engage with ancient organized religion … seems a desperate regression” (60), and continues with charges of anti-intellectualism, relativism, politics, and linguistic ideologies for Loptes and Chamberlain. Robert Phillipson describes his movement away from Christianity and offers personal responses to the four writers, ending with the suggestion that committed teachers “can be resolved by challenging orthodoxy and dogma of any kind” in aiming for “English competence and political awareness” in students (71). Vaidehi Ramanathan’s brief retort is subtitled “Staving off Religious Arrogance and Bigotry in ELT,” and challenges the ideals and intentions of Christians generally and Chamberlain and Loptes in particular. Finally, Canagarajah’s “Can We Talk?” is a truly dialogic chapter which incorporates points from others in this collection. Canagarajah builds on Johnston’s earlier work3 to develop a framework “to guide our approach to values and spirituality in pedagogical practice” (80). One notable quote confronts the way critical authors tend to essentialize Christian perspectives: “we can’t discount the fact that there are elements in Christianity and other religions that facilitate open dialogue and affirm plurality. Holding Christians as necessarily absolutist or bigoted sounds unreasonable from this point of view” (79).

Part II, Ideological and Political Dilemmas, begins with Wong’s chapter reporting on research among CET and proposes instead the use of “global Christian professional language teacher” (98), elaborating on each of these concepts. Interestingly, this is the first chapter that seems to recognize “the spiritual dimensions of our students and the spiritual practices embedded in their cultures” (94). Next, Sinfree Makoni and Busi Makoni offer a historical and current perspective on English and Christian missions and institutions of education in Anglophone Africa. Myrrl Byler ’s chapter first problematizes the American Christian Right’s connection of extreme patriotism and religion and then discusses how foreign CET overseas reflect their home society but can be instruments of “God’s blessing for all” (125). James Stabler-Havener ’s chapter draws on the principles of American Civil Religion to argue that many CET reflect the values of pragmatism, personal freedom, and pride, but in doing so emulate more the values of Constantine than Christ by their presence abroad. His strongest criticism is aimed at CET with “hidden evangelistic goals” (131).

Part II responses start with one by Stephanie Vandrick, who notes rightly that the focus in this collection is mainly on English as a foreign language (EFL) overseas, as opposed to English as a second language in the U.S., and that similar issues exist in ESL. Vandrick’s is a model response, highlighting personal background and insights while also engaging with issues those writers raised, yet in a manner that leads to further discussion. Manka Varghese’s response draws on her oft cited study with Johnston4 to comment on “multivocality” (151)—multiple perspectives—among both Christians and non-Christians and to share her concerns as a researcher about poststructuralism and how it may be connected with relativism and materialism. In his brief but thoughtful chapter, Zoltan Dörnyei reminds readers that all Christian believers have received the Great Commission, that the apostle Paul was a tentmaking missionary (not unlike some CET being criticized by authors here), and that English has a special status not only as a lingua franca of the world, but also currently in the global church: “I do not believe that it is accidental that the portentous spread of English coincides with the contemporary Christian revival” (157).

John Liang’s chapter opens Part III, “Pedagogical and Professional Dilemmas,” with an autobiographical “confession of a Christian teacher” who, as a nonnative English speaker (NNES), learned to draw on his faith as a redemptive source of courage to teach. Given that this volume is largely on EFL contexts, this chapter and its survey of NNES issues is a welcome addition. Don Snow first outlines the historical legacy and rise of English, and challenges both teachers and the TESOL community to recognize the value of multilingualism. Snow then describes the practical and symbolic benefits of language learning by native English speaker teachers, particularly in EFL settings. Kitty Purgason’s chapter outlines four “guidelines for teachers with convictions” (185): being honest and transparent about one’s identity, knowing one’s context and students, living in humility and gentleness, and being “committed to excellence in teaching” and curricular choices (189). Purgason does a fine job briefly describing these and how they originate in the Bible.

Brian Morgan’s response to these chapters highlights their openness to the “other” but also points out both monological and dialogical aspects of each. Morgan also devotes two pages analyzing an important article not included in this collection, by Bradley Baurain.5 Dana Ferris’ chapter largely addresses the way power differentials and teachers as change agents are incorporated in the previous chapters. Subtitled “Thoughts from a Fellow Traveler,” Ferris’ comments connect with points from the three authors and elaborate on them based on her experience in the U.S. Unlike other response chapters, Terry Osborn’s draws on the parable of the Good Samaritan to suggest the metaphor of “roadside assistance” is reflected in the three chapters here, but he also notes some problems with this image and approach.

Part IV, “Spiritual and Ethical Dilemmas,” opens with Ryuko Kubota’s reflections on spiritual dimensions of language teaching by a Japanese person both in an M.A. TESOL program and in Japanese foreign language instruction in the U.S. She advocates “additive religious perspectives,” drawing on Buddhist religious tolerance and situated ethics (233). Christopher Bradley sketches “Spiritual Lessons Learned from a Language Teacher” (235) using a case study of Julie, an American EFL teacher in Japan who exhibited compassion and transformative learning. Next David Smith ruminates on “The Spiritual Ecology of Second Language Pedagogy” (242), properly observing that faith is so intricately implicated in identity and affects teaching that “we must devote far more attention than positivist applied linguistics has given to questions of basic worldview and how they affect the classroom”(250). He thankfully also brings students back into the discussion. Lastly in this section, Richard Robison’s interesting chapter articulates four dilemmas that CET face with regards to truthfulness, and suggests responses based on philosophy, theology, and the Bible.

In his Part IV response paper, H. Douglas Brown reminds readers that spiritual issues are not new topics in language education, and he presents “guidelines for dealing with controversial issues in the classroom” while proposing a “critically pedagogical approach” (269). He also reviews six moral dilemmas and related moral imperatives. Ahmar Mahboob’s response is generally sympathetic to Kubota and Bradley, but challenges Robison’s point about qualifications by quoting extensively from an advertisement (for a Christian school) that includes discrimination against NNES teachers. He also challenges Smith’s point that humility is a Christian value by referencing texts from other faiths to argue that it is actually “pan-religious” (278). In his chapter, Andy Curtis summarizes well-known recent books by Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens and then draws parallels between points from those books and the four chapters here. The editors’ brief conclusion is a list of imagined possibilities for taking the dialogue of this book further, and it is followed by an “Afterword” by Earl Stevick with Carolyn Kristjánsson that draws on Stevick’s career and argues for the role of ideas and truth in a language course, and for ways in which awareness and beliefs may serve as our basis for action (295).

Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue is an ambitious and effective book, bringing together well-known figures and some who are newer to the field to address topics about which they are passionate. This is a laudable, major accomplishment, as is the inclusion of “Spiritual Identification Statements” from twenty-nine of the thirty-one contributors (two simply wrote, “No comment.”). I do not normally read through a complete edited book, but this one is compelling reading, which I enjoyed immensely because it challenged and encouraged me. I was disturbed by some of the critical language and portrayals but also humbled and reproached by other aspects. Since I claim both the Christian and critical labels, it was not surprising that I connected most easily with the writings of contributors who likewise did so either explicitly (such as the editors) or implicitly (like Chamberlain and Ferris). I am now better informed and will use numerous chapters in several of my graduate courses, although I am sorry that the exorbitant price prohibits me from adopting it as a textbook. Yet this book should be in the library of every CCCU institution, because it helps Christians see how critics perceive us and evaluate our work. It can also serve as a model for scholars in other disciplines to use to scrutinize the work of both Christian and critical practitioners.

The book is not without problems, however. It generally assumes that missionary English teaching is frequently a problem, but it does not offer any data to support sweeping claims such as Wong’s: “Much harm can and has been done by those who use English teaching as a means to an end” (102). Like most edited collections, the chapters are uneven: some (like those by Canagarajah, Kubota, Robison, and Vandrick) are superb, while others are weak, briefly introducing empirical research that obviously requires much more detail and analysis. I found the Makoni and Makoni chapter to be marvelous and one that I will use, but it frankly seems out of place here with its survey of educational institutions and policies. Some authors write autobiographically (Liang, Ferris), while others do so much more distantly (Pennycook, Varghese), which may be due to the fact that some are regular chapters and others are responses. From my perspective, there was a significant amount of essentializing by some contributors. Johnston, for example, never defines what he means by “evangelical” but uses a broad brush, and clearly does not comprehend key, fundamental distinctions among Christians. He also writes uniquely about the United States, although there are evangelical communities around the world who perceive things quite differently. Although it is wonderful that the authors are from around the world and work in a variety of contexts, their rich diversity of views is lost to a great extent here because the main dichotomy is the United States versus foreign EFL contexts, although the contrast in the title is relevant across the globe. Finally, although the title specifies this is a dialogue of “English language educators,” I was disappointed to find so little mention of students and how they are involved in the pedagogical and ethical dilemmas that teachers address in these essays.

A final concern is how genuine a few of the critical contributors are in approaching and continuing the present dialogue. In his chapter, Johnston, for example, states that it is crucial for “teachers and teacher educators to know and understand the various beliefs of their students and colleagues” (37), yet he declines to provide a spiritual identification statement(xii), suggesting that this is disingenuous. Furthermore, Pennycook’s concluding sentences disclose his agenda and leave me questioning his openness to authentic dialogue:

If CET wish to join me in battles against bigotry, homophobia, heteronormativity, racism, sexism, and more, and if they are happy to acknowledge the equality of languages, cultures, people, and beliefs that have to be part of such struggles, they are very welcome. But on the evidence here, I doubt that this can happen (65).

Nevertheless, in acknowledging these limitations, if readers approach Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue as a collection of pertinent narratives, they will find much from which they can learn. I therefore highly recommend it.

Cite this article
Michael Lessard-Clouston, “Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:2 , 256-260


  1. See, for example, Alistair Pennycook and Sinfree Makoni, “The Modern Mission: The Language Effects ofChristianity,” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 4 (2005): 137-155.
  2. Consider, for example, Teri McCarthy, “A Call to Arms: Forming a Christian Worldview of Teaching En-glish as a Second Language,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 36 (2000): 310-316.
  3. Bill Johnston, Values in English Language Teaching (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003).
  4. Manka Varghese and Bill Johnston, “Evangelical Christians and English Language Teaching,” TESOLQuarterly 41 (2007): 5-31.
  5. Bradley Baurain, “Christian Witness and Respect for Persons,” Journal of Language, Identity, and Education6 (2007): 201-219.

Michael Lessard-Clouston

Biola University
Michael Lessard-Clouston is Professor of Applied Linguistics and TESOL at Biola University.