Learning From the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity
David Smith, professor of German and director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College, has a knack for inducing discomfort in his audience. At the professional conference during which we interact each year, I consistently look forward to Smith’s talks, knowing that they will be engaging, witty, and insightful; yet in some perverse way, I also look forward to squirming a bit—not because of any deficiency in Smith’s thinking, but because of his special talent for purveying unsettling truths and his keen attention to a thorough going integration of Christian faith with the educational enterprise. In Learning From the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity, Smith continues this trend by providing readers with an inspiring, yet often pointed work that presents a reasoned and biblically based rationale for intercultural learning. He argues that the contemporary increase in contact across cultures enables us to perceive a pivotal biblical theme that was there all along: that “learning from the stranger . . . is a necessary component of genuinely loving one’s neighbor. That is a calling facing each of us, whatever our stations in life”(9).
Smith’s book is to some degree a companion volume to his 2000 study, co-authored with his former Calvin colleague Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning.1 The earlier work was explicitly intended to fill the contemporary void in Christian discourse on foreign language pedagogy (The Gift of the Stranger, xii-xiii). The new volume, however, is targeted to every Christian, its mandate reflecting the exponential increase in intercultural interactions. Learning From the Stranger brings aspects of the global Christianity agenda of historians and theologian-missiologists such as Phillip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, and Andrew Walls (whom Smith cites most frequently among these) into practical focus, and Smith’s pragmatic thinking as a British expatriate in the American Midwest occasionally echoes that of his fellow Briton Lesslie Newbigin, who spent nearly half his life as a missionary in India.
Three of the book’s seven chapters present Smith’s “overarching theological frame” through “close readings” of biblical passages (8): the encounter of Abraham and Abimelek, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the account of Pentecost and what Smith—following Walls—sees as its expansion in the Peter and Cornelius narrative. While the breadth and depth of Smith’s learning are evident throughout the book and will certainly appeal to non-specialist readers, I leave a more exacting critique of his methods to biblical scholars, theologians, and social scientists.
Smith’s theological arguments are straightforward. First, biblical narratives repeatedly turn the tables on human cultural biases: the implications of God’s ways and purposes are revealed in the chosen passages via the words and actions of “strangers,” who are in turn variously feared, despised, or disregarded by familiar figures regarded traditionally as stewards of God’s word. Thus, each narrative overturns the ethnocentrism toward which human cultures tend (77); cultures, in other words, desperately need each other in order to be whole. That the same holds for individuals is central Smith’s second argument, namely that the passages represent a broader scriptural depiction of “strangers” as essential to holistic knowledge and doing of God’s will—encounters with cultural others serve to correct egocentrism as well.
There are caveats aplenty in the portions of the book in which Smith explores how we think about and respond both to other cultures and to our own. The clever chapter title “Culture and Bad Breath” (that is, we notice others’ bad breath but not our own) aptly summarizes Smith’s understanding of culture as a set of discrete behaviors and as an overarching system, both largely invisible to outsiders; a subsequent chapter outlines possible responses to the pervasive influence of cultural conditioning. Smith adopts a broadly Augustinian view in maintaining that culture is a gift that gives form to life and experience and for which gratitude is the proper response (40-41, 47); yet when cultural and linguistic identities degenerate into instruments of bigotry and power, or when cultural diversity devolves into relativism or fatalism—difference devoid of meaning or enthroned as absolute—then, Smith argues, thanksgiving must be tempered by repentance. Rather than delving at length into overt perversions such as racism or genocide, however, Smith lets the biblical narratives—especially the parable of the Samaritan—speak for him concerning the follies of exclusivist thinking.
After summarizing various half-measures that fall short of realizing the ideal of loving engagement with other cultures, such as settling for tourism (82-86) or relying on English as a global language (91-97), and recounting examples of why intercultural awareness cannot be left to “specialists” (97-104), Smith presents his vision of intercultural learning. The model is grounded in Christian discipleship (105) and challenges followers of Jesus to practice something very like spiritual disciplines in the intercultural arena. These include the humility of grappling with a new language (109-111) and the willingness to accept one’s ignorance and suspend judgment (113-115). They encompass the refinement of listening and questioning skills (118-120), the surrender of pride and resentment in the face of rejection (122-123), and the development of a discernment that recognizes that not every tone in the chorus of cultures can be equated with the “Shepherd’s voice” (124).
Readers may notice two apparent gaps in Smith’s perspective, one pertaining to the sorts of tales he tells—and does not tell—regarding his own experience, and the other touching on the broader scope and emphasis of the book. First, there is a certain idiosyncrasy in Smith’s modeling of the central value of Learning From the Stranger, namely intercultural learning as an act of Christian love. On the one hand, he does not hesitate to portray himself in the role of the perplexed cultural outsider, whether explaining how he “missed” experiencing Thai culture (82-83) or was flummoxed by linguistic differences between Canadian and British English (107-109); and he affirms the enriching experience of individuals in other cultures (such as a student who becomes more conscious regarding conservation and creation care thanks to his experience abroad [122-123]). On the other hand, however, Smith does not readily identify any unequivocally positive features in the culture that is his present home. In The Gift of the Stranger, he writes that Christians are called to “cherish and love what is wholesome in our home, our culture, our traditions; we are to cultivate it and delight in it with gratitude for God’s good gifts to us” (The Gift of the Stranger, 89). Given his assumption that there are redemptive aspects in every culture, a good word concerning what Smith has found to be “wholesome” in his adopted culture (the American Midwest) would have been a valuable and welcome addition to the present volume.
What is perhaps a larger issue relates to Smith’s reliance on certain indisputable presuppositions within “global Christianity” thinking—that the growth of the faith is now largely an African, Asian, and Latin American phenomenon, and that North American Christians are thus called to learn in humility from their brothers and sisters in the southern and eastern hemispheres. In effect, this causes him to give short shrift to a rather vexing question: what different shape will Christian intercultural learning assume when it encounters cultural others from societies that might generally be termed “post-Christian,” such as those of Western Europe? Intramural encounters between contemporary Christians of different cultures are admittedly not a central concern of the book, notwithstanding some references to muddled thinking regarding (short-term) missionary ventures (3-4). It is nonetheless curious that a British professor of German studies has comparatively little to say concerning the unique challenges and opportunities that North American Christians face in encounters with other secularized cultures. In effect, Smith misses an opportunity to point out that the emphasis on “global Christianity,” however fashionable, may not be able to offer a convincing framework for Christian intercultural engagement with post-Christian societies.
Overall, Learning From the Stranger is a thoughtful and conscientious manifesto that is true to Smith’s willingness to speak profound yet uncomfortable truths. “If we are willing,” he declares, “intercultural learning can be taken up into the work of redemption, the creation of a new people that began on the cross and erupted into the world at Pentecost” (126). The key phrase is “if we are willing,” for the author makes no bones about his intention to issue a challenge: “I have tried to touch your ideals, but I also hope that those ideals will motivate your actions” (150). In fact, the power of this challenge emerges more compellingly in Smith’s recounting of the narrative of Pentecost, Peter, and Cornelius that precedes it than in the allusion to a François Mauriac novel that follows it and with which he concludes the book. While the disillusioned but repentant Mauriac figure of the reference looks back on a life of missed opportunities to transcend his own horizons by reaching out in love, the Acts narrative, in Smith’s reading, looks around and looks forward. It presents the thrilling argument that cultural diversity is not simply the whim of a God who delights in variety, but an intrinsic element of the story of redemption: to discover the true and beautiful shape of our own redeemed identity, we must learn to hear God’s voice in the words of strangers and to perceive His purposes in their own, often astonishingly different lives. Discomforting learning, yes, but also unspeakably rewarding.