An International Educator Reflects on Teaching Cross-Culturally
Wesley H. Brown
Editor’s Note: The East-West Church and Ministry Report 11 (Fall 2003), 16, 15, published an excerpt from Judith E. Lingenfelter and Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003). Chaplain Brown writes in response.
For better than six years my wife, Dr. Cheryl Brown, and I have learned and taught in 13 seminaries, universities, and colleges, most founded since the end of Communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe. We find the Lingenfelters’ book relevant, helpful, and applicable to these many cultural settings.
Before Teaching, Study the Context
“One must learn the other-cultural perspective…[and] become a learner in the new cultural context,” they write. Many teachers face the temptation to just take notes of a course previously taught and repeat the lectures. We have consistently sought to first learn as much as we could about the local situation, the culture, and the characteristics of local churches and worship. In some contexts, the repressive role of a Communist government has been replaced by the mafia. In others, the Orthodox Church has branded all Baptists and other Evangelicals as “sectarians” and has sought to limit religious freedom. In still others, the Muslim majority culture amounts to a cultural facade more than a strong faith commitment, but it has at times forced limitations on worship and witness. These different cultural settings have made an impact on us and what we teach, since we are firm believers in the importance of contextualization. We’re still learning.
Teachers Learning From Students
A teacher needs to know what the important issues are for Christians in a given culture. I have taught the course, “Foundations and Contemporary Issues in Christian Ethics,” in many institutions. To help me learn more about the cultural context, I break classes up into small groups and ask each to list the seven most significant ethical decisions they believe Christians face in their culture. When the class comes together again, I ask each group to give their list of seven, noting which ones are listed more than once. We often conclude with a list of 20 or more important issues.
It has been interesting to compare the list from Moscow, for example, with the list from Beirut, Lebanon. Some issues such as abortion, divorce, and remarriage have appeared on all lists. But certain issues have been very dissimilar. In Moscow, students listed as ethical dilemmas the purchase of pirated CDs and computer software and keeping two sets of accounts—one for the tax inspector and one as a “real financial record.” With taxes so unjustly high, they said, no one can make a living wage if accounts reveal actual income and business expenses. In Beirut, people asked if a believer of Muslim background with multiple wives should divorce before being baptized and joining the church. And if so, what should be the fate of other spouses and children? By this means we not only learn a good deal from our students, but we are able to focus on ethical issues that are of genuine local concern.
The Lingenfelters mention different cultural interpretations of cheating, which is an issue in many countries. In some cultures people believe it is wrong only if the person is caught. In some contexts students seem to feel that sharing information is an act of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, an adaptation of the Golden Rule: giving information to others as you would want fellow students to give to you!
Cross-cultural teaching is often complicated by language because of limited fluency or the need for interpreters. Because we have taught in so many countries, we generally have had to use an interpreter. We try to minimize misunderstandings by using short, simple sentences and by consciously avoiding illustrations and examples from our American life and folklore that can easily be misunderstood.
Ask For Help
The authors correctly emphasize the importance of gaining a basic understanding of the political context through helpful books, news sources, and the Internet. We also have learned by asking non-threatening questions wherever we are teaching. A student in Timisoara, Romania, gave us a walking tour and movingly recounted her own experience of the 1989 revolution that ended Communist rule. In Moldova, I learned that the hall rented by the church where we worshipped had previously been used for Communist Party meetings. In that space a cross now hangs where Lenin’s picture previously hung. Recently in the center of Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, we visited Peace Park, a block from the Baptist Church, where 23 young Muslims were buried after they and others were killed in a surprise attack on a defenseless crowd.
We have tried to communicate our need for help in understanding the culture where we teach and have been blessed by eyewitness accounts of Central and East European history. We humbly believe that this has enabled us to contextualize our cross-cultural teaching—and we continue to learn. The Lingenfelters offer wise counsel to us all: “Ask others for help.”
Wesley H. Brown is chaplain and lecturer in contextual missiology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, Czech Republic.
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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report