Learning from the Stranger

Book Review by Michael Pasquale

What is “culture?”  How do cultural differences affect our perceptions and behaviors?  How does Jesus’ call to love our neighbor involve learning from cultural “strangers?”  These are just a few of the questions that David Smith, Director of the Kuyers Institute at Calvin College, attempts to answer through his book Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity.  This work builds upon his 2000 volume (co-authored with his colleague Barbara Carvill) The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning.  Both books share a thesis that we must (as language learners in this volume and language teachers in his previous work) be humble and hospitable in our interactions with strangers.  “Strangers” in this case refer to people from various cultural backgrounds with whom we cross our paths daily.  His point is that we must learn from these men and women as an act of humility as opposed to the impartation of our knowledge and ideas to them.  To Smith, this is an issue of spiritual maturity and Christian discipleship. 

     This book joins a myriad of current studies that attempt to address questions such as defining culture (c.f., Crouch 2009), the importance of the church interacting cross culturally (c.f., Pasquale & Bierma 2011), and understanding the process of how to learn from other cultures (c.f., Livermore, 2009).  His intended audience is undergraduate students wondering why they should learn a foreign language, but the book’s application can reach beyond the typical undergraduate student to church members at large.  Smith provides an important narrative for why not only cultural intelligence or interaction is important, but that the act of language learning is the foundation to that understanding.  Through learning a new language and culture, we learn from a new community and gain a new set of “eyes” from which we can view the world (5).  Smith takes an Augustinian perspective on culture in which he sees culture as a gift to us that shapes our worldview and ultimately leads us to responding with gratitude (40-47).  He also argues that repentance is an appropriate response to sin in a culture, such as when hegemony and bigotry are present (49). 

     The strength of this book is its readability.  This isn’t a reference book, but Smith does include a solid list of citations to back up his ideas.  He is high on the practical, but based on his and others’ work on the subject.  He also includes many personal anecdotes which help the reader to put the ideas into perspective. 

    Overall, this book is an important contribution to the current discussion on cultural engagement.  Smith stresses the importance of learning from the stranger, but emphasizes that the words “humility” and “hospitality” relate to our responsibility in the matter.  He states that, “[i]f we are willing, 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.”  The key point is whether we are willing to be a student of culture for the sake of Christ.


Works Cited

Crouch, A. (2008). Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. InterVarsity Press.

Livermore, D.A. (2009). CQ: Improving your CQ to engage our multicultural world. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 

Pasquale, M. & Bierma, N. L. K. (2011). Every Tribe and Tongue: A Biblical Vision for Language in Society. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Smith, D.I. and Carvill, B. (2000). The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.