This is the time of year when people compile lists of books read in the past year (I've done that) or their intended reading list (that's always a bit deceptive -- like other new year's resolutions -- good intentions, etc.). But for this year I thought I would highlight the books I've read from authors who were substantially formed by a worldview, culture, identity, experience, that is different from my own. There's one qualifier -- these books were read in English, which may not have been the first language of the author, or have been translated from the original language the author wrote in. So that's a thing.
I've been reading books written by authors from outside my cultural framework for many years. When we lived in Egypt in the late 80s, I read a lot of Naguib Mahfouz' books; in South Africa in the 90s, Es'kia Mphahlele, Rian Malan, and Mamphela Ramphele (among many others).
In 2020 about 1/3 of my reading was from "other" authors.
The Tyndale Intercultural Ministries Centre (TIM Centre) in Toronto (connected with Tyndale Seminary) has just released a book to which I contributed a chapter. I have been involved with this learning community for almost 15 years. The collection of authors have contributed greatly to my understanding and practice over these years.
From the Amazon blurb:
This book is a collection of essays written to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Tyndale Intercultural Ministries (TIM) Centre (1998-2018). Each chapter is written by a reflective practitioner engaged in ministry to, through and beyond the diaspora. They write, not as leaders who have all the answers, but as servants of God who are “building the bridge as they walk on it.” The TIM Centre is one of the key pieces of Tyndale’s Open Learning Centre, a strategic part of the ministry of Tyndale Seminary, located in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Believing that mission is not one-directional, “the West to the rest,” TIM Centre sees mission as from everywhere to everywhere, beginning on our doorstep and going to the ends of the earth. As you read this book one theme is constant throughout: We are living in a changing cultural context where the proven solutions of the past no longer relate to the questions being raised in the present. This book challenges us to be aware of the assumptions we bring to our ministry context and to be willing to evaluate them as we engage the global community that now resides in our neighbourhoods. This will require a spirit of humility to listen and learn from people of different cultures that God has brought to our doorstep.
Several years ago I read Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden. A film adaptation of this story premiered at TIFF recently. It's a powerful story of contemporary indigenous life set in both Northern Ontario and several mega-cities. At the time of the book's release in 2008, it was highly acclaimed. As was his previous novel 2005 novel, Three Day Road.
It was only after the release of his 2013 novel, The Orenda, that Boyden began to be questioned about his claimed aboriginal identity. I have a suspicion that the shaming of Boyden began because certain elements didn't like the content of that novel. There is so much to be explored in the story of his shaming -- the "real" issues behind the APTN "expose" of Boyden, and the white liberal, neo-colonialist progressives who made the story "popular," etc.
But what really grabbed me this week was this CBC conversation with Tina Keeper, one of the aboriginal producers of the new film. She's a personal friend of Joseph Boyden. The article touches on an issue that I raise frequently, "who gets to tell whose story?" Keeper is aware that working on a project like this involves a cooperative, collaborative process in an industry where indigenous people are in short supply. She says:
"There are some cultural elements that need to be addressed and how we work together, absolutely. I'm not talking about those things, I'm talking about how do we collaborate and work together," she says. "Because I know [Indigenous people have] been so discarded and so dismissed in the history and the cultural memory of this country, so I just feel that it's important for us to understand all of that when we're collaborating."
For me, that is a positive "way forward" approach to navigating our differences. Being aware of our own "stuff," paying attention and listening authentically to others, and then collaboratively finding a way to work together -- because together is much better than separate or oppositional.
Or, why I prefer to nod and smile affably and not contribute to the debate on identity politics, while getting on with actually bridging differences.
A lot of the current debate on identity politics tends to emerge from those who hold what are regarded as socially progressive views about these topics. For the sake of argument, I would like to suggest that there are actually two fields of study that are part of this debate. The disciplines of sociology and psychology.
Psychology constitutes, by means of the scientific method, a body of organized knowledge, the purpose of which is to describe, explain, predict and in some cases influence behaviour. "Behaviour" includes conduct and internal processes (thoughts, emotional reactions, feelings, etc) that may be inferred from external actions.
Sociology is the study of human relationships, the rules and norms that guide them, and the development of institutions and movements that conserve and change society. Sociologists now study the historical development of class relations and its relationship to economic, political and ideological processes.
For most of the 20th century, the discipline of psychology was prominent in the public consciousness with such personages as Skinner, Freud, Piaget, Erickson and Rogers. The discipline of sociology grew in increasing significance during the late 20th century and also has its well-known names: Durkheim, Weber, Foucault, Habermas and Bourdieu.
A simple, however reductionist, summary might be: psychology examines individual human behaviours, while sociology examines collective human behaviours. Again, fearful of simplifying, we might say there is a debate going on about who or what is responsible? Individual human responsibility or collective social systems? Again, fearfully broaching… In the Boushie/Stanley encounter, who/what is responsible? Two individuals making very emotional responses and stupid behavioural choices that ended in tragedy? Or two products of socially pre-determined systems where this outcome was completely predictable? Interestingly, the court system is built on the notion of individual responsibility (intent/behavior) and verifiable proof – thus the outcome of the trial. The popular media and a generation of millennials raised on sociology (systemic responsibility), not psychology (individual responsibility), however, see through the lens of the socially pre-determined inevitabilities of racism and unconscious bias.
In search of more clarity, I would like to introduce the discipline of anthropology into this conversation:
Anthropology is the comparative study of past and contemporary cultures, focusing on the ways of life and customs of people around the world. Applied anthropologists use their knowledge of peoples and cultures for practical purposes. They do this framed by anthropological concepts and a methodology - ethnographic fieldwork - that portrays people in their actual circumstances.
Anthropology has a long tradition in Canada. In fact, Franz Boas, considered by many as a founder of the discipline, did his most significant ethnographic work among Canadian indigenous peoples in the late 1800s. One of his students, Edward Sapir, was chief ethnologist for the Geological Survey of Canada (1910-1925), producing seminal work on linguistics and culture before his death in 1939. He was also an ardent pacifist and humanist who challenged narratives of European cultural superiority over Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Other students of Boas included Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.
It is within the learning framework of anthropology that I have spent most of my adult life. I was born and raised for the first 11 years of my life in the multi-ethnic mix of 1960s northern Ontario. I was exposed in everyday life to multiple, first-gen central and eastern Europeans, with some Scandinavians thrown in. This social context also included First Nations peoples. As an elementary school-aged observer, the stark reality of “poor living conditions” and “people in distress” was apparent. My parents, primary influencers of my early worldview, spoke of “these poor people who need help.” My parents, generally, had a positive desire to be service-oriented rather than judgmental or derogatory toward First Nations people; this included several summers where we “camped” on, or near reserves, to facilitate religious education experiences. My father tells a story of visiting in Norval Morrisseau’s home in the late 60s.
These early life exposures were fundamental to my understanding of difference. Languages, foods, living conditions, customs, values, were “interesting, but different.” To be explored and understood. I would go on to have other experiences with First Nations friends (Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, Huu-ay-aht First Nation). Further life experience has led me to engage with people and explore cultures in Mexico (6 weeks), Egypt (14 months), Cyprus (1 month), South Africa (6 years), Hungary (5 weeks), Niger (2 months), Ghana (6 weeks), Sri Lanka (8 months), India (2 months), and The Philippines (1 month).
OK, thanks for all that, Dan, so what’s your point?
“Applied anthropologists use their knowledge of peoples and cultures for practical purposes.” How does this knowledge and experience of diverse peoples help us in this current conversation? One of the applications of anthropology is to the discipline of intercultural communications, which aids in the development of intercultural competence.
Intercultural communication is defined as situated communication between individuals or groups of different linguistic and cultural origins. This is derived from the following fundamental definitions: communication is the active relationship established between people through language, and intercultural means that this communicative relationship is between people of different cultures, where culture is the structured manifestation of human behaviour in social life within specific national and local contexts, e.g. political, linguistic, economic, institutional, and professional. Intercultural communication is identified as both a concept and a competence. Intercultural competence is the active possession by individuals of qualities which contribute to effective intercultural communication and can be defined in terms of three primary attributes: knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Let’s catch up. Psychology situates the debate in individual terms, sociology as systemic and collective. Intercultural communication (an area of applied anthropology) says, "hold on, let’s sit down and figure out what’s going on and how we can move forward." This debate has individual, social, cultural, linguistic, political, economic and institutional implications. Meaning, engagement and dialogue is complex and any simplistic, reductionist media bites (on either side) completely miss the point.
The person who says “get your act together and pull up your bootstraps, Colten/Gerald” is missing the more complex work that needs to be done. As is the person who says “systemic racism caused this tragedy, we need to deconstruct the system.” It’s clearly both/and. But you know what? – all that takes time and commitment to engage, while suspending judgement in the meantime. And “the meantime” may take a long time.
Intercultural communication/competence provides these clues to the work that needs to be done:
And that’s my point. I’m tired of the debates – they only lead to further polarization, an entry-level phase of developing intercultural competence. I’m tired of the arm-chair, sophomoric social philosophers. I’d rather just sit down and spend some time engaging with, and learning from, someone who sees things different from myself – and doesn’t feel a need to convert me to their way of thinking. Maybe after I’ve listened long enough, I might get a chance to respectfully share my thoughts.
So I would respectfully suggest the beginning point is individual response (engagement, rethinking, changed behaviour) that leads to changes in systems, over time, because enough individual responses produce systemic change.
In light of ongoing social ferment in 2017 on both sides of the US/Canada border, I offer some insights from Jurgen Moltmann, written 40 years ago. Readers of Volf's Exclusion and Embrace will recognize Moltmann's influence on his thought.
In a social context where often we are only getting perspectives that represent a humanist worldview (i.e., a world with human capacity for self-improvement at the centre) or distorted Christian civil religion (with Christian semantics employed in the service of patriotism), we need to take the time to reflect more deeply on a revealed tradition that for millenia recorded a perspective on the distorted human condition that can only be rectified by outside intervention. We can't fix this of our own accord. History is witness to that reality.
"Birds of a feather flock together." But why? People who are like us, who think the same thoughts, who have the same things, and who want the same things, confirm us. However, people who are different from us, that is, people whose thoughts, feelings and desires are different from ours, make us feel insecure. We therefore love those who are like us and shun those who are different from us. And when these others live in our midst expressing their need for recognition, interest, and humanity, we react with defensiveness, increased self-confirmation, anxiety and disparagement. This anxiety is indeed the root of racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination against people with disabilities, and, not the least, the lack of relationships in the congregation. "Birds of a feather flock together": that is nothing other than the social form of self-justification and the expression of anxiety. This form of self-justification, therefore, never appears without aggressions against that which threatens its security. It has no self-confidence. It has no ego-strength.
"Accept one another." As we have seen this imperative unfortunately has its limitations. The roots of these limitations lie deep within ourselves. They appear in our anxiety about ourselves, and then in the self-justification which is so deeply ingrained in us.
"Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you" (Romans 15:7). Only this attitude can give us a new orientation and break through our limitations so that we can spring over our narrow shadows. It opens us up for others as they really are so that we gain a longing for and an interest in them. As a result of this we become able actually to forget ourselves and to focus on the way Christ has accepted us.
... We can mutually accept each other because Christ has accepted us...
(from Jurgen Moltmann, The Open Church: Invitation to a Messianic Lifestyle, SCM Press, 1978.)
Last week my wife and I visited the National Gallery of Canada to wander through the new display, Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967. I'm always inspired to stand or sit in front of Tom Thomson's Jack Pine or something by Emily Carr. This time I saw Yvonne McKague Housser's Rossport, Lake Superior. I've seen it before but I was startled again by how significant that sight is -- of this little village overlooking the lake, just down the road from where I was born. Aside from the early Modernist colour scheme, that's pretty much my "impression" from the early 1960s.
They also had a couple of Norval Morrisseau's pieces among many other indigenous artists that have been given a higher profile in the Gallery in preparation for the Canada 150 business. I have several Morriseau prints because I have been intrigued by his work since I was a kid. In the 1960s Morriseau lived not far from where I was born. Shortly after the kerfuffle with his work at Expo '67 he got a lot of press and certainly became a household name in my family. My father visited in his home around that same time period.
This morning as I was driving I listened to a podcast of Roberta Jamieson on CBC's Ideas program. Ms Jamieson is from the Six Nations of the Grand River, just outside Hamilton, where I live. She was recounting the history of indigenous and settler populations in Canada. I am continually amazed by how much of the history of colonial engagement and deception is unknown to large swathes of the Canadian population. [I think there is something about each generation needing to be retold the story, to give perspective on the present]
She also began recounting the steps that have taken place over the past 50 years to begin telling a different story. She mentioned that despite the perspectives of others, she would be celebrating Canada 150, because she sees reconciliation emerging in new and hopeful ways that haven't been there before. She feels the "Canadian" values of inclusion and welcome (although indigenous people have felt like outsiders for so long) are actually indigenous values that were demonstrated, practically, centuries ago, at first contacts with traders and settlers.
I would highly recommend listening to her talk, for history, reality and generosity of spirit. https://podcast-a.akamaihd.net/mp3/podcasts/ideas_20170630_64034.mp3
One of her thoughts was that we need to move beyond apologies and neo-liberal/progressive hand-wringing (she gives a throw-away 'tsk, tsk' to the whole "cultural appropriation" debate from this spring), to concrete action. She says don't come with your ideas on "how to help us;" just come and listen and explore together the way ahead.
On that note, I want to share this link to another podcast talking to my friend Darryl (a school teacher in Saskatoon) about his walk through the Truth & Reconciliation Commission summary, and his own neighbourhood to listen, explore and learn to adjust and create new things together.
This Sunday is Pentecost when Christians reflect on the coming of the Holy Spirit and what some refer to as the birth of the church. Often what is discussed is the phenomenon of wind, fire, sound and speaking in other tongues. I've always been interested in the response of the crowd who observed all this. Acts 2 says the crowd was composed of Jews and Jewish converts with backgrounds from Rome to Parthia (Turkmenistan) and Pontus (northern Turkey) to Arabia. The text says "each one heard their own language being spoken" and they were "utterly amazed." The reason they were amazed was because of the group of Galileans (fishermen and country bumpkins) who were speaking in these languages.
One of my favourite screen moments is in the movie, Miracle on 34th Street, when a Dutch orphan girl meets the Kris Kringle character...
What we find here is the deeply emotional response to the recognition of language -- the language of this young girl's formation. Her identity is so wrapped up in her first language, learned at her mother's breast. It's like she is being seen, heard and understood in a manner she didn't imagine possible in this big metropolis of New York.
I think this is a part of the Pentecost story that we need to pay attention to -- that the languages spoken via the Holy Spirit are a picture of God's profound recognition of language, culture and identity. God acknowledges who we are, speaks our "language," and then invites us into relationship based on that recognition.
Learning language takes us into the worldview of people; we begin to see the world through another's lens. In communities where our voices are not being heard, it's quite possible that we haven't entered into the language and culture of those with whom we wish to communicate. So we speak our own language and just shout, thinking that might help. It probably doesn't :).
A couple months ago I was working with the leadership community of a local church who were thinking about their place(s) of engagement in the wider world. We had some great dialogue about our desire to solve other people's problems -- often without really listening to understand whose problem it was, really -- theirs or ours. Nathan sent me this link to an excellent article by Courtney Martin discussing this challenge. She describes this challenge as "the reductive seduction of other people's problems." Martin suggests that this reductive seduction is not malicious (i.e., people's motives are in the right place), but it may be reckless.
"First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity."
"Second, the reductive seduction of other people’s problems is dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve avoided. While thousands of the country’s best and brightest flock to far-flung places to ease unfamiliar suffering and tackle foreign dysfunction, we’ve got plenty of domestic need."
She says lots of other really good things, then concludes with:
There’s a better way. For all of us. Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on. Or go if you must, but stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “other people” become real people. But, be warned, they may not seem so easy to “save.”