Tag Archives: story

Introducing Cross-Cultural Literacy

hands coming in together

Before my sixteen-year-old was born we began building his library. Among the board books and chapter books we eagerly collected, anticipating the day we could read them together, were atlases and cultural studies for young people. We wanted our future children to love the world at large and feel comfortable in it.

Although we have traveled widely throughout the United States with them, my two oldest made their first out-of-the-country trip last year when we joined a church mission group to the Dominican Republic. Yet, I feel we had already exposed our boys somewhat to cultures and customs beyond their own through personal stories (Their father and I have visited and lived in several countries), movies, documentaries, culturally diverse friends, and of course, through reading. Recognizing it will take time to develop fluency, introducing cross-cultural literacy now is important to us.

In 1987 E. D. Hirsch published his Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, where he first used the term. Tying an intimate and comfortable knowledge of one’s own language, customs, entertainment, symbols, history and dialect to a knowledge of decoding letters and words (i.e. literacy proper) Hirsch created an awareness of cultural literacy itself.

Having a solid basis in cultural literacy is important. If we are not aware of the idiosyncrasies, foibles, strengths and roots of our own cultural language, then it will be exponentially difficult for us to enter in to another culture with any sense of understanding or appreciation.

At sixteen, fourteen and seven, I do not expect my boys to be culturally fluent in any location outside their own culture, but I would love to think that they have been introduced to a sufficient number of other “worlds” that something new and different doesn’t startle them. I like to hear them talking with people from other countries or backgrounds while asking about their cuisine, being able to discuss basic issues relevant to the other country, or just being aware of behaviors that might be culturally offensive to others. We cannot be fully literate in every culture, but just as there is a term for “kindergarten readiness” or “reading readiness,” so there is a way to prepare for “cross-cultural literacy.” Whether it is through travel, meeting new people, eating out in a Vietnamese restaurant, or reading a book set in Botswana or India, there are many ways we can open new worlds for the children in our life.

What good is there in being culturally literate? Much.

  1.  We grow in empathy. Our hearts expand and open through the diversity of people we can relate to.
  2. We grow in our knowledge of cultures and worldviews, which piques our curiosity and broadens our interests and love for the world.
  3. We are protected from xenophobia, exclusionary or condescending views toward others.
  4. We learn the universality of feelings and basic needs. The specificity of lifestyle, language or custom may differ, but the commonality of the need for love, acceptance and respect transcends nations, ethnicities and cultures.
  5. We are less likely to fall prey to chronocentrism, the assumption that people who lived 100, 500, 1,000 years ago should think and act as we do.  A chronocentric attitude would see people from days past as inferior and as not having had time to progress as far. Here we should recognize that cross-cultural literacy does not only figure into national borders and dialects, but also time periods. The American Midwest where I live today, while sharing some similarities and history, does not share the same culture from 150 years ago. If I want to read James Whitcomb Riley, I will need to make use of some learned cross-cultural literacy techniques, and be ready to recognize that I am still not fluent.

Perhaps this seems obvious to us, but more and more I see kids (and adults) eschewing books which are “out-dated” in lieu of something “relevant” and “modern.” This belies the attitude that historical settings have no bearing or application in our lives, even more, that we have no connection as humans. Gravitating to contemporary and pertinent issues may seem understandable unless we only gravitate to books whose characters are “like me.” There is a danger in always trying to find ourselves in the pages of story. Story is where our world expands, and our capacity to empathize is not dependent on how closely the main characters’ lives and values reflect my own.

We need to help ourselves and our children become cross-culturally literate, whether we are crossing the street, traveling with a passport or through time. On first hearing of a new holiday or a new root vegetable from South America, I would love my children’s initial reaction to be curiosity and enthusiasm. In the same way, as they encounter hurt, discrimination and triumph in other people’s lives, I would love for their reaction to be sorrow, anger and joy where appropriate.

How beautiful to understand that God works IN cultures, ABOVE cultures, and IN SPITE OF cultures, including our own.

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Title Character

Adam.  Noah.  Job.  Abraham.  The ancients.  Isaiah.  Jeremiah.  Hosea.  Amos.  The prophets.  Joseph.  David.  Peter.  Paul.  Timothy.   The good guys.  Pharaoh.  Goliath.  Herod.  Pontius Pilate.  The bad guys.  The Bible is full of colorful figures, inspiring stories, tales of adventure, faith and didactic warnings.  Touted as heroes and lofty examples of goodness and godliness, I learned these old stories at the youngest of ages.  As some have no recollection of learning to read, I have no recollection of first hearing these foundational narratives, to the point that I remember at seven years old bragging to an aunt that I knew all the stories in the Bible.  As we were on the way to church she asked me whether or not I knew about Stephen.  She was teaching a children’s Sunday school class that morning on the first Christian martyr.  I stared for a moment, wondering if she were teasing.  Stephen was a modern name.  He sat behind me in class.  Was Jeff in the Bible, too?  His seat was in front of mine. Surely, there wasn’t a Stephen in the Bible?  Obviously, I hadn’t learned every story.  Still, I knew quite a few.  After all, I had parents and teachers who read to me faithfully.

In teaching our children, we point to these biblical figures with the intention of instruction.  We look to them to emphasize faith, kindness, forgiveness, obedience, and self-control, all the Christian virtues.  And yet, in doing this, we might be missing the point.  Missing the point of the entire Hebrew and Greek texts.  Because, just as in great novels or epic tales, there is a main hero or heroine, so through the pages of the Bible there is one main character, the driving force of every story, the purpose in each parable.  Each pericope can be distilled into a single word, the Word, God, the title character.

Perhaps he is explicitly in the forefront, given credit for his omniscience and providence as in the lives of Joseph, Daniel, and ultimately, Jesus.  Or maybe it is more implied and his name is not even mentioned as in the book of Esther.  Regardless, the story of the Bible is not a collection of tales featuring warriors, prophets, poets and kings, but rather the singular story of God.  Over the centuries, he has brought his finger down into the history of humanity, he speaks his word and his creation chooses to follow the story….or reject it.  Regardless, he is always the author and title character.

Even now, millennia after the cessation of written words of divine inspiration, I am living a portion of God’s story.  Although we may not be able to validate the existence of God-breathed words today, surely we continue to bear witness to God-breathed lives. Knowing we are a part of a greater story does not necessarily diminish the pain we may experience in this world, but if we strive to understand it properly, it can keep us focused on what is important.  Our life is not our own story.  It is God’s.  Just as he led former slaves through a dry sea, a runaway king across naturally hewn caves among the wild hills, just as he led a Jewish scholar to Caesar in Rome, so he leads me, and you.  On the written page, in modernity, for all time, he is the title character.