Many years ago, while working my own business, I supplemented my income by becoming a substitute teacher. My favorite group to work with were the elementary age children, especially those from grades 1 to 3. At one of the schools I substituted at, there was a young first grade boy from Haiti who spoke no English. He could not communicate with anyone and just looked sadly at the paper he was supposed to color. The picture was labeled in English with the colors that were supposed to be colored in each spot. The idea was he would be immersed into the culture and learn English. In the meantime, he looked lost. Suddenly, some of my one year of High school French came back to me and I was able to tell him in French what each color was. The little boy looked relieved and smiled brightly and completed the assignment. The other children were simply amazed that I knew French.
Here was a situation where this child could have been assumed to be unintelligent or not responsive to the assignment because he could not understand the language. In the book, The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer, she explains communicating across cultures goes beyond language and sometimes involves reading between the lines (Meyer 2014, 32). Meyer further goes on to explain the Japanese call this process of reading between the lines as “listening to the air” (Meyer 2014, 33). Americans are accused of being guilty being of what the Japanese call “KY” or “kuuki yomenai”, which means “one who cannot read the air” or those lacking the ability to read between the lines (Meyer 2014, 33). Meyers explains this by stating that some countries, such as United States of America, are “Low-context”, saying exactly what they mean and meaning what they say, while other countries such as Japan, are “High-context”, being more nuanced and requiring the listeners to read between the lines (Meyer 2014, 39).
Although Meyer’s work is directed toward helping professionals across global lines communicate, I believe this work is also applicable to working with different cultures in the learning environment, particularly in Christian education. Meyers teaches that companies cannot expect its multicultural staff to adapt to the leaders of the company, but the company must go beyond and understand how its multicultural staff communicate whether in High-context or Low-context. Christian education curriculum writers tend to write toward the dominate culture with little more than a sprinkle of brown and black pictures of children. While this attempt at cultural diversity is appreciated, the content of the material often is not culturally relevant to a variety of audiences. Ladson-Billings states, “Culturally relevant teaching is a pedagogy of opposition that recognizes and celebrates African and African American culture. It is contrasted with an assimilationist approach to teaching that sees fitting students into the existing social and economic order as its primary responsibility” (Ladson-Billings 1992, 314).
Meyers work does not teach assimilation, but rather the need to build bridges through an understanding of cultural differences and learning to listen to the air. I believe we can do the same in teaching the Bible to our children and youth by making the Bible culturally relevant to not just African Americans, but to children and youth of all nationalities. We would do well in incorporating Meyer’s methods of cultural communications within our own country first and foremost given Americas historically diverse background.
Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Reading Between the Lines and Beyond the Pages: A Culturally Relevant Approach to Literacy Teaching.” Theory Into Practice, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, 1992: 312-320.
Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. New York: Public Affairs, 2014.