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Your homeland through others’ eyes

10 May, 2008

Top of the Rockefeller Building

Most recently some of my Co-Mission colleagues and I went to Manhattan to attend a church planting conference put on by Acts 29 (based in Seattle, Washington) and Redeemer Presbyterian Church (located in mid-town Manhattan). The conference was very stimulating for all of us and the speakers did a fine job (special mention must be made about Tim Keller’s two superb talks). As colleagues all engaged in church planting in London, we found the conference rewarding.

Andrew, Matt & Perks

I also thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with some of my former students from the theological college in the States where I taught. It was an encouragement to learn about the good work they are doing (and the growing number of children as well). I met other people for the first time with whom I enjoyed conversing about ministry and gospel work.

What I did not anticipate was the intriguing ways my colleagues reacted to certain things American. No, I don’t mean I was caught off guard when they met the ubiquitous American “Have a nice day!” at almost every shop or restaurant. I wasn’t even surprised by their reactions to places like Dunkin’ Donuts (as I put it, “These places are what make America big.”) or the New York pretzel carts. They reacted as any overseas visitor to the ‘Big Apple’ reacts: part delight, part amusement, part curious and part puzzlement.

What did catch me off guard was their questions “Why do Americans do that?” or “Why do Americans say things like that?” Most of the time I had no idea of an explanation. On a few occasions I too wondered why a certain action transpired or why a particular expression was used (I mean are hetero-sexual males really supposed to praise some of the leaders they admire by saying, “I have a man-crush on him”? Nope; I don’t think so!). Other times I didn’t even notice the action or expression in question. Yet I did find myself thinking: “Hmmm…despite the fact that I’ve lived many years in the UK, I’m still looked upon as a resident interpreter of things American.” Fair enough. Why wouldn’t they ask me? Often visiting a foreign country — even one that is ‘known’ through TV programmes, film and music — raises questions. I think we can label these ‘translation’ questions or ‘contextual clarification’ questions. Of course, if I dared to use these terms in discussion with my colleagues they’d have been tempted to toss me off the Rockefeller Tower.

My recent experience in Manhattan made me think ‘translation’ questions or ‘contextual clarification’ questions are essential. They make for better understanding and appreciation of other people’s ways of expressing and acting. Not to ask these kinds of questions is to fall victim either to a blindness or an indifference. Asking these questions is to take another people’s context seriously (even if, in the case of certain things said and done at the conference my mates ended up shaking their heads in bewilderment. There are some things American that are, well, hard to explain!)

To shift things a bit: I wonder if visitors to our Christian churches sometimes want to ask us, “Er, so why did you say that or why do you guys do that?” Do we create an atmosphere in which visitors would feel permitted to ask these questions? Moreover, do we appreciate that others will ask these questions to themselves if not to us?

Equally, do we ask these kind of questions ourselves? I don’t mean do we ask these questions when we visit a foreign country. I mean are we attentive enough, curious enough and stimulated enough to ask these questions when in conversations with people (friends, family and work colleagues)? Do we ask ‘translation’ questions or ‘contextual clarification’ questions to those who dismiss the gospel, reject the gospel and present alternatives to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ?

I wonder if by asking these kind of questions (which surely those of us committed to presuppositional apologetics ought to ask) will end up making us not only better listeners but also better communicators. Just as we can start to see our homeland in new ways when we see it through others’ eyes, so too can we be better gospel communicators when we encourage people to ask questions to us and we ask questions back.

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