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Loving means engaging

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Learning From the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity
David L. Smith

Eerdmans, 2009
186 pages

In Learning From the Stranger, David Smith broadens our understanding of loving our neighbours. Loving our neighbours, he suggests, includes learning from them. In our multicultural society where diversity is an everyday reality, this message is more relevant than ever.

Working from expertise in language and cultural engagement, Smith proposes “intercultural learning” – the process in which we “make sense in Christian terms of the challenges and joys of learning cultures and languages and learning from strangers.”

Smith explores how familiar biblical stories call for an openness to “learn from the stranger.” From this foundation, he weaves together practical observations and theoretical concepts to address the complexity of encountering different cultures. We must stop assuming we are the “normal” ones, he says, instead embracing humility and recognizing the value in everyone’s particular cultural identity.

Learning From the Stranger offers no revolutionary insights into the topic of cultural diversity. But, in Smith’s defence, that’s not his point. Instead, he helpfully puts into words what many of us experience daily – the reality of cultural differences – and then provides a biblical grid through which we can address this reality.

Smith’s book is particularly relevant for exploring questions of Mennonite identity. Intentional intercultural learning can be a helpful exercise as Mennonites – no longer the stranger ourselves – engage and are affected by cultures surrounding us. And while Smith’s Reformed theology may promote more cultural participation than Anabaptists have typically accepted, his proposal offers a helpful reminder to protect against our historical propensity toward ethnocentrism or denominational isolation.

I was disappointed with the book’s lack of discussion on how religious communities (e.g. churches, denominations) practice intercultural learning. I would like to hear Smith’s perspective on how faith communities should adopt intercultural learning as a part of their formal organization.

Overall, I would recommend this book to those searching for a framework beyond simply recognizing cultural diversity to actually engaging with it as a fundamental part of what it means to love our neighbours.

David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C.

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