Understanding American culture was not easy for me, a young immigrant from South Africa. There were attitudes, prejudices, assumptions, and values that seemed strange to me. Fortunately, I was one of those students who paid attention in English class.
High school English literature contained a treasure trove of culture. In Huckleberry Finn I began to understand America’s long struggle with race relations. In The Great Gatsby I recognized Gatsby’s longing for the unattainable as a metaphor of the American Dream. In To Kill a Mockingbird I read about deeply held convictions of right and wrong that are still present in modern American culture.
There is nothing like reading a good book. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a good story is a profound thing that renews our passion for reality. Books bring a happiness akin to the happiness of the simplest things: food, sleep, friendship. But I fear that often our literary taste can languish within the borders of our own culture, oblivious to the riches beyond. Missionaries, in particular, should be encouraged to start reading the literature of the people they are trying to reach.
Here are three reasons to expand your palate and pick up a local book.
Mastering the Language
Reaching basic competency in a new language is already a daunting task. However, there is a deeper linguistic treasure awaiting those missionaries who are willing to go farther in their language learning than is required. Reading a book in its original language brings an understanding of that language that speaking cannot. This is because the written word and the spoken word are fundamentally different. The written word contains modes of thinking and communicating that are distinctly different than spoken communication. Choosing not to read is choosing to stunt your understanding of the local language.
Karen Swallow Prior reminds us that “Reading well begins with understanding the words on the page” (16). Even though this reason is simple, it was one of the most motivating for me personally. The bottom line is: reading local literature will increase your fluency and ability with the local language.
Connecting with People
One of the best reasons why we read books is to experience viewpoints and perspectives that we would never otherwise be able to understand. When we read Slaughterhouse Five, we gain insight and understanding into the fire-bombing of Dresden. Kurt Vonnegut put his own military experience into words and therefore allows us to be there, albeit vicariously, and suddenly we view the bombing of Dresden as something other than a dry wartime fact. Suddenly we can empathize with a veteran in a more profound way.
“When the apostle Paul preached to people who were familiar with Scripture, he quoted Scripture. But when he preached to people who had no knowledge of God’s Word, he quoted their literature.”
Reading foreign literature adds a new dimension to this paradigm because it allows us to experience a culture through the eyes of a character from that culture. Reading a book allows you to circumvent the cultural barrier and do cultural exegesis from the inside. The scholar Northrop Frye observed that “a great work of literature is . . . a place in which the whole cultural history of the nation that produced it comes into focus” (p 123). Because of this, foreign literature will work to free you from your own ethnocentrism—those cultural assumptions held so deeply that they are difficult to identify. A character from another culture will not value the same things you value, and they will be offended by things that do not offend you. All of this brings tremendous insight into a culture, but it will also help you to identify your own cultural blind spots as you read things that confuse or surprise you.
Reading foreign literature will help you to understand what types of stories resonate with people in that culture. To find those stories, do some digging and ask what books the nationals are required to read in school. Those are the books that a people have agreed best represents the deeper themes and values of their culture.
Sharing the Gospel
When the apostle Paul preached to people who were familiar with Scripture, he quoted Scripture. But when he preached to people who had no knowledge of God’s Word, he quoted their literature. In fact, Paul was able to preach to the Athenians because he had read their poets. In Titus, Paul quoted the Cretan poet Epimenides and then offered this commentary: “This testimony is true” (Titus 1:13, ESV). Paul clearly saw the missional benefit of reading the literature of the locals.
Great art deals with the deeper questions of life. As you identify themes of creation, fall, redemption, or restoration in local literature, you can connect them to those same themes in the gospel. Because I have read The Stranger by Albert Camus, I can ask Europeans if they feel the same ennui as the main character, if they identify with the confusion he feels about things like relationships and religion, or if they agree that society will persecute anyone who does not support the status quo. Literature is the bridge that allows me to ask these poignant questions.
A couple of words of caution are needed. First, view literature as a supplement to your cultural education, not a replacement for real interaction with people. Nothing can take the place of being in the presence of people and immersing yourself in conversation with them.
The second caution comes, again, from C. S. Lewis: be sure to receive the literature you are reading instead of just trying to use it (An Experiment in Criticism). A great book is not a means to an end, even if that end is language, culture, or gospel proclamation. Those fruits will only come if we receive the story from a position of humility, without expectation or criteria. Karen Swallow Prior sums it up: “Reading well adds to our life—not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life, for a tool does us no good once lost or broken, but the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever” (18).