Intercultural threshold-crossers are frequently overwhelmed by floods of difference. Language, ways of thinking, ethics, religion… it’s all paralyzingly, stupefyingly strange. Understanding our default reactions to difference – even more, developing our theology of difference is therefore a cross-cultural non-negotiable.
Whether you are in fresh-off-the-plane-everything-is-new mode, or 10-years-in-and-still-learning mode, here are some attitudes to strangeness. Where do you find yourself amongst these options?
This word is used by Dr. Dawn Nothwehr, arguing that Western culture, despite globalisation, still instils fear of difference into its disciples.
“Heterophobia, fear of difference, or xenophobia, fear of strangers, is each rooted in particular concrete experiences and contexts. Any “cure” for such fears needs to be dealt with in equally concrete and experiential ways. One deeply embedded myth—strongly reinforced by Western education, colonial, and slave mentalities—is that it is bad to be different.”
We still see this in Evangelical theology – there is one right way of reading the Bible (our way) – and any deviation from this is wrong. Black or white. In or out. Heterodoxophobia.
One reaction to the Great Evils that have been worked in the name of difference – slavery, colonialism, racism, Fascism, Apartheid – is to go the opposite way and say “there is no difference between people; we are all fundamentally the same,” which is to flatten humankind into a boring, monochrome, narrow, shapeless mass.
People do think differently. Cultures do operate differently. There are multiplicities of competing worldviews. Cats get skinned in many ways. To deny this is parochial and ignorant. Wise feminists don’t try to make women into men – they celebrate difference whilst striving for justice.
When the British started discovering the East, their overwhelming reaction was “How exotic! How exciting!” Many engaged with the Orient on a sensory or artistic level, but never for a moment considered that they might learn something, or be changed by it. There was still an ethnocentric “hold it at arms’ length and appreciate the aesthetics, but don’t let Asia get under your skin, old boy!”
Sadly, some of our contextualization attempts are still like this. Our trophy indigenous leader or use of a local instrument in worship – it can give a surface impression of exoticism, but unless we ourselves are humbled to learn and be changed, then we are no better than the old Colonials.
4. Renewed self-definition
Edward Said wrote that “no identity can ever exist by itself and without an array of opposites, negatives, oppositions: Greeks always require barbarians, and Europeans Africans, Orientals, etcetera.”
Sometimes, seeing what you are not actually reinforces who you are. This can be godly; a kid from a believing home arriving at University, seeing his peers getting up to mischief and choosing in apposition to them his Christian heritage. But when this attitude generalizes, demonizes, and ghettoizes, it is poison.
This is the polar opposite of the other, ethnocentric views discussed above. Postmodernism says that all views are valid as long as no one view tries to impose itself on any other. All difference is to be celebrated. All roads lead to God. Any universalising metanarrative that seeks to replace every other ‘local’ narrative is to be mistrusted.
The thing to remember about the narrative given to us by the Bible is that it does honour the particular, the ‘local’, as well as the universal. Richard Bauckham writes (and I think this is brilliant);
“The particular has its own integrity that should not be suppressed for the sake of a too readily comprehensible universal. The Bible does, in some sense, tell an overall story that encompasses all its other contents, but this story is not a sort of straitjacket that reduces all else to a narrowly defined uniformity. It is a story that is hospitable to considerable diversity .”
The Christian worldview is decidedly not heterophobic; in fact, it celebrates local difference, and God is revealed in different ways at different times, in different places.
6. Searching for the fingerprints of grace
So, if we are not to fear difference or deny it, if we are not to treat it as merely exotic or as the Non- that helps us clarify what we are, and if we are to hold on to the Bible’s story of the world as some sort of anchor-point, then how on earth, when the wave of strangeness crashes into us and tumbles us head-over-heels, are we supposed to work out which way is up?
We must search for the fingerprints of grace. We believe that God has etched beauty onto each local, that he “has not left himself without witness” (Acts 14.17), that common grace has gone before us, that somewhere in all the foreignness and strangeness we will recognise the imprint of the Father we know and love.
Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on men’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival.
When the next wave of strangeness breaks over you, consider. Will you keep your feet firmly planted and resist it? Will you let each wave bash you around so you never know what is true? How can your appreciation of difference change you at a deep level? How can you train yourself, in the midst of powerful emotional reactions, to “see the grace of God”(Acts 11.23)? Search earnestly for His fingerprints – to win some.
 Nothwehr, Dawn M. “Defining Racisms”, in Kalu, Ogbu U. Mission After Christendom (p. 120). Kindle Edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 120.
 Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism (Kindle Locations 1500-1502). Random House. Kindle Edition.
 Bauckham, Richard Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Paternoster, Milton Keynes: 2003), 93.
 Warren, M.A.C. in Warren’s Preface to the seven books in the Christian Presence Series (London: SCM Press, 1969-1966).