The best advice I’ve ever received on teaching with cultural awareness came from a student in Lomé, Togo, named Koffi. I was teaching on Job chapter two, looking at Satan's dialogue with the Lord about Job’s fate, when a student named Mawena asked this question: ”But can Satan come among believers?”
Those were nearly his exact words, but here‘s the question I heard: ”Why is Satan permitted in the presence of the LORD among the ‘sons of God’?” I answered by expounding a series of arguments I had learned in graduate school about the divine council-type scene in ancient Near Eastern literature, concluding that Satan is actually a member of God’s council and belonged in the throne room of heaven. But behind Mawena’s respectful smile I could see that I had missed the mark.
Koffi approached me on the break. “Do you know why Mawena asked that question?” My stomach tightened with the knowledge that I was indeed missing something. “When you receive a question,” Koffi humbly corrected, “Before you answer you should ask, ‘Why do you ask that?’ ” Koffi went on, “You see, right now in Lomé the people in our churches are very scared because two witch doctors have come to town in the form of birds and they are landing in the markets and striking people with illness and have even killed some people—so for them they read this passage in Job and they need to know if Satan can strike down believers the way that he struck down Job?”
That’s a significantly different question than the one I answered.
Maybe you’ve heard the old anecdote about two young fish who are swimming along when they happen on an older fish swimming the other way. “Good morning, boys,” he grins, “How’s the water?” As the two young fish swim on they look at each other puzzled, until one of them finally ventures, “What on earth is water?” Perhaps this little parable is trite, but it highlights the first and most fundamental principle of cultural awareness: a fish doesn’t know it's in water. If we want to be effective in teaching cross-culturally, we have to learn to see water.
The cultural virtue we need to cultivate here is humility. We have to be humble enough to slow down, check our assumptions, and examine the water we are swimming in. We have to know that we are native to a cultural environment that affects everything we see and how we see it. We need to be humble enough to interrogate our first impressions, our assumptions, and even our values. We have to be willing to ask questions to see the water.
“We have to know that we are native to a cultural environment that affects everything we see and how we see it.”
Consider another context. When teaching in India you quickly realize that you must not wear your shoes inside, that women and men often socialize separately, that traditional clothing is colorful, light, and flowing, that beef and pork will not be on the menu, and that you thought you could handle spicy food but you were wrong. You might also notice some puzzling formalities. The students refuse to call you by your first name, preferring titles that seem servile. They hurry to perform small tasks for you like carrying your bag or erasing the white board. But perhaps most frustrating of all the students refuse to engage in debate or dialogue—like bobble-headed yes-men they seem to agree uncritically with everything you say.
Most of us notice these surface-level differences and respond by reflexively applying value judgements. For example, you might think, “These students are very polite, but they need to learn that I am just like them.” You might insist on being called by your first name or start singling students out individually to critique your arguments in class. At the end of a frustrating day, you might find yourself with a classroom full of students who won’t address you at all and sheepishly stare at the floor every time you ask a question.
When you notice surface-level differences, it is best to assume that these point not just to customs or practices but to fundamentally different ways of processing and experiencing the world. The second fundamental principle of cultural awareness is this: culture is an iceberg. You have to believe that the differences between cultures are massively greater than you can see on the surface. The polite formalities that you notice in India are the visible expressions of a radically hierarchical culture. Your students might not be able to conceive of their teacher as their friend. They see it not as impolite but as unethical to question what you say.
If we fail to attend to the sub-structure of the iceberg we risk ineffective, even counterproductive teaching. The hierarchical culture of India changes the way the students read Scripture and relate to God. A long-time missionary recently recounted to me the story of an American professor teaching in India who came to the topic of God's wrath and judgement. His teaching was dialed in for an egalitarian, American context where he assumed that the students would resist his arguments and struggle with the doctrine. As he slowly and cautiously developed multiple complex theological arguments explaining the value of authority and the necessity of justice, the Indian students grew restless. His approach was confusing and distracting in a hierarchical context. The students found it unproblematic, indeed, completely appropriate, that God, the ultimate authority figure, would have total freedom to judge sin and punish wrongdoing. India's hierarchical culture gave them a leg up on understanding this crucial biblical doctrine.
The cultural virtue to cultivate here is curiosity. When you observe surface-level differences, assume that there is unimaginably more going on beneath the surface and begin to ask questions. Don’t correct too quickly but instead plumb the depths to see where these differences lead. Cultural differences can provide incredible opportunities for teaching and learning if we don't underestimate their significance.
Now lest we despair that the cultural gap is too wide to leap, here’s the third fundamental principle of cultural awareness: all human beings are made in the image of God.
Leaning into this biblical truth has empowered some of my most memorable experiences teaching cross-culturally. The first time I ever taught overseas was with a small group of Muslim-background house-church leaders from North Africa at a refugee center in Athens, Greece. These men had left their war-torn homes in Egypt and Sudan on foot to make a treacherous and uncertain journey to Athens. Having made it to the promised land of the EU, they were now stuck in limbo, paperless and powerless in the face of the Greek government's inability to process the flood of asylum seekers. My interpreter, Abdeen, had been trapped in Athens for three years with his wife and children stuck in Cairo. He wired money, he called, but they were stranded countries apart.
With my youth and relative privilege I felt completely inadequate to teach these men. What could I share that would make sense or be of service to them? But when we came to study Ezra and Nehemiah, I was overcome by the similarity between the plight of the Israelites after the exile and the situation my students faced. Both were refugees, devastated by circumstances, waiting and hoping now only in the promises of God’s Messiah. As we studied together, I did what I could to steer the class toward these resonances. I tried to bring Ezra and Nehemiah’s context to life and ask questions that would help my students relate. I can still see Abdeen, from the Nubian mountains of Sudan, his face like night, holding back tears while he told me that he had never known this part of the story—he had never known that God’s people were once refugees like him. He would persevere in hope.
Whether American, Togolese, Indian, or Sudanese, we all share a purpose and a calling by virtue of our created dignity. The cultural virtue to cultivate here is empathy. Though cultural expressions vary radically, no one wants to be shamed, guilty, weak, or lonely. We all experience fundamental emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and happiness. Deep down all people long to be reconciled to their creator and one another, to live a meaningful life, and to see all things made new. Once you have humbly examined your own cultural assumptions and curiously investigated surface-level differences, never be afraid to engage with your students empathetically on a human level. Cultivating cultural awareness in our teaching glorifies God by honoring both our irreducible differences and our common human dignity as God’s image bearers.