Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

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Teaching and Learning: a review of two great books

Two great books on teaching and learning have been published in the last two years. They complement each other well. In 2020, Duane and Muriel Elmer’s The Learning Cycle: Insights for Faithful Teaching from Neuroscience and the Social Sciences was published by IVP. And this year (2021), Baker published Craig Ott’s Teaching and Learning Across Cultures: A Guide to Theory and Practice. The authors bring both extensive research and experience to the discussion of teaching and learning.

The Learning Cycle by Duane and Muriel Elmer

The Learning Cycle book

In a sense, this book is a capstone of Duane and Muriel Elmer’s writings and ministry.1 Many of Duane Elmer’s books have been foundational training materials for cross-cultural missionary service. See a review on this blog of one of his books, Cross-Cultural Servanthood. Duane created “the learning cycle” as part of his doctoral research at Michigan State University (p. 6). Subsequently, Muriel added the “barriers to change” to the cycle. Furthermore, they have both practiced the model throughout their teaching careers in various contexts. The insights from neuroscience do not dominate the text and come from “the more stable insights from the brain literature.” (p.11)

The Learning Cycle Model

Paul Hiebert’s “Excluded Middle”

In 1982 Paul G. Hiebert wrote an article in Missiology entitled “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.”1It is reprinted in Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 1994, pp 189-201. and also available at www.hiebertglobalcenter.org Essentially, the article explains why many western missionaries may be perplexed by spiritual phenomena in non-Western cultures. The article has influenced many missionaries and missiologists.

What is the Flaw of the Excluded Middle?

As a missionary in India, Hiebert observed spiritual activity that his functional worldview could not analyze. Indian villagers regularly consulted magicians or saints to help them when they were sick, infertile, or experiencing some misfortune. These spiritual practitioners used magical charms, chants, or amulets to address these problems. However, those who became followers of Jesus now took these problems to the missionaries. But missionaries often did not know how to deal with questions about curses, black magic, or witchcraft.

Telling a Better Story is about listening to the stories of others and telling the Gospel story.

Telling a Better Story – a book review

What does telling stories have to do with apologetics?Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age by [Josh Chatraw]

My interest was sparked when I saw this new book on apologetics focusing on telling stories earlier this summer. Apologetics has traditionally been oriented to philosophy and logic. Yet most people understand life through stories they seek to practice. Expressing the reason for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15) is best communicated through stories. People relate to stories better than to formal syllogisms. Josh Chatraw’s new book, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Zondervan, 2020) reimages apologetics for today’s context. The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 – A Better Story About Apologetics; Part 2 – Offering a Better Story; Part 3 – Objections to the Story. He writes the following about apologetics:

Once viewed as a tool to win debates, apologetics is now becoming more focused on generating productive conversations that open doors for people to consider the gospel. Rather than encouraging others to use what Charles Taylor refers to as “conversation-stoppers” (e.g. “I have a three-line argument which shows that your position is absurd or impossible or totally immoral”) or what Alan Jacobs refers to as the habit of “militarizing discussion and debate,” many apologists are emphasizing the need for Christians to become better listeners who seek to understand the person thay are speaking with before making appeals. This enables us to meet people where they are and find points to affirm before finding points to challenge.1Josh Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, Zondervan, 2020, p 19.

Listen to their stories

The author wants us to listen to their stories because they are windows for understanding. Stories, both big stories and little stories, are purveyors of culture and worldview. Stories explain life. They answer the big questions about the meaning of life and how to live well. Chatraw writes:

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Review: Hearers and Doers

In his recent book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer makes the claim that everyone is a disciple of someone else. Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine by [Vanhoozer, Kevin J.]We all follow someone else’s words or stories. The question is whose words, whose stories are we following. We often follow the stories that provide meaning for our culture. The book identifies as a pastor’s guide but has valuable insights for missionaries. Vanhoozer makes use of Charles Taylor’s (the author of A Secular Age) concept of social imaginary. He explains:

A social imaginary is the picture that frames our everyday beliefs and practices, in particular the “ways people imagine their social existence.” The social imaginary is the nest of background assumptions, often implicit, that lead people to feel things as right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is another name for root metaphor (or root narrative) that shapes a person’s perception of the world, undergirds one’s worldview, and funds one’s plausibility structure. … Social imaginaries, then, are the metaphors and stories by which we live, the images and narratives that indirectly indoctrinate us. Yes, we have all been indoctrinated: filled with doctrine or teaching. The doctrines we hold, be they philosophical, political, or theological, feel right or wrong, plausible or implausible, based largely on how well they accord with the prevailing social imaginary or world picture. – p.8, 9

Book Review: Two Stories of Everything

Why review another book comparing Islam and Christianity? Two Stories of Everything: the Competing Metanarratives of Islam and Christianity by Duane Alexander Miller take a different approach than most. Rather than comparing Islam and Christianity as religions, Miller compares the metanarratives that Islam and Christianity tell. Metanarratives are the overarching story that includes and defines all the smaller stories of a people. It is the story that communicates the worldview of a group. I find it interesting that Miller never uses the term ‘worldview’ (if he did I missed it). I think he wanted to stay focused on the stories of everything rather than get bogged down in a philosophic analysis. He has lived in the Middle East and has personal experience interacting with Muslims for whom he shows great respect. He explains his approach in the introduction:

People often talk of Islam and Christianity as competing religions, and compare their doctrines and practices. When I moved to the Middle East ten years ago I shared this opinion. But over that time I found this approach to be deficient. Which is not to say it is wrong, but it fails to grasp the genius of either of these collections of doctrines and practices. … In this book I will outline the stories that Islam and Christianity tell. Furthermore, all these stories (or narratives) find themselves included in a great story of everything, which is to say a metanarrative. Islam and Christianity, whatever they may be, certainly do propose to tell a grand story of everything, from creation of the world and time all the way to the consummation of history and the eternal fate of human souls. – Duane Alexander Miller, Two Stories of Everything, xi.

Book Review: Worldview-based Storying

Tom Steffen’s book, Worldview-based Storying: The Integration of Symbol, Story, and Ritual in the Orality Movement, is the first book in the Series “There’s More to the Story” written by the consultants of Worldview Resource Group. I reviewed book two (July 2018) and book three (December 2017) – the books were not published sequentially. Each book stands on its own yet reading them in the order intended would be beneficial to the reader.

In the Preface, Steffen describes the concerns addressed by the series:

Cross-cultural communicators of the gospel all too often neither provide adequate backstory nor sufficiently know whom they address, much less how they story. In fact, some even consider such awareness totally unnecessary! This all too often leads to an ineffective, truncated biblical story. This series “attempts to preempt the rapidly-prepared, quick-fix approaches that tell only small portions of the biblical story, and in their place, present a comprehensive, big-picture, local-culture sensitive, viable, reproducible, and thoroughly biblical alternative.” -Kindle loc. 259

Worldviews are interpreting your stories

In communicating the gospel message, whether through Bible stories or Discovery Bible Studies, we need to be aware that our hearers will interpret what they hear through their worldviews. In a 1993 issue of the MARC Newsletter, Bryant Myers wrote about what happened after showing the Jesus Film in a Fulani village in Africa:

The white missionary walked back to the village with the women, listening to their animated conversation. Something didn’t make sense. “What was it that so captivated your attention?” He asked.

“The Christian man from the coast who made the magic!” they exclaimed. Confused, he asked, “What magic?”

“We’ve never seen a shaman who had the power to make people get up and move about on a sheet and talk,” they explained.

What message had the village women heard? From the point of view of the missionaries showing the Jesus film, they had heard the good news about Jesus Christ, but most of the women talked about magic and power. The message that they took away was that the West African Christians from the city had a magic more powerful than any they had ever seen.

Bryant Myers, “What Message did they receive?” MARC Newsletter, December 1993, 3.

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