It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. --G.K. Chesterton, Heretics.
The wreckage of history should have taught us by now that cross-cultural communication is a tricky business. Alas, it seems we are slow learners. Getting to know "the other" is a long process, fraught with minefields, demanding effort, time, and commitment. When it comes to our understanding of the Middle Eastern "other," unfortunately, we in the West are usually content to rely on inherited prejudices, political goading, and media impressions. Americans particularly have a notoriously short attention span and little time to devote to "news" from outside our world. After all, life at home is all consuming: we have our share of economic worries, pressing social crises, educational and civic activities, family responsibilities, etc. Or is it malls to get to, video games to play, sports to spend on, shows to watch ("Can you believe Simon is leaving 'Idol'?!")? In any case we have less and less time to spend on more and more complex realities.
Of course, this cuts both ways. Too many in our neck of the woods, the Eastern Mediterranean, know America "all too well," but in fact all too little. Once again the culprits are stilted media images, movies, political demagoguery, and perhaps passing acquaintance with only certain kinds of Americans. The point is, as in other arenas of life, good cross-cultural understanding takes time, commitments, and relationship. Think of that most prominent of all cultural artifacts, language. Some will content themselves with a few passing phrases from the guidebook. Then there is the infamous example of the English-speaker who feels he has mastered Spanish by simply adding "-O" to the end of every word. (Oh the stories we could tell.) But in reality, to know a language takes time, rigor, errors, persistence, time, commitment, errors, effort, and did I mention "time" and "errors"? The cardinal rule is simply not to quit. As a friend of mine who does extremely well in Hebrew as a second language likes to say, "Fluency is a moving target." The thing is, he stays on the chase.
Oddly enough, similar principles apply to the marriage relationship. Certainly an endless sequence of anonymous, promiscuous trysts is a potential lifestyle choice. One may choose commitment-free pursuit of pleasure. But in the end, such a choice hardly amounts to a full life, a meaningful foundation on which to build anything of lasting value. Such does not result in "knowledge" of the type worthy of the name. No, a robust relationship is faithful, committed, covenantal, irrevocable. It takes time, rigor, errors, and persistence. It takes love. The joy, the beauty, of this kind of knowledge, relational knowledge, involves a life-long journey. In the nature of the case, marriage is a one-way trip to amazing depths of discovery. It must be that way. A casual, commitment-free, "try before you buy" approach is an illusion. It's "All in." It's for life. But what rich returns!
The process of understanding the other and bridging the cultural gaps runs along a similar course. For genuine "knowing", for empathetic understanding, a parade of touristic encounters will not do. Whirlwind experiences and impressions do not constitute knowledge…, nor a relationship. The would-be boundary-crosser, is asked not to casually sample from the buffet at will; no, she is asked to become an investing partner in the restaurant! It takes time, rigor, errors, and persistence. It takes love.
And so it is with my wife and me, here in Haifa, Israel; we don't know "all about" the peoples, histories, and cultures of this land--Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and a parade of "internationals." But, we are getting to know them. We are privileged to be on this journey. It is a joy, an odyssey of discovery, to walk with "the other", to get to know our Neighbor. At times the path rises at a pretty steep incline, but as we gain in altitude and crest new vistas, how rich the returns!
By Brent Neely
Vice President of Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary and Lecturer in New Testament