STRANGERS WITHIN OUR GATES: East Meets West: Language, Religion, and Politics. By Paul Boeder.
STRANGERS WITHIN OUR GATES: East Meets West: Language, Religion, and Politics. By Paul Boeder. Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2009. 164 pages. Paper. $19.99.
Reviewed by Francis Rossow, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, MO.
Strangers within Our Gates is written by one who is not a stranger within our gates. The author, Paul Boecler, an emeritus professor, was my colleague for many years on the faculty of the late Concordia Senior College of Fort Wayne, Indiana. More than that, he and his charming wife, Gertraud, are our close friends; I am well acquainted with their skills and virtues. So when a review copy of Boecler’s book arrived in the mail, I was confident of its merits because, in reversal of the biblical adage, I felt I could judge the fruit by the quality of the tree.
But there was a problem: The subtitle, East Meets West: Language, Religion, and Politics, alerted me to the likelihood that this book was cross-cultural in content. The word “cross-cultural,” so common in educational circles, has become for me a tired and overused word. Not because of what it describes (I hope I am not xenophobic) but because it seems to be the only word we can find to describe it. Given my peculiar apathy, here was a friend coming, like his counterpart in the biblical parable, with a midnight request to which I could respond with no other motive than friendship.
I was in for a surprise. Unexpectedly caught up in the book, I ‘read it without ceasing.’ It’s an account of the author’s experiences in teaching English as a second language to three promising young Asian scientists conducting experiments at the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan: Qian Xie (called the Swan as the author’s tribute to her grace and beauty), ChaoNan “Miles” Qian (dubbed the Bumblebee because of his selfless “buzzing around” in everyone’s behalf), and Nariyoshi Shinomiya (christened the Pool for his depth of intellect and character). The unforeseen but welcome result for the Boeclers was their deep involvement in their students’ lives, careers, families, politics, and religion. As the author with his customary genuine humility admits in the Dedication, they taught him more than he taught them. It turned out to be—if you’ll pardon the term—a cross-cultural happening: warm, poignant, intensely human, and at times hilariously funny—a reader’s delight.
It is the author’s unique sense of humor, as well as his capacity to put his perspective into appropriate words, that accounts for the endearing quality of the comic element so prevalent in Strangers within Our Gates. What’s so funny about a piece of pizza falling to the floor? But when it is the Bumblebee who, with his customary assiduity, arrived “at the accident scene seconds after the pizza fell dead” and slid a spatula “deftly, like a scalpel, under the deceased remains and resurrected it faceup on a plate,” and said, “No harm done. Let’s eat,” the tragedy turns into comedy—especially when the account ends with the author’s comment, “However, we saved the soiled pizza for Miles the Bumblebee” (81). In reference to the Bumblebee’s eagerness to visit Boeder at his home after the latter had experienced a serious auto accident, Boeder soliloquizes: “That was Miles for you, the ever-helpful Bumblebee . . . My doctor does not make house calls. I’m thinking of switching to Miles” (93). Recording the one instance in his classes that he had spouted theology (because of a Manhattan prior to the session), Boecler confesses, “Now, I’m not a great theologian (except after a Manhattan or two)” (87). After writing out a check for a cemetery plot he had just purchased, the author quips to the seller: “If the Lord returns before we die, do we get our money back?” (119). Never caustic, always self-effacing, Boeder’s humor is gemutlich, like that of syndicated humorist Craig Wilson. Boeder loves whom he satirizes, ever aware of his own capacity for the weaknesses he pokes fun at.
Of special interest to me because I teach homiletics and English were the difficulties the author encountered in teaching Asians the dynamic, vital, but utterly illogical English language. If “lived” is the past tense of “live,” why can’t “rided” (rather than “rode”) be the past tense of “ride”? Or, if you insist that “rode” is the proper past tense of “ride,” why, then, is not “decode” the past tense for “decide”? (67–68). Particularly troublesome for Boeder’s students were English idioms (such as letting your hair down, shooting the bull, taking the rap, on the house). Again and again when Boeder summoned up sufficient courage to correct his students’ English usage, they retaliated by demonstrating the absurdities of some of our conventional English grammar, syntax, and usage.
Of even greater interest to me—and the reason most of you will wish to buy and read Strangers within Our Gates—is the religious story that emerges. When Boecler reluctantly accepted the teaching assignment, he vowed not to exploit the occasion by making his students’ conversion to Christianity a part of his agenda. In his own words, “I would not use the course to argue them into Christianity. I did want to share the Gospel with them, and it was always in the back of my mind, but I would do it in an offhand manner if the occasion presented itself in a natural way” (58–59). When the Boeclers hosted a table at their church social to which the three Asians were invited, Boecler worried about two things: “One, that not many members would come by to greet our Asian guests, and they will conclude that these Lutherans are an unfriendly bunch. Two, that too many members would come by to greet our guests a little too exuberantly, and they will wonder why they were singled out. To join the church?” (85).When a natural opportunity did once occur to explain the gospel, Boecler admits that the seed he hoped would fall on fertile ground actually landed, he feared, “on rocky soil” (59). After another apparent failure, Boeder confided to his wife that Christian witness resembles “doing carpentry work on a burning building” (121). The Pool ultimately is won to the Christian faith, but then encounters family hostility if he becomes baptized. To the author’s joy the Swan one night asked him, “If I decide to become Christian, would you baptize me?” Boeder accepts enthusiastically but doses the account with the comment, “I am still waiting. Chen is definitely a work in progress” (162).
As Boeder puts it, “There is a lesson in that” (137). Evangelism is more than a set of techniques, more than a few easy lessons, more than a distribution of tracts–although all of these may be helpful. Ultimately, evangelism involves genuine association with people and cultivating their friendship. “Familiarity does not breed contempt” (142). If cowardice is the Scylla to Christian witness, then eagery-beavery salesmanship is the Charybdis. If constipation of the spirit is inimical to evangelism, so is diarrhea of the mouth. Strangers within Our Gates is no glib success story, not a how-to evangelism manual. It is not a scholarly analysis of mission work—even when fortified by a Manhattan. Boeder’s book realistically assesses the difficulties of winning people to Christ. But his book does emphasize that God’s Word, sown courteously and unobtrusively, does not return void. God’s Holy Spirit does the converting on his own schedule and in his own way. Boeder’s book reinforces the message of our Lord’s parable in Mark 4:26–29, “So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.”
Maybe “cross-cultural” is not such a bad word after all. Come to think of it, the term contains the word “cross”—an unintended but subtle reminder that it is the cross, and the cross alone, that can bridge our cultural differences and make us—Asian and American (or whoever with whomever)—one in Christ, our Savior.