Position paper presented by John Wijngaards during the International UNDA/OCIC Congress in Prague, September 1994.
In our present-day world a properly designed process of crosscultural communication is an unavoidable necessity.
Among some classic handbooks on the topic we find: H.D.FISHER and J.C.MERRILL, International and Intercultural Communication, Hastings House, New York 1970, 1976; L.SAMOVAR and R.E.PORTER, Intercultural Communication: a Reader, Wadsworth, Belmont 1972, 1984; J.C.CONDON and F.YOUSEF, An Introduction to Intercultural Communication, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis 1975, 1977; K.S.SITARAM and R.T.COGDELL, Foundations of Intercultural Communication, Ch.E.Merrill, Columbus 1976; F.L.CASMIR (ed.), Intercultural and International Communication, University Press of America, Washington 1978; M.PROSSER, The Cultural Dialogue: An Introduction to Intercultural Communication, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1978; L.SAMOVAR et al., Understanding Intercultural Communication, Wadsworth, Belmont 1981; W.B.GUDYKUNST (ed.), Intercultural Communication Theory: Current Perspectives, Sage, Beverly Hills 1983.
Cross-cultural communication also seems a viable, and perhaps indispensable, tool of Christian communication.
" An interest in intercultural communication comes naturally to Christians as they seek ways to reach all cultures with their 'good news'. In fact, many leaders in the secular field of intercultural communication research were initially drawn to it by religious motives. There is an urgent need to review the thinking and research pertinent to the kind of intercultural communication that might contribute to a new and more dynamic missiology." (See 'Christianity as Intercultural Communication' in Research Trends in Religious Communication Vol 7 (1986) no 3, pp. 9-12).
Careful planning is, indeed, necessary. It is an indisputable fact that, while Japan dominates the market of electronic hardware, for television and video. Hollywood-type films and `soaps' are indiscriminately presented to audiences in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The long-term consequences of this for Third World cultures are hotly disputed by commentators. Most agree that the situation is highly unsatisfactory.
"American TV products, for better and for worse, are setting the tone for television programming throughout the world . . . . The United States leads all other countries combined twice over as a programme exporter". (See H.I.SCHILLER, Mass Communication and American Empire, Beacon Press, Boston 1971, p.85; see also J.HAMELINK, Cultural Autonomy in Glocal Communications, Longman, London 1983; M.ANDERSON, Madison Avenue in Asia: Politics and Transnational Advertising, Farleigh-Dickenson University Press, Rutherford 1984.
In the religious video market a parallel situation exists. Here, too, the danger of neo-colonialism is real. And, as usual, action precedes thought. The new opportunities of video on the one hand and the lack of local resources on the other, force many Christian distributors to turn to sources in the West.
For the wider implications, see: C.H.KRAFT, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1979; L.G.HOWARD, The Expansion of God, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1981.
Among the material readily available we find evangelical productions made by American fundamentalist groups and productions made in traditionally Catholic countries. This again is a highly unsatisfactory situation. Instead of becoming a tool of liberation, this form of communication can easily turn counterproductive, alienating the audiences from their own cultural autonomy and perpetuating a colonial image for Christianity.
However, while indiscriminate cultural importation is objectionable, not all forms of cross-cultural sharing in communication are therefore either wrong or to be rejected.
In consultation with experts all over the world, Housetop has begun a programme of international co-production of video courses for adult faith formation entitled My Galilee My People, Together in My Name,I Have No Favourites. It is the express aim of all the partners to engage through this in precisely such a responsible process of cross-cultural Christian communication. I would like to spell out here some of the conditions we have found essential and which we offer to you for discussion.
I believe that the right Christian cross-cultural communication should possess the following five characteristics:
It is clear that there are specific local needs that will require specific productions for local audiences.
In Africa, for instance, the integration of traditional religious 'magic' with Christian life, is such a specific problem. Only a production aimed at African audiences, and then perhaps of a particular country, can do justice to the subject. The need of overcoming caste prejudice in India will require productions that address this need for Indian audiences in a way that can never be done outside India. By definition,therefore, each country should have the ability to create Christian audio-visual presentations, radio broadcasts, films and videos that can do justice to such unique local needs.
On the other hand, there are other needs that are shared by Christians in many countries. Our Video Courses concern themselves with two of these needs:
This universal need is well exemplified in a recent African report.
"Most Eastern African Small Christian Communities have not developed an effective Bible Reflection Method or Process. Many communities remain prayer groups that start with Scripture and then try to apply the Gospel to our everyday life . . . . The biggest weakness is not relating the Bible to daily life, not linking our Christian faith to our life situation." (See J.HEALEY, `Towards an Effective Bible Reflection Method in African Small Christian Communities' in Report/Consultation on how the Bible is used in Small Christian Communities, Catholic Biblical Centre for Africa and Madagascar, Nairobi 1989, p.4.
In the Catholic Church this need was accentuated most by the reform initiated through Vatican II. It is truly a universal need, as a survey of all continents will bear out. One aspect is the question of Christian autonomy, as individuals or communities.
"Christians are in something of a quandary on this issue today. A church which rejects individualism, private judgment, independent enquiry, and consequently places a very low value upon adult Christian learning, may centre upon an emphasis on liturgy, authority and tradition. Preaching may take the form of simple, moralistic homilies and there will seldom be any encouragement for the laity to ask fundamental questions . . . ." (See J.M.HULL, What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning?, SCM, London 1985, p.16.
These universal needs are, of course, experienced in particular ways in various countries. Cross-cultural communication regarding the needs will be both possible and helpful, if at the same time attention is given to the way the need is felt in each specific culture.
Let us work this out in an example.
Our video course My Galilee My People discusses, among other things, the question of Jesus' language. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Though the principles he enunciated were universal and lasting, the application of his message was necessarily limited to the thinking of his time. Assessing Jesus as a good teacher as defined by Paolo Freire: a teacher who teaches us to think for ourselves, we understand why the Gospel needs to be translated afresh each time in every new culture and every new situation. It shows why fundamentalism is wrong and the living messageof the Church, as recently witnessed in Vatican II, is right.
Although the stories that are part of the course were filmed in Colombia, and therefore present a Latin American angle to the problem, the challenge it poses responds to the needs of Christians all over the world. The reason is that Christians all over the world are constantly in need of re-examining their lives in the light of the Gospel and that, also historically, Christians all over the world have inherited the same needs of reform inherent in the past practices of the Church.
But, of course, the original presentation (which is like a parable) should be adapted to local audiences in its presentation and in its focussing on local needs.
It is not difficult to envisage a presentation in which the subject matter would truly respond to a local need, but in which the local audience would still feel less than challenged because what is presented would not seem to reflect people's own life. Participation in a traditional Wajang shadow play in Indonesia, for example, requires so many typically Indonesian associations, that it cannot easily be entered into by people belonging to other cultures.
However, communication studies have shown that genuine human experiences can be understood and shared by people all over the world. For example, typical human relationships such as exist within the family, even though there are small cultural differences, can without problem be understood everywhere. A mother being proud of her son, a boy falling in love with a girl, teenage rebellion and so on, are so common and generally human that they can be understood by everyone. To this must be added the common experiences of people in modern societies throughout the world: the trek from the land to the cities, unemployment, the pressures of making ends meet in cash economies, and so on.
What is truly human, speaks to human beings everywhere.
"Films are `capable of creating intercultural and interfaith bonds . . . . because of an anthropological law: People have curiosity about aother people. They want to know how others meet the four essential whats of life: a)survival and development, b) love and hate, c) authority and disobedience, and d) ideological systems, i.e. integration in the present social order or protest against it. Add to this a religious principle: People will identify negatively with forms of evil and villainy and positively with sacrifice, suffering, and selfless forms of love.' N.P.HURLEY, 'Using Motion-Pictures to Aid Intercultural Communication', The Journal of Communication 18 (1968) no 2; Toward a Film Humanism, Delta, New York 1975, p. 6.
Discussing the Indian film director Sanjayit Raj, Siegfried Kracauer points out that foreign audiences have no problem in identifying with the characters portrayed in his films, even though they are thoroughly Indian. He quotes from the New York Times film section:
'What is so remarkable about Aparajito is that you see this story happening in a remote land and see these faces with their exotic beauty and still feel that the same thing is happening every day somewhere here in Manhattan or Brooklyn or the Bronx.' (See S.KRACAUER, Theory of Film, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1960, pp. 310 - 311.)
The Canadian film director Gaston Roberge who has spent most of his career in Calcutta, points out an interesting paradox. Intense communion with people of other cultures is not reached by a contrived internationalism.
"The true artist attains universality to the extent that he is loyal to his particular milieu. For it is in the depth of his own situation that he can reach the universal ground common to people of different places and times . . . The artist rises above the barriers of language and nation when he expresses himself in all sincerity and earnestness. What he says about life, death, love, joy and suffering acquires universal significance, for he speaks of experiences that are familiar to all." See G.ROBERGE, Mass Communication and Man, Saint Paul Society, Allahabad 1977, pp. 52- 53; see also his Chitra Bani, a Book on Film Appreciation, Calcutta 1974.
Communication about such human experiences has sometimes been called dramatic language (or ritual) to distinguish it from persuasive language (or rhetoric) which is functional within a given situation.
"Dramatic language holds us with its silence or its song which transcends centuries and space by stressing such broad categories as love, death, the beauty or terrors of the supernatural or natural phenomena, loneliness, and the tenderness and beauty or the violence and ugliness of the human creature." See P.N.CAMPBELL, Rhetoric/Ritual: A Study of the Communicative and Aesthetic Dimensions of Language, Belmont 1972; M.H.PROSSNER, 'Religious Symbolism in Intercultural Communication', in Kerygma 14 (1980) pp. 69 - 86.
In our Housetop Video Courses we carefully choose local stories that have these general human and social characteristics. The first stories we have produced (in Indonesia, Brazil, Kenya, England and Colombia) have been tested on audiences in other continents and have been found to be satisfactory from this point of view. The local audiences did not only understand the meaning of the issues presented. They also entered emotionally into the stories and identified themselves with the characters presented in the stories.
Culture encompasses 'all transmitted and created patterns of values, ideas and other symbolic/meaningful systems or factors in the shaping of human behaviour'. (Definition by A.L.KROEBER and C.KLUCKHOHN, who discuss 160 classic definitions; Culture: a Critical Review, Peabody Museum, Harvard 1952).
Symbols lie at the heart of culture. Symbols derive their meaning from a culture. Symbols communicate to persons who share the same culture by their reference to common values and norms.( J.T.MYERS, 'Symbols as Catalysts and Hindrances to Intercultural Communication` in Kerygma 14 (1980) pp. 15-26, here p. 16-17). By not understanding people's cultural symbolism of words and actions, we can seriously misjudge what they do or say. Symbols speak and we need to decypher their code.
The importance of recognising different symbolic codes in Third World countries has been masterfully documented by Andreas Fuglesang. Based on his work in Zambia and Ethiopia, he points out variances in the experience of time, space, relationships, gestures, visual images, and so on. He rightly stresses that even oral cultures can be highly developed in their own right and should be respected.
A.FUGLESANG, Applied Communication in Developing Countries, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Uppsala 1973; About Understanding Ideas and Observations on Cross-cultural Communication, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala 1982. Denys Saunders has done similar work for village communication in India. D.J.SAUNDERS, Visual Communication Handbook, United Society for Christian Literature, Guildford 1979.
However, while recognising the differences in perception, we should note the samenesses at the same time. People of whatever culture can understand other people as human beings. As Fuglesang observes, no one has difficulty interpreting spontaneous gestures: body movements, a motion of the hands, a scream, a laugh, a moan . . . . Fuglesang calls these 'exclamations' and states that they are understood, even without an articulated message, because they express feelings, sensations and experiences. (A.FUGLESANG, Applied Communication, o.c., pp. 20 - 23).
These findings have also been substantiated by anthropologists. Studies among both literate nations and primitive tribes in all continents have demonstrated, for instance, that basic emotions, such as fear, anger, happiness, derision, and so on, are universally expressed by the same facial expressions. Papuas in New Guinea who had never met outsiders, could correctly identify the emotions of persons photographed in France.
"We believe, then, that we have isolated and demonstrated the basic set of universal facial expressions of emotion. They are not a language that varies from one place to another . . . . While some facial expressions of emotion will be culture specific because of differences in elicitors, display rules, and consequences, there is also a pan- cultural set of facial expression of emotion." See P.EKMAN et al., Emotion in the human face: Guidelines for research and a review of findings, Pergamon Press, New York 1972, p.51; see also'`Cross-cultural Studies of Facial Expression', in P.EKMAN (ed), Darwin and Facial Expression. A Century of Research in Review, Academic Press, London 1973, pp. 169 - 222.
The same universality has been shown in religious symbols. Underneath a layer of culture-specific symbolism there is a substrate of universal human thought patterns and values.
See M.ELIADE, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed and Ward, New York 1958; Images and Symbols: studies in religious symbolism, Harvill Press, London 1961; M.G.WOSIEN, Sacred Dance: Encounter with the Gods, Thames and Hudson, London 1974; A.C.MOORE, Iconography of Religions, SCM, London 1979. Consider also the 'archetypes' within human psychology: V.S. de LASZLO, Psyche and Symbol: a selection from the writings of C.G.Jung, Doubleday Anchor, New York 1958; C.G.JUNG et al., Man and his Symbols, Dell, New York 1971.
The same substratum can also be demonstrated for language which is by far the most important determinant of culture. Every language has its own constellation of terms and symbols that convey meaning to its speakers. It is this network of associations and connotations that is the most difficult factor to do justice to in all forms of translation. In fact, translation always involves a certain loss of meaning (as understood by the source audience) and a gain of meaning (as understood by the target audience). The wonder remains that every language is translatable.
B.L.WHORF, 'The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language' in Language, Culture and Personality (ed. L.SPIER et al.), Sapir Memorial Fund 1941; Language, Thought and Reality, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 1974.
Languages are translatable because all human beings share the same thought structure and internal grammar. For almost every human message we can find dynamic equivalents in any other language. Moreover, most people, especially in Third-World countries, are multi-lingual anyway and have learned to appreciate not only the common denominators between language but also the refinements of association present in different languages.
See N.CHOMSKY, Syntactic Structures, Mouton, s'Gravenhage 1957; Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 1965; 'Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar' in Current Trends in Linguistics, ed. Th.A.SEBEOK, vol.3, Mouton, s'Gravenhage 1966, pp. 1-60. E.NIDA: Towards a Science of Translating, Brill, Leiden 1964; E.NIDA and Ch.R.TABER, The Theory and Practice of Translation, Brill, Leiden 1969; E.NIDA and W.D.REYBURN, Meaning Across Cultures, Orbis, Maryknoll 1981.
In practice this means that, for international co-production, one should distinguish between imagery that can be universally understood and culturally limited imagery.
It is obvious that cross-cultural communication cannot be easily achieved if the images and terms chosen in a production are of such an exclusive nature that they require a lot of commentary in the process of translation. A Muharram procession of Shiite Muslims in Hyderabad, for example, with its flagellations and bloody self-torture, may excite curiosity in other audiences, but will not easily evoke empathy. In a cross-cultural communication of our Video Courses such highly specific cultural images have, therefore, been avoided.
On the other hand, provided the main images and symbols are carefully chosen, the production of a story in one country need not be a great obstacle to its being understood, with its images and symbols, in another country. After all, even if some aspects are unusual for some people, learning by observation is a skill they practise all the time.
See A.FUGLESANG, About Understanding, o.c. p.117; 'group media are influential in so far as they are, or can be, part of good learning experiences' , Applied Communication, o.c. p. 115 -118.
To make sure that our Housetop Video Courses achieve their purpose, we have adopted three principles.
Just like Jesus himself who spoke in parables, our Housetop courses present parables in the form of filmed stories from all over the world. There is no nation in the world that cannot grasp the imagery of basic human stories.
I am personally convinced that one of the long- term negative consequences of importing films from the U.S.A. or Italy into Third-World countries is that we continue to foster the idea that people have to be 'foreign' if they want to be Christian. This is a form of neo-colonisalism that is highly undersirable and that undermines the feelings of self respect and cultural autonomy that local ChristianChurches should have by right. Again, by definition, completely indigenous productions should therefore be promoted and supported.
On the other hand, I am also convinced that cultural autonomy is not damaged, but rather enhanced by genuine forms of cultural sharing. Cees Hamelink, who deplores Western imperialism in the media and who pleads for the `New International Information Order', spells out some of the conditions of genuine sharing.
"Self-reliant development is not identical with autarchy. Opportunities for cooperation with others remain, provided that theysupport the autonomy of the country . . . . . Thus the basis is laid for a decentralized interdependent system for the international exchange of information.
Such an international system ends Third World countries' dependence on what industrialized countries are willing to supply. Their development is no longer determined by the world market but by their own priorities.
Once again, this does not exclude the transfer of information, but information will always be selected according to its usefulness for the consumer. It is the responsibility of Third World countries to draw up their own shopping list and to know precisely what they can use from the international supply." See C.J.HAMELINK, Cultural Autonomy in Global Communications, Longman, London 1983, pp. 125, 127 - 128.
At the International Seminar on Religious Symbolism and Intercultural Communication (Ottawa 1980), the psychologist Antoine Vergote pointed out that sharing does not diminish one's identity.
" I think that it would be an incorrect and false thesis to say that intercultural communication endangers cultural identity. Only a violent domination does so. Communication is a challenge and every culture enhances its creative virtues by interchange and by a response to these challenges. Cultural life, as all life, is essentially a creative change that answers the challenge of oppositions, differences and even of conflicts. Our own cultures in Europe were born out of this process". See A.VERGOTE, 'Final Reflections on the Seminar', Kerygma 34 (1980) p.92.
That is why our Housetop video courses were from the beginning designed as an equal sharing between the co-producing countries. We safeguard each country's autonomy in four different ways.
Through our video course project Housetop has established for the first time a true programme of co-production between Christian centres on all continents, a programme of intercultural sharing such as has never existed in the Catholic Church before.
Without prejudice to the cultural integrity of every single nation, we should also recognise that no nation can remain totally restricted to its own narrow cultural horizons. As people of the present-day world, every nation has to integrate wider values in order to become members of the whole human family. Also, as Christians, people will have to imbibe the specific cultural inheritance that enriches us from Scripture and the international Catholic contribution that is given to them by a world Church with two thousand years of experience.
Vaclav Havel points out the danger of isolation, of turning in upon oneself, of fossilising.
"Just as the constant increase of entropy is the basic law of the universe so it is the basic law of life to be ever more highly structured and to struggle against entropy. Life rebels against all uniformity and levelling; its aim is not sameness but variety, the restlessness of transcendence, the adventure of novelty and rebellion against the 'status quo'. V.HAVEL, `An Open Letter to Dr.Gustav Husak', Quest 97 (1976) p. 97.
We should recognise the internationalising forces of our time, as Michael Prosser points out.
"Increasingly, common people everywhere seek to be one. They seek a common identity through their symbolic potential as fellow humans, as sharing and caring individuals here together on our planet earth . . .
Fewer and fewer persons in the world live in pristine simplicity, untouched by electronic communication systems and isolated entirely from the sophisticated traveler and sojourner. Inevitably, the technological advances of an urban metropolitan society filter into all the outposts of a tradition-bound, oral-aural, rural culture. Even the more subjective aspects of culture, those mental processes by which ideas, attitudes, beliefs and values are transmitted interculturally, are subject to such influences . . .
Our human capacity to use and shape symbols, as a part of our own subjective culture, and in crossing the boundaries between cultures, remains, with our tool- making ability, the essence of our humanness. See M.H.PROSSER, 'Religious Symbolism in Intercultural Communication', Kerygma 14 (1980) pp. 69- 86, here pp. 70-72; see also The Cultural Dialogue, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1978.
The problems facing people all over the world are interlinked. Neither as citizens nor as Christians can we afford to think small.
"It may be that, imperceptibly, we have arrived at a historical situation in which the standards and principles which hitherto applied are no longer valid. This is true in many fields. Perhaps, therefore, the situation in which we find ourselves will force us to think again about what solidarity may actually mean.
For have things not in fact reached a point where only universal solidarity can pave the way for decisions which will allow us to survive in human conditions? The moment I begin to speak I enter a universal dialogue. Rules of behaviour, that is ethical decisions, can only be founded on, and justified in terms of, an unlimited community of communication. Universal solidarity is the basic principle of ethics and can be shown as the normative core of all human communication.
See H.PEUKERT, 'Universal Solidarity as Goal of Communication', Media Development 28 (1981) pp. 10 - 12; see also his Science - Action Theory - Fundamental Theology, MIT Press, Boston 1982.
Rather than restrict or suppress a local culture, such an integration within a wider culture should actually, if properly guided, be an experience of liberation. We believe that more Christian initiatives should become part of such a liberating process. It will allow Christians in all countries of the world to benefit from the visions and challenges experienced by Christians in other parts of the world.