Tactics and Tools

The Challenge of Cross-Cultural Apologetics

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 07/19/2022

I’m occasionally asked, “What’s the hardest subject to teach on?” Although there’s some variation in difficulty between topics, the reality is that the most challenging topic is the one I deliver in a different culture.

I recently returned from Beirut, Lebanon, where I taught theology, apologetics, and worldview to Egyptian Christians who flew to Beirut for their training. I’ve had the privilege of doing this event for about a decade, and although I love it, it’s the most demanding event for three reasons.

First, many of the attendees don’t speak English. This presents an obvious problem. Presentation slides and handouts need to be translated. That’s the easy part, though. I don’t speak Arabic (I speak Assyrian) so a translator sits in the back of the room and—in real time—translates what I’m saying. The translator speaks Arabic into a microphone, and it’s transmitted to the headphones worn by the audience. It’s a great system, but it doesn’t get me off the hook. I need to slow…down…my…speaking. Though that sounds simple enough, it’s easy to slip back into my normal speaking speed after I’ve been teaching for hours or days. Plus, I need to be mindful of common terms or phrases that are unfamiliar to the translator. That only comes with experience and knowing your translator well enough. It also means that I must swap out unfamiliar terms with familiar ones on the fly.

Second, most of the audience is unaware of many American cultural references. Only once I started teaching in a foreign culture did I begin to realize how much of my apologetics content presupposes familiarity with American pop culture. It’s not that apologetic arguments are American or Western, but that I use illustrations that incorporate cultural elements that are familiar to Americans but not necessarily to Egyptians. In an hour of teaching, I said, “Nacho Libre,” “Haagen-Dazs ice cream,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” I said, “I hit it out of the park,” and, “It was raining cats and dogs.” These are typically Western cultural elements or idioms that make sense only to people living in America or the West and often only when spoken to native English speakers. That means that when I’m teaching, it’s necessary to constantly adapt what I’m saying on the fly so my audience can understand.

Third, the audience asks questions that Americans don’t typically ask. That’s not a problem, of course. It simply makes the event more challenging because I can’t resort to answers I’m used to giving in the States. There are a lot of dynamics that are unique to Egyptian culture that need to be addressed differently than I normally would. For example, when speaking about the problem of evil, I might say God has created three institutions on earth to mitigate the impact of evil: the family, the church, and the government. Egyptians, however, give me a puzzled look. The typical Egyptian family, they say, often isn’t a safe harbor from society’s evil. Rather, many men don’t treat their wives or children well. The church, they say, is often too weak to stand up to an Islamic-dominated culture whose values are dramatically different from those of Christians. The government, they say, is corrupt and often turns a blind eye to injustice and evil. So, my explanation of what God is doing to lessen the impact of evil rings hollow.

Another example is abortion. Although most Egyptian Christians are pro-life, they believe it’s permissible for a woman to get an abortion when she gets pregnant from rape. In the United States, I’ll often bring up how abortion is another act of violence (killing an innocent human being) that doesn’t undo rape, or I’ll bring up the option of adopting out the child. Or, I’ll say how there are thousands of pregnancy resource centers available to serve the needs of women facing a crisis pregnancy. What makes my typical responses not as convincing is that Islamic culture adds three unique elements that make the situation extremely difficult for a woman to do the right thing. One is that Islam does not allow adoption. Therefore, it isn’t like the United States (and elsewhere around the world), where a woman can carry her child and then legally adopt it out. That’s not a viable option in Egypt. Two, a woman is often blamed for getting raped. Three, if a woman refuses to have an abortion, then wicked men might try to kill her (due to the dishonor of carrying an illegitimate child), thereby also killing her unborn child. This puts her in an intractable predicament that is not solved by my usual answers. Trust me…it’s not easy trying to explain to pro-lifers what the morally right thing to do is in this situation. The question-and-answer time gets very intense!

It’s not possible to travel to a foreign culture and teach the same apologetics (or theology or worldview) and merely have a person translate for you. To be effective at communicating the same truths in relevant ways, you must think like an ambassador. The question you must answer is, how do you communicate your material in a way that will be understood? You need to study their culture, learn their unique challenges, and adapt your material accordingly. It’s a privilege to train believers around the world, but it’s also difficult. I’m humbled every time I’m abroad, and I’m thankful for the many believers who come alongside me to help make biblical truth accessible to everyone.