In societal groups, words have surface meanings, easily understood for the most part by all in the culture. These surface meanings can be found in almost every culture. A "policeman" or a "bobby" is still a person who upholds the law. An "apartment" or a "flat" is still a place to live, and a lift or elevator can still take you to the floor you wish to visit. It is not necessary to understand the culture to understand and use these words. But sometimes words have deeper meanings, meanings so deeply embedded in the culture, the very essence of society, that to communicate you must understand these abstract conceptual, deeper meanings. You must understand the culture. For example, in America, the theme of individual freedom is so ingrained in our cultural experience, if an individual is reared in a more group-oriented culture, they may struggle to fully understand the concept of free speech, the right to vote, or even the basic ideas of the U.S. constitution. Similarly, an individual who has grown up under dictatorship may not have the words to describe or the experience to understand how a democratic society operates.
An effective communicator understands these two levels of meanings and their relationship to the culture as a whole. Whether a pastor or teacher is working in a multicultural, ethnically-diverse setting or working in a multigenerational context, no two cultural perspectives are the same. Most of the time, common themes or underlying assumptions can be found between two cultural perspectives, but what if there is no known experience in one culture for what someone is trying to explain? What kind of words do you use to describe an unknown experience? How then do you effectively communicate?
Those were the questions Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop lived out while teaching in Japan in the early 1960s. It was October 23, 1960, when the President Wilson steamer left port in San Francisco headed for Japan. Wynkoop was aboard, anticipating a new adventure and life in Japan. She and her husband, Ralph, would be working and teaching at Japan Christian Junior College and Japan Nazarene Theological Seminary. Two weeks and two typhoons later, the boat sailed into the port of Yokahama, Japan.
Wynkoop spent the first months acclimating herself to the culture and life of Japan. At age 55, while many colleagues were eyeing retirement, Wynkoop was learning a new language and receiving new responsibilities daily. She reveled in her acceptance into the Japanese culture with its high veneration for the elderly, because, as she said, “She was an old lady with white hair.” Walking everywhere, riding on trains so crammed with people that when the doors opened people literally fell out, surviving earthquake tremors, and accepting the residual effects of the nuclear bombs were all adjustments she made. These challenges were small considering her greatest challenge: trying to understand the Japanese language and culture.
As an educator, Wynkoop understood that teaching involves communication, and communication changes from culture to culture.
As an educator, Wynkoop understood that teaching involves communication, and communication changes from culture to culture. To teach in a different culture, an educator must know and understand the common idiom. “Every culture has an idiom. It is the way life is judged. It is the basic concept of right/wrong, good/bad, true/false, by which the values of people are formed. The idiom expresses in these intangible things that which a people consider worth living for and dying for.” She also began to study the common patterns of thought among the Japanese. She observed two differences affecting her effective communication with her Japanese students: how Japanese students categorized ideas and the interplay of Japanese religions on cultural experiences.
Wynkoop believed her Japanese students analyzed ideas and problems within the context of relationships. The family and then the country were the most important things. Maintaining and emphasizing the relationships among family members and with the country were the single most important things for her students to accomplish. For example, many of her students felt that pledging allegiance to the God of the Bible denied their responsibility to their family and country. They could not turn to one without giving up the other. For many, this was impossible. The responsibility to the family and the country was too strong. The students could not be individuals first and countrymen second; that was not in their belief system. In this instance, the idiom of the culture created a roadblock to conversion. Wynkoop had to learn this deep cultural meaning in order to communicate effectively to her students.
The other difference Wynkoop observed was the total lack of words and meaning for what would be called basic western Christian concepts. The Japanese students came from a background that had no Judeo-Christian concepts embedded in their language or life experience. The religions of Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism had infused the culture with religious words and meanings, but when Wynkoop used certain religious terms, she meant one definition, and her students thought about another definition. She was in Japan to teach and preach the holiness message, to train future pastors and laity in the Good News of Jesus Christ, and there were no words to do this. Her students did not understand holiness. Even more foundational to her predicament, however, was the fact that the experience of holiness was foreign to the entire culture. Her students had no knowledge or experience of holiness. What was Wynkoop to do?
She decided that when words failed or cultural norms were absent, then actions spoke louder than words. Wynkoop once stated that the obstacles in teaching theology in Japan seemed almost insurmountable, but they could be overcome. How? “A rugged gospel message and a heart filled with love.” She tried to preach and teach this in the midst of all of the language and cultural barriers, not with words, but through actions molded by love. This was clearly demonstrated when one semester she prayed that God would help her show and teach the holiness message. The first words to a class that semester were, “Teaching and preaching holiness cannot be separated from an involvement in one’s own truth. We will be led into a personal situation which will force us to live our own truth.” Little did she know how prophetic that statement would be.
She tried to preach and teach this in the midst of all of the language and cultural barriers, not with words, but through actions molded by love.
In the early 1960s, a wave of nationalism enveloped Japan, especially its educational institutions. Foreign missionaries and teachers were asked to leave the Japanese Seminary. Students revolted and caused disruption on campus. Wynkoop tells of this difficult time.
I was Dean of the college, head of the Religion Department, President of the Graduate Seminary, a teacher… I had a comfortable house, a car and even a flush toilet. I was respected and on top of life—and vulnerable. Then a crushing time came. Loss of status, misunderstanding, trouble and heartache came my way. From the Japanese point of view, I lost face. But through it all Christ’s power sustained—my face was lost, but in the brokenness, the meaning of holiness began to be released.
Something happened in the midst of chaos and social unrest. God’s Spirit came and filled Wynkoop so that she could model for her Japanese students what holiness meant. They may not have understood the language of holiness, but they understood how holiness acted. Wynkoop described it like this: “The Japanese are a suffering people. Suffering is a virtue—heroes suffer. They are never triumphant in life. They identify with one who suffers. And they said, ‘Mrs. Wynkoop suffered. We caused you to suffer—you still loved us, now you love us. Please come back.’” She was restored, and the faith of her students was strengthened because they saw holiness in action. It is in the interaction of life and relationships that theology is made practical.
Words may fail, meanings may get lost in translation, but actions modeled in love speak louder than eloquent words.
In Japan, Wynkoop learned words were not enough. Actions say more. “In our classrooms [or from our pulpits] …to preach or teach holiness is to become personally involved in it, to live through its truths.” Words may fail, meanings may get lost in translation, but actions modeled in love speak louder than eloquent words. Holiness without words is simply: love in action.
Wynkoop is still teaching us today what it means to be holy. Many of us find ourselves preaching to audiences with more participants who may lack a Judeo-Christian background. The unchurched are growing in number. When they have never encountered holiness, how do we teach them? It is not through a myriad of words, which hold no meaning for them. We must do what Wynkoop discovered: we love them with the love of Christ. We live a rugged gospel and a heart filled with love. It is that experience that gives meaning and substance to the language of holiness.
LINDA ALEXANDER serves as Associate Vice President for Graduate and Continuing Education at MidAmerica Nazarene University
1. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Lecture (November, 1961). Japan Christian Junior College. File #2227-8, Nazarene Archives, Church of the Nazarene.
2. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Notes about Japan (Undated). File #2227-23, Nazarene Archives, Church of the Nazarene.
3. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, Sermons and Personal Notes on Japan (Undated). File #1426-1, Nazarene Archives, Church of the Nazarene.