The Parable of the French Teacher
One way a language teacher can serve God is by challenging the underlying consumerist messages in their text books. By Mark Roques
Years ago when I lived in Bristol I was chatting to Susan in church after the service. Susan is a delightful person, warm, friendly and brilliant with the teenagers. I began to probe her about her job as a French teacher. I asked her how her Christian faith had impacted the way she taught her subject.
She looked at me with thinly disguised disdain. "It has nothing to do with my faith. I just teach French. Church is in the religious box and French is in the secular box."
I thought I needed to challenge this popular but unhelpful dualism. Call me old-fashioned if you like.
"Susan have you ever thought about the hidden messages that are often being communicated in the way we teach French?" Susan looked at me as if I had just told her I had decided to become a Mormon. I launched into my patter.
"In my view the dominant way of teaching Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) is caught up in an individualist and materialist story. It's all about me and my consumption. It's 'I shop therefore I am' or in Latin 'Tesco ergo sum'."
Susan grimaced at my feeble Latin joke and began to look slightly desperate and forlorn. "Why are you saying this? French teaching has nothing to do with faith!"
"But just look at a typical French lesson, Susan. Often the focus is upon self-governing individuals buying ice creams, making complaints about hotels and enquiring about where to go shopping. I call this the self-centred tourist worldview. "I want a Fudge ripple ice cream now." "I want to make a complaint about the mini-bar." "I am very unhappy with the second-rate croissants." "Where is my malt whisky garçon?" "Why is this caviar so salty?"
Susan relaxed slightly and murmured. "I think I see what you're getting at Mark. Most of my lessons begin with phrases like that. Do go on."
"Brainy boffins have studied MFL textbooks and they are struck by how the dominant story of our western world, consumerism, is the hidden, pulsating theme. Textbooks present people as egocentric and materialistic. They live as if there is no God and everything is just physical...so shop till you drop and grab that bargain before Denise beats you to it."
Susan was now beginning to soften and the disdain was ebbing away. She was beginning to appreciate my insights into the voracious and aggressive nature of consumerism. I steamed ahead.
"Here's a cute, little story to make my point. You're on a coach in China, surrounded by jocular and flamboyant tourists. Suddenly there is a jolt, the coach stops suddenly and the Chinese driver looks irate. The attentive tourists notice that an elderly Chinese lady has been knocked over and is lying on the road. They exit the coach and begin to parlay with the distressed lady who is recovering from the shock. 'Here's my phrase book and let's apologise to her', urges Doris from Barnsley. They whip through the phrase book and they cannot find the Mandarin for - "We would like to apologise for this incident." The entire phrase book is focused on self-centred tourists who crave constant consumerist activity and apologising to locals is just not part of this egocentric and myopic lifestyle."
Susan was now warming to my theme. "But that's awful. Surely saying 'I'm sorry' is part of life. It should be if we are Christians."
"I apologise unreservedly to you if this sounds batty but boffins have also discovered that the only mention of 'religion' in MFL textbooks are horoscopes." Susan was shocked when I said this and opined - "So these textbooks are presenting humans as either secular consumerists or pagan astrologers." I decided to be blunt.
"In a word - yes!"
"So given all this, how can I serve Jesus as a French Teacher?"
"Well a very simple thing you can do is to tell your students stories about people who are busy loving their neighbours rather than scheming their next trip to Homebase. Consider this story.
Sheelah Ryan was living in Florida in a caravan with her two cats, Shannon and Buffy when she won $55.2 million in the Florida lottery. When she found out about the windfall she went to see her friend Nancy and asked her to pray with her for God's help to use the money wisely. When the news got out, consumerists from around the world were busy phoning in investment tips and even marriage proposals.
Sheelah refused to splurge; she treated herself to a modest house costing $260,000 but, unlike so many lottery winners, she did not wallow in inane nonsense consumption. She dedicated the bonanza to building up her community and loving her neighbours.
Susan's disdain had completely vanished and her visage was friendly and smiley so I furnished further details re Sheelah.
"In 1989 she said in an interview ‘‘I think it was the grace of God I won. I realised there must have been a reason, He gave me the money, so I decided to give some of it to senior citizens and the homeless.’’ She then established a foundation to fund:
A shelter programme for vulnerable women and children
Meals on wheels for the elderly
Medical aid for the elderly
A programme to help poor people repair and improve their homes
Job training programmes
Scholarships and bursaries for young adults.
A programme for stray cats.
"Susan, French teachers like you can serve God by challenging the consumerist faith and talking about inspiring people like Sheelah Ryan who really love their neighbours and spurn the militant shopping gods."
Susan was appreciative of my comments. However, she did mention with delightful irony that she had to dash off to Homebase to meet her husband, Duncan!
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