Foreigners in a Familiar World: Reflections on the Middle School Summer Readings

A Reflection by Professor Hannah Nelson


I started out this school year, like all English teachers, discussing my students’ summer reading: Kipling’s The Jungle Book for sixth grade, and MacDonald’s Phantastes for seventh. Although I was already very familiar with both books, teaching them; discussing them with students; and generating focus questions led me to an even deeper understanding of the texts and a renewed appreciation for them. Both pieces were written by men of a different culture than that of Dallas and yet both contain timeless messages still relevant today.

Prof. Nelson (left) & siblings in the Congo

Kipling was an Englishman raised in India. In modern terms, he is what we call a TCK (third culture kid). The term TCK refers to an individual growing up in a culture other than that of their parents. Having grown up between worlds, therefore, Kipling did not fully belong to either culture and yet traces of both appear in his works. If we analyze the main characters, we find protagonists who often feel isolated. Mowgli, the protagonist of The Jungle Book, gradually learns that he is not a wolf, no matter how much he would like to be one. His closest friend, Bagheera the panther, reveals that he too is an outsider because he lived in captivity – a stranger among men, just as Mowgli is a stranger among animals. The isolation faced by these two characters and the mutual understanding that draws them together tells of a man caught between worlds and offers insight into the cross-cultural experience.

During some of our class discussions, the students considered how Mowgli dealt with his “outsiderness.” We also noted that the protagonists of several other Kipling stories share the outsider trait. Many of the stories describe cross-cultural interactions or characters who interact with many cultures and find themselves dissatisfied in their own milieu. The students considered whether being a cultural outsider was ultimately “good” or “bad” for these characters, and most agreed that the answer was a little bit of both. Cultural isolation was a struggle, but their inner longing ultimately drove them to find true homes.

In nineteenth-century England, Kipling’s experience may have been rare, but in the modern world people work abroad more readily and displaced populations are increasing. As a result, we will see an increase in the number of TCKs. As Christians, not only can we learn about the TCK experience to better share the Gospel with them, but we can also remind ourselves when we observe TCK lives, that when we are born again into the family of Christ, we become TCKs in a spiritual sense. We are all outsiders living in a world that should not define us culturally and if we sometimes feel isolated from the broader culture, that is simply the mark of our new identity revealing itself.

Hebrews 11:13-16 states: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” This passage reminds us that, like Mowgli, we are outsiders. By faith we know that our true citizenship is in Heaven and our culture must change to conform to His standards and not to those of this world.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the seventh graders had a related, but slightly different literary experience. MacDonald, in his timeless fairy-tale Phantastes, tells of a young man who learns what it means to relate to the “other” while traveling through Fairy-Land. While the seventh graders wandered with Anodos through forest paths and floated down streams with eyes uplifted to the glittering stars, they learned that selfless love, even when it leads through suffering, is the only way to true happiness. Indeed, few writers better than MacDonald can tell a story so full of the pain of loss and the joy of love inextricably and inexplicably joined. In Phantastes, Anodos learns that focusing on himself and his own desires leads to disappointment because it does not result in ultimate fulfilment, whereas focusing his attention outwards and letting himself love without expecting to be loved back initially causes deep pain, but eventually leads to peace and joy.

The message of Phantastes echos the instructions of Paul: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5). Contrary to the wisdom of the world which tells us that we must love ourselves first, MacDonald affirms the biblical message that we must first direct our love upwards and outwards and through choosing to seek the Good, we will ultimately find it. Although living selflessly does not come naturally in the culture of the world, as Christians we are called to live for God, putting our sinful passions to death. Indeed it may be, as MacDonald’s Anodos found, that sorrow is the straightest path to joy. As Christian TCKs living in a world both familiar and foreign, we must strive daily to focus on the Good, to love others as Christ loved us, and to remember that our true home is above and that we have nothing to lose on this earth.

Song of a TCK

To our home we come again,

A home we never knew

To our home we come at last

With many things to do

Looking back to what was then

The painful tears may flow

The happy days that now are past

May mix our joy with sorrow

Home at last, but home not yet

In time we come to see

That love and joy have sorrow met

And restlessness brings peace

And looking back we see such things

The joys of newfound places

We gladly came to know and love

The sight of newfound faces

Our joy is mixed with suffering

When missing days long past

But glad for times which memories of

Have brought us here at last

Home at last, but home not yet

In time we come to see

That love and joy have sorrow met

And restlessness brings peace