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I’ve kind of avoided the topic of Black History Month this year until now, almost the end of the month. The reason is, I’ve been kicking around in my mind this notion of “Black History Month Syndrome.” Now, stay with me a minute.

What is Black History Month Syndrome? I’ll define it roughly as “the national, institutional, or personal tendency to reduce the value of racial, ethnic, or cultural awareness and celebration to a designated day, week, or month of the year.” That is, we do our annual observance of the thing for that set period of time, and then we don’t think about it seriously again until that same time next year. This could pertain to our current national Black History Month in general, or any similar type of annual heritage observance. Think of the annual Diversity Sunday at your church, or the great PBS documentaries on race that you have be on the lookout for during that elusive 28-day window in February, or that special issue of Time, Newsweek, or Christianity Today that trots out the usual ethnic or female voices for the annual “special issue” on African Americans or Asians or Hispanics or women.

When I was with Christianity Today, I often felt conflicted about this phenomenon. On the one hand, I rejoiced at the idea of being able to profile a significant nonwhite figure or highlight dynamic things happening in other parts of the church besides the white evangelical majority. However, on the other hand, I disliked the idea that we could only do it in a significant way usually one issue per year. I always felt our ethnic, nonwhite, and female readers could see right through our shtick. They knew we were just paying our annual homage to diversity and that it wasn’t a real living and breathing part of who we were. My argument always was that we should strive to incorporate those diverse voices into the magazine on a more regular basis, not just in annual splashes. We needed to let nonwhite and female readers know that they were a valued part of the evangelical community and not just some exotic oddity that we turned the spotlight on once or twice a year. (To its credit, I think CT does a better job nowadays of being more diverse and multicultural year-round, though I know some critics would still beg to differ.)

Over the years, I’ve struggled mightily with this phenomenon. While I appreciate Black History Month (as well as Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month) and value the opportunity to highlight special achievements and honor an important part of our national history, I also long for a time when we’ll no longer have to consign the recognition of that history to a particular week, month, or magazine issue.

That brings me to my main reason for doing this post. I’ve been kicking around this theme of “the myth of post-racial America” for a possible book project, and as part of that I’ve entertained the admittedly outrageous (and possibly heretical) idea that perhaps we should set an actual date in the distant future for the official dissolution of Black History Month, sort of like President Obama setting a withdrawal timetable for our troops in Iraq. For instance, let’s say we resolve that in 2020 we’ll officially discontinue all celebrations of specific heritage months (African American, Hispanic, Polish, etc.) and begin to incorporate a recognition and appreciation of those various heritages into the regular and daily flow of our national calendar and lives. This will mean that we study black history and American Indian history and Hispanic history regularly in our school curricula, that on July 4th we include Native American, black, Hispanic, and Asian historical figures in the mix along with the other great American patriots that we commemorate on Independence Day. (This may also necessitate an immediate abolishment of Kwanzaa and a renewed national effort to remind Americans that Christ did not enter the world as a blonde, blue-eyed European infant.) 

Alright, I know I’m sounding loony now. But my point is, when does it end? Will we always need Black History Month-type observances? Does authentic racial and cultural reconciliation in our country require that we observe our various annual heritage events in perpetuity? Or would true progress in reconciliation suggest that as a church or community or nation we should decide that, at some point down the road, we’ll need to grow out of the necessity of our Black History Months and move on toward a more natural and genuine embrace of the diversity of our nation?

I understand that part of the reasoning behind these various heritage months is that the United States has not always been kind to those on the margins of society. The full benefits of citizenship were not always available to those of a certain race or gender. And to this day, the majority culture still tends to divide the nation based on what it has historically deemed to be the “real Americans.” Therefore, we’ve needed to designate a special time to acknowledge, teach, honor, and celebrate the value and contributions of those groups that have been forgotten, oppressed, or systematically excluded from the national canon of history. But does our nation’s sinful and dysfunctional record on matters of race and diversity mean that we will always need to manufacture these annual days and weeks and months as a reminder of what we’re really supposed to be—as a nation and as human beings?

The apostle Paul said, “For we now know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 9-12). Might this principle of “growing up” also apply to our annual heritage celebrations and observances?

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck with me ever since. My friend, who is white, is a strong believer in racial reconciliation and justice ministries. A talented musician, he leads a multiracial community gospel choir. He shared an experience that he had as a seminary student interning at an African American church. Leading special music during a Black History Month program at the church, he introduced a song by saying, “This month we celebrate Black History, but our prayer is that, one day, we will no longer have a need for a special month like this.” His point, of course, was that ideally someday our nation would progress to the place where a special heritage month was no longer the only time that we would acknowledge and value the importance of black history. However, in an awkward moment, the pastor pulled him aside after the service and politely advised him, “Don’t ever say something like that again.” My friend was very apologetic, and after a brief moment he was able to recognize why what he said was problematic. For that black church leader, the suggestion that we should strive toward no longer needing a Black History Month was tantamount to saying we should work to get rid of Christmas or Easter.

That pastor’s reaction leads me back to my original concern. The question again: If Black History Month and our other annual cultural heritage observances are really accomplishing what they’re intended to, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that the day will come when we will no longer need them?

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time-willow175x145.jpgAs you probably know, one of the big articles making the rounds this week is Time magazine’s major report on Willow Creek Community Church and the noteworthy progress being made in evangelical megachurches to bridge the racial divide. Time religion reporter David Van Biema uses Willow Creek’s journey, and senior pastor Bill Hybel’s personal spiritual awakening on the issue of race in America, as a window to how the larger evangelical church is doing in this arena. Assessing the American church’s long struggle to overcome its complicated racial history, Van Biema writes:

Since Reconstruction, when African Americans fled or were ejected from white churches, black and white Christianity have developed striking differences of style and substance. The argument can be made that people attend the church they are used to; many minorities have scant desire to attend a white church, seeing their faith as an important vessel of cultural identity. But those many who desire a transracial faith life have found themselves discouraged — subtly, often unintentionally, but remarkably consistently. In an age of mixed-race malls, mixed-race pop-music charts and, yes, a mixed-race President, the church divide seems increasingly peculiar. It is troubling, even scandalous, that our most intimate public gatherings — and those most safely beyond the law’s reach — remain color-coded.

Among the article’s most revealing claims is that Willow Creek’s congregation is now 20% minority (20% is cited as the quantitative threshold of a truly integrated congregation). Van Biema points out, however, that even though Willow has increased its numbers of non-white attendees, the primary pastoral leadership of the 23,400-person church remains entirely white. Van Biema writes:

Willow’s predicament is hardly surprising. To some white congregants, naming a person of another color to tell you what Scripture means, week in and week out, crosses an internal boundary between “diversity” (positive) and “affirmative action” (potentially unnerving).

This sobering observation serves to remind readers that the journey toward true diversity and racial reconciliation in the church is not an easy road. Megachurches like Willow are often looked to for their dynamic ministry models of “how to do it right.” But addressing racial and cultural issues in the local church context does not lend itself to simplistic formulas or 40-day adventures.

Overall, though, it’s interesting to see the mainstream press paying so much attention to racial reconciliation issues in the evangelical church. It’s a good reminder that what we do both individually and corporately as Christians is being watched and surveyed by many in the wider culture.

Read the entire article here, and stay tuned to UrbanFaith.com for an interview with Time‘s David Van Biema on what he discovered during the process of putting the article together. I’ll let you know when it goes up.

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In case you hadn’t heard, Zondervan made a major announcement yesterday regarding the Deadly Viper Character Assassins book that was the source of so much anger and controversy recently. Effective immediately, Zondervan undertook the courageous step of permanently removing all the books from stores and discontinuing all related curriculum and products. Quite a bold gesture, and a remarkable example of repentance. Hopefully, the pain and high emotion of the past few weeks can now give way to true healing and reconciliation. This is a wonderful start, but it will not be easy.

The Deadly Viper website and blog were shut down today shortly after Zondervan’s announcement. This is the message that now greets its visitors.

A search for the words “Deadly Viper” on Twitter brings a variety of revealing Tweets. Very common are messages like this one: “Irritated about the whole Deadly Viper thing. irritated. really? ya had to shut them down?” And this one: “The Deadly Viper issue makes my stomach turn. I need to think about something else because I’m getting ticked off.”

There likely will be some backlash against Zondervan’s decision and against the movement of folks, led by our very brave sisters and brothers in the Asian American community, who took a firm stand against the negative stereotypes connected with the DV book and promo video. Many will view this whole episode as the epitome of political correctness and as an unfair attack on two devoted Christian brothers. We need to show patience and grace to those who don’t understand the point of this outcome.

This has especially been a difficult time for Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, the authors of Deadly Viper. They need our prayers and compassion.

And finally, we need to remember our Asian and Asian American brothers and sisters who have been at the forefront of this conflict. I think of Soong-Chan Rah, Kathy Khang, Eugene Cho, and Ken Fong in particular, but there have been many others who have led the way through their blog posts and comments, Tweets, Facebook updates, and letters of complaint to Zondervan. These women and men have felt the strain and sadness of this epic event.

Though I supported the protest from the beginning, I admittedly was a bit concerned about the overwhelming force of the initial admonishment of the authors. I always felt that Zondervan should be the target of the strongest protest. But blog posts like this one from my dear friend Helen Lee and this one from Soong-Chan helped me understand why the Asian community needed to act so decisively. They were tired of this mess. I needed to be tired of it, too.

Thank God for this good conclusion. I think He makes His church better through conflicts like this one. Let’s pray that it becomes the start of something greater—something profoundly redemptive.

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Good news regarding the Deadly Viper controversy that has occupied a lot of our attention this week. Here’s the beginning of Soong-Chan Rah’s blog post from this morning:

On Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 4th, several folks gathered on a phone call to talk about the various postings related to the Deadly Viper’s book. The people in the conversation were Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite (Authors), Chris Heurtz (Director, Word Made Flesh), Soong-Chan Rah (Prof., North Park), Kathy Khang (InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Ministries Director), and Eugene Cho (Pastor, Quest Church). The conversation was facilitated by Nikki Toyama-Szeto (Urbana 09 Program Director).

Check out the rest of the joint statement at Soong-Chan’s blog. And read his reflections on the meeting at Sojo.net. A copy of the joint statement can also be found at the Deadly Viper blog here, where the text is found under a simple but encouraging headline: “Toward Reconciliation.”

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Deadly Viper coverOne of the toughest parts of being the author of a book about racial reconciliation is that when the latest racial incident flares up, everyone expects you to chime in with your two cents. I’m feeling a bit penniless on this current one, but here goes anyway.

The “current one” I’m talking about is the controversy surrounding a new book from Zondervan called Deadly Viper Character Assassins: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life & Leadership. The book, which was coauthored by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, uses images, symbols, and caricatures of Asian culture as a light-hearted vehicle for getting at the heavy issues of Christian integrity and character. Not surprisingly, the book has upset a fair number of Asian American Christians, as well as many of us who are not Asian but who identify with the pain felt by our brothers and sisters who are offended by the book’s use of stereotypical imagery and caricatures.

The book is clearly meant to be a fun exploration of character and leadership, and it has been praised by many for its fresh insights and clever presentation. But it appears the authors have inadvertently stumbled into thorny and treacherous territory that they did not know existed; they were simply trying to dispense timeless wisdom in a timely and accessible way. Well, now they know.

Ironically, one would think the book’s publisher, Zondervan, would’ve better anticipated the Asian community’s reaction to the book, given an earlier controversy that followed the publication of a book from its Youth Specialties branch. In that episode, Zondervan and Youth Specialities took heroic measures to publicly apologize and correct the offense at a considerable financial cost. Hopefully, this latest episode will have a similarly redemptive conclusion. Yet, I wonder if things could’ve been handled differently earlier on.

My friend Soong-Chan Rah, who has become one of the evangelical church’s most vocal (and effective) activists on these types of issues, inspired this latest movement with his initial blog posts about the Deadly Viper book and a promotional video on Facebook. Soong-Chan’s open letter to the authors and Zondervan is quite provocative. But what’s most fascinating, and perhaps even instructive, is the slew of comments related to Soong-Chan’s posts, as well as an evolving thread over at the Deadly Viper blog.

I must confess that I’m not totally comfortable with the way the protest has played out so far. It’s not that I disagree with the gist of it. I think it’s important to call attention to these types of things, especially when they’re happening within the Christian community. However, my initial impression is that the high level of “shock and awe” that Soong-Chan and others have brought to this issue probably has been a bit overwhelming and confusing for Foster and Wilhite (though I think Zondervan should’ve seen it coming). Maybe I’m just feeling a little squeamish about this necessary phase of protest. I know that hard and unpleasant honesty must often precede genuine dialogue, repentance, and reconciliation. Still, I get the sense that Foster and Wilhite had no clue that their earnest effort to create something entertaining and edifying would be perceived as being wrongheaded and insensitive by so many. I’m sure it wasn’t even on their radar that appropriating Asian culture carried with it an obligation to “take it seriously.” They were simply parroting the stereotypes and jokes that are now so common in American pop culture.

Parodying Asian culture has become so commonplace in America that many of us naturally assume that the Asian community is in on the joke. When I was a child, I would watch Hong Kong Phooey every Saturday morning. Every kid on the playground wanted to be Bruce Lee. The Karate Kid movies ruled in the ’80s. Last year Kung Fu Panda made hundreds of millions at the box office. And fried rice, egg rolls, and sushi are just as “American” as French fries, pizza, and tacos.

We take it all for granted, and I would surmise that many white Americans believe that Asians are now so assimilated into American life that they have no problem with the tongue-in-cheek references to their various cultural heritages. Asians, after all, are a peaceful people. They’re certainly not as hyper-sensitive about race as (for instance) African Americans are. There are no Asian American Jesse Jacksons or Al Sharptons—at least not any who show up on our televisions complaining about something every other night.

So, it must be rather jarring for some people to discover that 21st-century Asians can feel as marginalized and disrespected as other minority groups in America.

But, again, I don’t want to ascribe any ill intent to Mike Foster, Jud Wilhite, and their book. I believe they innocently waded into these choppy waters. As a published author, I know the excitement of coming up with a good idea, toiling over the computer to get the words just right, seeing your publisher get behind your vision, watching as the design team comes up with a great cover and the marketing team develops a winning campaign. Ah, and nothing compares to that day when your finished book finally arrives. Holding it, staring at it, flipping through its crisp pages is pretty much all you’re physically and mentally able to do those first few hours after receiving it. And when it’s a Christian book, featuring a message that you’ve prayed God would use to influence and transform lives, there’s just nothing that compares to this.

Deadly Vipers is a beautiful little book. It’s designed and packaged with superb creativity, and the content is the kind of relevant stuff that Christian leaders and laypeople everywhere need to hear. I’m hoping the outcry against the book’s cultural blind spots will be tempered by grace and humility and empathy. I really resonate with this post at the Next Gener.Asian Church blog.

Think about what Foster and Wilhite must be feeling right now. Over the last year or two, they’ve invested their lives into this little book. They hoped and prayed that it would help others, but now they’re feeling attacked by a passionate movement of folks whom they probably assumed would be on their side. I’m sure this has been an eye-opening experience for them. I’m sure there’s something for all of us to learn.

 

Update: An encouraging post at Soong-Chan’s blog this morning:

I have heard indirectly, that Mike Foster will be engaging in a direct phone conversation with several Asian-Americans about ways to progress forward.  This is very good news.  As far as I know, this will be the first attempt by Mike Foster to engage in a direct dialogue with those who find the material problematic.  Please be in prayer for this conversation and for ensuing conversations.

Let’s pray for a positive outcome.

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A Facebook friend sent me a link to a wonderful YouTube video. The clip, which apparently has now gone viral with over 366,000 views so far, captures 3-year-old Hannah as she recites a freestyle prayer before bedtime. Her exhausted dad rests on the bed beside her while her mom records the proceedings and offers a running supply of “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” and “That’s right, Hannahs” from behind the camera.

The video starts off as one of those sweet little things that you see on YouTube (you know, like the little girl quoting a mashed-up version of the Twenty-Third Psalm or the little boy awaking from an anesthesia-induced fog following a visit to the dentist). But after a couple minutes, you realize that Hannah is not your ordinary precocious 3-year-old; this little girl is an evangelist-in-the-making who is literally preaching her bedtime prayer. Clearly, the child is speaking out of an anointing of the Holy Spirit—and I’m not one to casually throw around statements like that. This child is on fire!

Check out the video below.

After watching the clip, I was truly moved. But then I clicked through to YouTube and noticed some of the viewers’ comments. Most of the viewers were as awestruck as I was. Here’s a few of their comments:

WOW! The Bible says train up a child; I applaud this mom and dad and say” Well done.

Jesus asked us to come to Him with childlike faith. Hannah is a great example of this! You can tell she believes everything she’s saying with her WHOLE heart! We should all be like that. Keep praising Jesus, Hannah! Don’t ever let age take away your PASSION!!

God’s word and praise from the mouth of a baby! Praise God for Hannah!

This is amazing!! It’s always great to see the results of parents raising their children up with the Lord in their life. we need more kids around like this and then maybe things like Columbine wouldnt happen. Keep up the good work with your daughter!!

But then I began to notice a string of comments from viewers who were disturbed by Hannah’s prayer. They felt her behavior was evidence of brainwashing and of her parents pushing their religion on an impressionable young child. At least one compared it to abuse. Some examples:

I passionately oppose religious brainwashing on children… THIS IS CHILD ABUSE AND BRAINWASHING POOR KID.

The only thing this video is proof of is behavioral modification….normally referred to as brainwashing. It’s what cultists and Islamic Madrasas do to create the kind of unthinking obedience necessary to martyrdom. This kind of thing is disgusting and abusive. A child this age has no conception of what the words she is saying even mean.

This is not to down nobodies religion as I was raised a Christian…. What I DO have a problem with is fundamentalist thinking those want to convert others ESPICALY YOUNG CHILDREN into their cult. Im disturbed by this.

The kid doesn’t understand anything more than the feedback she’s getting from Mom. You can get a kid to recite the quotations of Chairman Mao like this. This is how the Taliban programs future martyrs. It’s ugly, unthinking nonsense.

I was dumbfounded. I’ve heard these types of arguments before, but as I watched that little girl share from a heart that was obviously overflowing with God’s Word and wonderful values from her parents that had stuck, it never crossed my mind that this little girl was being programmed to parrot her parents’ narrow-minded beliefs. Her faith looks real to me. She owns it.

At the same time, a child does not embrace a faith like that without the ongoing nurturing and encouragement and prayers of her parents, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, etc. After all, as Christians, isn’t it our job to pass along these values to the next generation?

But can we, as Christian parents, ever cross the line? There are certainly stories of children who have been indoctrinated into religious or ideological beliefs that have been damaging to their young psyches. I think of the news reports I’ve watched of little children who are growing up under the firm hand of white supremacist parents, or children who are being raised under the influence of any number of cult-like movements.

Then there are parents who raise their children under the religion of money, fame, and commerce. I think of little Falcon Heene being pimped out by his parents for the promise of a reality-TV show and driven to the point of vomiting on live television.

Or what about Marcus Jordan, the son of Michael Jordan?

Marcus, a freshman at the University of Central Florida, is currently causing his new school all sorts of grief with his insistence that he will be wearing his dad’s brand of Nike shoes during games rather than the Adidas brand that the college’s athletic teams are contractually required to wear. So far, UCF has been scrambling to accommodate its famous freshman (and that potentially lucrative link to his famous dad) while trying not to jeopardize its $3 million agreement with Adidas.

I love Michael Jordan the ballplayer, but I can’t help thinking Michael Jordan the dad has apparently raised a son to believe that consumer marketing and product placement and Nike brand loyalty are more important values than humility and team unity and honoring the obligations of his athletic scholarship. As Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard (who is a Christian) has said, “If you’re going to be on the team, you have to do what the team asks you to do.” You would think Marcus’s dad would be dispensing that same type of advice.

Or, how about the Ohio teenager from a strict Muslim family who ran away from home after converting to Christianity because she claims her father threatened to kill her for becoming a Christian? After seeking refuge at a Christian couple’s home in Florida, a judge ruled that the girl must be returned to Ohio. Yikes!

Parenting is no easy task these days—and neither is being a kid. There are so many dangers, toils, and snares—gray areas that will trip up even the most well-intentioned, well-prepared folks who have read all of Dobson’s books.

Having spent the last nearly ten years raising little people—or, perhaps more accurately, helping my wife raise them (just kidding)—I sincerely have to salute parents who are able to instill an enthusiastic faith and passion for God into their children. This, I believe, is one of the most important jobs in the world. As Chris Rock has said, “Sometimes I look at my daughter …  and I realize my only job in life is to keep her off the pole!” [Here’s the YouTube clip of Rock; beware of his explicit language.]

Anyhow, back to little Hannah’s prayer. I’m curious to know what you folks out there think about the video and the criticism that this 3-year-old girl is somehow being brainwashed or abused by her parents because she demonstrates such a strong and ardent faith in God. Should we rejoice or be concerned?

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I can’t read the guy’s mind, of course, but after the initial, natural response of “Yeah, I got it goin’ on,” I’m thinking this is what President Obama must’ve really been thinking upon hearing that he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize

Dang it! It’s a great honor and all, but I really don’t need this right now. I’ve got wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—not to mention nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. Man, don’t they know I’ve still got health-care reform and the economic downturn to figure out at home? And on top of that, this will just be more fodder for all the haters who want to see me fail no matter what. Couldn’t they have put me on the list for 2017?

Well, at least that’s what I would’ve been thinking if I were in his shoes.

I also was shocked to hear the news this morning that Obama had won the Peace Prize. Clearly, he has yet to accomplish anything concrete that would naturally point to his selection. However, I do agree in part with Fareed Zakaria’s take over at CNN.com that this is more of an award to America—a challenge and encouragement to us (and the world) to pursue the high rhetoric of hope and international cooperation that Obama has advocated.

What’s more, the award is also a recognition of what happened in the U.S. last November when we elected Obama. It’s a salute to America’s ability to finally rise up to the ideals of equality, freedom, and strength through diversity that it was founded on. I think if our country is truly serious about living up to those ideals, we will ultimately prove the Nobel committee members to have been correct in their decision, whether we like Obama or not.

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