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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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Good Hair posterOne of the big conversations in my household this year has revolved around the question of whether my 9-year-old daughter is ready to get her hair “permed.” Some girls at her school have already been initiated into the world of relaxed hair, so the peer pressure is in effect.

On the one hand my wife, who spends an inordinate amount of time combing and styling our little girl’s hair each week, would love to reduce the strain and pain (on both her and my daughter) of braiding and curling and ponytailing. On the other hand, she’s not yet ready to subject our daughter to the extreme measures involved in chemically straightening black hair. Who would’ve imagined that there’s so much drama involved in styling a little girl’s tresses?

Well, Chris Rock did.

Read my full review of Chris Rock’s new documentary, Good Hair, at UrbanFaith.com.

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MillionMiles-cover175x275If you’re a Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz) fan, you’ll want to click on over to UrbanFaith.com and check out our interview with the author about his new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. And, if you’re game, you can get a free copy of Miller’s book by leaving a response to this question:

Donald Miller discovered deeper meaning in life by applying the storytelling principles of a good movie to the way he lives. If your life were a movie, which one would it be and why?

Readers have left some very interesting responses to that question already. So, if there’s a particular film or film character that encapsulates your life journey so far, please head over to UrbanFaith.com and leave a brief comment about it. UrbanFaith will randomly select five respondents to receive a free copy of A Million Miles, but the contest expires Oct. 19, so share your responses now.

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urbanfaith logoThe past week saw a spike in public rudeness and incivility, at least in the worlds of politics and pop culture. By now, you’ve read the tweets and watched the YouTube clips of the various offenses, right?

Most of the incidents have led to multiple apologies (both sincere and compulsory), as well as a surplus of opinion and chatter that has confirmed the central role of Twitter and Facebook in relaying real-time commentary on breaking stories. But most of all, these outbursts have demonstrated, in often shocking fashion, just how impulsive, mean, and disrespectful the human heart can be.

(This is the intro to a new commentary I wrote for UrbanFaith.com. Click here to read the rest of the article.)

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urbanfaith logoSorry that I haven’t updated the blog in a while. I’ve been busy with work and family outings (trying to get in some final summer activities before the kids return to school). To be honest, most of my blogging energy is being used up over at UrbanFaith.com, which I’d like to encourage you to visit and bookmark, if you’re not familiar with it already. UrbanFaith is an online magazine that I work on as part of my day job at Urban Ministries, Inc. Here are a few of the interesting items we’ve posted recently:

• Redeeming a “Teachable Moment.”  This one goes beyond the beer summit to try and get at the real lessons from the Henry Louis Gates arrest and the subsequent racialized fiasco. We solicited commentary from seven Christian scholars and pastors, including William Pannell, Cheryl Sanders, Glenn Loury, Curtiss DeYoung, Art Lucero, Vashti Murphy McKenzie, and Tali Hairston. Pannell and Loury, especially, offer a trenchant analysis of President Obama’s handling (or mishandling) of the matter. The topic’s a bit dated now, but please check it out and let us hear your feedback.

• Justice or Socialist?  The legendary Christian reconciler and activist John M. Perkins shares insights on pursuing biblical justice without letting our politics, ideology, or suspicions get in the way. Very relevant in light of the current health-care debate.

• How to Handle Panhandlers.  Should we give without constraint, or does God want us to be more discriminating. My friend Arloa Sutter allowed us to adapt this one from her blog. This one will always be a timely issue for us to wrestle with.

• Aliens vs. Racism.  A review of the new film District 9, which isn’t your typical UFO flick. For starters, it’s set in South Africa. Plus, the human heart turns out to be a lot more frightening than the ugly extraterrestrials.

• Three Days in 1969.  Remembering Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix, and our continuing search for peace and love. If you’re a fan of Hendrix or the Woodstock era, you’ll want to check this one out.

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Here’s a piece that I posted earlier at UrbanFaith.com.

Let the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage continue. As soon as I heard the tragic news about his passing yesterday afternoon, I knew it would mean nonstop fodder for all the CNNs and WGCIs and TMZ.coms (sorry, Farrah). This will be just like Princess Di’s death, I thought. And for a brief moment, it was just as shocking and unexpected. Then, after a few minutes, the horrible truth sank in: Michael Jackson had already died many years ago. Or at least that’s how it felt.

I posted that thought on my Facebook page and was surprised to see a steady stream of friends chime in with their agreement. “Around ’92, I’d say,” wrote my college friend Christopher. “You got that right, he’s been gone for a good long time,” added Karin, another former classmate. “Yes,” continued my work colleague Bruce, “it feels like we’ve already grieved his death … as sad as the news is.”

Maybe it was around 1992. That’s when the plastic surgeries and ever-whitening skin began to morph him into something more noticeably un-real. Or perhaps it was back in the early ’70s, when, under the harsh rule of a demanding stage parent, he was not allowed to be a child, but then years later didn’t seem to understand how to be an adult, either.

By the late ’90s, the “ABC” – Off the WallThriller versions of Michael Jackson were clearly notions of the distant past. I’ll never forget the day in 1997 that my wife came home from her job as a daycare worker and told me she had overheard a discussion among the 7 and 8-year-olds about Michael Jackson. After she offhandedly referred to him as an African American, the kids’ eyes widened in disbelief: “You mean Michael Jackson is black?”

Many of us used to think that Michael Jackson’s constantly changing looks were the result of his desire not to be black. The narrowed nose, straightened hair, and lightened skin all suggested a person who was attempting to escape his genetic fate. Yet, Jackson always spoke about being proud of his racial heritage. And his continued influence on the black urban and hip-hop artistic communities was immense, despite the fact that he appeared to be running away from his race.

Could it be, as Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page has suggested, that Jackson was not trying to escape his race so much as the image of his father that he saw in the mirror?

The truth is, despite all the controversy and dysfunction and tragedy in his life, Jackson was one of the great pop-culture reconcilers of our time. Like Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole, and Bill Cosby (as well as many others), Jackson broke down racial barriers by virtue of his talent and ability. I recall seeing white girls in 7th grade walking the halls with the Thriller album in their hands and thinking, Wow, white people like Michael Jackson too? Before that, in my limited 12 or 13 years of life, I had never seen white people so publicly claiming a black pop star as their own. But for the ’80s generation, Michael Jackson demolished the walls. Everyone, regardless of race, talked about the “Thriller” video or Jackson’s legendary performance on the Motown 25 TV special or whatever Jackson’s latest fashion statement happened to be.

Of course, we also talked about his problems and freakish behaviors later on. But my sense is that there always was more sympathy than condemnation for this man whom so many once wildly celebrated.

The outpouring of sadness and grief after the announcement of Jackson’s death yesterday proves that he still occupies a special place in our culture. Folks whom I would’ve never imagined cared about Jackson have chimed in on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs with notes of sympathy and fond memories of “the King of Pop.”

I was about 8 when Elvis died in 1977, and I remember not knowing much about who the guy was until that day. Suddenly, I received a whirlwind education on “the King” and his importance in music and pop culture. In death, Elvis Presley became real to me. I suspect it may be that way for many younger folks today as the tragic figure that Jackson became in his latter years takes a backseat to the musical legacy of one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known.

No one knows what the condition of Jackson’s spiritual life was at the time of his death, whether or not he’d made peace with God. The assumption is he was still searching, still unfulfilled, still trying to recapture the success of his ’80s heyday while trying to escape the fallout of that same success.

Today, we fondly remember our favorite Michael Jackson songs: “I’ll Be There,” “Rock with You,” “Beat It,” “Black or White.” We celebrate the joy he brought us as an artist. But we also pray that, perhaps in his final moments of life, he was finally able to see things clearly.

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