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Posts Tagged ‘Soong-Chan Rah’

Three recent articles have got me thinking about the current state of the American church. Each article explores issues related to the mission and future of specific subgroups and movements within the church. The various groups, one racial and the others formed around doctrinal and ecclesiological emphases, seem to reflect where we are today as a body—desperately searching for an identity and purpose that aligns us with God’s call, but sadly fragmented and self-centered in our attempts to get there.

The first article, “The Black Church Is Dead,” by Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, caused quite a stir when it was first published in The Huffington Post a couple months back. In fact, the article inspired the Religion Dispatches website to convene an entire forum around the subject. Glaude’s clearly provocative and attention-grabbing title overshadows an important point that he makes in the article: that many Christian leaders in African American congregations must move beyond the pomp and circumstance of the black church’s illustrious and prophetic past and concentrate on what it means to be faithful and relevant in this current era. I think this is a good message, not just for African American believers but for the American church as a whole.

The second article, this one from Sojourners, finds my good friend Professor Soong-Chan Rah asking the inevitable question: “Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?” This is not a new issue, but it’s interesting to see it wrestled with by Soong-Chan (a friendly but honest critic) and others who are slightly more sympathetic to the movement. The money line from Soong-Chan’s portion of the article:

In truth, the term “emerging church” should encompass the broader movement and development of a new face of Christianity, one that is diverse and multi-ethnic in both its global and local expressions. It should not be presented as a movement or conversation that is keyed on white middle- to upper-class suburbanites.

I couldn’t agree more. Yet, another part of me wonders if there’s a need for something like the “emerging church” in the first place. While I resonate with certain aspects of the movement (particulary its challenge to us to reexamine our traditions and cultural practices and ask whether they truly line up with what God’s calling us to be), I’m also put off by the whole branding and commercialization of the thing.

The third article, from ChristianityToday.com, is Brett McCracken’s excellent report from two recent conferences, the Wheaton College Theology Conference and the Together for the Gospel (T4G) gathering of Reformed leaders and scholars. As McCracken observes:

The juxtaposition of these two sold-out conferences, which represent two of the most important strands of evangelical Christianity today (the neo-Reformed movement and the “N.T. Wright is the new C.S. Lewis” movement), made the question (problem?) of unity within the church impressively pronounced.

In describing the differences between the two groups, McCracken writes:

For the T4G folks, protecting disputed doctrines against heresy is where good theology is born. Clear thinking comes from friction and protestation, from Hegelian dialectics (R.C. Sproul spoke on this), but not from compromise….

The exact opposite point was made at the Wheaton Conference by Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Wheaton, who suggested that theologians like Wright (and, presumably Christians in general) are more often correct in matters they collectively affirm than in matters they dispute. This statement reflects the contrasting spirit of the Wheaton Conference as regards unity: It’s what we affirm that matters.

He goes on to note that “the elephant in the room” at both events was an ongoing debate on the doctrine of justification between the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright and the Reformed preacher John Piper. Reportedly, both men took rhetorical swipes at the other during their talks, and drew cheers from their respective audiences.

I’ve been privileged to attend past theology conferences at Wheaton College, as well as events sponsored by those who would fall under that “neo-Reformed” heading. My sense is that God is doing good things in both camps. Conferences inherently are designed to bring together groups of people who share some likeminded affinity. Unfortunately, in the church those affinities are often framed in contrast to what some other group that we disagree with is or isn’t doing.

Even events that don’t have a readily apparent ideological agenda often feature undercurrents of elitism or snobbery. I love the Christian Community Development Association’s annual conference. It’s one of the best events at which to network, learn, and worship with other Christians who share my commitment to racial reconciliation, social justice, and incarnational ministry. However, even at CCDA we can sometimes give off a condescending vibe that suggests we’re the only ones who truly “get it.”

It occurred to me while reading those three articles that we spend a lot of time reflecting on who we think we ought to be as the church. Then, once we’ve gotten a critical mass, we brand it and stake out our special turf. Before long, we’ve got our own special line from Zondervan, IVP, or some university press and we’re packing them in at our annual conference. Unfortunately, over time, we wind up sounding like our way is the most effective way, if not the only way.

Emerging, missional, seeker-sensitive, Black, Calvinist, multicultural, Dispensational. And the list goes on.

It’s important to know who we are and what we believe in, but perhaps we waste too much time attempting to respond to or live up to historic monuments and cultural trends that we’ve proudly embraced as a way of defining ourselves or distinguishing our group from others. Usually what we’re saying when we do this is that the other parts of the church have gotten something wrong and we are preserving or reasserting what’s most important. That’s not always the case, and we may not always be that self-aware about it, but think about it a minute. Think about the labels you wear as a Christian—as a church. Then ask yourself why. Would you feel comfortable or secure giving up those particular labels and simply going about your business as a generic follower of Christ?

In the conclusion to his report from those two very different theology conferences, Brett McCracken wonders:

What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved?

What if?

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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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Soong-Chan Rah9070UrbanFaith.com, my other blogging and writing home, has a new interview with Soong-Chan Rah about his book, The Next Evangelicalism, and why he still roots for the Baltimore Orioles. Also be sure to check out Soong-Chan’s new website, www.ProfRah.com.

Have a happy 4th of July weekend, everyone! Peace.

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nextevangelicalismIf you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to check out my friend Soong-Chan Rah’s provocative new book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Today, African, Asian, and Latin American Christians make up 60 percent of the world’s Christian population. The United States and Europe will soon no longer be the center of evangelical activity in the world. With this in mind, the book calls the North American church to break free of its cultural captivity to a Western/Eurocentric/White American mindset and to embrace a new evangelicalism that is diverse and multiethnic. You can find out more here at the IVP site. 

For those of you who don’t know him, Soong-Chan is a brilliant theologian and pastor who for years led Cambridge Community Fellowship Church, a multiethnic, urban, post-modern congregation in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Now a professor at North Park Theological Seminary here in Chicago, Soong-Chan has rattled a lot of cages over the years by calling attention to issues of racism and cultural insensitivity in the evangelical church and community. I included a story about the Rickshaw Rally fiasco in my book, Reconciliation Blues, and I blogged about Soong-Chan’s role in the Zondevan/Youth Specialities controversy a couple years ago. In addition, when I was the editor of Today’s Christian, I published an insightful interview with Soong-Chan about the Youth Specialities episode and his ministry of activism. Though he may have gained a reputation as a rabble-rouser in some quarters, I know him as a kind-hearted, passionate man of God who loves the church and lost people.

We’re planning to do an interview with Soong-Chan about his book for that other little blog that I’m involved with, UrbanFaith.com. If you have any questions you’d like to hear Soong-Chan address about the book or his ministry in general, please leave them in the comments area below, or send them to me directly through my website. We’ll publish the interview in the next couple weeks, so send your questions soon. Thanks!

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