Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Deadly Viper Controversy

In recent days a controversy has arisen around the reckless co-opting of Asian culture within the curriculum, videos and books published by Zondervan publishing house in a series called Deadly Viper.

A guy I consider a friend and mentor by the name of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah has been in contact with the authors of the material as well as the publisher. The event is yet another opportunity to grow as a body. I have written a letter to the authors (posted within the comments of Soong-Chan's blog) and directly to Zondervan. I am positng my letter below.


I am writing to express my concern for the published materials within the Deadly Viper books, videos, website etc..

As an Christian of Caucasian decent, living in an African American context, I have spent the past decade or so trying to navigate the complexities of how we as Christians ought to understand and approach the issues of race and culture. I have listened, reflected, read, learned and taught extensively around these issues during most of these years.

I have learned much about white privilege over these years and have anguished about the way that this is often entrenched within our evangelical institutions. Ours is a faith of great diversity and, in the words on 1 Cor 12, one part of the body must not say to the other: “I have no need of you”. When editorial board, writers, leaders, reviewers, and decision makers within an institution do not accurately reflect the diversity of the church, they not infer their lack of need for others, but they inevitably make bad mistakes, as is clearly the case with the manner in which Asian culture (mixed up, and randomly co-opted) was done in the case of Deadly Viper.

As has been said by everyone in the conversation among the blogs, the content is not the issue. The packaging and offensive use of another culture is.

I will express my concerns along two lines: Incidental and Institutional.

As to the DV incident, I urge you to take seriously the recommendations made to you by our Asian American brothers as reflected in the open letter written to you by Dr. Soong Chan Rah.

As to the Institution: I cannot say strongly enough that institutional changes must be made at Zondervon (as with most of our Evangelical institutions). I have had the opportunity to express my concerns with leadership at a number of Christian colleges and universities, let me share with you my own reflections for change:

  1. Institutional Leadership. The Zondervan leadership, reviewers, editors and others must reflect the broader church (not just your readership).
  2. Institutional Knowledge. You must think about how Zondervan learns as an institution, and communicates that knowledge to all the divisions, partners, staff and other aspects of the organization. Specifically to this point, you must think about how you learn and transmit this information about race and ethnicity (this is different that individual learning). This will require ongoing learning and that ongoing pattern needs to be a part of the fabric of the organization.
  3. A posture of humility and learning. Please, I urge you, that you communicate to the church, readers, Asian American community, authors and others a posture a humility and learning.
  4. Cultural Interpreters. This process of learning about and understanding what has happened with the DV books will require internal and external cultural interpreters. This means that some of your staff will need to be “white people who get it” and others will need to be non-whites who can articulate (as Dr. Rah and others have done) what you need to hear in an ongoing ways. These voices must be invited to the table, with patience, both INSIDE and OUTSIDE the institution. Those inside will often, if not always be more reticent to speak clearly on these topics (its human nature, their ability to feed their families may be on the line). Those outside may sometimes overstate the case because they don’t have “skin in the game”. So this balance of cultural interpreters for you is critical.

I will tell you that if you learn well from this episode, it could be among the most amazing ways in which God is at work through and in you in a long time. Don’t learn from it and it could easily be your undoing. Please. . . Learn well, listen well.


Steve said...

I have often questioned whether it is worth is for people in our context to keep waging this war with big Evangelical institutions. For us, it is primarily the Southern Baptist Convention.

I have come to the conclusion that it is – at least at some level – but it certainly is frustrating. But it also forces me to evaluate my own blind spots. We all have them, you know. All of us.

Maybe enough of this kind of confrontation and we can all eliminate some…

Keep up the good fight!

JudyBright said...

I loved your letter.

While we as humans want quick results from our efforts, I think your ministry may be making the ground fertile for growth to happen in the future. There may not be change for awhile, but efforts like these are still important. It won't allow things to remain the same.

Anonymous said...

It was very interesting for me to read the post. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more on that blog soon.

Anonymous said...

This is a hard issue, right? What is our responsibility to minister across cultures? Does every "Christian" publication have to be acceptable to all cultures? I mean, how can we even figure out what "acceptable to all cultures" even means? People get offended, which really means people CHOOSE to be upset; there's no way to make everyone happy. Now, it does seem to me that DV hasn't been sensitive to Asian culture- but is that really their responsibility? They're not necessarily trying to reach an Asian audience or authentically represent any part of Asian culture - I mean, just like they say in the book, the authors are two white guys who love "kung-fo movies." I haven't been convinced by either Dr. Rah's letter or your post that there is a Christian responsibility in publishing to make sure that no one gets offended. And as you and Dr. Rah admit- the CONTENT IS GOOD. That's what this book is about. Not the packaging.

hammerdad said...


I appreciate your honest chiming in. . . and wonder if it required being anonymous to speak honestly?

I process these things as a Christian (I don't know if you share that assumption, but it is my bias) and as such I'd have to say that first, I agree that it isn't the job of a publishing house to be sure they don't offend anyone. no one can do that.

Still, simply relegating the hurt of other people to "they choose to be offended" strikes me as both against the principles of love as taught in the scripture, and in the case o situations like this whole DV thing, it also a recklessness that has consequences - it causes injury, marginalization, destruction of relationships, and more.

If listening to the voices of all our Asian brothers and sisters (in the comments sections of SCR's blog, especially on the Nov 3 entry) reflecting on the way they are culturally stereotyped and the way this is a problem is unconvincing to you, then I likely can't share anything persuasive or meaningful to you. . . but maybe consider this from scripture:

In 1 Cor 8 Paul says he would "never again eat meat" if that would cause a brother, for whom Christ died, to stumble. I think his humility is telling for us here. If we suggest that it is within our Christian freedom to be culturally reckless, knowing that this will cause harm/hurt to our brothers, then in Paul's example we have no room to say: "oh those weak folks just choose to be offended and its not my problem."

In the framework of weakness on the part of a brother (something you have inferred) our response cannot be: "tough luck weaklings!". If for no other reason than the love of Christ and for our brother and the desire for him not to stumble in view of our freedom, we should be concerned.

But I'll go one step further and say, that you are off base in suggesting it is weakness here. Reading those posts (and especially Helen Lee's article) I cannot see how you can suggest the offense is simply weakness on the part of those who have been offended. . .

If you are Asian and have suffered this series of offenses you have a platform (after loosing your anonymity) to say to your brothers, I hear what you are saying but you need to forgive and not be offended. But if you are not Asian you have no such ability or place. you are not a kinsman in the biblical sense of being qualified to stand in the place of someone.

The way Asian culture is co-opted in DV does exactly what you have done in your comment. . . you have suggested that it's concerns are marginal at best and should be treated that way. . . push them to the side, regard them as no concern. . . give them no thought.

We don't have the right to do that, even if we have the power to do so.

Ken said...

As a Christian Asian Am male who was also part of the small cadre of AA christian leaders who were among the first to join my friend Dr. Rah's efforts to cry 'foul' to the authors and publisher, I am quite heartened by your thoughtful and deeply Christ-like response to Anon2's comments. There will always be those in the current power seats that dismiss the concerns of those with less power--and that still grieves my spirit. But I am greatly encouraged when others acknowledge their power and privilege but divest themselves long enough to connect to the pain and frustration of the less powerful. Hearing from even just one of you more than outweighs the near-sighted musings of those who would dismiss these outcries. So thank you.

hammerdad said...

@Ken. thanks. . . it's voices like yours that keep me in the learning loop. . . processing this and other related events led me to a conversation with a brother who described the calling of reconciliation to include a calling to be misunderstood. That's never a comfortable place to be, and always involves hurt, but is on the whole a healing place in the power of the cross. thanks for meeting me there.


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