Are Asians Sell-outs?

On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself  puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.

It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America.  Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs.  Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.

But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here.  The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans.  East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada.  And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .

This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black AmericansSo the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad.  It is quite easy to have  a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.

Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit.  A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy.  It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream.  It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it.  Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.

I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society.  We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice.  It has been worth it.   Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it.  However it has come at a cost, a high one.  Are you willing to pay it?

A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power.  Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it.  They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about.  They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding.  Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God.   It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.

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The Faces on the Stage

“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”

So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference.  The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.”  Praise God for such a vision!  And praise God for the organizers of this event.  Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event.  Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”

The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids.  Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference.  These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music.  They will surge and sing.  They will cry and commit.  And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).

The faces on the stage matter.  If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band.  These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.

They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy.  It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was).  The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone.  The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.

Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse?  Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material?  Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?

Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves.  Call it FUBU for White people.

The truth is, the faces do matter.  And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think.  Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters.  Think I’m wrong?  Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself.  You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important.  Call it the incarnation experience.  You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.  That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.

It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.

Why the TNIV’s demise makes me happy…

Well, it doesn’t really; I mean, not in any “real” way.  As I said before, I never liked the TNIV and don’t care for the NIV either for that matter.    Part of this is frankly because I tend to prefer “word for word” translation over “dynamic equivalence” that the NIV and TNIV employs.  The other reason is because, as I said in my comments on the preceding post, I believe the publication of the TNIV as well as it’s withdrawal has more to do with profits than anything else.  But allow me to lay out a bit more my larger issue with English language Bible translation.

1) Arguments over Bible translations (whether NIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, etc.) provide cover for Christian intellectual elitism

Christianity is a translated religion.  Unlike Islam, we do not hold to any particular language being the revealed language of God and scripture.  Therefore the words of Jesus (perhaps spoken in Aramaic) were translated into Greek without losing their potency.  Reading the Bible in French or English or Twi or Russian does not represent a deficiency, but the heart of the missionary impulse.  However the way debates over translation occurs communicates that unless one is fluent in the so-called “original languages” one cannot really know what God is saying. This is inherently elitist as the vast majority of Christians in the world who have ever lived and who currently do live may not even be literate, much less experts in ancient Greek.  Is their understanding of God, ethical practice, and Christian maturity therefore inevitably compromised?

This is not to say that translation with great care is unimportant.  It is very important, but if we communicate, however unintentionally, that you “really need to read it in the Greek to understand” we inevitably establish a hierarchy to which only an elite and privileged few have access.

2) The proliferation of English translations in the last 100 years has done NOTHING to advance Christian maturity or knowledge.

Faithful translation is important as I have said, and that has ostensibly been the motive for updating translations, in addition to keeping pace with new or better source documents that have come to light.  But is hardly evident that these multiple versions have done anything to increase the amount of scripture knowledge or biblical practice.  Indeed I would venture to guess (anecdotally to be sure) that those Christian “neanderthals” who hold onto the KJV probably have  more extensive Biblical knowledge than many others.

3) The proliferation of English translation is driven by profit and is evidence of an exceedingly materialistic self referential culture.

Many translations are copyrighted.  Book publishers make lots of money selling Bibles.  There is great incentive to come out with a “NEW & IMPROVED” version every few years.  We buy them because we can, and because we want a version that “fits” us.  This is related to my last point.

4) (Not the last point but related to the previous one) The English language has not changed so much in the last hundred years and certainly last fifty years to justify the new translations.

The 400 year dominance (and continued strength) of the KJV meant that much of the language was indeed very different than contemporary English and quite opaque to some (though not so much as to be unintelligible. After all it is still a leading version and in some ways superior; KJV English conveys continuing present tense better than contemporary English) and therefore made some sense to update.  Since then… not so much.

5) The proliferation of translations is in some ways a capitulation to the Christian disengagement with shaping culture.

The chief justification for many modern versions is to faithful translate the scripture into “today’s English.”  Well this is fine as far as it goes. BUT, none of these many translations, partially due to their abundance and partially due to their linguistic poverty, actually affect the culture into which they are cast.

The KJV, for all its flaws (and they are many) was written in a language that though long “obsolete” retains a poetry and magnificence that remains unsurpassed, much like the language of Shakespeare (written in the same era).  Many contemporary versions, though technically superior, frankly lack any beauty and therefore are less powerful in their effect in shaping culture, both within and outside of the church.

Now it can be argued that aesthetic value is less important than accuracy, but I disagree.  Aesthetics have a truth value all their own and while “though I walk through the darkest valley” may be a more technically accurate translation, it does not speak in the same way as “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and is therefore lest likely to be memorized, or to shape our worldview.  Bad writing cannot be covered up by saying “the translation is technically accurate.”

Additionally the multitude of translations means that Christians have lost something very important: a common language, which is important in creating and reinforcing and yea verily, shaping our common dialogue and culture.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead: TNIV is gone gone gone!

Is there any doubt from the title of this post that I don’t exactly have great feelings of sadness for the demise of the TNIV?  It is perhaps not so appropriate to call the TNIV “the witch” since it is a “faithful and scholarly translation” but there you have it.  There are others for whom the TNIV has been an important resource for their own lives and ministry and they are sad to see it go.  Daniel writes:

As someone who communicates from the Bible on a weekly basis, I have found the TNIV to be a faithful, accurate and scholarly update to the best-selling NIV translation many of us grew up with.

Well  God bless him.  Eugene Cho also is lamenting its demise. I personally have used the TNIV on occasion (usually because there was no other option available) but have never purchased one and wouldn’t unless I had no other option.  I was opposed to its publication for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the gender inclusive language.  From Christianity Today:

“Whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community,” said Zondervan president Moe Girkins. “So as we launch this new NIV, we will discontinue putting out new products with the TNIV.”

Girkins expects the TNIV and the existing edition of the NIV to phase out over two years or so as tniv-study-bible_0products are replaced. “It will be several years before you won’t be able to buy the TNIV off a bookshelf,” she said.

“We are correcting the mistakes in the past,” Girkins said. “Being as transparent as possible is part of that. This decision was made by the board in the last 10 days.” She said the transparency is part of an effort to overhaul the NIV “in a way that unifies Christian evangelicalism.”

“The first mistake was the NIVi,” Danby said. “The second was freezing the NIV. The third was the process of handling the TNIV.”

I have no quarrels with or suspicions about the motives of the scholars who did the work of translation for the TNIV.  I am certain (as certain as anyone can be about such things) that their motives were honorable and pure before God.  This is true even as it relates to the issue of gender inclusive language.

Doug Moo, chairman of the the Committee on Bible Translation (which is the body responsible for the translation) said the committee has not yet decided how much the 2011 edition will include the gender-inclusive language that riled critics of the TNIV.

“We felt certainly at the time it was the right thing to do, that the language was moving in that direction,” Moo said. “All that is back on the table as we reevaluate things this year. This has been a time over the last 15 to 20 years in which the issue of the way to handle gender in English has been very much in flux, in process, in development. And things are changing quickly and so we are going to look at all of that again as we produce the 2011 NIV.”

The “flux” to which Moo refers concerning the English language is actually overstated.  Neutered language is the norm in academic English usage and has moved  into common usage beyond the academy due mostly to rather aggressive efforts to mold popular use.  Unlike the evolution of the English language generally, the neutering of the language happened intentionally as a way to counter what were considered to be the oppressive patriarchal assumptions embedded in the language.

Why this gender thing matters, but not really

In so many ways, it honestly doesn’t. Though I am no Greek scholar, I am aware that in many places the language used is, in some ways, generic, that is, it does not specify gender, or more specifically, sex.  To neuter the original language in this way in order to conform to contemporary English usage norms makes a lot of good sense and doesn’t fundamentally challenge any doctrines of the church.

In other ways though, the neutering of language is quite significant as it says something powerful about how the church interacts with culture.   It is in fact only the newest manifestation of the church’s efforts to respond to and speak relevantly to a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christan and into which the church’s voice as a culture shaping agent is less and less important.  The multiplication of English language translations in the last century is testimony of the increasing marginalization of the church in society and every attempt at relevance reinforces greater and greater alienation.  But more on that in a later post.  In the mean time:

Christ against the multiculturalists

Higher education in the United States and indeed throughout the so-called “West” is dominated by multiculturalism, with the “hard” sciences, professional schools, and business schools being somewhat the exception. It is an unquestioned assumption within the storied halls of our most elite and least elite colleges and universities that the dominant narrative of Western culture is insufficient to educate students. Their biases, assumptions, and worldviews must be challenged, deconstructed and hopefully re-assembled into something resembling coherence.

Concurrent with these assumptions has come a rejection of what had been the core content of a “liberal” education – namely becoming conversant with the thoughts, ideas, and stories of Western culture (i.e. dead White men) and a departure from what had been the intent of such an education (the discovery of ‘truth’). Heretofore marginalized voices (women, minorities) are given privileged status as a consequence of their having been deemed historically oppressed. In history especially (my field), the European explorers, philosophers and missionaries of old have been transformed into apostles of intolerance, genocide, and unremitting oppression. Simply put, dead White guys are out of fashion and truth as a governing or transcendent concept is not even really talked about.

Of course this shift represents a major challenge for Christians in the academy since we follow a religion that both makes transcendent governing truth claims and whose most significant theologians happen to have been mostly dead White guys. It doesn’t help that the “West” is popularly associated with Christianity, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity did indeed originate in the Near East, its most famous early theologians (Augustine and Tertullian) were Africans, and the Christian legacy of India, Ethiopia, and Iraq is far older than that of Ireland. It follows easily that the worst crimes of the western world are laid at the feet of the theology, practice, and indeed even the existence of the Christian faith.

Enter: multiculturalism and the gospel of relativism. According to an article in First Thingsthe task of

a student in the multicultural classroom is to grant unquestioned authority to those who come from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds. You have to do this because, you will learn, because Western culture has exploited every other culture, and your experiences are so shaped by Western culture that you cannot question those who criticize you. And thus you will become a good cultural leftist (which is the shape liberalism takes in the academy), or, if you are not convinced by these arguments, you will learn how to fake it for the sake of getting a good grade

The article continues:

All of this is profoundly anti-Christian, which is why Christian students are typically the most radical questioners of higher education. Because Christians believe in a universal human nature, they also believe they can make universal truth claims about human nature. That does not mean that every statement about human nature is true.

And so it is that Christians hold as profoundly and universally true the very thing that sticks in the craw of post-modern cultural relativists. Thus Christian students, albeit thoroughly unversed and ill prepared to “give an answer for the hope that lies within them”, they are nonetheless adherents of a gospel that declares that truth does indeed exist; truth about God, the meaning of life, the condition of man, and man himself. Further, they hold to the notion that these truths are not culturally bound, nor limited by time, but are always and in every place profoundly and fundamentally true.

It is true though that the lens of multiculturalism has brought a needed corrective to the myopia of the Christian church in the United States. It is perhaps a function of our relative isolation from people of different languages and ethnicity that the universality and thus the infinite translatability of the Christian religion has been lost on us. It is a good thing that churches are wrestling with questions of multi-ethnicity and culture. We must be careful though as we wrestle not to adopt the singularly unChristian, dare I say anti-Christian academy that reflexively dismisses the achievements of Christian civilization while highlighting its sins and lionizing those presumed to be victims.

It is no small thing that it is only in the Christian west that human freedom as a concept rooted in the Biblical view of all people being made in God’s image bore the fruit of eliminating slavery, or that women have enjoyed the relative equality of status that they do. When the West failed, it is perhaps not the failure of Christianity, but only an indication that the Christianization of society did not go far enough.

Biblical Illiteracy, Cultural Critique & Socio-Politcal Engagement

As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.

It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.

One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.

I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.

I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?

If you want peace, work for justice… really?

I ran across this bumper sticker slogan today as I was leaving a local coffee shop. My first thought upon reading it was, “Yup, that’s right.” And then I thought again, “Really?” I mean, it is a neat slogan, and it isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. In fact I really like it. But as I thought about it, I realized that there are some assumptions buried deep within this seemingly innocuous statement. These assumptions are deeply and profoundly mistaken.

Assumption 1: The cause of war or violence is injustice

The implicit nature of this assumption becomes clear when you look at the statement itself: If there were no injustice, there would be peace. This is definitely untrue. Indeed much of the violence in human history, whether the violence of spousal abuse and homicide, or genocide and war between nations is itself unjust. Injustice is not the cause of violence. There is much violence in the world that has nothing to do with injustice and is not a response to it. Contrary to what many have been taught to believe, sometimes people do evil and violent things simply out of malice, hatred, or ill will. Sometimes, there is no justification nor explanation for the wrong that people do. Sometimes there is injustice, or the violence done by poverty and oppression to the human spirit, and such conditions make reciprocal violence all the more plausible or likely. But many times, it is the violent who bring about injustice.

Assumption 2: The presence of injustice is a justification for violence

Yes, there is a threat of violence inherent in the rather innocuous bumper sticker. You see if you want peace, you must work for justice. Otherwise there will be no peace. So then is violence is an expected or at least appropriate response to injustice? Is it justifiable to respond to unjust conditions with violence? Are those who have been subject to oppression and injustice somehow unable to act with restraint or are they somehow slaves to their situation?

Assumption 3: Peace can be “worked for”

This sentiment seems to be the most innocent of all, but is it really? In a purely secular sense, yes, social equity and the absence of violence can be worked towards. But inherent in the maintenance of any society is the power to enforce the social order, which includes, by necessity, the threat or actual use of violence. Sure, it isn’t something we like to admit, but until the final king comes in glory, all human societies and government enforce the existing social order through force. True peace, that is shalom, is much more than the absence of conflict or violence. It is the positive presence of a just, equitable and holy order wherein there is space for human flourishing. Such a world is not attainable by human effort, but is only foreseeable in God’s economy. Even then, it is the authority of the sovereign Lord that establishes and maintains that order. And what we perceive of as a more perfect form of government; democracy, has historically come through the violence of war and revolution and sometimes a literal “coup d’etat.”