book review – Many Colors by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah

[Review by Dr. Jack Lumanog]

Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church is the new book by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah.  This is a follow up to The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.  His latest book both sounds the alarm for the need for the Church gaining cultural intelligence as well as some practical steps on how to get started.

The book is divided into three parts: Understanding Culture, A Constructive Cultural Paradigm and Cultural Intelligence in Action.  There were some parts of the book that were hard to get through – and probably because it was necessary groundwork to get through to the payoff of how do we see more multicultural involvement in our churches.

The book was an uncomfortable read in parts simply because I resonated with certain portions where Dr. Rah addressed Asian-American assumptions in a group dynamic. And, on the topic of uncomfortable parts, was where he shared some stories as it relates to minority culture and their food. He remarked how some caucasian students at his seminary reacted uncharitably when some Korean students shared some of their traditional food. I had that reaction from my neighborhood friends all growing up because of the very foreign look, feel, taste and smell of my very Filipino food that our family had to offer for dinner.

One of the most practical steps offered in the book is how our food and sharing meals and life together around a dinner table can help bridge the cultural gap that exists between us. He masterfully weaves in how Jesus did this with the Communion meal of bread and wine. Dr. Rah’s explanation of the life shared at the Communion table to the dinner table is well worth your time and attention.

For me, Dr. Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism is an important work as it gave me some resources to draw on in explaining the current problem in the Church as it relates to race relations. For his follow up work in Many Colors, essentially the same case is stated as he did in his first book but the presentation comes across more winsome – but just as compelling at the same time.

As an Asian-American pastor, I am thankful for Dr. Soong-Chan Rah for being a practical prophet for our times.  Not only speaking the uncomfortable truth, but for giving us in Many Colors some practical resources on how to get where we need to be as the Church in the 21st century.

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“Get Over It”? Not So Fast…My Thoughts on the Deadly Vipers Controversy

We have a guest post today from Helen Lee, editor of the book, Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. Helen is an accomplished Asian American Christian woman we’ve admired on this blog before, as DJ Chuang notes in his interview with Helen a couple of years ago, “She is also cofounder of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, and formerly an editor at Christianity Today.” So when she sends us her input on the last week’s controversy, we post it. Plus, it makes a little announcement for how we see this blog growing…enjoy!

I’ve been following the recent controversy surrounding the book Deadly Vipers with great interest. Numerous people that I respect and admire have already made articulate, thoughtful, and thought-provoking assessments about the situation, and I have largely agreed with the sentiment amongst those, Asian American and otherwise, who felt the book’s haphazard use of Asian-related cultural symbols and the regretful choices of marketing strategies were in poor taste. I don’t really want to re-hash why; that seems like old territory now. But I would like to reflect on what I saw amongst those who did not seem to understand the outcry.

I read a number of comments in the blogosphere along the lines of, “I don’t understand what all the fuss is all about,” or “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” or more to the point, “Get over it!” And to some extent, I can understand those reactions. As much as we may try, it is impossible for us to ever fully be able to walk in another’s shoes. I will never know what it is like to grow up as, for example, a Caucasian male here in America. Or a black woman, or a even a Korean-American man. Of course there will be shades of overlap, some larger than others, but we can never really know what another person ‘s life experience is or has been.

That, however, does not mean that we shouldn’t strive to understand. And conversely, those of us who have felt misunderstood in some way must do more to explain our own cultural context and background better. We cannot assume that another person will automatically understand what it means to be Asian American or any other minority in America—and I use the word “minority” loosely, with the knowledge that it will not be long before there is no ethnic majority in the United States, Caucasian or otherwise. We cannot assume that every American company will automatically know what it means to be culturally sensitive to the broad spectrum of diversity present in our country and world today. Perfect cultural understanding is an ideal that may never fully be reached this side of heaven, which means that we all must be willing to show one another grace when we feel someone has wronged us in this area, as well as being quick to offer apologies when we make offenses, which we all have the capacity to do.

So in the meantime, because it could be a long way until the vision of Revelation comes to pass, when every tongue and tribe of every nation bow before the heavenly host in perfect unity, what can we do to further peace and reconciliation amongst those who possess vastly different cultural backgrounds? One simple and yet powerful answer could be this: we need to share our stories with one another with greater regularity, and simultaneously take the time to read and hear the stories of others who are different from us in order to help develop empathy and understanding across the various chasms which divide us, such as race, gender, and class, just to name a few. We particularly need to be willing to reveal our points of pain from the past, not for the sake of trying to bash others, but to provide a window into understanding our experiences that would not be there otherwise.

To this end, a small group of like-minded individuals, who share similar concerns about where to go from the DV controversy, has been in dialogue about creating a place where such narratives could be collected and shared. We’re grateful to David Park, who has offered this blog for this purpose, although narratives will be welcome from any voices, Asian American or not. The details are still being formed, so we’ll let people know at some future date when the site is ready for people to submit their stories. Our hope is that by creating an online portal in which people could come and share their own personal narratives about their cultural backgrounds and the various scars and triumphs they have experienced along the way, they can be encouraged by finding similar stories and seeing that they are not alone, or by educating others through their narratives. It has the potential to become a rich repository of experiences that could help us all become more culturally sensitive, whatever our background, because there is no end to the learning and growing we can each do in this regard.

To illustrate…if I say something like, “I found the promotional videos used by the authors of Deadly Vipers to be offensive for their insensitive characterizations of Asians”, that has one kind of impact. But if I tell you that when I was in college, there was a group of fellow male students (all Caucasian) who regularly called me “Heren Ree” with a mocking Asian accent (despite my protests) and labeled me the “dorm Geisha” whenever I’d bake a batch of cookies to share with my fellow students, that might give a little more insight into why I cringed when I watched those videos.

Or if I were to tell you about the time in sixth grade when my classroom teacher pointed out to the whole class that I couldn’t check the word “Caucasian” in the form we were filling out while everyone else could, and how much shame I felt as the eyes of my classmates peered at me in curiosity, as if I were some sort of circus exhibit…that might help to explain why it is hard to let go of feeling marginalized by the fact that I am of Asian descent, and why it took a long time for me to affirm and appreciate my own ethnic background. Those kinds of early experiences leave deep impressions and are not easily forgotten, yet they can flood your memories when you witness your cultural heritage being flaunted in inappropriate ways.

Or if I were to tell you that my parents have never affirmed my vocational gifts and leanings in the area of writing and publishing because it is not considered as a lucrative or respectable as being a doctor or lawyer, and that most Asian immigrant parents want their children to have the financial security and prestige that they themselves lacked while slaving away at menial jobs after entering this country, then perhaps it’s clearer why there is a dearth of Asian Americans in publishing to help inform editorial and marketing-related decisions, and that young Asian Americans need to be proactively encouraged and mentored (most likely from non-Asian Americans in the industry) in order to consider publishing as a career, since there are so few fellow Asian American role models to lead the way for them.

Or if I tell you that one of the first things I did when we were planning a move to our current neighborhood was to check the demographic breakdown of the local elementary school, to get a sense of whether my son would be the only Asian-American in his class or not; that my heart sank when I saw that despite living in a suburb of Chicagoland, this particular school had very few minorities at all, and that every day I feared t
hat he would get teased or taunted by other children who would label him “different” due to his ethnic background; then perhaps it’s easier to understand that even in this day and age of Obama, race matters, and it makes a difference in my daily, practical life and in the lives of my children.

Incidents such as the Deadly Vipers controversy are important to discuss and understand rather than dismiss, and perhaps these brief tales from my own life help in some small way to explain why Asian Americans reacted as vehemently as they did. Looking towards the future, my hope is that as we share our personal stories and gain a greater understanding of and sensitivity to one another’s cultural contexts, our posture and attitude towards those with different backgrounds from ourselves will be less adversarial and more compassionate. Less “get over it” and more “help me understand.” Hopefully that is something we can all agree on.

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“A Gentle Answer” Or “A Gentle Wrath”

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. – Prov. 15:1.

In light of “Deadly Viper v. Asian Americans,” I have to confess that I was quite hopeful that all of this angst could be quickly alleviated if there was direct contact between Soong Chan Rah and Mike Foster. From my purview, things went from to room temperature to boiling very quickly. I’m not sure if it was the abrupt emails exchanged between Rah and Foster, the fact that social media (this blog and tweets included) really amplified the dialogue to a frenzied lather, or if it just felt that way.

Here are a few observations I want to make:

Mike Foster is obviously a busy man. And in his quick responses to Soong Chan’s initial email probe, it seems that he assumed that Rah was trolling. He mentions “an agenda” that he perceives Soong Chan is using to ensnare him and is  dismissive. Now, I know that tone is very hard to discern from online text, but I wonder if he had taken a little bit more caution in responding to Rah on those first few exchanges, we would be at a different place right now. “A gentle answer…”

Now, to be fair to Mike, he probably was not aware of the Rickshaw Rally fiasco. or about the Skits The Teach blunder or about the internal discussion that Camy Tang generated.  He had no idea that Rah and other Asian American Christians were highly sensitized to the matter. I know Mike’s not a repeat offender, but this is a repeat offense by Christian publishers, and honestly, they should know better by now. (Zondervan, if you haven’t noticed by now, Soong Chan Rah is a friggin’ watchdog, so you might want to get some multicultural training or at least read a few IVP books, something, gyah). So suffice it to say, at least when it comes to Christian books, we’re probably not the best ethnicity to mess with right now.

Mike is also used to criticism and witch hunts. I’m sure he got thick skin from his work with XXXchurch. Maybe Soong Chan came on a little strong, pulled out the monkey fist questioning too quickly. Perhaps out of habit, he was just trying to put Rah and his comments in his place.

That being said, I’m guessing Mike is a little bit taken aback. Honestly, I think a lot of bystanding, well meaning white folk were a bit taken aback. “Ninjas are cool! We want to be like you! Kung fu kicks ass, we want Christian leaders to kick ass! Why on earth would we be offending ass-kicking ninja leaders? We wish we came from the land of ninjas!”

Obviously, they want us to look at the content and ignore the promotional/marketing and other “catchy” things that are peripheral to the book. And of course, they probably want us to be “big” about this, post-racial even, you know, give them some credit for the good things this book is addressing, cut them some slack for cultural ignorance. Geez, it was all in good fun. Maybe they want to write this off as a spiritual attack on what is clearly God’s gift to the young, emerging ninja leader.

They didn’t expect the wrath of the Asian American subculture, after all, we are “sub”-culture, right? Right? And “you’re Christian and I’m Christian and you’ve gotta give grace and you know that I have no  malicious intent…”

But that’s the thing that’s so hard, You’re Christian and I’m Christian and we just can’t get there yet, not easily. I mean, sure, we’re called to forgive, but it doesn’t seem fair if Asian Americans are always the ones doing the forgiving. And so what?

Because the painful truth is you don’t need the Asian American demographic to sell your book. You can do fine without us. You don’t need us at your conferences, or to log on to your site, and enter the “mancave”. You don’t need any “Manswers” from us. Honestly, that’s probably what’s so frustrating about this. You don’t need us. Heck, Francis Chan doesn’t even need us. All we’re asking for is some respect. And from some our Asian American brothers and sisters, we’re asking for a little self-respect.

Mike Foster and I had a brief and cordial chat during “Online Man Cave” time tonight. When I asked whether something could be done, he replied he was working on something and was hopeful for a good ending. I know he didn’t mean any harm. I know he thinks this is being blown way out of proportion, that this is way too divisive of a conversation to be constructive; but man to man, I’m really eager to see how this plays out. I’m anxious to hear Mike’s and Zondervan’s response. Because the way I see it, this has little to do with you or Rah, but a lot about Christian ways of re-orienting white privilege, about giving respect to people you don’t have to account for.

And so for tonight, we wait for an answer. A “manswer,” even. A better manswer. A more thoughtful manswer. An manswer with actions.

And unfortunately, in that waiting for an answer, the anxiety grows, the suspicion mounts, the tension feels more palpable and all the tweets, the blog posts, the facebook status updates, the links, the comments…it feels like our wrath has turned away the answer. Perhaps we have spoken a harsh word in asking for justice, and you are asking for grace, not knowing that we have eaten a thousand insults before this one.

But I am hopeful.

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