Another important voice to hear on this topic: Jonathan Tran, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. Jon’s voice is important one we need to hear on a whole range of topics. On this topic of DVZ, Jon weighs in from the perspective of theological ethics.
I’m assuming that Zondervan vets potential projects or ad campaigns that would be offensive to the general public or detrimental to Zondervan’s Christian mission. In other words, it would not knowingly publish materials that, for example, makes racially belittling jokes or openly promotes racism. Either the editorial staff allowed one to slip by, or (more frighteningly) simply does not consider Asians and Asian Americans worthy of such protections, since Zondervan recently published the book Deadly Vipers with a book cover and advertising materials that were offensive, belittling, and unhelpful.
As a theologian, I teach Christian Ethics and have often applauded the way Zondervan takes seriously its role in shaping Christian minds and bodies for the betterment of the church and the church’s place in the world. Several of my colleagues at Baylor publish with Zondervan because of its fine intellectual and Christian commitments, so I am no stranger to its strong history. This book and its promotions undercut those noble purposes. Publishing this cover is similar to publicizing the claim, “Gangsta Rap = African American culture” as if the richness of all that is African American culture and the incredible history of the African American church could be reduced to a few asinine media perceptions.
Asians and Asian Americans already have to deal with the tired “Asian = Martial Arts” stereotype and the racist slurs that come with it; Deadly Vipers does not help their cause. One may defend the book cover by claiming that its racial stereotyping is so over the top as to not warrant serious consideration, that somehow we should learn to laugh at such things. I for one believe with certainty that laughter, the right kind, is an indication that God is with us and hence we can live in faith not fear. However, since sin and error always creep near, right laughter can quickly mutate into wrong laughter when some become the butt of others’ purportedly innocuous jokes.
As an Asian American, I like many of my Asian American Christian brothers and sisters have had to bear the burden of these belittling stereotypes for many, many years. Now witnessing Christians publish these kinds of hurtful materials wounds deeply since it is only within Christianity that I have found affirmation of an ethnic identity that feels constantly under attack within the wider culture. So while the fact that the ad campaign is so over the top is laughable, the ways those jokes translate into discrimination, racial slurs, and stereotypes is not laughable at all.
Now I realize that Asians and Asian Americans do not often warrant political and ethical considerations in this country, but perhaps we as Christians might do better, not least because Asian Americans comprise part of the diverse body of Christ we rightly publicize to the world. The sacramental shape of Christian existence between baptism and the Lord’s Supper introduces and instantiates into the world a diverse community called church by which Christians of every tongue, tribe, and nation share a common life within God’s infinite generosity and eternal accommodation. Since God is eternal, there is space within God’s life for all these. As the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson says, “God can, if he chooses, accommodate other persons in his life without distorting that life. God, to state it as boldly as possible, is roomy…” All the nations, including all the nations of America, share in the cosmic transformation of God’s salvation and in the immanent material performances of that salvation. This means this common sharing is no flaccid multiculturalism, which cordons in zoo-like conditions difference for the sake of difference. Rather, this common sharing is a genuine sharing, a true commonweal as St. Augustine says. The baptized are initiated into the same body to be the same body; they drink the same blood from the same cup. Hence the theologian Emmanuel Katongole describes worship as “wild space” of gathered difference. Sharing God’s body renders us, as God’s body, the visible image of God in the world while simultaneously making visible our particularities that reflect God’s created donum Dei of difference (God’s gift of difference); the one body of Christ makes visible this one body in all its parts. There is no body without its parts. Unlike what has become the case in market economies, these body parts do not compete with one another but are each the conditions of the others’ health and wholeness; the wounds of some in the body are the wounds of everyone in the body. As Paul quips, feet and hands and ears and eyes are not at cross-purposes with one another: “You are the body and individually members of it,” Paul writes (1 Cor. 12).
We are each Christian and individually Christians. We are each Christian and individually Mexican American or Asian immigrant, so on and so forth. As Father Katongole intones, “If we can begin to see each other not as strangers in competition for limited resources, but as gifts of a gracious God, then we will already have discovered ourselves within a new imagination, on the road to a new and revolutionary future, which worship both signals and embodies.” In other words, the church’s cultural and ethnic diversity is, for Christians, worship as it celebrates what God has created and what God is reconciling. Zondervan has been on the forefront of articulating the good news of this gathered body for many years. As a theologian who is first and foremost a congregant in a local church, I have benefited from Zondervan’s many contributions to these efforts. It is with these rich contributions in mind that I now beseech you to not let this silly cover and this silly ad campaign undermine your great efforts.