Emerging Voices we need to hear: Jonathan Tran

Posted: November 13, 2009 in Uncategorized
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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.

Jon Tran

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.

  1. Tony says:

    I fully agree with Professor Tran. But I don’t think Zondervan will act until the authors get serious about this.

    I can’t help but to feel that the Christian community got taken on this one. I think the inaction of the authors and Zondervan speak louder than their initial action. Mike and Jud have made NO CHANGES to their website other than remove the Chinese characters on the front page. The offensive items are still at the bottom of their pages. Under download there continues to be images of warriors and some nonsense about “Nunchuks, Warriors & Master Po.” Also, the highly sexists and insensitive video of “manly” vs “girly” stuff is still up. I have made repeated attempts to post comments on their blog but none of them are showing up.

    Mike and Jud reacted quickly when the issue went national and issued, what seems to me now, an empty apology to silence the voices calling for justice. Now they and their publisher have moved on to sell the book as if nothing had happened. Is this reconciliation? How can we expect Zondervan to redesign the books at great cost when the authors won’t even make significant changes to their websites at NO cost?!?!

  2. Ethan says:

    Maybe I am not fully aware of the relationship between publisher and writer (that is not my field), but it seems to me that the focus of “efforts” needs to be on both Zondervan AND Mike/Jud, with a primarily focus on Mike/Jud. Not in any way to criticize, but I was somewhat miffed about the bifurcation of: (i) holding a call with Mike/Jud first; and then (ii) speaking with Zondervan. I wonder if in our world of twitter/facebook updates, a quick and direct response has its benefits (like this guy: http://www.examiner.com/x-10080-DC-Technology-Examiner~y2009m11d12-Facebook-status-update-saves-man-from-jail), but a deliberate process would have produced a more fruitful, long-lasting impact.

    I recall in the comments to the write-up to the Mike/Jud call that a lot of folks (not everyone) were saying “good job!” almost as if the Asian Christian community was relieved that the call happened, and now we all can go on with our lives because Mike/Jud are good guys, on the same team, etc., and we should go after the really bad guys, Zondervan. But is this the right focus?

    I mean, let’s be honest here, Zondervan did not write the book, Zondervan did not approve the website, the marketing campaign and Zondervan surely was not pitching the book at Catalyst or other mass Christian events. Frankly, Zondervan is a publishing company. It is a corporation, not a church, non-profit or an organization formed for charitable purposes. They publish good stuff, and some bad stuff. The book is out and the damage is done. Zondervan of course can pull the book, but they likely will need Mike/Jud’s consent. And without actual consequences (loss of readership from Christians, loss of distributorship relationships, etc.), it will be difficult to get any sort of meaningful response and action from them. So again, I think the focus has to remain on Mike/Jud. They are the writers, and they will write future books about integrity and other things. They are well-respected and powerful leaders. Hence, they should be held responsible. Of course, in a brotherly, loving, but meaningful way.

    And maybe things are happening in the background between you/other Asian Christian leaders and Mike/Jud that I personally know nothing about. Maybe they are working on a completely revamped website. Maybe they have submitted a signed letter to Zondervan in support of your efforts, requesting that the books be pulled from the shelves or completely redesigned. Maybe, if they are truly “men of integrity” — living what they write — Mike/Jud would request (maybe on their website) that folks not purchase the book as it is being published by Zondervan until it is redesigned. If so, I will shut up and have nothing to say. However, if nothing has changed, other than blog posts intellectualizing the consequences, then what? Do you beat the drums again? More blog posts?

    Finally, I disagree with Professor Tran’s comment in the 5th paragraph in his post:

    “Now I realize that Asians and Asian Americans do not often warrant political and ethical considerations in this country….”

    Huh? Why do Asians and Asian Americans not often warrant political and ethical considerations in this country? Please explain. I understand that it was a lead-in paragraph to say that as Christians we should do better, but the lead-in is all wrong and not necessary. It again reinforces the fact that Asian American issues may not warrant serious consideration.

    I refer to (and I hate to refer to it, but it is just too easy): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Chin, as maybe a circumstance that warrants “political and ethical considerations.” For further reading, see: http://blogs.aaja.org/conventionnews/; see also: http://jerrykang.net/RaceRightsReparation.

    Thank you.

    • Jonathan Tran says:

      Sorry Ethan, I’m simply being rhetorical in my lead-in comment, that often times by the political registers by which race is considered in this country, (primarily a tired black-white binary) Asian Americans are rendered invisible. I’m not saying that’s normative (as it should be) but I’m saying in many cases that’s normal (the political reality around us). I guess I should be more clear about that, but in no way am I saying that Asian American’s shouldn’t receive consideration; I’m saying that they often don’t, which may explain why the stereotypes parroted by DVZ are somehow acceptable. I’m trying to push against that by demanding political consideration. On this last point, I may disagree with you; I’m not after political consideration from the state, but expect at least that much from the church because of it’s call to reconciliation.

  3. Melody Hanson says:

    The authors will never pull this book, no matter how offensive it is. The only way to change this particular problem is to boycott the book.
    Having worked in a Christian organization I can say that Zondervan will never change unless those unheard groups (Asians, Blacks, females) are at the table of leadership. Also, until organizations are given cultural training on communicating appropriately so that designers, writers, photographers, artists, are aware of these issues.

    I hate to be discouraged, but today I fear this will never happen.


  4. erik says:

    I don’t want to stir up anything here, but since this post specifically refers to the cover of Deadly Viper, can I ask a sincere question? I want to be sensitive and I want to understand the offense this book has made but I’m struggling here. What about the cover in particular is so offensive? Is it the fact the letters/words (please forgive my ignorance) are gibberish (I’m gathering this from other comments on the blog)? Is it because they chose to use martial arts/kung fu imagery?

    I guess I’m asking because, what would have made it acceptable? The right letters/words?

    If the book was written by an Asian, would that change things? Or how could (if they could) have honored Asian culture better on the cover?

    I’m not trying to be rude or belligerent, I just don’t understand. When I see a book like this I don’t think “Asian = Martial Arts” to quote the post. I just see symbolism the authors chose to use to get their point across. I can understand the frustration the video caused (I never saw it, but I’ve seen the comments about it) but “the cover” keeps getting brought up in comments and I just don’t understand.



  5. Melody Hanson says:

    This is a followup to writing about multi-ethnicity, race and culture on my blog. I am sorry in advance it is so long.

    I’ve concluded that the only way to change the Deadly Viper story is to boycott the book, but even that is ineffective. And apparently the authors are “good guys” and they didn’t mean any harm. Okay. Beyond that I am here to cheer on, virtually, my (new) Asian American contacts, for they must continue to raise their concerns about WHY this is so inappropriate. White, Black, Asian, Native American, whatever, if you want to do something say it to Zondervan. Here’s the email for the appropriate person to contact, the VP of PR and Communication, Jason.Vines@Zondervan.com.

    I keep reading on (mostly) from women blogging, and here, that aspects of Deadly Viper are offensive to women, to which I heave a sigh of frustration! I don’t want to read their silly book. I’m not ready to talk about my pain and concerns for Christian women in the church. And I do not look forward to writing this post which is essentially about PAIN! Yes, pain.

    Before you get annoyed because we women are “always offended,’ please understand how much I do not want to talk about this, knowing you think I should stop whining.

    For me it starts with questioning why people, but Christians especially, cause one another pain so needlessly? And especially why do we cause pain for those that are different from us? Why are Christians so dogmatic, so closed-minded, so unwilling to change, so proud, and so damn selfish? This is a serious generalization, but I cannot stand the reputations that Christians have right now in the media and in any secular context. I cannot stand the way many, many Christians behave, it’s embarrassing! We, above all, as followers of Christ are instructed to love, as Jesus loved. The greatest command was to love. (Remember the poor, the meek, the widow, the prisoner.)

    If a person is in pain, whose fault is it? I’m especially cognizant of this question because I have three kids very close in age and my husband and I are constantly being called upon to administer justice. (i.e. break up fights.) Is it: a) their own fault for being too sensitive or getting hurt? b) the fault of the person who caused the pain in the past so it’s pushing buttons and causing additional anguish, or c) the fault of the person who caused the pain this time? I suspect though, as we try to figure out who did what to whom and why, that we are asking the wrong questions. Someone was hurt and pain occurred. Where do we go from here? How to make it right. How to create conversation and learn? These are the things I try to work through with my children and these are the things we should focus on now, as it relates to very difficult painful experiences.

    Let’s be real. Racism exists. Homophobia is very real. And I can step up boldly to the mike and say: SEXISM IS REAL and alive, though I genuinely wish it were not so. And it causes minorities, gays and women pain, sometimes deeply, scarring because it is often repeatedly happening.

    And yet we live with it. We learn to get along. Sometimes we even smile and act polite; we don’t want to offend. Occasionally, we get angry. Women don’t want to be perceived as a bitch. Christians don’t want to be perceived a liberal. Many don’t want to be labeled a feminist. Hardly anyone is willing to, dare I say it, admit to being a person that loves gay people. And so we live with the pain of repeated offenses, getting along, and leaning on those who are the lightning rods for us, like Dr. Soong Chan Rah and Kathy Khang. (Thank you!) I’m not so sure who other lightning rods are for women but I appreciated Julie Clawson on the topic this week.

    So where do we go from here?

    I haven’t been in the fray for a long time. And I haven’t missed it, not really. But allow me to tell you a true story, the short version of nearly ten years of my life. Every word is true although admittedly my perspective. I worked for many years for a para-church organization. I was lucky in that I was given tons of responsibility and opportunities for leadership. I was using my abilities, influencing, it was a good place. As fast as I could catch I was being thrown responsibility and I love it. I was Gen X right when Gen X was a hot topic and I was able to bring that to the organization’s communications efforts. admittedly, I was promoted quickly over just a few years. Running parallel to this was a tension growing between myself and another leader. He was older (by two decades ), intellectual, theological, super influential and made a big splash all the time and he had made himself integral to all aspects of the organization. I was an up and comer and although people liked my work, and my work ethic and my productivity, it wasn’t long before it was clear that we were competitors. There are more spiritual ways of saying it without sounding crass, but there’s only so much turf in a small organization and we both wanted it. Were fighting for it all the time. Oh, not to each others’ faces but in everything we did we were working toward taking charge of the area of communication. Trust me I was not a perfect leader by any means, but I would say probably my greatest vice (other than an insane desire to be perfect and in control of everything and working too hard) was working my staff too hard and not providing enough coaching. No one had ever coached me and I didn’t know how, but that’s another topic (throwing leaders into the fire without grooming them.) His vice? Temper temper. He threw a Bible at my friend in anger. He treated people (below him) horribly. Severe abuse which I would hear about and would bring up with my supervisor and it hit the President’s office and stayed there. They were buddies.

    Being an emotional person, I cried floods of tears at home in bed to my husband and I prayed, but at work I tried to prove to everyone what I “just knew” — that I was supposed to be the one in charge. I was young, innovative, I was ‘the future.’ Meanwhile, I was also having babies while working full-time. I would have these meetings with my supervisor where I would try to make him understand how horrible it all was the infighting and how people were being treated and that people were leaving the organization because of this person, and as he said “We waded through blood together.”

    Then one day he brought me into his office and he had a time line on the whiteboard. I kid you not, he had a time line for my life where I would finish out the current assignment, I would go be a mommy for a few years, and this person would have retired and then I would come back and rule! Once I got over the hurt, knowing that he was done advocating for me AND he was essentially telling me I had gone as far as I was going to there. So I finished the gig I had and quit. That was nine years ago and I haven’t gone back and they haven’t asked me. Draw your own conclusions.


    I began to read. I first learned one of the authors owns a Media Firm (Yikes! What a revelation!) They need some sensitivity training. But I digress, sort of. I’d like to ask the authors of Deadly Vipers if they have daughters. Because if they do, how can they speak so diminutively about girls and women? Here’s an example:

    “there’s little old us looking like school girls with plaid skirts on, because we are unskilled and undisciplined in the area of character. We’re weaklings with rail skinny arms and toothpick legs.” DV, page 8

    I have a daughter. I am a daughter and a woman and I must say I resent being used as an example of weak and pathetic, totally lacking in character and discipline and I do not want my daughter thinking that she is either. Even worse, would be my sons learning about “leadership” from macho, cool, trendy dewdes.

    These guys are my worst nightmare. They even make fun of ugly people!! Yes, I mean nerds, geeks, “four eyes,” me. Yep guys, you’ve gone and made me mad. How can you use ugly people in such a way? So that did make me cringe and wonder at their sophomoric attempts at humor, and cool, and their strange lingo. But I stopped reading when I read the phrase: “We are asking you to go balls out with us.” mostly because I had to look it up. They can’t mean what I think they mean …? Go look for yourself, but I can tell you that you exclude women from your book at this point boys, as this is something that we just physically can’t do.

    So forgetting Deadly Vipers, cause I don’t really want to beat up on these poor guys. They are just trying to be cool, and hip and relevant. Just trying, is what they are doing, trying too hard.
    I shall put my (former) Communications hat on for a second and tell Zondervan and their PR people what I think.

    1) Say you’re sorry and you messed up, when you’re sorry and you mess up. Just do it cause it will make you a stronger person. Humility is a part of integrity. Then, fix it.

    Once I produced a poster for a convention featuring all sorts of images of people serving in different capacities. What I didn’t notice, nor did the graphic designer, or a whole slew of other people who saw the thing, that all of the servees were ethnic and/or darker skinned and the servers were lighter skin. The posters got a reaction from our multi-ethnic staff. I was crushed. I had messed up. So, I pulled the posters and we quickly redid a promo poster and I can tell you that I will never forget that. Not because I messed up, but because I saw how you can do so and survive if your heart is remorseful and you are willing to change. Our staff were very forgiving.

    2) Change your infrastructure. You must have women and minorities at the table on all levels of your organization if you want to stop making these huge, grotesque blunders. (Well they are huge and grotesque to me.) In the board room, in the leadership, in the communications team, as your artists and ideas people. I’m not an ethnic minority so I can’t speak to that, but there are people who consult on such things who could generally help the communications of an organization by having advice on the ways that you communicate and what you’re saying. I am a woman with a background in communications/marketing and I could easily look over anything quickly to tell you if it’s insulting to women.

    3) If that seems too impossible a task (to hire us I mean) then get your organization some cultural sensitivity training. Again, tons of firms that could help both secular and Christian. Every person on staff should get such training.

    And then tonight I read about Presidential hiring process at Wheaton College and to be honest I had no idea Wheaton had gotten to be so backward. One would assume that Wheaton would hire the best qualified person. Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex is not only illegal, but morally wrong. I cannot believe that people feel they need to ask that some women and minority candidates be considered, but like Justice Sonia Sotomeyor said,

    “if you are a white male who thinks that race and gender don’t matter, conjure up the image of a Supreme Court made up of all-hispanic and black women, and you will know how the rest of the US feels when faced by the prospect of an overwhelmingly white male Supreme Court.”

    If women want an equal world, we have to work for it by accepting positions of authority and responsibility. Not by walking away from the fight, like I did. But I gave it everything and frankly almost lost my faith in the process.

    And so, I have to look forward to a day when men work side by side with women, people of every color and stripe, with joy and common purpose. That did not happen for me, but I speak out because I hope that things will be better for my sons and daughters, and for my nieces and nephews who are all bi-racial or of a minority culture. It will be a better world for them. It just has to be.

    Fundamentally, it is our hearts that give us up every time. And out of our hearts spew what we believe. It’s our hearts that need changing.

    CS Lewis wrote: The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.
    I’m sorry this is so long. It’s from my blog, but I think it’s relevant.

  6. […] Hamernick, Benson Hines, Scott McClellan, Andrew Lee, Dave Diller, Jessica Pegis, Melody Hanson, Jonathan Tran, Bo […]

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