Look before you leap!

Posted on the ISAAC blog on Nov 20, 2009 [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/look-before-you-leap-timothy-tseng/]

As ISAAC’s most productive program year draws to a close this Thanksgiving, we are grateful for all of our supporters. We have learned many lessons. The one that stood out most to me is the necessity of resisting the urge to “leap-frog” Asian America. Asian American Christians are used to being “leap-frogged” by the academia, seminaries, and mainstream church anyway. After all, Asia is considered more exciting, exotic, and enticing than Asian America. Many well meaning friends have urged ISAAC to become more international because of the availability of greater resources. I agree that there is great benefit to engaging an emerging Asian Christianity. My research, teaching, and ministry interests have broadened to include Asia, but for ISAAC, it would be a mistake to “leap-frog” Asian America.

Because Asian American Christians are so deeply impacted by being “leap-frogged,” we are tempted to evade our own experiences in North America. It is easier to “leap-frog” challenges such as intergenerational church conflicts and diversity or poverty, racism, and other social ills in the wider American society. Today, the average South and East Asian immigrant family and their children have “leap-frogged” the inner city and settled in the suburbs. The average immigrant pastor is ill-equipped to minister to inter-generational congregations, having “leap-frogged” any training about the North American context. The average North American Asian Christian is encouraged to participate in cross-cultural ministries overseas or in urban America but “leap-frogs” the Asian American experience. The average Asian seminary professor is trained in Western theological education but is more comfortable with Asia as his or her primary context, thus “leap-frogging” Asian American Christian communities. The average university Asian American studies program “leap-frogs” Christian studies. Most Asian American evangelicals “leap-frog” the Asian American experience because they are taught that culture is to be avoided because it is sinful or that Christianity is beyond culture.

The “leap-frogging” phenomenan goes on and on – even in my personal experiences. I’ve discovered that I’m more valuable to colleges and seminaries when I teach about Asia or the traditional Euro-American curriculum, but not Asian American religion. Many of my second-third generation Asian American friends have told me that they would rather address multi-cultural issues and question ISAAC’s focus on Asian Americans. Most of my immigrant friends focus solely on Asia because they believe that the need is greater there. In the end, Asian American Christianity always winds up being more frog than prince. Is it any wonder that Asian American Christian leaders find it easier to “leap-frog” their Asian American experience?

But the truth is that “leap-frogging” Asian America is short-sighted and hurts everyone – not just Asian Americans. We’ve already witnessed the pain caused by Zondervan’s Deadly Viper curriculum that was quickly cancelled after protests by Asian American evangelical leaders. To me the biggest problem with Deadly Viper was that its authors “leap-frogged” real Asians by using pop culture representations of Asians without realizing that these images have been used in demeaning ways. Reinforcing these particularly stereotypes (which arguably may be better than “heathen” stereotypes) will render American evangelicals culturally incompetent in a global and multi-cultural world. But wait a minute! Acculturated Asian Americans also “leap-frog” when they reinforce stereotypes of immigrant church leaders as authoritarian and backward-looking. Indeed, Dr. Jonathan Tran expressed this concern during his lecture at the Asian American symposium co-sponsored by ISAAC and Fuller Seminary earlier this month. Have Asian American Christians who define themselves as over against, leaving behind, and separating from immigrant churches “leap-frogged” Asian America? Many immigrant leaders, on the other hand, “leap-frog” by romanticizing Asia, disrespecting Asian Americans, and condemning American culture. So when Zondervan invites Asian American leaders to advise them on future publications, I hope that these leaders are not “leap-froggers.” I hope that they have taken time to engage and learn about Asian Americans more fully before they are asked to represent Asian Americans. “Leap-frogging” leaves stereotypes in place, but does little to change them. It is one thing to protest negative stereotypes, it is another to create a more realistic and positive representations of Asian Americans.

We cannot afford to conveniently “leap-frog” uncomfortable situations. All of ISAAC’s work this year – our publications, co-sponsored lectures at U.C. Berkeley and University of San Francisco, the symposium at Fuller, consultations with congregations, pastoral support groups, and advocacy for research – is about Asian American Christian culture making, for the sake of the Church and the world. We invite our current Asian American Christian leaders to join us. We challenge the next generation to stay and build. It has not been not easy for us at ISAAC, but we are glad that we resisted the temptation to “leap-frog” Asian America. Instead, join us in kissing the frog! Who knows – it may be nobility in the making!

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tim Tseng

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