The Deadly Viper Incident: How Then Shall We Represent?

Posted on the ISAAC blog on Dec 4, 2009 [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/the-deadly-viper-incident-how-then-shall-we-represent-by-tim-tseng/]

This blog was originally posted on the Postcolonial Theology Network site on Facebook. Go to:http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=23694574926&topic=11673#/group.php?gid=23694574926

On behalf of Zondervan, I apologize for publishing Deadly Viper: Character Assassins. It is our mission to offer products that glorify Jesus Christ. This book’s characterizations and visual representations are offensive to many people despite its otherwise solid message. There is no need for debate on this subject. We are pulling the book and the curriculum in their current forms from stores permanently.

So stated Moe Girkins, President and CEO of Zondervan Books on Nov. 19, 2009. The removal of curriculum Deadly Viper Character Assassin: A Kung Fu Guide for Life and Leadership ended a two-week protest by Asian American evangelicals over the use of images that, according to Professor Soong Chan Rah, reveal “a serious insensitivity to Asian culture and to the Asian-American community” and “co-opt Asian culture in inappropriate ways.” [http://bit.ly/40mQuU – see also Rah’s weblog: http://profrah.wordpress.com/] Among the Viper’s deadly sins were the use of martial arts movie themes, mock Chinese names, Asian accents, and conflation of Chinese and Japanese cultures. Rah, the key leader of this protest, is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and the author ofThe Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity Press, 2009). No stranger to the struggle against racism within American evangelical circles, he led an unsuccessful campaign several years ago against “Rickshaw Rally,” a Southern Baptist Vacation Bible School curriculum. “Rally” also employed Asian caricatures to teach children about “other” cultures. During the anti-Viper campaign many leading Asian American pastors, seminary professors, and lay leaders weighed in through letters to Zondervan and blogs. The conversations were often heated as many inside and outside the emerging Asian American evangelical community debated the seriousness of Deadly Viper.

Zondervan received increased pressure to respond as secular and Christian media such asChristianity Today and Sojourners covered the controversy. Their decision to pull the curriculum left some bewildered (“what’s the big deal?”), but most Asian American evangelicals were delighted, surprised, and relieved. There is no trace of Deadly Viper on Zondervan’s website [http://zondervan.com]. The images are gone. The co-authors and publishers have repented and vow to be more culturally sensitive. Zondervan’s staff are now required to read Rah’s book. Harmony appears to have been restored.

So this is a good time to reflect on the incident. I’m particularly intrigued by the question of Asian American representation. What disturbed me most about Deadly Viper was not the stereotypes, but the lazy manner in which the authors and publisher adopted popular representations of Asians. Perhaps evangelicals are naive about the social and political power of images. Unlike their mainline Protestant cousins, they are new to the politics of racial representation. But it goes deeper than that. Iconoclasm and interiority are at the heart of evangelical spirituality. After all did not God say to Samuel “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV)? The outward appearance is not essential to evangelicals. They are willing and able to strip away “outdated” cultural accretions in order to remain fresh and relevant. For many, including myself, this makes evangelicalism appealing. Thus contemporary evangelical music mimics pop songs. Evangelicals worship in buildings that look like modern movie theatres and office parks, not cathedrals.

Yet the evangelical strategy of seeking broad appeal by casually co-opting popular culture backfired for Deadly Viper. By not doing the homework about how media and pop culture constructs Asian stereotypes, Zondervan reproduced representations that were rooted in a racist worldview. Many helpful studies would have helped writers and artists avoid such negative images. Robert G. Lee,Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999), Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America (2001), and Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (2004) come to mind. Hopefully, the Deadly Viper incident will encourage American evangelicals to destabilize the Western colonial impulse to speak for the Asian American “subaltern.”

Another issue that concerns me is the question of Asian representation itself. Prof. Rah, like many younger Asian American evangelical bloggers [see, for example, http://nextgenerasianchurch.com] have discovered Edward Said and orientalism. They have latched on to an idea that both explains anti-Asian racism and provides an antidote to the “model minority” path of “selling out” the Asian American soul. The common enemy is the privilege and power of white dominant institutions to represent Asians. By appealing to orientalism, emerging Asian American evangelicals have found a voice in an American racial discourse locked into white-black binaries.

However, appealing to Said’s version of orientalism alone is problematic. Indeed, not all the stereotypes in Rickshaw Rally or Deadly Viper are oppressive distortions. Nor were they all constructed by Western colonial power. In fact, Bruce Lee’s introduction of martial arts to Hollywood helped create a more positive, albeit stereotypical, image of Asian men. Saying “no” to white power leaves unanswered the question of Asian representation.

Indeed, the simplest solution for overcoming distorted Asian representation is to erase all traces of Asian-ness. I suspect many assimilationists and color-blind advocates would be happy with this approach. But if we don’t attend to the question of Asian representation, there may be nothing Asian American to represent in American evangelicalism. So what is it about Asian culture and image that Asian American evangelicals can say “yes” to?

I have two suggestions. First, Asian American evangelical church leaders and theologians ought to embrace a more pluralist and generous reading of orientalism. J. J. Clarke’s proposals in Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought (1997) is helpful in this regard. Without denying the oppressive conditions that reproduce its worst features, Clarke suggests that orientalism “cannot simply be identified with the ruling imperialist ideology, for in the Western context it represents a counter-movement, a subversive entelechy, albeit not a unified or consciously organized one, which in various ways has often tended to subvert rather than to confirm the discursive structures of imperial power.” (9) In other words, the West’s Asian gaze serves to not only dominate the East, but also to critique the West’s act of domination. So can we find something in evangelical discourse about Asian “otherness” that critiques Euro-centricity? Maybe not. But at least we should be open to the possibility. By embracing a more generous view of orientalism, it allows us to talk about Asian representation.

Secondly, Asian American evangelicals need to engage both Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” and Homi K. Bhabha’s “linguistic multivocality.” Both identify the Western production and implementation of binary oppositions such as center/margin, civilized/savage, First/ Third worlds, West/East (orientalism), North/South, capital/labor, and enlightened/ignorant as the colonial “original sin.” In The Location of Culture (1994), Bhabha argues that destabilizing these binaries opens the door to more complex inter-cultural “interactions, transgressions, and transformations” than binary oppositions can allow. The resulting hybridity and “linguistic multivocality” can reinterpret political and cultural discourse and therefore “dislocate” colonization. For Asian Americans, Bhabha’s strategy means that all the diverse Asian American voices must be heard in order to destabilize orientalist representations of Asians (Lisa Lowe also suggests this inImmigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics [1996]). Therefore the perspectives of ethnic immigrant, fifth generation, pan-ethnic, multi-racial, gay, evangelical, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. Asians Americans all must be given room to flourish.

In her classic essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) Spivak coined the term “strategic essentialism,” which is a temporary solidarity for the purpose of unified social action. Orientalism and other binary oppositions “essentializes” or stereotypes people. While recognizing the danger of “essentialism” she believes that there is still a need to speak on behalf of a group using a clear image of identity to fight opposition and to recover and represent the “subaltern” voice. In the United States, it means that Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Southeast and South Asians, who have not historically shared the predominant East Asian American experience, still ought to provisionally unite under an Asian American umbrella to overcome racial discrimination and other injustices.

I’m tempted to label Bhabha’s approach yin and Spivak’s yang. Both are necessary parts of the process of creating Asian American representations that more accurately reflect our realities or aspirations. Unifying the diverse Asian American evangelical community is necessary for a common cause such as protesting Deadly Viper. But the beautiful diversity within the Asian American evangelical community must also be embraced as a way to move beyond stereotypical representations. It’s not easy because most of us still unconsciously harbor stereotypical representations of ourselves and others, yet never discuss them openly. Unfortunately, the temptation for many Asian American evangelicals is to “leap-frog” the question of representation.

So how then shall Asian American evangelicals represent? Let’s encourage mainstream evangelical institutions to provide space for Asian Americans, in partnership with others, to create new images. A few mainline seminaries (Princeton, McCormick, and Pacific School of Religion) have created Asian American programs. But no evangelical seminary has developed such a program (some have Asian language programs). Unless there is a mass movement of Asian American evangelicals into these mainline Protestant seminaries, evangelical seminaries will be the next arena where Asian American representation is debated and created. There is evidence that evangelical seminaries are beginning to respond to Spivak’s warning that “to refuse to represent a cultural Other is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework.” Asian American consumers of evangelical theological education must decide for themselves whether it is worth their effort to struggle to create Asian representation within these settings.

The other option would be to create better Asian representation within Asian American organizations. Will Asian language seminaries and immigrant congregations be the sites for creating cultural representation in the future? A few such as Logos Evangelical Seminary are trying. But it remains to be seen since most Asian American evangelical organizations still model themselves after Western Christianity. Our efforts at the Institution for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC) [http://isaacweb.org] are precisely for this purpose – to create a better representation of Asian American Christians than is currently available. The recent publication of the Asian American Christianity Reader [http://aacreader.com] is our initial effort to encourage Asian American representation. Not many of the Asian American anti-Viper evangelical leaders have paid much attention to the Reader. But at some point, for the sake of the next generation of Asian American evangelicals and the wider church, I hope that they will also embrace the call to create Asian American representation.

I believe Andy Crouch’s call for Christians to be “culture makers” especially applies to Asian American evangelicals (see Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling [2008]). In order to secure a future where Asian American evangelicals are able to fully participate in the Church and contribute to the common good, we must not only protest damaging representations, but also create new ones in theology, history, ministry, worship, and artistic expressions.

– Timothy Tseng • December 4, 2009

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  1. Rick Warren and Conversations with One’s Feet | Tim Tseng

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