Deadly Viper, Hidden Racism? (Updated)

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In my role as the managing editor of Leadership Journal, I get dozens of free books from publishers nearly every week. They’re all looking for some free press, a review in the journal, a blurb on the blog, or just a little word of mouth buzz.

But when Zondervan sent me Deadly Viper Character Assassins: A Kung Fu Survival Guild for Life and Leadership by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, I was caught by surprise. (For the sake of full disclosure, Zondervan published my book The Divine Commodity.) Deadly Viper is about the size of a CD case, square, and clearly a very expensive book to design. Nearly every page is loaded with original artwork with a comicbook/kung fu/pan-Asian style.

I had two immediate reactions to the book. First, I can’t believe this is targeting pastors and church leaders and not kids in the youth group. I don’t take issue with the content of the book–warning leaders about the perils of pride, materialism, and lust is certainly a worthy topic. But the format is, frankly, incredibly juvenile. It reminded me of what Benjamin Barber wrote in his book, Consumed, about the emergence of “kidults” in our consumer culture. We’ve glorified immaturity.

I realize Zondervan and the authors are simply trying to put a creative spin on a tried and true subject, but I fear it only reinforced the general lack of maturity and depth that is celebrated in many circles of evangelical leaders. There is a way to be creative, and even eye-catchingly artistic, without dumbing down. I think Rob Bell’s books are a good example (also published by Zondervan, btw).

But my second reaction to the Deadly Viper book is the one that is probably more critical. The goofy depiction of Asian cultures–full of stereotypes, lacking nuance, and clearly used as a gimmick–made me cringe. For some reason it hasn’t yet sunk into many people that playful charactures of Asian culture are not acceptable. As a society we’ve come to not tolerate sterotypes of Black, Jewish, or Latin cultures, but Asian culture is still okay to mock.

Soong-Chan Rah, a professor at North Park College, has rallied many Asian-American Christians to address their concerns about Deadly Viper. He’s written an open letter to the authors and publisher. It’s worth reading along with the comments as Rah lists the many offensive details in the book and it’s marketing. Unfortunately when first confronted with the concerns, one of the authors seemed to dismiss them. But now the momentum is building and hopefully a more healthy dialog about the book’s cultural insensitivies can be engaged.

Rather than rehashing all the details of the debate, I’d like to pose this question: Why is the church still tolerating cultural and racial stereotyping, and what is the best way to address it?

UPDATE: Eugene Cho has a thoughtful response on his blog.
UPDATE (Nov 5): Soong Chan Rah, Eugune Cho, Jud Wilhite, Mike Foster, and others had a joint teleconference yesterday to discuss concerns about Deadly Viper. Apologies were offered and a committment to work together to move forward was reached. You can read a report and summary of these positive events on Prof. Rah’s blog.

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  • http://www.RobertGlennSmith.com Robert Glenn Smith

    Skye,

    Let me preface what I am about to respond with the fact that I agree that some kind of apology or palm branch might need to be offered; however, I want to push back a little bit. My question is, “Should The Church be involved in this conversation about tolerance of cultures and differences?”

    While I appreciate your concern, and while my critique may be excused because I’m a Caucasian male (some have already quit reading), I would argue that Pharisees and Sadducees were stereotyped and by no one more than Jesus. And we pastors and teachers continue to stereotype them, but I have a feeling that our understanding of the stereotypical Pharisee could not speak for each and every Pharisee.

    Do we really want to reject the cultural distinctions that occur with regularity? Are there no generalizations that can be made about a society? Is there no parody, or comedy in who we are and in from where we have come. If not, then how can you in the same way stereotype “The Church” as being tolerant of this behavior? I may be more likely to listen if you have made a survey of “The Church” and found most of us to be tolerant of the behavior. While at the same time, I also think that your generalization may, in fact, be accurate it still begs the question, “Shouldn’t you now apologize to “The Church” for stereotyping us?”

    I doubt that the authors intention was to offend, and if educated as to why there has been offense I might give them credit and expect a shift. However, might it also be the responsibility of “The Church” to push back and say, “Why are you taking yourself so seriously?” Jesus wants to bring His Kingdom, which I would argue involves His Culture, and His Culture should subvert every culture. Every culture in the world, including the Western one is but filthy rags compared with the culture that Christ calls us to build with people on this planet. If that be the case is it worth getting upset over some used tampons. While I do not believe that in His culture we would condone intentionally hurting someone’s feelings I would also think that we would be more tolerant of unintentional behavior that did so. We would choose to forgive the offense without demanding that someone ask for it first.

    Where does it stop? Maybe we should now confess and repent of stereotyping Pharisees and Sadducees. At Story 2009 did you find Thomas Fluharty’s art guilty of the stereotyping of Democrats, or government workers and should we also beg him to stop making such generalizations? I wonder how many southern white males were offended by Rob Bell’s parody of a Velvet Elvis? Yet you condone Rob’s. Maybe it’s because Rob’s white and it is ok to make fun of those of us who grew up with a Velvet King hung on the wall of our single wide trailer.

    I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to I could find offense in how Asian-Americans, and even Christian Asian-Americans have portrayed we white people, but in reality I understand that it doesn’t matter. I could get upset at being stereotyped as loud, brash, insensitive, and cocky with an insatiable thirst for power, or I could just brush it off and recognize that it’s a stereotypical depiction, and most of the time we white males would be correctly identified. And in the south I wouldn’t even be offended to be stereotyped as a member of the KKK or Skinheads (I’m also bald), because that is sadly a part of my legacy as a white southern male. I would be ashamed; however, that men (and women) behaved in such a way that it would cause people, especially of a different skin color, to stereotype me in that way. Instead of asking for an apology I would ask for their forgiveness for the sins of a past with which I have little connection. Being from Kentucky I might also be stereotyped as someone who doesn’t wear shoes, and my dialect may immediately lead someone to believe I am ignorant. It’s really immature to get really upset when someone mocks my accent. While I may want to punch that someone in the face for damaging my pride, it is not the way of the cross. It is neither worth my time or effort to demand an apology for demeaning Kentuckians, nor does it benefit Christ in my opinion.

    The way I see it is that I am no longer a Caucasian Male, but an adopted son of God through the blood of Jesus Christ. It is because of this distinction that I must refuse to allow my damaged pride to make me a victim, and instead take the blow and admit that I may in fact sound illiterate and possibly show people Jesus by admitting my weakness in the combining of words into Kentucky slang, like Ya’ll. It’s almost comedic for me to think that I would need to ask for an apology from a Christian for having a little fun at my expense. For what there is left of me should be made fun of and ridiculed in the light of the glorious life that now lives in me through Christ Jesus.

    I wish that I might see just as much of that in this case, as I would an apology.

  • http://www.RobertGlennSmith.com Robert Glenn Smith

    I just realized that I Kentuckyized my writing with the use of “Rob’s” instead of “Rob is” in my last comment. It’s ok, make fun of me, it’s pretty funny when I write how I talk.

  • Irene C.

    Robert,

    I agree with you that you being stereotyped is also not justified by any ethnic group and I’m sorry to hear that you’ve experienced this. However, the issue isn’t just about stereotyping. If you read through the comments/posts, you can see what is offensive about the book (not the content of the book – which I don’t have any doubt is probably good). And there’s no way that there is a similarity to disrespecting someone’s culture with mistakes, incorrect associations, and mockery (their promotional video and photos) to imitating an artist (your reference to the Elvis impersonation). Lastly, Jesus never mocked the Pharisees and Sadducees . He was FROM their culture so how can that be stereotyping? You aren’t stereotyping when you point out the wrongdoings of Kentuckians because you are one. I’m not stereotyping when I point out the wrongdoings of Koreans because I AM Korean. Jesus was pointing out to the Pharisees and Saducees how their religious hubris was ostracizing those outside of their culture. He wasn’t mocking their culture and dressing up like them and making strange noises and writing their language in a gibberish way and saying, “See, isn’t this funny? Buy the book cause it’s great!” Many others have written, and I agree, that if these authors had done their research and correctly applied the various Asian philosophies to the lessons of integrity and character, no one would be upset and yes, we’d be honored. But coming out on stage to the tune of Kung Fu Fighting and making incorrect noises is not living out the lesson that the book teaches.

  • http://www.dzubinski.com PaulDz

    wow, if you think that was bad take a look at this video introducing the Dirt Conference. http://dirtconference.com/ Now, the concept behind the conference sounds really great and I would actually like to go but the Kung Fu Dirt video really needs to be deleted. It is just out of line.

  • http://elmucho.wordpress.com/ Rob Haskell

    If you get overwhelmed with books, you can pass them along to me. I’ll take them off your hands. :0)

  • JimmyCShaw

    @ PaulDZ, I dropped an email to the guys at the Dirt Conference. The video you pointed to has been removed. Their response was prompt and very gracious; it was clear they did not intend to offend anyone. And I’m deeply thankful for the care they showed once this conversation was pointed out to them.

    The conference itself looks really good: http://dirtconference.com … good lineup of speakers and a promising theme. I hope others will check it out.

  • Ken Fong

    Skye, thanks so much for weighing in on this Deadly Vipers controversy. Your critique of what you see as a more juvenile approach to a serious subject and an adult audience is one that I had not come across in all of this chatter about the use of harmful stereotypes of us Asians and Asian Americans.

    Robert, Irene pretty much said to you what I was thinking while reading your plea for everybody just to get thicker skin and a better sense of humor. I speak frequently on the kingdom-move towards being one newly redeemed people in Christ and our church, while predominantly many kinds of Asians and Asian Americans–is one of the most diverse ones in America. I tell all of our people that, when it comes to ourselves, we need to have thicker skins (don’t be so quick to take offense). But when it comes to people who are not like us in some way, we need to have thinner skins (be quick to correct offenses and injustices, especially if it those don’t directly affect you). If Foster and Wilhite had chosen to pepper their little book on character with grotesque caricatures of people with physical disabilities (like an old circus sideshow) or with Jim Crow-era depictions of African Americans (slaves, nannies, house negroes, etc), I wonder if you would be quicker to sympathize with the outcry of your Asian and AsiAm brothers and sisters. If Christ has truly destroyed the walls that divide us and has made us all one body, then when one part of the body suffers, the whole body should feel that pain. This book’s content is not just about Christian character; the controversy over this book will be a true demonstration of how much any of us really have Christian character.

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  • http://www.RobertGlennSmith.com Robert Glenn Smith

    Irene and Ken,
    How wonderful it is to have a brother and sister like the two of you! You respond in kindness while you chose to disagree.

    I would like to disagree that me making fun of Kentuckians would not be stereotyping them, Irene. Stereotyping is not precluded by whether or not someone is of the culture. In fact it is usually most accurate and most condemning when done by someone from the culture.

    Ken, your point is taken. I agree I would be upset if either of the instances to which you refer were the case. And make note that I do not think Jud and Mike made a good choice.

    However, am I to go public and demand an apology? Is that that way of the cross? Or is the way of the cross choosing to forgive, offering correction privately first – as Skye did, and then moving on. I just had this conversation with my daughter whose friend had once again made a promise that she did not keep. My daughter vowed to never allow her to be close again, and demanded an apology before even considering forgiving her. That’s unacceptable behavior for a follower of Jesus. We spent a long night on her bed as she cried painful tears, but in the end she saw how the grudge was destroying, not only this relationship, but was impacting every relationship. She chose to refuse to be the victim.

    When we become victims, then we refuse to live in the Kingdom of God. We refuse to turn the other cheek. However, if this whole thing is being done for the sake of victims, then maybe we have a whole different conversation. Although I think it is still carried out in a different way.

    The way this happened continues to bring me back to why the Church was instructed to not bring public lawsuits against one another.

    Maybe if the outcry would have been posed as,
    “Hey, this isn’t right, but we love you and forgive you anyway. Might you consider making some significant changes in the future? Oh, by the way there might be a few who have really been hurt by your depiction of this people group.”

    I would have been able to swallow that approach.

  • Nikki T-S

    Skye,

    I just wanted to mention that the “others” in the conversation were Kathy Khang, Chris Heuertz, and myself.
    I mention it, because as a woman, it’s hard to feel invisible and silenced. And I feel like your reference to the “others” contributes to that. Kathy Khang was invited into the conversation because she is a significant voice that is connected to a secular Asian audience. Chris Heuertz is the Executive Director of Word Made Flesh, and a key person in making the conversation happen.

    Sincerely,
    One of the “others”

  • http://www.skyejethani.com Skye Jethani

    Nikki,

    No offense was intended. I mentioned Mike and Jud because they were the authors, and I listed Eugene and Soong-Chan because I had linked to their blogs earlier in my post. I appreciate the efforts made by everyone involved in this important issue.

    Skye

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  • http://www.chrisheuertz.com chris heuertz

    Ironically, it would have been better for Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite if they had been objectified in the Deadly Viper controversy, but it appears they were mistakenly made the subject of the discussion.

    If I understand all this correctly (and for the record, I am an ancillary vested person in this story, click here to read my own post re: all this), they touched a very sensitive nerve that (not only) the Asian American community has experienced in a “white captivity” culture—one that they have been grappling to put words to.

    The tragedy is that rather than making the subject a conversation around cultivating sensitivity to humanizing all people regardless of race, culture or ethnicity, the tone and the target of these wounds were aimed at two guys who were actually contributing to a conversation towards integrity, character and the affirmation of human dignity for all persons.

    I am a huge fan of Prof Rah and think his message needs to get out further to provoke a more grounded sense of our Christian identity as it relates to the shifting (actually, shifted) demographic in the mosaic of who actually makes up our Christian majority. But I am also a huge fan of what the Deadly Viper project was advocating for, not only in its content, but how the message of integrity, character and grace was embodied in the lives of Mike and Jud. It is sad how two important messages collided and the fallout that has been an unintended consequence of this collision.

    Let’s hope that everyone who made hurtful or accusatory statements about Mike and Jud, reconsider the content and tone of those unfair allegations. Much of the content I’ve read in the comment sections on blogs regarding all this has been unhelpful assumptions. These assumptions have only aggravated a sensitive conversation that needs to be played out. However, this important conversation should be held around more harmful eruptions of cultural insensitivity (i.e. the “Rickshaw Rally”) that somehow are left immune to the controversy Deadly Vipers unintentionally invited.

    Let’s also remember that Mike and Jud should not be the targets of this dialogue. If people want to pick fights here, there are plenty of other legitimate instances of racial insensitivity that are more important and appropriate instances that can be focused on.

    A positive outcome from all this would be an overwhelming level of support for Mike and Jud as the move away from the packaging of Deadly Vipers to their People of a Second Chance movement. A platform they have created for others that now needs to be extended to them, especially by those who have been so accusatory in the ways they’ve dismantled an important voice of renewal for our shared humanity.

    The essence of how I hope all this comes across speaks to the crucial need to humanize all people—the Asian American community and Mike and Jud. I think there’s a way that Prof Rah’s (and other’s) concerns can be, and need to be validated, but not at the expense of Mike and Jud—otherwise, the same thing that Deadly Vipers has been accused of will be done to them by those who are most concerned.

    Overall, I believe this has been a sad eruption of anger around an important issue that seems to have been misdirected at two guys who have given themselves to a much-needed message of hope. I think resistance to “white captivity,” or the imposition of any dominant consciousness of our Christian expression needs to be fought against, but not at the expense of the reputation and content of men whose message resonates with this struggle from a different perspective.

    *If you’d like to discuss this or comment on these thoughts please leave them here (http://www.chrisheuertz.com/post/257436160/further-reflections-on-the-deadly-viper-controvery)*

  • Holly Baldwin

    I have attended Central Christian Church in Las Vegas (Jud Wilhite’s church) on numerous occassions. I have found that Church also makes fun of other ethnic groups, the Latinos and Italians, in their videos. During one of the Christmas videos (before Deadly Viper came out), they even portrayed Italians tieing up one of their family members, duck taping his mouth, and throwing him the truck of a car. They were portraying them as mafia. I tried to address the issue with the powers that be at Central. All I got was a backlashing from them.

    Also, they play secular music which in no way worships God. They are worshipping themselves for being able to play the songs (such as I Want To Hold Your Hand, Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, and Don’t Stop Believing). I truly believe that those songs do not belong in a church.

    Needless to say, I no longer associate myself with Central nor Jud. After attending there, it’s hard to believe that there is a God who loves and cares for you.