Lessons from Deadly Viper, Professor Rah, and the Internet
Words and images are powerful forms of communication.
As many of you already know, there has been much controversy this week over the book, Deadly Viper, written by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite. Noted author and professor, Dr. Soon-Chan Rah, posted on his blog yesterday about the inappropriate and offensive use of Asian culture in the writing and visual expression of this book.
In an open letter to Zondervan (the company that published the most recent edition of Deadly Viper), Dr. Rah wrote:
My contention is not about the content of the book itself (i.e. – the material that discusses integrity and character). It is with the way in which you choose to co-opt Asian culture in inappropriate ways.
Dr. Rah continued in his open letter to point out specific examples of offense from the book towards Asians and Asian Americans (click here to read).
I have hesitated to write a post on this controversy primarily because I deeply respect all of the parties involved. I personally know Mike Foster fairly well. He’s a man full of integrity and love towards all people. I’ve seen his life up close and have had the privilege of partnering with him the last few years on several projects as our friendship has continued to grow. I’ve also met Jud on a couple of occassions and have valued his insights into leadership and character.
Although I don’t know Dr. Rah as well as Mike and Jud, I deeply respect his work. I think he has a refreshing and insightful perspective on the future of Evangelicalism (as communicated through his book “The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity“). I’ve heard some of Dr. Rah’s interviews in the past and he definitely comes across as someone who is intelligent, compassionate, open to varying perspectives, and full of grace.
I can say with a high degree of confidence that none of these men have any mal-intent towards one another or any other person. Nevertheless, some of their comments to one another did seem defensive and unconstructive. [I’m glad to report that there appears to be some progress towards conversation as noted on their respective blogs (Dr. Rah and Deadly Viper).]
I think most of us in leadership can relate to these kinds of reactions. We’ve all done them. I know I have. My pain or hurt has, in numerous occassions, led to unwise statements or actions on my end. So, without getting into the actual conversation or controversy, I’d like to offer the following practical lessons I’ve learned through this controversy.
- The internet is a powerful tool so watch what and how you say it. Always keep in mind that most things posted via the web can become permanent (e.g., emails, blog posts and comments, status updates, etc.). Also, your audience is broader than you think. Thanks to search engines and social media, there’s a good chance that someone will eventually find you, especially as your influence grows as a leader.
- Do your homework. Whether it’s culture, ethnicity, gender, politics, or faith, all of us have blind spots. We need to take the extra step of making sure our work receives appropriate counsel from its stakeholders (i.e., those who will be impacted by our work). Even with a pure motive, things can end up in an unhealthy place.
- Principle of Charity: Until you have confirmed reason to doubt someone, try not to. Aristotle called this the principle of charity. In many cases, the person we are critical of from a distance is rarely “that bad”. Get in the habit of suspending judgment. If the goal is truth or betterment, judgment is not necessary up front. Work on connecting and framing the conversation before jumping to conclusions, even if your first instincts end up being accurate. Function with the same kind of mercy and grace you desire to receive if you were in the other person’s shoes.
- Defense is NOT a good offense. Don’t become overly defensive towards your accusers. It may end up becoming the shovel with which you bury yourself. Consider the way that Jesus remained silent in the midst of his trial. He allowed God to bring justice. If you feel that you’ve been misunderstood or wronged, be sure to pray and seek wisdom from others who actually pray. Although things may be timely, never rush the process. Ask for some time so that you could listen and process the concern. Offer to give a timely response appropriate to the weight of the concern.
- Always try to deal with conflict offline first even if it takes awhile. I’ve definitely made this error in the past! 🙂 Here’s my pecking order for dealing with disagreement or conflict:
- In Person: Most ideal…goes without saying.
- Via Video Chat: Seeing the person is definitely better than just hearing them. Never underestimate the power of looking eye-to-eye.
- Via Telephone: Yes, the telephone is still a great way to talk with people. (Just be sure NOT to jump to this option first!)
- Via Email or Text: DON’T DO IT! It rarely helps.
- Smoke Signals or Pigeons: I can’t say because I haven’t tried these methods yet. 🙂
I personally plan to continue to stand by and work with Mike and Jud on future projects. I also hope to cross paths with Dr. Rah more often in the future. I believe in all three of them. My place is not to figure out who’s at fault here. Many others have articulated those concerns far better than I ever could. My prayer is that God would use this “controversy” to bring health to his Church. There is much to be thankful for here.
A Footnote for my Asian American Family about Story-Telling:
- While participating on a panel yesterday about the future of Asian American ministries, I made a passing statement that I’d like to develop in the months and years to come. I said something to the effect that we need to tell our story better to the masses. Although we are not at fault for many of the misperceptions, I wonder if we should make more of a concerted effort to tell our narrative better (whatever that may be). I think one of the ways we could prevent some potentially hurtful depictions would be for us to form perceptions via the arts, media, and social media. I know many are working hard at this, but I think the Asian American must participate more intentionally than ever before.
- With the internet and its tools, access is granted to all and influence is available for all. Could we begin to dream about how we may leverage mediums like social media to change some perceptions? We have such an amazing heritage that can be shared creatively if we choose to do so.
- In fact, how can we invite all ethnicities and cultures to collectively share each other’s unique stories? I hope to write in the near future about my desire for a “White America”. I’m talking about white, not so much in the sense of a lack of color, but rather, a white that is the collection of all colors.
Call me idealistic. Call me naive. I feel like we need creative alternatives to our current condition and choices. Forgive me for being broad…still forming.