Statues and their Worth

I’ve been asked to say some things about statues, and why, presumably, we should or shouldn’t topple them. In some ways, the answer is quite simple, but, as always, things are more complex than they seem. I’ll attempt to tease out some of that complexity here.

Saddams-statue

The statue of Saddam, being toppled.

It is unquestionably clear that statues of evil people should be toppled. On this, I believe everyone agrees. For example, I clearly remember the conclusion of the Iraq war, when a generation of jubilant Iraqis gathered to topple the statue of Saddam Hussein, symbol of their oppression and despair. I remember the fall of Gaddafi and the destruction of images of his power, whose insane reign terrorized Libya for a generation. I even remember the tumultuous years from 1989-1991, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, and the undoing of those symbols of Soviet power and civic authority. I’ve seen my share of statues and symbols fall—and each time I agreed with those who wanted it toppled. In each of these cases, a visible symbol of oppression and terror—a manifestation of government control and power—was unmade as a new era came into being. Nobody in Iraq, Libya, or Berlin is longing for a return of these oppressive images. Nobody believes that their removal is an erasure of history.

What we must keep in mind, of course, is that every statue is a form of propaganda. Don’t hear ‘propaganda’ and automatically assume bad things—governments need to disseminate information, and they have a vested interest in forming the opinion of citizenry. World Wars I and II were heavily influenced by government propaganda which directly impacted the morale and hope of average Americans, Britons, and other allies. A modern statue, then, is a form of propaganda—it embodies a civic narrative. Its highly visible presence in a public square declares to all citizenry who view it that “this is good and worthy,” this person deserves to be memorialized by the state. He or she is axiomatic. Be like him or her.

Lincoln-statue-web

My favourite public monument.

The catch, of course, is that just because a government says something doesn’t mean that it’s true. Governments, of course, are not neutral producers of public art. Giant Soviet public sculptures were intended to say something about what it meant to be Russian, about the everlastingness of the United Soviet Socialists Republic. They remain now as ironic testaments to its failure and collapse. In America, it is the donations of individuals and foundations that often generate public art, rather than the impetus of a specific government narrative. Statues, in other words, often reveal their propagandic purpose by means of a money trail. Who paid for it tells us a great deal about why it’s there.Take, for example, the statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently toppled by protestors.The protestors see in Columbus a figure of questionable historical value, an oppressor whose image reinforces a wicked American narrative. Ironically, the statue itself was designed by Italian-American immigrants, and represents the acceptance of Italians into the American mainstream. It is, in other words, highly pro-immigrant. The narrative of the protestors, in other words, is at odds with the narrative of why the statue exists.

Jefferson Davis Monument

Jefferson Davis, in Louisiana.

On the other hand, I struggle to imagine why there should be a public statue of Jefferson Davis anywhere—least of all in the South. Davis, president of the Confederacy, was the emblem of the losing side. He, and his policies, were and are anathematic to modern American identity. States may not own slaves. States may not secede from the union (under the guise of States’ rights) so that they may continue to own slaves. To these basic considerations may be added the provenance of a given statue’s creation. The one made for the Jefferson Memorial in Louisiana was, apparently, erected in 1911, for a “whites only” audience, which sang Dixie, and commemorated the 50th anniversary of Davis’s inauguration as president of the Confederacy. Clearly, the provenance of this statue is problematic—not only is it anti-American (as in, anti-Union), its proponents were explicitly anti-Black. This seems to me plenty of warrant to see it removed—which it was, by protestors, in 2017. In this case, to remove the statue is not to remove ‘history,’ per se, but rather the removal of bad history. Those who argue that removing statues is to erase history might too quickly forget that the statues themselves have a history.

Assuming, then, that we all agree statues of evil people—public symbols of oppression—should be removed, what are we to do with the statues of figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Cecil Rhodes, and Theodore Roosevelt? It would seem to be a simple solution (too simple, I am afraid), to address each statue in a case-by-case basis. We need to know who the person was, what he or she did, who built the statue and when, and, very importantly, who paid for it. Once we’ve gathered the relevant information, we can make an educated decision on the value of a given civic statue and its ongoing function as public propaganda.

Head Removed From Christopher Columbus Statue In North End Of Boston

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 10: A statue depicting Christopher Columbus is seen with its head removed at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park on June 10, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. The statue was beheaded overnight and is scheduled to be removed by the City of Boston. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

But as I said, this solution might be too simple. Peter Drucker in his classic book The Effective Executive, writes about recognizing the difference between ad hoc decisions and generic decisions. Ad hoc decisions are those that are truly case by case, with no overarching implications, while generic decisions have to rely on an underlying principle or rule. A serious danger in executive decision making is the fact that “the incomplete explanation is often more dangerous than the totally wrong explanation.” In the case of statues, the individual character of the figure in question may be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; the real, underlying problem is one of a contest between civic narratives.

Let me try to make this clear: when it comes to statues, beneath the question of the individual who is represented there is a question of what narrative he represents. One narrative, the traditional one, regards these individuals as valuable, significant, and historically important. This is often why statues are defended on the grounds of ‘preserving history.’ The other narrative regards these figures as oppressors, wicked emblems of an ongoing plight. This, in turn, is why they consider them emblems of what is sometimes called ‘systemic racism.’ The conflicting narratives in turn produce conflicting accounts of morality. What is ‘good’ within one narrative may be ‘evil’ from within the new narrative. From one perspective, therefore, it is not at all clear that George Washington is as evil as Hitler, or that Christopher Columbus is as evil as Gaddafi. In brief, depending on our operative narrative, we likely don’t agree on what qualifies as ‘evil.’

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A concatenation of messages make it difficult to discern which narrative to follow.

The removal of the George Washington statue in Portland a few weeks ago makes this question of civic narrative explicit. Images of the statue, hurled to the ground, clearly display the spray-painted numbers 1619. If you don’t know, the “1619 Project” was a series produced by the New York Times which attempted to re-tell the narrative of American history with specific reference to the role of slavery in its foundation (1619 is the first year slaves arrived in Virginia). The narrative implications are fairly clear: to continue to lionize a figure like Washington is to perpetuate a civic narrative that is emblematic of an ideology of oppression. The problem isn’t Washington, it’s the American civic narrative itself. From within this new narrative, figures like Washington, Jefferson, and even U.S. Grant are objectively bad guys. If we accept this argument fully then it follows that they are as bad as the Nazis and the Communists—worthy of erasure from the historical record. It is important to hear that behind the argument that these statues represent “systemic racism” lies a counter-narrative to American identity, and that behind the argument to “protect history” lies a defense of the traditional civic narrative. What is really at stake is a question of what it means to be American.

Here things get really complex. Governments have the right to propagate narratives of identity, to lionize certain figures and to minimize others. States where the citizenry have the power to select these figures have no less narrative power. At the same time, in most modern states citizenry have the right to critique those narratives. That is, in fact, the very business of history. Where those figures show ugliness (e.g., Washington’s slave ownership, Grant’s alcoholism), we should mark that ugliness appropriately. But we must also weigh that ugliness against the person’s historic value, civic value, and in light of his or her own time. It is exceptionally ironic when a given critique criticizes the power that allows them to critique. In other words, it is absurd for Americans to utilize the American tradition which was founded by Washington, Jefferson, and other Enlightenment thinkers—a tradition that enshrined free speech and public assembly in its constitution—to attempt to undo the legacy of the very figures who guaranteed those rights. To describe this as short-sighted would be generous.

Profanation of Notre Dame in the French Revolution

The desecration of Notre Dame

Many of the people toppling statues today, however, see themselves as revolutionaries, and it is worth remembering that revolutions feasts on symbols—they can gather, unite, and typify the message of the revolutionary. But revolutions rarely generate their own symbols—they leech, parasitically, power from existing symbols. They piggyback on existing power, attempting to hijack its prominence for their own message. Adherents to the French Revolution attempted to replace the church with the “cult of reason.” For this, they desecrated Notre Dame, and in its place elevated a local prostitute now dressed in the robes of reason. The new symbol sought to borrow from the significance and power of the old, while at the same time denigrating it.

Complicating this situation, mobs and revolutions thrive on black and white distinctions. We are all good while our enemies are all bad. Everything we want is right, while everything our enemies want is wrong. Our heroes are perfect, while the heroes of our opponents are literally Hitler. This absolutist approach to good and evil fuels situations like cancel culture, where a given public individual, found guilty of a thought-crime, finds himself or herself ‘cancelled’—Kevin Spacey, J.K. Rowling, Bill Cosby, etc. Their shows and books are removed because of the character flaws (real or perceived) in the person. It is, in its own way, another form of statue removal. Of course, the standards of judgment are erratic, and grace is rare. Martin Luther King Jr. keeps his statues despite being, in his private moral life, a pretty terrible person. His ‘goods’ are weighed against his ‘bads’ and he is allowed to remain. In brief, his goods match whatever is ‘good’ in the new narrative. No such evaluation—or grace—is extended to a George Washington.

MLK-Memorial-front-631

But what is the ‘new narrative’ that powers these revolutionary impulses? What is to replace the traditional narrative? For some, there is no narrative but anarchy. A deep anger is manifesting itself in a hatred of all traditional sources of authority and power. At other times, the narrative looks a great deal like Marxism. To be clear, Marxism here means a way of interpreting the data of the world by means of certain ready-made categories. The Bourgeoisie against the Proletariat, the haves against the have-nots, the privileged against the oppressed. The problem isn’t in identifying disparity and saying that it exists and needs to be addressed. The problem, rather, is in the way that the disparity reduces complexity to simplicity. Individual cases don’t need to be addressed; if they fit the class, they are guilty by association. In turn—and this is a cruel feature of Marxist societies—a sense of shared victimhood provides identity for the oppressed class. (This is a process called ‘othering.’ I write about it more here.)

To make these matters worse, the Marxist narrative—in every place where it has been tried in the 20th century—has revealed a highly utilitarian approach to the truth. Words are tools to achieve ends, and promises are irrelevant—only the revolution matters. Action matters! Policy can be adjusted to match the truth later. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Castro—each was a virtual case study in prevarication. P.D. Ouspensky, who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917, wrote of the Bolsheviks and their empty promises of peace. He diagnosed the hollowness of their words as follows: “They had no intention of meeting their promissory notes, therefore they could issue as many of them as they liked. This was their chief disadvantage and chief strength.” The revolutionary who does not care about the truth can say what he likes—it is the ends that matter, and only the ends that matter.

So, where does this leave us? Hopefully with one set of actions, and one real debate. The actions are to evaluate each statue by its own merits. This will take patience, investigation, a real commitment to history, and a commitment to honesty on both sides. If it can be shown that a statue was raised for wicked purposes, to reinforce bad narratives (i.e., to reinforce Jim Crow laws in the south), it seems to me that the statue should be removed. (And, for what it’s worth, I’d like to see cities put forth public hearings on a given statue, and then put it to the vote. That’s the most American response there is.)

And yet the deeper and more important debate is to query what is to happen to the tradition of the West. Will it survive, warts and all, with a fresh commitment to its core values of liberty and justice? Or will it be toppled by a mob that want something far more dangerous and destructive—either unbridled and undisciplined power, or an ideology inimical to the foundation of Western freedom. The choice, quite literally, is ours.

On Quoting Movies

I’ve just completed a series of daily Facebook posts—I wasn’t nominated, and I didn’t nominate anyone. In fact, I made up my own thing. Each day I featured a movie I quote all the time. I would describe the movie, talk about the line I most often quote, and then tag a friend I’d most like to watch the movie with. It was a surprisingly pleasant exercise. I didn’t know how far I would go, or if I would run out of people to watch movies with. In the end it became a kind of game, pairing up ideal people into ideal movie groups.

12_Bill and Ted's Excellent AdventureTo begin, I listed four or five movies that I knew I quoted all the time, listing their lines as well (Highlander “There can be only one”; Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Excellent!”). Then, as the days went on, whenever I’d find myself quoting a movie with my wife, I’d jot it down on the list. I ended up posting some nineteen films. (I could have done a few more, but I ended on my birthday with my favourite film of all, Willow.)

The exercise prompted some reflective thinking, of course. Is there something unique about this set of movies that they are stuck in my head? Can I learn anything from looking at the data? It turns out, I could.

05_Nacho LibreI posted 19 times, but there were actually 23 movies on the list. Curious about relations between the films, I made a chart, documented their release dates, the ratio of comedy to dramas, and noted any repeat figures in the movies. What did I find? The movies I quote most often range in date from 1980 (The Empire Strikes Back) to 2006 (Nacho Libre). An overwhelming majority of the movies fall between 1984 and 1993 (78%), with half of them falling between 1984 and 1989. Almost 80% of the movies I quote most often are comedies. Four of the movies feature Christopher Guest, three of them Val Kilmer, while two each featured Mike Myers and Harrison Ford respectively.

There are a few observations to make about this data. First of all, as much as movie quotes play a significant role in my daily discourse, the truth of the matter is that I used to quote movies a lot more. I distinctly remember the feeling when I was learning Greek back in university that the space in my brain that was previously dedicated to movie quotes was being repurposed for Greek vocabulary. That’s of interest because, of course, I graduated in 2002, roughly coinciding with the upper limit of my movie quotes date.

16_The GooniesIt is also interesting to note just how many of the films are nestled in that 1984-1989 spot. I was only aged 4-9 during those years, so I certainly didn’t see these films in the theater (excepting Willow, the first movie I saw in theater). Instead, I watched these all later, on home video—on VHS, to be exact. The idea of VHS these days is a moniker for nostalgia, but the truth of the matter is that it points to a kind of shared experience in my generation. One of the things we did was get pizza, put in a VHS, and watch movies together—often the same movies again and again. Highlander, Wayne’s World, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were everyday fare for me and my friends. It’s what we had at hand to do together. And, just to be explicit, we had no YouTube, no Netflix, no internet even. It was just you, your mates, the TV, and maybe some one player video games.

But here’s where the quoting comes into play—it seems to me that, for us, quoting a movie was a way to extend the pleasure of the viewing experience. We had all seen a thing together, and now we could re-enter that thing, make one another laugh, use it to interpret experience afresh. It touched base with the experience we’d shared, reaffirming our friendship in the process. To guffaw at So I Married an Axe Murderer and then to spend the rest of the day talking in Mike Myers’s exaggerated Glaswegian accent was not just funny, it was a kind of community reiteration.

03_HighlanderBut it extended beyond your immediate friends. When you discovered another person who had seen and loved the same movie, quoting the film was an easy doorway into community. We know the same things, have laughed at the same things, have loved the same characters. Quoting movies foreshortened the distance to new relationships.

Of course, this foreshortening process is crucially limited to people who have seen and remembered the same movies I have seen. Adults in my generation (whatever the heck we are—Xennials, The Oregon Trail Generation, I dunno) have recourse to a similar set of influences. But it makes me wonder what the set of shared experiences for later generations will be? YouTube rewinds? Memes? Things move so quickly there’s hardly time for stable, repeat viewing of content in the same room with your mates. In the absence of these shared experiences, what aspects of collective memory will bring people together?

14_The Emperor's New GrooveIt’s interesting to me that I don’t quote many, or really any, movies after 2006. On the one hand, the world had changed. On the other hand, I had grown up. I no longer had time to lay about watching movies with my mates at all hours, eating cold Little Caesar’s pizza and lukewarm Orange Crush. The network of people who activated movie quotes was gone. At the same time, by 2006 I was married. The only person I was regularly watching movies with was my wife. Fortunately for me, she appreciates—and dishes out—a great and well-timed movie quote.

But of course, sometime after we got married we stopped adding new quotes to our relational vocabulary, hence the tapering off at 2006. Why would this be the case? On the one hand, we were busy with jobs, school, and life. I was getting my master’s degree and Liesel was working full time. Then I was a full-time pastor and Liesel was a young mom. Kid’s movies, while occasionally entertaining, are not typically known for their quotable value. One kid became two, then three, and finally four. The last eleven years of our lives have been consumed with work, school, and early parenting. We’ve not had time to watch, and re-watch, and quote new films together.

15_Waiting for GuffmanAll the same, I’m still quoting movies—it’s just that I’m most often quoting this set of 23 movies. And in the context of marriage these quotes serve an important role. Like with my friendships in childhood, they have the power to reaffirm shared experience with my wife. It’s like saying, “Hey, remember this thing that we both laughed at?” Quoting Inigo Montoya during an argument is a great way to deescalate a frustrating conversation (“You keep using that h’word. I do not think it means what you think it means”). Dropping a Corky St. Clair reference can extend empathy and humor at the same time (“Thatssss not a good thing”). Above all else, movies are quoted in my family to spin the plate of collective memory, to reassert our own shared experience, to keep alive—and enliven—the ongoing conversation.

All that to say, I’ve learned something interesting about myself during this quarantine experience. It’s that I love movies (I knew that already), but I miss watching them with my friends. It’s also renewed my gratitude for a wife who is a friend with whom I can watch, and quote, silly movies.

Eugene Peterson and the Smell of Barbecue

The Christian world is this week awash with stories and reflections on Eugene Peterson, pastor, spiritual theologian, and author best known for his multi-million selling Bible paraphrase, The Message. In fact, not only the Christian world, but the New York Times and the Washington Post each published obituaries for this eminent pastor who was, by all accounts, very nearly the opposite of a ‘public figure.’ What was the appeal of this unlikely public pastor?

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I have only a limited personal encounter with Peterson. I attended Regent College from 2005-2009, where Eugene had been on staff, and while I was there his presence was still very much felt in what Regent did and the kind of place Regent wanted to be. He had become an inextricable part of the ethos of the school. For my part, I’d honestly never heard of the guy before showing up in Vancouver, and so I, quite naturally, began a program of reading some of his books, and listening to some of his recorded courses, available in the school library. I listened to Soulcraft (a study in Ephesians). I read Reversed Thunder, his book on John’s Revelation. I dabbled in The Message. And later, when I was in full time ministry, I read his The Pastor: A Memoir.

Peterson_Pastor MemoirAt this point, I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never really been able to connect with Peterson’s work. I found his teaching in Soulcraft lackluster and forgettable. With the exception of Reversed Thunder (which I hold to be one of the best books on John’s Revelation available), I simply don’t like his writing. The Message—ugh!—The Message reads to me like a car with one square wheel, all herky-jerky and awkward and nearly unreadable. I can’t stomach it. When I read his biography of the life of a pastor I couldn’t shake the lurking feeling that “this simply isn’t my story.” If Eugene Peterson’s pastoral soul represents one shape of gear, and my pastoral soul another, then, regrettably, we are tooled for incompatibility.

All the same, for scores and scores of my friends and fellow pastors, Peterson’s writings have encouraged, restored hope, challenged, and been a balm. To read their stories, for many of them Peterson’s writing saved their ministries, if not their souls. (Which, incidentally, makes me suspect that the problem of connection I feel in reading Peterson’s stuff might lie with me.) They look to Peterson like a father, a friend they’ve never met, a spiritual guide and rock of stability, uniquely situated in our time to provide a bulwark against the present darkness. He gave them hope. But why?

Peterson_Long ObedienceI can’t help but conclude that a portion of Peterson’s appeal lay in his retiring attitude. He wasn’t interested in fame. He didn’t set himself up to be a public figure, with a large ministry and wide range of influence. Instead, he sought faithfulness in the small plot of a church which he and his wife had planted. The affirmation of small church, small obedience, is very likely a key factor in his ability to encourage the pastors I know, for whom the allure and appeal of ‘big’ churches and ‘big’ ministries is a constant temptation. In an age of church growth, marketability, and relevance, Peterson championed small obedience and long faithfulness. Additionally, I wonder if part of Peterson’s appeal lay in his reticence to align with the political wing of modern evangelicalism. Sometimes, giving one’s allegiance to a Christian figure has meant giving one’s allegiance to a political position or party. But in Peterson we encountered a Christian figure who was deeply counter-cultural and yet starkly unlike the array of alternatives.

In light of this, I confess a further worry—what is it about people like Peterson that drives us, in the Church, to make of them heroes, public figures, and celebrities? Why, despite Peterson’s avowed desire to avoid such popularity, do we insist on giving it to him? One of my professors at Regent told me that once he was in line with Eugene to get a coffee in Regent’s atrium. Students would come up and stare at him, as if they hoped that some of the glory might rub off on them. At that moment, my professor realized one of the reasons why it was that Eugene was retiring: he felt was being made too much of. Why is it that instead of taking Peterson’s teaching as it was stated—to pursue a long obedience in the same direction—that we inveterately try to sidle up to him so as to catch a bit of the glory, to hasten our own spirituality through proximate encounter? Why, to the man who taught us to avoid all short cuts in spirituality, would we turn him into a short cut?

Regent_Well

Regent’s Bookstore/Coffee Shop is a lovely place to visit.

I can think of many reasons to answer that question, some of them less than complementary, but I will conclude with a generous one. When I arrived at Regent in 2005, language of Eugene’s presence, and stories of his teaching and life, were still fresh in the air. It seemed to me that he had only left the place a year before. It was only reading his obituary the other day that I realized he had retired from Regent in 1998! For seven years the memory of his presence had remained so fresh that when I arrived I thought he had only just left. That is an astonishing, unprecedented legacy. Upon reflection, it makes me think of Ephesians 5:1-2, where Paul writes the following: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Those closing two words, a “fragrant aroma” are in Greek the words οσμη ευωδιας (osme euodias). They are the words used throughout the Old Testament to describe the fragrance of a burnt offering to the Lord—it is the smell, in other words of barbecue. You know the smell, it wafts over the neighbourhood, and makes you wonder if, just maybe, you might gatecrash your neighbour’s dinner for a taste. It is alluring, and good, and calls you to goodness. In the same way, Paul says, Christ’s life is for us such a fragrant aroma, wafting over other lives, calling us to participate and join in. Furthermore, we are to imitate that life so that our lives become similarly fragrant. It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s life gave off such an odor that seven years after departing Regent his aroma still brought life to the place.

I’ve been immensely blessed to know several people in life for whom this aroma is part and parcel of their walk with the Lord. Where they’ve been, you know it, because the vestiges of their presence hangs about. They are naturally attractive people—we want to be around them, to soak up their goodness, their perspective, to ‘catch’ some of the glory if possible. I never met Eugene Peterson in person, but it seems clear to me that he was such a person as well. And yet the very best thing that such people can do for us is to remind us that our lives give off an odor, too. To that realization, we can only ask, “What kind of odor will it be?”

Rest well in Christ, Eugene. You gave off a good smell. May we learn from that and, instead of turning to you as a proxy, seek to do the same.

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The Sidekick and the Sexpot: “Decoding” Asian Stereotypes in Media

If you didn’t know, for about nine years I was a pastor to two Asian churches in Western Canada. Naturally, my time among those churches funded me with a lot of insights into Asian thinking and practice, but also, and perhaps more importantly, gave me an abiding concern for the issues that affect my many Asian friends. One of those issues is the issue of representation, especially in media. All too commonly, Asian characters in media are reduced to two stereotypes—that of the sidekick or the sexpot. Asian men are made sidekicks—they function as the friend, the asset, the teacher, or the comic relief. Rarely are they cast as the lead, and even more rarely are they viewed as objects of sexual desire. Asian women are made into sexpots—submissive, wild, and sexy, they are envisioned as the ideal prize to be conquered by the Western hero. The net effect of this distorted representation is that it distorts not only our (non-Asian) perception of Asians generally, but also distorts their perception of themselves.

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With this in mind, I recently watched with interest a six-minute video, produced by MTV Decoded, claiming to explain the nature of Asian sex stereotypes. While the video is certainly right to draw attention to the distortion, and indeed injustice, of Asian representation in media, I also think it failed to account, accurately, for the phenomenon. To put it briefly, their account was long on history, and short on anthropology. Let me see if I can tell you what I mean.

MTV Decoded_Weird History

“The Weird History of Asian Sex Stereotypes” begins by noting that on dating websites Asian women are the highest sought after, while Asian men are commonly ignored. Asian women, because they carry a cultural impression of “submissiveness” and “hypersexuality,” are ripe for a kind of fetishization. The roots of this, according to the video, begin in early trade between the West and the East, and is quickly shaped by the immensely popular story “Madame Chrysanthemum”—a story which features fetishized Asian women. In turn, this ‘narrative’ is reinforced by American occupation in East Asia (Japan, Korea, Vietnam), and the ready availability of Asian prostitutes for American servicemen. To quote the video, “The first interaction that three generations of American men had with Asian women was as submissive sexual objects.” Decoded concludes that this (combined with a passing mention of porn), is why the stereotype continues to exist so strongly today.

By contrast, Asian men are historically disenfranchised. Not only were they prohibited from owning property, they were forced to take on various “feminine” jobs such as cooking and laundry. These factors combined to make them appear more feminine. Added to this, various exclusion acts kept Chinese men from brides, and laws proscribed marriages between Asian men and white women. To seal the case, Decoded observes that this “history of emasculating Asian men lives on in Hollywood”—noting, as we did above, that Asian men are rarely viewed in romantic roles in media.

Dating Stats

I don’t know how these stats were calculated, but I’ve seen versions of this data before. Asian women are commonly the most desirable, while Black women are the least desirable. Perceptions of ‘submissiveness’ may determine how these stats rank.

The video is slick—watching it is likely to make you feel you’ve learned something. And yet I think it’s left out huge parts of the story. The first thing I want to note is that the argument Decoded makes focuses almost exclusively on events. The history of Eastern and Western encounter in trade, American military presence in East Asia, the Exclusion Acts in American history, and so on. All of these things happened, of course, and surely they contribute to the problem, but declaring the fact that they happened does not explain why they happened. Put differently, nothing can be done to change the history of Asian and Western interactions. We can’t undo the exclusion acts, or undo Japanese prostitution during the occupation. If we’re going to do something about how Asians are treated in media, then that something must target the heart of the matter. That ‘heart’ must give an accounting of human nature more generally. What is missing is an account of anthropology.

Orientalism_Cover2Let’s begin by taking a broad view of the matter. There is a discernable and oft-repeated pattern to what happens when one group encounters another group as an ‘other.’ Edward Said in his Orientalism has made this pattern abundantly clear. When I, from my comfortable sense of self, encounter someone who is sufficiently different from me, I begin to ‘other’ that person. I focus on the differences, and I do this in such a way that my awareness of those differences serves to reinforce my sense of self. This is fairly natural, and in many senses othering is a natural consequence of any two cultures meeting at the boundary. It’s a human property. But othering introduces difficulties that must be navigated carefully. A key example of this is in how Said describes the history of fetishizing. He notes that it begins in Orientalist literature, specifically, how Flaubert envisioned his relationship to an Asian female. For him, “The Oriental woman is an occasion and an opportunity for Flaubert’s musings; he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (emphasis added). The Asian female, in other words, by virtue of her otherness, can serve as a kind of blank canvas for the projection of sexual desire. This (if Said is correct), is the key origin of the myth of the submissive Asian female. She is perceived as submissive because she is different, because she cannot communicate with me, and that boundary of communication creates a space for sexualization. I can project on her my desires without needing to worry about those nagging features of her own, pesky personality.

In addition to ‘othering’ and its byproducts, we must remember also that humans are almost excessively tribalistic. We retreat to groups that are like us. We congregate around our similarities, within our comfort zones. I am reminded of the story from Trevor Noah’s fascinating autobiography where he describes a few days spent in prison. There, each inmate was expected, tacitly, to gather around his own tribe (literally, in South Africa). Trevor, as a multilingual half-white, half-black man, had trouble finding the right group he was supposed to join! The homogeneity principle, as this is sometimes called, operates heavily (right or wrong!) in Churches. With respect to this, all the data shows that churches grow along lines of homogeneity—are you composed of white, middle-class families? You’re going to grow as white, middle-class families. Are you composed of Asian, second-generation Canadian students? You’re going to grow as Asian, second-generation Canadian students. Simply put, people naturally gather to what they are familiar with—which means that it takes immense (and occasionally questionable!) effort to break the bonds of homogeneity. What makes a mess of this concept of homogeneity is the way it interacts with our cultural narratives of aspiration. Humans desire things, and they desire certain things more than other things based on their presentation in marketing and media. We want to live in certain neighbourhoods, and drive certain kinds of cars, and inhabit certain kinds of careers. Unfortunately, we merge these narratives of aspiration with our love lives as well, and so we pursue and marry people who fit our (subconscious!) narrative of what is desirable. What happens then is that our sense of homogeneity infiltrates our cultural desires—we, as a culture, can come to desire the same kinds of things in the same kinds of ways. One of the things our culture tells us to desire is submissive Asian females.

Diverse Small Group

Churches often advertise the diversity of their small groups, but such diversity is much more difficult to achieve in fact. (Note: I’m sure the people pictured in the small group above are lovely.)

But this opens the door on a final, grave human consideration: sin. It is a sin to treat a person (such as an Asian female) as an object of desire in herself, because this is to reduce her to not only her appearance, but also your perception of her submissiveness and sexuality. Sin infiltrates our othering and makes it corrupt and go wrong. Sin infiltrates our sense of tribalism and homogeneity and makes us retreat and become insular. Sin infiltrates our aspirations so that we crave things not as they are, but as we would have them be. And throughout all of this, the nature of sin in sexual relationships cannot be separated from the issue of pornography. MTV’s Decoded makes a passing reference to porn as part of the problem, and yet we must note that the nature of pornography has the same characteristics as the nature of othering and fetishization—here are the images of women, they are available, they don’t speak, if they do speak they speak only in hyper-submissiveness. They are beautiful blank canvasses on which men are given permission to spill their every desire. When that recipe is applied to the pre-existent preference for a conception of a “submissive” Asian woman, then the result is a toxic and sinful reinforcement of the existing stereotype.

Asian Eyes_2

She has no agency or identity, no personality or will. She exists for another’s pleasure.

So far I’ve focused on Asian women, and while this might be because I feel that the greater injustice has been done to them, it is also because I think that the relegation of Asian men to the sidekick role is a product of the hypersexualization of Asian women. After all, if for an entire race of persons the females are viewed as highly desirable, then you have a cause and motive for trying to relegate the males to a second-tier status. They’re in the way. Their existence frustrates my fantasy of Asian-female availability.

Tales of Old Japan

A lovely and entertaining book so far!

Of course, the stereotypes are false. And yet they’ve been around for a long time. Not long ago I purchased a copy of “Tales of Old Japan” by A.B. Mitford, Lord Redesdale. Written in 1871, it contains the first version of the 47 Ronin story which has been so famous in cinema over the years. In one section, Lord Redesdale tells the story of a Japanese woman who becomes a prostitute. But at the end of that story, he stops the narrative to instruct the reader on the real nature of the Japanese woman. He writes, with fascinating foresight in 1871, that “The misapprehension which exists upon the subject of prostitution in Japan may be accounted for by the fact that foreign writers, basing their judgment upon the vice of the open ports, have not hesitated to pronounce the Japanese women unchaste.” In other words, don’t mistake the ladies of the night for the rest of the Asian women you meet! Oh that his warning had been heeded! And it is worth saying, aloud, that nobody who actually knows Asian women thinks of them as submissive—they are tough, smart, hard-working, clever, ambitious, and determined. Ask any Asian man if he ever thinks of his mom as ‘submissive’ and you’ll find out quick enough that it simply ain’t true.

The Hypersexualization of Asian women is a real problem, as is the de-sexualization of Asian men. Both groups, in North America, feel a lack of agency—I am not permitted to be who I am, I am who the culture around me tells me I am. The representation of my race in media distorts my agency and my sense of self in the eyes of others. Certainly, at least part of the existence of this problem today can be seen as a factor of our inherited colonial mindset in the West. At the same time, these problems cannot be simply explained, or explained away, by means of appeals to historical events. Decoded’s emphasis on the history of events consistently neglects human nature. The real problem lies in the human heart, and if we’re going to address it we’ve got to target our changes at the heart. To do that, we’re going to have to take a long look in the mirror of our tribalism, our othering, our aspirations, and of our sin, and within that we’re going to have to start listening to people who don’t look like us.

I Used to Know What was Wrong with Willow Creek

I used to know what was wrong with Willow Creek. After my parents separated in 1991, my mom and I attended there. It was massive, and well-produced, and on the whole not a bad place for a recently divorced single mom and her eleven-year-old son. I joined her there for about seven years. We would go both to weekend services and mid-week services. The regular teaching staff included Bill Hybels, Lee Strobel, and John Ortberg. We used to eat in the food court. I played in the orchestra. We made friends. I was baptized in the pond out front.

Willow Creek Sanctuary

Naturally, I began to develop opinions about the place—many of which developed further after I’d left and began to take on some more formal theological education. The language of being “seeker-sensitive” was in the air—we all knew what was going on. Willow was attempting a model of attraction by simplification and production. Simplification meant reducing to the absolute minimum those churchy things that might turn away seekers—hymns, theologically heavy sermons, even the representation of a cross. Production meant controlling the weekly service outcomes—professional musicians and singers, perfect timing, lighting and camera work. Willow both authored and mastered these techniques with immense, almost unimaginable success. By the time we were there some twenty thousand people were attending on a given weekend.

NIV Application Commentary

The image at the bottom is of Willow’s Barrington, Illinois sanctuary. Is the message, “use our commentary and you’ll preach to groups THIS size!”?

Over time, I came to form judgments about the place. Willow was, indeed, successful—and yet it was also shallow. Even as a young man I missed biblical teaching. Even as a young man I could tell that I was being fed diet, Jenny Craig Christianity. There was meat to be had, but I was being offered salad without dressing. Clearly, Willow was also business-like. How else would it be possible to manage 20K people on a weekend without a strong management system? Things moved like clockwork, and it showed. But that same business efficiency masked the ultimately superficial nature of the enterprise. Things functioned, and people were busy, and everybody had a job, and friendships were made—but did it result in greater Christlikeness? Could shallow and superficial teaching generate deep and thoughtful Christians? No, it couldn’t, and my convictions were confirmed a few years back when Willow issued a public apology for being too soft on teaching the Bible. It was an astonishing reversal.

I was troubled, as time passed, at how other churches were eager to ape the Willow Creek model. It appeared that under the influence of Willow’s success they, hungry for their own success, began to implement degrees of simplification and production. The secret to church growth would be programs, lighting, timing, and an ethic of theological laxity. In one of the worst cases, I remember reading about a pastor who attended a Willow Creek leadership summit, and, returning to his home church, announced that he knew just what they needed to revitalize their ministry: theater seats. They would remove their pews and put in theater seats. That would get the butts in the door.

I don’t regret attending Willow for those seven years of my life, and yet I never loved the place. Having moved on, I continued to believe that it served a kind of purpose. A lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church attended Willow. In a church of 20K certainly some—if not quite a few—of its members must be good Christian people.

Hybels bookI could make my peace with Willow Creek because I used to know what was wrong with it. Not anymore. Just a few months ago news began to break about some serious allegations regarding Bill Hybels, Willow’s founding and senior pastor, leadership guru and megachurch patriarch. First in the Chicago Tribune, then other rumors and stories, and lately in the New York Times, we have read how (allegedly, but is seems pretty certain), Hybels has sexually harassed quite a number of his female associates over the years. These were events that took place during my time at Willow. They were happening behind closed doors, and with some frequency, and apparently not a few people knew that Hybels may not be the most safe person to be around. This, the same Bill Hybels who authored the book, Who You Are When No One’s Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise. The irony would be laughable if it didn’t induce vomiting.

Suddenly, there’s much more wrong with Willow Creek than I had anticipated, and my previous critiques, which I could consider somewhat benign, are now more insidious. It’s a rule of thumb that (Protestant) churches carry the DNA of their founding pastors. Was he a gregarious, outgoing preacher? In time that comes to shape the congregation. Was he a reflective, thoughtful counsellor? In time, so also the congregation. Was he short tempered, divisive, and double-faced? So too the congregation. The DNA of Bill Hybels saturates and overshadows the Willow infrastructure. And that’s a frightening thing to realize. There’s now something poisonous running through everything with associations to Willow Creek. The best comparison is to imagine that you found out that MacDonalds, for years, has been grinding up puppies and mixing them into its french fries. Upon discovery of this you might become sick at your stomach. You’d probably never be able to eat them again. Willow has mixed something just as wicked into its brand.

global-leadership-summit-brené-brown

Here’s Brené Brown, speaking (prophetically?) at a previous leadership summit.

Willow Creek’s model promulgated a fundamental expediency about ministry, but with these revelations it appears more than ever that their expediency was influenced by a hunger for power. Willow was eager to be the best, it was quick to believe its own success. To this hunger for power was added protectionism—defending, and even masking Hybels’s concerns because in many ways he was the brand. And, fundamentally, these both reflect a corrupting utilitarianism—if a thing works, we go with it. Hybels worked, and therefore we’ve got to keep going with him. This is the poison that now infects the Willow Creek brand.

In the year 2000, in a move that now screams of incredible irony, Hybels invited then president Bill Clinton to join the global leadership summit, during the Monica Lewinski investigation. The Bills sat across from one another, the pastor offering solace (and… what? acceptance?) to the president. And yet behind the scenes the two were far more alike than we had imagined. Both were using their positions of power to mask corrupt character and decrepit behavior.

US President Bill Clinton (R) answers Willow Creek

One of the things we have to be careful about in these matters is assuming that correlation is causation—just because two events can be linked does not mean that one was necessarily the cause of the other. Did Willow’s weak theology lead to pastoral misconduct? Probably not—especially since churches with solid theology also commit pastoral misconduct. And yet what becomes prominent in this present Willow nightmare is the presence of utilitarianism and the love of power. Is it not the case that a culture of expediency unmoored from reflective orthodoxy creates the conditions for other sins of power? But hang on—is it not also the case that sins of power become self-perpetuating, encouraging greater laxity and utilitarianism? Which came first? Moral failure, or bad theological praxis? It’s impossible to say, but one thing is true—utilitarianism gets masked and hidden in the church, masked in particular by the promise of power and success. It is that power and success that Willow has sold to the churches of the world. It is the poison at the heart of the Willow model.

The fallout is disastrous. Willow leadership models have influenced countless numbers of Christians globally. Willow ecclesiological models have encouraged utilitarian approaches to ministry. And now all of it is impacted by this. “Disaster” might be too weak a word.

Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy, commanded the following, “Keep yourself and your doctrine, remain in them; for doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tm 4:16). Keep yourself, Timothy. Guard your life, your holiness, your purity, your sense of identity. Keep also your doctrine, preserve it with the same fervor as you do your bodily life. And by so doing you will save both yourself and those who hear you. Your life and your doctrine save your hearers, Timothy. It’s both. Willow Creek has failed to keep its life, and it has failed to keep its doctrine. The fallout from this is just beginning. May God have mercy on His Church.