Belief, Books, Culture & Race, Women

If Jesus was brown and non-Western, shouldn’t some of our other heroes be too?

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In search of some role models of faith for my children, I recently began looking for biographies of Christians through history. I found several highly recommended series:

  • Encounter the Saints (Seton)
  • Hero Tales (Bethany House)
  • Men and Women of Faith (Bethany House)
  • Men of Faith (Bethany House)
  • Torchlighters
  • Christian Heroes: Then & Now (YWAM)

As I researched more deeply into these series, several themes stood out:

The Good

  • There are some AMAZING  people out there. The people featured in these titles were take-your-breath-away inspiring. Their examples of sacrifice, passion, commitment, and faithfulness are models for everyone. We need more people who live like they did.
  • We need to spend time hearing stories of those who have gone before us. While many lived in different times, the challenges they faced put our modern sensibilities to shame. Learning about their lives has more to teach us about our own journeys than obsessing over Justin Bieber.

The Needs-Improved

  • The majority of ‘heroes’ were white western men. Looking through the titles, I noticed a significant lack of diversity amongst the characters featured. Most, it seemed, were white men. The current state of the book publishing industry affirms the notion that history tells the story of the ones with the most power. Out of curiosity, I compiled the titles and researched each of the characters for gender, race, nationality, and marital status. Check out some of the results:

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  • Women need more equal representation. While the female figure was higher than I expected, when incorporating marital status, only 6 of the 49 (12%) women featured as the main character of a biography were married. In contrast, 70 out of 102 (69%) men were married. Only five of the biographies I reviewed had titles about men and women together. Who were the women behind the heroes? Why weren’t they featured as prominently as the men since their lives surely included equal levels of sacrifice and commitment? 
  • The Christian world extends far beyond the US, UK, and Europe. China is poised to become the world’s largest Christian country in 15 years. The church is exploding in Africa and the middle east. There is much to learn from the faithful followers in other nations and our faith would be deepened to know more of their stories.

Why does it matter?

Our children need to see that people from any background can follow God. If Revelations tells us that people from every tribe and nation will be in heaven, surely we can write a few books about them here on earth. The message behind the message when the majority of ‘heroes’ are white men is that this status is held only for a privileged few. Until our stories reflect this truth, children will subconsciously absorb this message.

Women need to see themselves as full participants in God’s story. We were not created to hide behind men but to walk beside them as equals. When we are relegated to the woman-behind-the-man, it becomes easy to shirk our own responsibility to heed God’s call on our lives, husband or not.

We need more diverse books. A popular Twitter hashtag, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement applies in equal measure (if not more) to the Christian publishing industry. Let’s dig deep into our history and publish the stories of our brothers and sisters who have followed Christ around the world, from places of low status and persecution rather than just privilege and power. Perhaps it would give us a deeper understanding of Christ’s call to make all things new.

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Books

Must read books for 2014

I quit going to Christian bookstores years ago because the one-sided, narrowly defined perspectives represented on their shelves were more than I could handle.  Surely the Christian faith was larger than the American religious right!  Fortunately, some of my faith in the Christian publishing market has been restored by the voice that the internet has provided to authors who might not have ever made it into the narrow box of Christian bookstores. This post features two of these voices.

As I’ve followed the writing market, one important piece I’ve learned about the industry is the importance of early sales when a book is released. While I don’t always like the realities of the current publishing market, they are what they are. One practice I’ve started as a result of learning more about these realities is purchasing books of writer-voices I value as soon as they are released because it encourages their overall promotion, distribution and sales in a wider market.

Today it’s Eugene Cho’s new book, Overrated.

My husband and I have followed Cho for years, and have grown to deeply appreciate his voice of growing humility, justice, honesty, and grace. His insight has been tremendously helpful to us and offers a unique and much needed voice in the Christian sphere today.  Based on his blog writing alone, I highly recommend this book – it’s message is one we all need to grapple with.

Check it out at http://areyouoverrated.com/.

While I’m at it, I also have to re-recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the hidden forces that keep us apart. I’m halfway through it and finding its content incredibly convicting and formational. It’s a message I’ve needed to contemplate for a long time.  Throw it in on your order with Cho’s book – you won’t be disappointed!

Miscellany

Join the #Weneeddiversebooks social media campaign

When I noticed the hashtag #weneeddiversebooks trending on Twitter tonight, I was completely thrilled and just had to share!  (I also found it happily ironic that it was trending on the day the NBA banned the Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist comments…)

Join the social media campaign started by author Ellen Oh, an effort to get the media’s attention to increase diversity in children’s books. Here’s our photo:

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To which my son promptly added that we also need stories that just don’t explain interracial families, but just present them as normal people.

Make your own sign and take a picture to post on social media May 1-3 to give the movement some traction, and visit the link above to submit it to the Tumblr site for #weneeddiversebooks.

While you’re at it, check out some other posts about the need for increased diversity in children’s exposure to the world:

 

Belief, Books

The question that never goes away

I first read Where is God when it Hurts as a young 20-something agnostic.  Yancey’s delicate and thoughtful exploration of the reasons behind the presence of pain in the world spoke to many of the questions that had left me questioning the existence of a loving creator. Intrigued by what I read, I devoured the rest of his books, my other favorites being Disappointment with God and Soul Survivor: How my Faith Survived the Church.  Unlike other books I’d read, these were not apologetics as much as they were simple admissions of hard-questions and honest reflections on how he’d walked through them.

While I have slowly returned to faith in the years since my agnostic angst, the questions that Yancey addresses in his writing have never fully gone away. Why do horrible things happen? Is God unfair? Is he silent? Is he hidden?

These questions simmer behind every tragic headline or heart-breaking story I encounter. For awhile, I considered the fact that I couldn’t reconcile a loving God with a tragic world a distinct lack of faith. So I understandably grinned when I came across Yancey’s newest book, The Question that Never Goes Away: Why.  A sequel to Where is God when it hurts, his new book examines the questions that the recent tragedies of Newtown, the Japanese Tsunami, and the atrocities of civil war in Sarajevo raise.  Because of the relevancy of his book Where is God when it hurts, Yancey was invited to speak in the aftermath of each of these places.  

He speaks of these tragedies tenderly and gently, acknowledging with brutal honesty their unimaginable losses and heartbreaking consequences. I’m not much of a crier, but it didn’t even take me 5 pages to tear up.  These situations were unspeakably horrific, and their realities left the whole world’s souls aching.

What I appreciate most about Yancey’s writing is his commitment to brutal honesty, willingness to admit that sometimes the answers elude, and conviction that we play a piece of God’s plan to renew and restore the brokenness in our world.  He writes,

“Optimism promises that things will gradually improve, Christian hope promises that creation will be transformed. Until then, God evidently prefers not to intervene in every instance of evil or natural disaster, no matter how grievous. Rather, God has commissioned us as agents of intervention in the midst of a hostile and broken world.”

Here’s another gem that captures well his willingness to face the difficulty of pain head-on:

After spending time in Japan and Newtown, I have adopted a two-part test I keep in mind before offering counsel to a suffering person.  First, I ask myself how these words would sound to a mother who kissed her daughter goodbye as she put her on the school bus and then later that day was called to identify her bloody body.  Would my words bring comfort or compound the pain? Then I ask myself what Jesus would say to that mother.  Few theological explanations pass those tests.

Finally – someone has the guts to admit the theologians don’t always have all the answers. Drawing from a rich knowledge of literature and philosophers, Yancey wades through the muddy waters of unanswerable questions with an intense level of equal parts faith and doubt. At one point, he writes about the final question he received in an audience following the Newtown tragedy, calling it the one he most “did not want to hear”:  Will God protect my child?

His response:

“No, I’m sorry. I can’t promise that.” None of us is exempt. We all die, some old, some tragically young. God provides support and solidarity, yes, but not protection – at least not the kind of protection we desperately long for. On this cursed planet, even God suffered the loss of a son.

The questions never go away, he acknowledges.  However, in the closing chapter of the book, he explores several answers to the question ‘Where is God?’  I highly recommended spending a few hours with this tiny-pack-a-punch (and a kleenex!) book to read more about his conclusions.  They’re well worth the consideration should these questions never leave your soul either.

Books, Families, Children & Marriage

The gift of seeing themselves: Strengthening children’s identities through multicultural literature

It’s quite likely that I can attribute roughly 30-50% of my faith to writers, and I must also credit the same to the growth of my understanding of culture. As a result, I have a special love for the beautifully told stories in children’s picture books, so multicultural literature has naturally played a huge role in our family’s life.  (Check out some of our favorites here.)  It’s been my way of helping our children to see both stories of themselves and others reflected in their lives.

One of my very-favorite essays on the value of children reading stories in which they see themselves reflected in the stories is written by Mitali Perkins, an author of quite a few young adult fiction books on children living between worlds.  I used to read it to classes of teachers-in-training that I taught and would swallow my tears every-single-time I read it as I felt the intense emotion in her words.  It’s one of those pieces that just never leaves you, and I’m quite pleased that she’s given me permission to share it here.

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The Magic Carpet

by Mitali Perkins

I had a magic carpet once.  It used to soar to a world of monsoon storms, princesses with black braids, ferocious dragons, and talking birds.

“Ek deen chilo akta choto rajkumar,” my father would begin, and the rich, round sounds of the Bangla language took me from our cramped New York City apartment to a marble palace in ancient India.

Americans made fun of my father’s lilting accent and the strange grammatical twists his sentences took in English.  What do they know? I thought, perching happily beside him.

In Bangla, he added his own creative flourishes to classic tales by Rabindranath Tagore or Sukumar Roy. He embellished folktales told by generations of ancestors, making me chuckle or catch my breath.  “Tell another story, Dad,” I’d beg.

But then I learned to read.  Greedy for stories, I devoured books in the children’s section of the library. In those days, it was easy to conclude that any tale worth publishing originated in the so-called West, was written in English, and featured North American or European characters.

Slowly, insidiously, I began to judge my heritage by colonial eyes.  I asked my mother not to wear a sari, her traditional dress, when she visited me at school.

I avoided the sun so that the chocolate hue of my skin wouldn’t darken.  The nuances and the cadences of my father’s Bangla began to grate on my ears.  “Not THAT story again, Dad,” I’d say.  “I’m reading right now.”

My father didn’t give up easily.  He tried teaching me to read Bangla, but I wasn’t interested. Soon, I no longer came to sit beside him, and he stopped telling stories all together.

As an adult, I’ve learned to read Bangla.  I repudiate any definition of beauty linked to a certain skin color. I’ve even lived in Bangladesh to immerse myself in the culture.

These efforts help, but they can’t restore what I’ve lost. Once a child relinquishes her magic carpet, she and her descendants lose it forever.

My children, for example, speak only a word or two in Bangla.  Their grandfather half-heartedly attempts to spin a tale for them in English, and they listen politely.

“Is it ok to go play?” they ask, as soon as he’s done. I sigh and nod, and they escape, their American accents sounding foreign inside my father’s house.

“Tell another story, Dad,” I ask, pen in hand, and he obliges. My father’s tales still have the power to carry me to a faraway world. The Bangla words weave the same colorful patterns in my imagination.

My pen, however, like his own halting translation, is unable to soar with them. It scavenges in English for as evocative a phrase, as apt a metaphor, and falls short. I can understand enough Bangla to travel with my father but am not fluent enough to take English-speakers on the journey.

My decision to leave mother tongue and culture behind might have been inevitable during the adolescent passage of rebellion and self-discovery. But I wonder if things could have turned out differently.

What if I stumbled across a translation of Tagore or Roy in the library, for example? “Here’s a story my dad told me!” I imagined myself thinking, leafing through the pages. “It doesn’t sound the same in English. Maybe I should try reading it in Bangla.”

Or, what if a teacher handed me a book about a girl who ate curry with her fingers, like me? Except that this girl was in a hurry to grow up so she could wrap and tuck six yards of silk around herself, just like her mother did.

“Wear the blue sari to the parent-teacher meeting, Ma,” I might have urged.

Chocolate-colored children today have access to more stories than I did. A few tales originating in their languages have been translated, illustrated, and published.

Characters who look and dress and eat like them fill the pages of some award-winning books. But it’s not enough. Many continue to give up proficiency in their mother tongues and cultures.

“Here’s a story from YOUR world,” I want to tell them. “See how valuable you are?”

“Here’s a book in your language. See how precious it is?”

If we are convincing enough, a few of them might transport us someday to amazing destinations through the power of a well-woven tale.

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This essay was originally published here.

Read more by Mitali Perkins

Books, Culture & Race

More than a tourist: Living deeply across cultures

DSC_1609When I first started to cross cultures, there was a distinctly romantic quality to every adventure – fascination with food and language and buildings and transportation and landmarks. I would inhale the smells and sights and textures with wide eyes, captured by the difference they represented. I would wrap my tongue around the words and sounds, attempting to capture some small meaning with my own mouth. Culture captivated me, and I drank it in with every cup of tea I shared.

As time has passed, however, this romantic captivation slowed, and I found that crossing cultures no longer carried the same zing it once did. In fact, it required more energy with each new encounter for I no longer entered ignorant about my own assumptions and inadequacies.  When I enter a new culture these days, it is slower, more observant, less enraptured. I walk carefully and quietly, curious but patient about the new realities I encounter. After nearly half a lifetime of loving across a culture, the exoticism of such differences is being slowly replaced by a simple expectation of normalcy and humanity.

Click here to read the rest of my guest post this week at Communicating.Across.Boundaries.