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Eastern Promise, Eastern Promises: Dreams, Hope, & Glee’s “Asian F”

Eastern Promise, Eastern Promises: Dreams, Hope, & Glee‘s “Asian F”

(This post is about a recent episode of Glee, titled “Asian F.” You can watch it here: Asian F.)

MIKE CHANG, SR.: Deep in Hubei province this old woman knew the best school in the United States. That’s where my son belongs… My son got an A- on his chemistry test. An A- is an Asian F… An A- won’t do… It’s clear to me that either Michael is on drugs or that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. He needs to quite Glee club. Performing is a waste of his time…
MIKE CHANG, JR.: I’ll do better dad. I promise. Get me a chemistry tutor, I’ll pay for it myself.  Just give me one more chance.

The unfinished story of Asian F

Through two simple, but by all accounts authentic, minutes of dialogue, Glee takes a stab at a story and life that is true for a good many Asian Americans. Glee of course isn’t a realistic (in the sense of serious) drama; while its characters are often dismissed as caricatures, they are caricatures of normal people in a normal world with normal problems. Mike Chang, Jr., the focus of “Asian F,” is no different. Many of the bloggers seem content to slap an obligatory label of “stereotype!” on the episode, calling it well-trodden material (which I find strange; if anything, there’s a dearth of mainstream portrayals of Asian America), ready to move on to critical and artistic thoughts elsewhere.

Perhaps these mostly-white writers are dismissive because the tropes seem derogatory while they instead affirm a progressive approach to diversity. Or perhaps we (Asian Americans) are ready to move on because the story is so familiar and familial to us. But while we’ve heard it, or deride it, or can catalog and inventory all the particular contours and permutations, it doesn’t mean it’s finished. The story of “Asian F” still lacks a proper ending, much less a happy one. Because you don’t have to be a performing artist to know the uncomfortable stalemate we still face when it comes to hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Even if we desire to reach some promised land of egalitarian diversity, it doesn’t deal with the places we’re coming from or going home to.

What’s more, I’m not sure we’ve dared to understand the story deeply enough, since dwelling on it is known to cause us strife. But we need to, because until we do, we will carry on ignorant, resigned, or unreconciled in ourselves. So I’m going to examine Glee’s “Asian F” and the bigger story that many Asian Americans are living. As I analyze the episode, let’s allow it to speak to us as a representation of the lives we live and take an honest look at what is really going on – not just on-screen but in ourselves.

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Loving our “enemy”: Conversation instead of Controversy

If you’re moderately immersed in American church/Christian culture, you’ve likely heard by now the hubbub (or really, firestorm) related to Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.” This post will NOT be about the book itself. Rather, I’ll make some brief comments about the nature of the discourse – how it has unfortunately become a controversy instead of a conversation. If you need a brush-up on the details, Mars Hill Church (Seattle) of the famous and hard-hitting Mark Driscoll – funnily enough, Bell’s church in Grand Rapids, MI is also called Mars Hill – published a clear and unbiased chronology (complete with article and video links) about the “Rob Bell and Hell” issue.

Let me start by saying that if it matters in any sense, I extend forgiveness to any figures I find fault with. I don’t mean that in a condescending fashion (that they owe me an apology) – I mean it in a spirit of grace, hoping that we can all speak with one even when criticizing others.

There obviously two things to be considered. First is the substance or content of Bell’s claims. I will address that only briefly at the end because it isn’t the point of my post. Second however is the quality and tone of the conversation. By that I mean it has not been a conversation, it has been mostly anger and disrespect.

I have been largely frustrated by the emotions and tone that many church leaders or opinionators have.  Jesus tells us in Luke 6:27-28 – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29” But most of what I’ve heard is angry and judgmental.

I was saddened by the original flag-raising post by Justin Taylor from the Gospel Coalition. I don’t actually disagree at all with the theological concerns he raises, but the tone he used was dismissive and self-confident which is implicitly condemning – and nobody at this point had even read the book (Taylor included). Again, I agree (and agreed at that time) with the concerns or questions he had, even about the potentially false doctrine coming from Bell as a pastor. But Taylor’s tone was haughty and conscending. It is unfortunate and ironic to me that on his own info page he discusses the value of comments (from readers presumably) as follows:

I hope this can be a place where we “seek understanding” before critiquing, where we are quick to listen and slow to speak, where we judge others charitably, not critically, where we encourage and build up each other rather than tearing down and destroying each other.” (Justin Taylor’s “ABOUT” page)

He later amended his post by removing some dismissive words – some phrases were softened, and he removed a scriptural reference of 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, calling Bell a servant of “Satan who disguises himself as an angel of light.” He did not apologize for his tone or the condemning weight of the scripture he cited. I find this unfortunate, it makes me very sad.

I was also saddened and somewhat annoyed by the brief and inane post by Pastor John Piper – the renowned and influential man tweeted the extremely condescending preface of “Farewell Rob Bell” to Taylor’s post the same day. Furthermore, I was disappointed and shocked at the asininity from a figure as eminent, respected, and influential as John Piper! Of all men to know the power of words and the responsibility to weigh them according to one’s God-given influence, came the most bizarrely cavalier of comments in the most inane of mediums. He has written and spoken great and Godly things which I have benefited from; I’m not sure this tweet is one of them.

Interestingly enough, Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill in Seattle – typically known as firebrand – was exceedingly calm about the whole issue. His only Twitter update pertaining to the Bell controversy was a question, less assuming simply “Rob Bell: Universalist” with a link to the same Taylor article. Even though Driscoll may have agreed with Taylor and be wary about Bell, at least his publicly-visible commentary was still one of openness. His response was ultimately a webpage explaining a critically-sound Biblical view of life, death, and hell. It is calm, does not fall into name-calling, even as it essentially refutes much of Bell’s content.

Obviously there are valid justifications for anger in certain circumstances which may be pertain to this situation, and I want to allow for them. Someone will inevitably state that Bell, as a pastor/teacher, is held to a higher standard (James 3:1, and so on). Thus, if Bell is teaching heterodoxy, other teachers who faithfully uphold scripture have the responsibility to come against Bell’s false teaching. And I agree with that.  Some authors did – Kevin DeYoung of the Gospel Coalition (same site as Justin Taylor) wrote on multiple occasions about the issue, first here (still before the book’s release) and then he does a thorough book review here (20 pages in length).

Both times he is angry and a bit vitriolic, but I do think that at least he presents his direct scriptural reasons for his emotions.  DeYoung’s tone is presented in a clear and unambiguous fashion (always prefaced by scripture and that he is concerned about false doctrine) and he even calls attention to the possible pitfalls of judgmentalism:

It is possible that I (like other critics) am mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel. But voicing strong disagreement does not automatically make me any of these. Judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments.

He explains his anger in a Biblical fashion and tells us that he is attempting to express it correctly for edification and correct teaching. He does the best job possible of explaining a Biblical and rhetorical framework within which his anger makes sense. He has given me his word that he is taking care to avoid judgmentalism and I take it as such. It helps also that he has the presence of mind to explain the issues before we go into the article. And he provides clear evidence from scripture and from Bell to make his points. Thus there is a right and a wrong way to uphold clear teaching in the false of false teachers.

I think that Taylor and Piper have done it the wrong way. Note that Taylor’s caveat or qualifiers come only at the end of his piece and after the firestorm has started – he is backtracking to soften his blows. Moreover, Taylor’s only scriptural reference (calling Bell a servant of Satan, which was redacted ultimately) is not presented to us as evidence to measure Bell by (e.g., scripture that clearly states the meaning and nature of hell to contradict Bell’s divergent ideas) but rather as judgmental justification. And of course Piper might say that he did not mean to be condescending or judgmental, but then he shouldn’t have reduced his words to a tweet in the first place.

All that said, I do recognize that even as we are to be vigilant about our words, sometimes we get carried away or we don’t recognize just how much attention they will draw. While I do hold these men to a higher standard as they are called and presume themselves teachers, I also give them grace for human errors. I am not calling any of these bloggers liars, I just mean that some of them called Bell out properly, and some did not.

Perhaps the most nuanced direct response to the controversy and the book comes from Christianity Today book review. It is not angry. It tries to affirm what is godly. And then it goes and lines it up with scripture and declares it wanting. But the author does so with love and grace even as he writes with truth. This is a right way to speak out against false teaching.

To end this, I quote Justin Taylor’s page:

I would encourage commenters to consider carefully the following commands and principles regarding our speech:

  • “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).
  • “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).
  • “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).
  • “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
  • Speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:1525).
  • “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

I am praying that we all, even with right theology, would clearly and unambiguously explain ourselves but do so graciously. Let these be markers of all of us as we engage in conversation about loaded issues (whether this or any other one) instead of devolving into judgmental controversy.

For those who simply must know about my theological stance – I am a traditionalist. The author/proclamation that I ascribe to most closely without deviation is probably Tim Keller’s 2005 article on his Redeemer Church website, called “The importance of hell.” His scriptural highlighting and dealing with counterarguments is clear, concise, and well-constructed around the Bible both specifically in verses as well and overarchingly from the Biblical meta-narrative of who God is. He effectively defangs Bell’s assertions about hell; Bell says God lets people repent in hell and so don’t worry, but Keller points out that hell is the ultimate place for those who don’t want God.  Repenting in hell is impossible, NOT because God doesn’t want them but they don’t want Him.

Stuff to Do vs. Father to Love

I recently saw this humorous “informercial” YouTube video called “Pre-Blessed Food!” In short, you should buy this food because it’s pre-blessed, meaning you don’t have to pray before meals. Obviously it’s a satire about Christian marketing, with all the hyped-up elements and self-aware “it’s the 20th century; we can sell anything!” not to mention the “that’s not all.” But to me it’s also a comment on how we view prayer, or any other spiritual discipline (or habit of faithfulness if you prefer). And I probably am picking up on it because I am a major perpetrator of this kind of thinking/living/worship.

In this silly vision, spiritual activity is a marketable or capitalistic-substitutable item. “I don’t have to pray (thankfully!) because someone else already did!” It’s an pre-requisite instead of relationship. Do we see praying before meals (or any other particular act of devotional life) this way? I wonder if our spiritual lives don’t suffer from an over-amped achievement orientation, where we take the idea of a Protestant work ethic into unsafe territory (ultimately, works-righteousness).

At our staff retreat we focused on Luke 15 – Parable of the Lost Son. While the younger son goes and ruins his life with soul-destructive wild living, the elder son doesn’t do much better. In fact he ruins his soul with his over-concern for obedience and work. While he avoids the flagrant sins of his brother, he also manages to avoid the relationship with his father. And that of course is the real problem with all of us and our world.

Thus, both sons become define by their actions – one by sin, one by obedience. In fact, both are made irrelevant and taken care of by relationship with the Father. I don’t to sermonize about how this might affect our Christmas-time experience etc. so I won’t. I hope however that in Christmas, and always, we see our Christian faith as about the Father to love instead of just doing what He says. It’s so much richer that way.

Christian? Or Christian Culture? K-Love vs. Colbert on Christmas

I recently got to visit my good friend Ben from Duke IV the other day. As we were in the car, he lamented to me that one of the nationally-syndicated Christian radio stations, really seemed hypocritical to him. It always calls itself “positive and encouraging,” and claims that it’s main mission is to broadcast content (whether music, mini-sermons or even down to its choice of DJs) that is God-glorifying, and Christ-centered. But during Christmas, “of all times!” said Ben, they regularly broadcast distinctly secular songs!

Now I’m not someone who always cares about the so-called sacred/secular divide, but Ben has a point. Not that I dislike “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Here Comes Santa Claus” but do those have a place on a Christian radio station? No. But they do have place on a Christian Culture radio station. I’m not trying to be legalistic, but if you claim that all your content is Christ-centered, then you can’t blast a song about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. Nice as they may be to sing or enjoy, they are not at all related to Christ. Maybe they’re harmless, but what you’ve done is expressed that Christmas is as much about our cultural secularization as it is about Christ. And that’s a problem.

The pains of trying to live out Christianity in our lives and in our culture are always present and very hard to deal with. Conversely, I came across a video from Stephen Colbert. I don’t always agree with his word choice, political views, or his satirical approach but his supposed-satire clip — click here to watch it, called “Jesus is a Liberal Democrat” — is a lot more disturbing (because it might be true/logical) than we want to admit. Unlike the Christian radio station, Colbert’s message about Jesus doesn’t subsume or make excuses for secularized cultural values that have become associated with Jesus or Christmas.

Colbert’s last line is a very honest attempt to try and instantiate Biblical commands in life – to be Christian instead of the self-justified Christian culture that we often cling to:

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition & then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

Again, decide what you will about his political values or the specific actions suggested by the satire (welfare etc.) but the process at least of Christian vs. Christian culture should make us pause to examine what we call Christmas, or Christian.

Real American Spirituality: what “Grilled Cheesus” really means

Real American Spirituality: What “Grilled Cheesus” Really Means

(This post is about a recent & controversial episode of Glee, titled “Grilled Cheesus.” You can watch it here: Grilled Cheesus)

The world “Grilled Cheesus” aside

Most American Christians likely felt a little alienated or at least alone at some point in their lives. Unless you went to a Christian school or lived in the Bible belt, it was not popular (socially or numerically) to be a Christian.  We were not the norm. So we grew to believe that those around us weren’t interested in God or Jesus or spiritual things, and started to think they had it all figured out for themselves. When told to share the Gospel, we figured the best thing to do is put “Christian” as our religious view on Facebook and then be a good person, hoping some non-Christian would notice our “different life” and then ask us about Jesus-y things. Only then could we speak about Him. God was abnormal, or even unnecessary.

Why? Maybe because the things we saw on TV or in movies made it seem that way. Where is God in the movies? Nowhere. Does a real God ever show up in Chicago, Casino Royale, Inception, The Notebook, 101 Dalmatians, Anchorman, Forrest Gump?  Don’t take this to mean that I think all art and media should be all Christian-y things, but I don’t prefer the present extreme atheism. There’s no room on screen for people who want to know God or think He might actually be a big deal. The normal portrayal of American life is one without God, a God-absent world, a literally non-theistic universe. It wasn’t even a debate about God vs. no God.  It was a given, taken for granted, that God did not exist.

People joke the Disney gives people unrealistic expectations of romance, but it isn’t all a joke. Our formative stories, our narrative benchmarks come from what we see, and what we saw told us that not-God was normal.  When the TV world never showed us God, we got used to a never-talking-about-God world outside of church. He’s known by proxy at best when Christians are mocked.  But He doesn’t even get to have a name or acknowledged existence.

In Simply Christian, N.T. Wright explains that Western society for the last two hundred years now has been ruled by a philosophy of skepticism, “making most people materialists by default… The goal was to make religion a small subdepartment of ordinary life, safe and separated off from everything else in the world, whether politics, art, sex, economics, or whatever… Live as if the rumor of God had never existed!” (Wright, 20).  So that’s why.  So where is God? The only place “safe” to put God is in fantastical supernatural-realm stories.

On TV: the CW show Supernatural is about a pair of good-looking brothers who kill monsters and demons. Occasionally, an angel from heaven will enlist their help in fighting evil (Buffy the Vampire Slayer redux).  Some movies I can think of: Konstantine or Legion are about evil forces. God is a violent warmonger who is busy with His cosmic machinations. Why can God exist here? Because this is where we put figments of fantasy. Yes, these works portray God prominently but they aren’t really, for lack of a better term, normal. These are paranormal. Their God is fiction only, not a real God, not a real anything for real life.

What “Grilled Cheesus” did

Before we get into why it matters, we have to understand what the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did. While Glee isn’t a realistic drama, its caricatures are of normal people in normal life with normal problems (sex drives and popularity), not paranormal problems (portals to the underworld). “Grilled Cheesus” gives us three stories of real-enough folks.  It is not that these stories boast excellent theology, or good acting (though Sue Sylvester never disappoints). But together  they offer something meaningful, even necessary: it portrayed the closest thing to real people who expect real things from a (potentially) real God. It may not sound like much, but God is permitted to have His own name, and to have some real (or real people’s) expectations placed on Him – Finn needs the Provider, Kurt needs a Father, and Sue asked for a Healer. God is portrayed as God of the normal world.

Finn’s prayers – win the football game, get to second base with Rachel, become quarterback again – are base and selfish, but they are probably the prayers of many. His disillusionment in Emma’s office is the experience of many people trying to find their way. Kurt’s issue with God is that “[He’s] kind of a jerk. First he makes me gay, then has his followers going around telling me it’s something that I chose, as if someone would choose to be mocked every single day of their life.” Kurt met some of God’s people and they treated him badly and he has no interest in the  One who purportedly told them to do it.

Sue’s desire was for her sister to be cured of Down syndrome so that the teasing and mocking would stop. Her bitterness is the tough side of hopelessness and helplessness. When she plays checkers with her sister Jean, Sue is the one who asks “Do you believe in God, Jeanie?” When Sue explains why she can’t believe in God, Jeanie responds, “God doesn’t make mistakes, that’s what I believe.” Sue has no words. Jean asks, “Do you want me to pray for you?”, and Sue replies, “That would be nice” with tears in her eyes. Her bitterness is the leftovers from an aching heart. What they exhibit is like real-life for once.

I seriously cannot remember another time where the heaviness of God was allowed to have its weight in the media like this. “Grilled Cheesus” doesn’t save us or fix anything, but on national television (whether the writers meant to or not) it gave God His name, and His role in a proper place. What the episode doesn’t do obviously is present to us an image of the Gospel. If anything, its virtue of choice was consideration and tolerance.  But Real American Spirituality as it is isn’t a perfect understanding of the Gospel, it’s a perfectly complex confusion of everybody’s issues and information.

The wrong response

What do we do with this then? Didn’t I just admit up there that “Grilled Cheesus” didn’t change the world? I do have some thoughts that I’d like to share. But before we get there, it’s here that I’m forced to make some comments about what many Christians did when they saw this episode: they got mad.

Here are two real comments I found on the Glee Facebook page when posting of the “Grilled Cheesus” episode (names redacted): “Not one of them confessed Jesus was and is God. What a lame episode” (JL) and “Very bad and disrespectful episode…some people still consider God sacrid [sic] and not to be mocked by some brainless teen praying to a sandwich… (AK). From the Call & Response blogpost by Amy Thompson Sevimli, some pastors she knew did not like the episode; “Pastors wrote things like: ‘Terrible episode.’ ‘The theology wasn’t very good.’ ‘Watered-down Christianity unrelated to the real Jesus.’” The other Call & Response blogpost by Beth Felker Jones, intended as critique, asserts that the episode portrays stilted views of God, not the real and living YHWH, then reminds us that we need more than these puppets. To conclude, she quips: “the incarnation is a great place to start.” What she means by the “the incarnation” is probably good, but vague, and her thoughts bear no clear connection with the episode’s material. Her whole piece just seems to state the obvious instead of providing an insightful criticism.

Safe to say, some Christians are mad because the episode was irreverent. Would it help them to know that the writers didn’t intend to be really sacrilegious? They were as fair and even-handed as they knew how to be:  “We went through and counted it word by word and line by line. Every time somebody said something anti-religion, we made sure somebody said something pro,” said the show’s founder Ryan Murphy (Entertainment Weekly). What Murphy et al attempted was their honest and fair representation of American spirituality. Or were we hoping for something more orthodox?

I do not expect that the secular media establishment is going to preach the Gospel better than Billy Graham.  JL’s comment (“What a lame episode”) indicates a very entitled view of Christianity, as if the unbelievers are the ones who ought to know how to behave or what to believe. I’m all for people professing Jesus as Lord (I’m committed to this professionally, for not a lot of money), but “what a lame episode” is a very unchristian posture to maintain – in 1 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” I really like it when the secular media produces images, icons or stories that echo Christian faith/themes, but I don’t think it’s righteous to condemn them when they don’t. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)  If they don’t know Jesus, how can we expect them to act like new creations?

Calling the unbelievers unorthodox is a tautology, wasted energy that could’ve been spent on something else. Paul doesn’t bother to issue an opinion on the non-Christians’ sinfulness or heterodox beliefs, he gets on with his life and God’s mission to share Christ with them. Do we blame soot for leaving stains? It’s obvious that the episode does not represent the Real Christian Faith. Thus, the first lesson is to stop expecting the secular media to do so – it’s not productive, nor is it a very Christian understanding of the world.

A better response

I mentioned at the beginning that many Christians believe that the non-God world is the norm where nobody wants to talk about God. I’m returning to it now. This episode offered us a rare snapshot from the real world as it is, and it told us that it wants God, it longs for God, and it needs God. Not in so many words, but enough to be heard. And that should remind us of truths we tend to forget very readily.

In fact, we shouldn’t even have needed the Glee episode to tell us that people are eager for God.  Jesus already told us this in Luke 10:2 and Matthew 9:37 – “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” It is a statement of fact. Right now, the harvest is plentiful, and God knows this. The question is do we know it? Or are we still fooled into believing that the normal world is a non-God world?  Jesus says, “take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Who will we believe – God and His Son, or the culture around us?  Jesus promised us that He will be with us to the very end of the age as we go out and make disciples. But He has more grace for us. And just when we forget the Scripture, He beckons us to reap the harvest with things like this this episode.

For pastors who bothered to tweet inanities like “Watered-down Christianity unrelated to the real Jesus” or “The theology wasn’t very good,” please remember, God saved and commissioned you into service not to judge the unbelievers, but to bring them to Him so He could save them from the same sin you and I were all under. Jesus demonstrates that each sin or shortcoming (heterodoxy included) is a chance for Him to introduce Himself anew – the Wedding Feast of Cana or the would-be stoning of the adulteress come to mind. You could’ve tweeted, “I’ll buy coffee for anyone who wants to talk about this week’s Glee episode.” We do not get an opinion, what we get is the opportunity to advance His Kingdom, to be made into His likeness, to feel compassion and pain for the lost.

Rarely do I call something “refreshingly honest” but that’s what comes to mind for “Grilled Cheesus.” It didn’t preach the Gospel proper but maybe, subconsciously, quietly in that art-oriented darkness of the mind, it reminded unbelievers that their questions, anger, or confusion are permissible. Maybe it reminded Christians that the need is there; it may be hidden underneath a patina of materialism or generic agnosticism, but it is there. God desperately desires to meet every Finn, Kurt, and Sue if only someone would introduce them to Him. Is it offensive to ask God for help in hooking up with someone, to compare God to a dwarf in a teapot, or to say God doesn’t listen to prayers? Yes. But does God love Finn any less for his impertinence, Kurt any less for his rejection or Sue any less for her bitterness? Not at all. In fact, God loved Finn, Kurt and Sue so much that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life. For every Finn, Kurt and Sue in our lives, we ought to let them know that too.

Finn praying to the Grilled Cheesus before a football game.