When Soong-Chan Rah received an advertisement for a 2004 Vacation Bible School curriculum published by the nation's largest Protestant denomination, he thought it was a joke.
Then the pastor of the Cambridge [Mass.] Community Fellowship Church visited LifeWay Christian Resources' website.
After examining promotional materials for Far Out Far East Rickshaw Rally: Racing to the Son, he was outraged.
The materials for the VBS curriculum include what critics call "stereotypical 'Oriental' images of rickshaws, chopsticks, takeout boxes, kimonos, and karate uniforms."
"I was shocked, stunned that they would pass this off as Christian education," Rah said. Unsatisfied with LifeWay's response to his concerns, in December Rah set up a website to oppose the curriculum. The site says, "It's devastating and disturbing to know that there are children in many different churches across the U.S. whose first exposure to Asian culture will be this stereotypical, racially offensive material."
Rah, a Maryland-born man of Korean descent, grew up Southern Baptist and taught from LifeWay's materials as a collegian. But the Evangelical Covenant Church pastor believes Rickshaw Rally uses mocking and insensitive images.
He's not the only one concerned. His Web-based petition against the curriculum gathered approximately 1,100 signatures in its first month. The petition continues to gather signatories.
Rah said some petition supporters have suggested a LifeWay boycott and pickets of its retail stores.
But the Southern Baptist Convention agency isn't backing down. Rob Phillips, LifeWay's communications director, said some people have called Rickshaw Rally the best curriculum the agency has ever produced.
He cites testimonials from various natives of Asia and from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which is often at odds with the SBC's conservative leadership.
"We believe our materials are biblically sound," Phillips said. "The feedback from various sources … has been overwhelmingly positive. We believe the right thing to do is look at it from a ministry point of view."
Phillips estimates that at least 20,000 churches will use the curriculum this summer.
LifeWay President Jimmy Draper rejects claims that the material is racially offensive.
"I am deeply offended by this, and am saddened by the way our critics have used this inflammatory term to attack us," he wrote in a statement on LifeWay's website.
Southern Baptist ethicist Ben Mitchell takes a middle view. It is unrealistic to expect LifeWay to withdraw the curriculum, he said, but LifeWay should apologize publicly for the sake of the SBC's reputation.
"For many people," said the Trinity International University professor, "it will either confirm their view of Southern Baptists as parochial and culturally naïve at best, or it will make them suspicious of our commitment to racial justice and ethnic sensitivity."
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Lifeway's Rickshaw Rally curriculum is available online.
Reconsidering Rickshaw Rally has material opposing the curriculum.
The Florida Baptist Witness published a point and counterpoint on the controversy.
Other coverage of the debate over the materials has appeared in The Tennessean, Baptist Press, Associated Baptist Press, and Religion News Service. Christian blogger D.J. Chuang has accumulated several other links about the controversy.
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