Entry on ‘Christianity’ in SAGE: Asian American Society: An Encyclopedia

I’m very excited to have recently received news that the SAGE: Asian American Society: An Encyclopedia (ed. Mary Yu Danico), in which I have an entry on Christianity, has been published. These 2000+ pages of Asian American sociological goodness are going to serve us well for much time to come.

I took a historical look at the literature on Asian American Christianities in my piece and observed that Christianities in Asian American society are both very diverse and very focused on the question of assimilation into white American society. Tracing Christian practice in Asian American communities from missionary encounters (both Protestant and Catholic) down to the articulation by an early twentieth-century second generation that their identities were ‘East/West’ hybrids, I also explored the impact of the Asian American Movement on developing liberation theologies and social justice movements led by Asian American Christians. Finally, I wrapped up with what I interpret as a resurgent conservatism both within Asian American Christian evangelical communities and among those who seek to police Asian American Christian faith, both Protestant and Catholic. I also have a reading of the Los Angeles Koreatown riots in 1992 here that I plan to develop into further research.

I’m very thankful to Mary Yu Danico (Cal Poly Pomona) for taking my piece on board, and I’m grateful to Jane Iwamura (University of the West) for referring me for this project. This was a great way to start finding my bearings during this postdoctoral fellowship. I also used this piece in its manuscript form to push hard for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States to include much more about Asian Americans. I’m hoping to develop many of the ideas that I’ve suggested in this piece into journal articles, and I’m grateful after writing this to realize that for all the talk about there being a dearth of material on Asian American Christianities, our field has plenty of material with which to work.

Book Review (Social and Cultural Geography): Yi-Fu Tuan, Humanist Geography

I’m very happy that the book review I wrote for the Canadian Geographer on Yi-Fu Tuan’s Humanist Geography: An Individual’s Search for Meaning is out.

It’s a neat little book. It’s typical Yi-Fu Tuan — very phenomenological, very personal, and very philosophical. It’s a geographical work aimed at a popular audience to try to suss out the meaning of good and evil in everyday life.

What I found the most intriguing was Tuan’s usage of Buddhist philosophies and Christian theology to answer some of his questions. Indeed — and this is a bit of a spoiler alert — the end of the book is a theological meditation on humanistic geography. Because of this, my review relates what Tuan is trying to say here about humanism, morality, and phenomenology to the work in geographies of religion on how ‘grounded theologies‘ disrupt conventional narratives of the secular.

I’m very excited that this is out, and I’m also excited to let people know that I’m also working on another review of Tuan’s work, also for Canadian Geographer. The next one is called Romantic Geography. Stay tuned!

Bulletin for the Study of Religion: Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus

I’m happy to announce that the Bulletin for the Study of Religion has published a piece that I recently wrote in a review forum on New Testament scholar James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism.

While most of the commentators were biblical scholars, I was asked by the Bulletin‘s editor Phil Tite to comment as a human geographer on Crossley’s book. As it happens, there has indeed been some cross-polllination between biblical studies and human geography, and I knew about this because many of my biblical studies colleagues have expressed to me that their discipline is more like a secular social science than it is theology and that the field comprises people from a variety of theological orientations. In fact, in stark contrast to the high-profile biblical studies firings that we have witnessed in the evangelical world, the mainstream of biblical scholarship would maintain that Crossley’s own theological convictions are completely moot; certainly, they influence his scholarship as any positionality would, but that’s why all scholarship circulates in discplinary conversations. For the conversation between biblical studies and human geography, there has been a five-volume series titled Constructions of Space that has attempted to use the work of human geographers like Henri Lefebvre, Lily Kong, and (honorary geographer) Kim Knott to examine how biblical authors conceptualize and make places.

Crossley’s book is different. His idea of New Testament studies is not simply the study of the New Testament as a text, but also the study of the study of the New Testament. In other words, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism doesn’t look at Jesus in the New Testament text. It examines how contemporary New Testament scholars have interpreted Jesus, and it critiques them for making Jesus a proponent of the political economic ideology that has arguably taken over the world in the last forty years, neoliberalism, i.e. the ideology that the free market must be allowed to run unhindered by government intervention and that it must be protected from violent threats, which has often led to the framing of the MIddle East as an ‘oriental’ geopolitical threat.

As a geographer, I found that Crossley and I seemed to speak the same language. The geographers (and honorary geographers) he cites are similar to the ones on my reading list — Edward Said, David Harvey, Derek Gregory, for example.

As a result, I used my essay to push Crossley to come into his own right as an honorary geographer. Crossley locates New Testament scholars as diverse as John Dominic Crossan, Bruce Malina, N.T. Wright, and even the Pope Emeritus as unintentionally tied up with neoliberal ways of thinking. However, to locate someone in a train of thought is just the beginning of a geographical study, not the end. I wanted to push Crossley to show how New Testament scholars are actually creating and contesting neoliberal political regimes and everyday practices. I don’t just want to read that the historical Jesus is a neoliberal fiction; I want to see how the historical Jesus gets put to work in constructing neoliberalism, as well as challenging it from the inside-out. Indeed, Crossley has a chapter on how one pseudonymous biblio-blogger, N.T. Wrong, consistently challenges his/her/xyr colleagues on their neoliberal assumptions, and I wanted to see how these contestations actually work them out in the production of space.

The example that I gave that illustrates this dynamic is the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). Because Crossley protests against the ‘orientalizing’ practices of neoliberalism, the work of the historical Jesus in this ex-British colony and current site of a ‘one country, two systems’ experiment would be fascinating to investigate. I gave the example of the exchange between megachurch pastor Rev. Daniel Ng Chung-man and the OCLP leader Rev. Chu Yiuming as a case where the historical Jesus became a subject of intense public political debate. I also give a shoutout to my colleagues at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, such as Sam Tsang, Freeman Huen, Nathan Ng, Vincent Lau, and Andres Tang, who have been doing excellent work in public theology in Hong Kong.

This article should be of interest to all who want to understand the contemporary significance of biblical studies in the public sphere. What remains fascinating to me is how much geography is done by biblical scholars, and I am encouraged by what seems to be an exciting trend in exploring how the work of those who study the biblical text (regardless of their theological orientation) has contributed to the making of the world today. I’d like to thank the Bulletin‘s editors Phil Tite and Arlene MacDonald for this exciting opportunity to engage, as this encounter has also shaped my scholarship insofar as I am coming to understand how important it is for me as a social scientist to keep up with my social science colleagues who work in biblical studies.

South China Morning Post: Chinese parents clash with striking Canadian teachers as school year fails to start

Photo: CBC

Yesterday in The South China Morning Post, Ian Young did another spectacular job trying to suss out some of the intricacies of the trans-Pacific social field that we find in Vancouver. In this most recent article, he wrote on how some Chinese parents associated with the British Columbia Parents’ Federation (BCPF) protested the teacher’s union, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), for the strike that is finally starting to come to an end. Young reached out to me for a comment, and this is what I noted about the BCPF:

Dr Justin Tse, an academic who has studied activism within the British Columbia Chinese community, said that although the BCPF’s desire to get children back in class was shared with other opponents of the strike, there was also a strong undercurrent of anti-unionism in general that ran through the protests.

“My sense is that there is a view that unions disrupt business, and most Chinese migrants have this view that unions get in the way of the free market,” said Tse, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington. “For them, it’s not really just the educational stuff – it’s the union stuff.”

The BCPF has garnered supporters via Chinese-language social media, and the couple of dozen members at Sunday’s protests all appeared ethnically Chinese. The federation has attempted to widen its outreach to non-Chinese parents, but these efforts appear to have been aborted, for now. A Facebook page and an English-language website seeking new BCPF members were visible on Sunday, but were taken offline that night.

“A lot [of Chinese immigrants] are kind of scared of public protest,” said Tse. “They want the media to capture their numbers at a protest, but they don’t want to be singled out as individuals, so you get the face mask thing. You can’t really have it both ways, but that is the sentiment.”

Tse said conservative Chinese political activism in BC was informed by “a specific vision of democracy” that focused on majority rule alone, without emphasising some of its other aspects, such as deliberation, consensus and accountability.

“There is this sense that democracy means you get to say your private views in public, no matter how outrageous, because that’s free speech, and that it is all about getting numbers,” said Tse. “This view is that democracy just means majority wins, majority rules.”

My comments here need to be read in conversation with a piece that I wrote on my blog, Religion Ethnicity Wired, arguing that the constitutional issues swirling around the BCTF strike provide a remarkable mirror to the democratic movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace. This is because what I said there qualifies what Ian Young and I talked about in relation to Chinese immigrants.

The impression that I do not want the public to get is that there is something about this nebulous term Chinese culture that is against labour unions, public protest, and deliberative democracy. Such a statement would not only be irresponsible — it would be empirically unsubstantiated. After all, if that were the argument, then movements such as the May Fourth Movement, the Beijing Spring of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, and the recent democratic movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong would have to be marked as un-Chinese. As Craig Calhoun insists in Neither Gods Nor Emperors, it would be more accurate to say that these democratic movements constitute a strand of Chinese tradition. So too, Asian American author Frank Chin observes in his novel Donald Duk that even Confucian concepts like ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ are a de facto form of democratic consciousness because it is a term that can be deployed by the people to criticize unjust power.

However, it is true that many of those associated with the BCPF were ethnic Chinese — its spokespeople seem to be Putonghua-speaking, and as their name suggests, they represent parents. Here, I also rejected the discourse of the ‘tiger parent’: Amy Chua’s essentialist caricature of Asian American (and Asian Canadian) parenting has simply reinforced notions of the ‘model minority’ that should have been put to bed in the late 1960s right where it started. This is not to deny that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians themselves take on the discourse of the ‘model minority’ as an identity statement — indeed, my work explores that at an ethnographic level — but using the ‘model minority’ as an essentialist explanation for Chinese parental behaviour stops the conversation at several points. First, it conveniently isolates Chinese parents from the general population, blinding us to how Chinese parents are saying some of the similar things as even Anglo-Canadians. The second is that it doesn’t get at the specific undercurrents that make up the discourse of the ‘model minority.’

What I’ve done here is to try to listen to what these parents are actually saying. They agree with the general population that the BCTF strike has crippled education in BC. However, while public opinion has been turning against the BC Liberal Government for its flouting of the Canadian constitution and the bargaining rights of the teachers, these parents are placing the blame squarely on the teachers for striking and thus using collective bargaining as a bullying tactic that has put their kids out of school. This sounded a lot like my dissertation research, in which conversations about the BCTF in 2011 (well before this set of strikes) quickly led into discussions of how a variety of labour unions tended to obstruct the free market.

Moreover, it sounded a lot like how many of my interview subjects and focus group participants wanted to participate in public protests, but were shy about having their pictures taken or being interviewed by the press. When members of the public engaged them in debate, they tended to see this as an attack on their freedom of speech instead of an opportunity for public deliberation. Their goal, as they told me, was to build an awareness that the majority in fact supported their positions because that was the point of democracy.

While this could be called ‘Chinese’ in some senses of the word, I prefer to think of it as part of a debate about the relationship between Chineseness and democracy. After all, while such majoritarian and non-deliberative arguments about the nature of democracy certainly comprise one faction in Greater Chinese and trans-Pacific contentions about democracy, there are movements as old as the 1970s — and dare I say, even the May Fourth Movement in 1919 — that advocated for a more deliberative form of democracy that also pays attention to minority rights. In other words, there is a political spectrum among ethnic Chinese views on democracy, and the BCPF represents one strand in a larger conversation. I was asked about the BCPF, so I answered along the lines of what the BCPF represented. But you have to read my blog post on Religion Ethnicity Wired to get the catch on what I said.

In short, I am very happy that Ian Young got me on record about the BCPF. As always, I enjoy my collegial relationship with journalists like Ian who are at the top of their craft. This incident certainly was of public interest in Vancouver, as well as in the trans-Pacific social field, and I look forward to this conversation piece doing what it’s intended to do — engender more conversation!

Christ and Cascadia, Seattle, WA, September 26-27, 2014

I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting in two sessions at an exciting new conference in Seattle. Organized by Fuller Seminary Northwest, the conference, Christ and Cascadia, aims to start a conversation about how Christianity is practiced in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a conference aimed at both practitioners and academics. The venue is First Church at 180 Denny Way, and the dates are September 26-27, 2014.

Registration details can be found here. The schedule can be found here.

I will be speaking at two sessions, both on September 26. The first session, Solidarity and Empowerment, is from 11 AM – 12 PM in Room 3. The organizers tell me that I have 20 minutes to deliver a talk entitled ‘Faith Communities Committed to Solidarity with the Poor: Religious Freedom, Interfaith Initiative, and Poverty Ministry at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver.‘ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how repositioning religious freedom arguments in a Cascadian context may rearticulate their political emphases. From 2007 to 2008, an interfaith coalition of religious congregations and organizations formed Faith Communities Committed to Solidarity with the Poor (FCCSP). Its objective was to lobby the City of Vancouver for Tenth Avenue Alliance Church’s religious freedom to run a homeless food and shelter program without a social services permit. Arguing that a new mandate to obtain a permit dictated to the church what religious practice was and was not, the campaign successfully deployed a religious freedom argument to contend that faith communities of a variety of religious traditions should be able to serve the poor as a core part of their theological practice. Although more conventional religious liberty cases around socially conservative issues have been filed in Cascadia on both the Canadian and American sides, I argue that religious freedom has been rearticulated by FCCSP as a progressive cause that gained wide social acclaim in a liberal Cascadian political climate. This argument is based on key informant interviews with core participants in this activism. This paper thus advances conversations in Christ and Cascadian culture by demonstrating that the oft-celebrated politically progressive politics of the region offers opportunities for faith communities to reframe their public engagements away from a set of narrow ideological issues in order to display the complex totality of their theological commitments.

The second session is on the same day from 4:15 – 5:30 called Mega Churches and Gender: What’s Sex Got to Do With it? in Room 3. Organized by my colleague Elizabeth Chapin, the panel will address gender at a prominent megachurch in Seattle. Because this is a panel session that is meant to be more conversational, I am compiling my thoughts into a paper for publication right now, but tentatively, my talk will focus on Mars Hill Church in Seattle and private property ownership.

If you are interested in Christianity in the Pacific Northwest, we really hope to see you there!