Church for Vancouver: Missions Fest: Learning to listen to non-Western voices

I’m writing this to thank Flyn Ritchie for his coverage of my work on Church for Vancouver even though I’m not one of the speakers at the 2015 Missions Fest Conference. Missions Fest is an annual conference in January started by evangelicals in Metro Vancouver to raise awareness for missionary agencies and Christian non-profit organizations, as well as to promote interactions between churches through large plenary sessions. Putting me alongside actual Missions Fest speakers like North Park Theological Seminary’s Soong-Chan Rah and Operation Mobilisation’s Lawrence Tong, Ritchie says that my work at Regent College this last week (as covered by Ian Young in his South China Morning Post blog) is consonant with an emerging theme at this upcoming MIssions Fest, even though I won’t be there.

This is a very interesting point to me, as I’ve never really thought of my work as having much in common with Rah and Tong. But Ritchie is making me think about how close the academy really can be to the ground. Just as the Regent College talk drew a standing-room only audience that was primarily constituted by members of the Chinese Christian community (both first- and second-generation), my sense is that there is a thriving interest in communities as to what members of the academy are thinking.

In particular, Ritchie’s post raises the stakes for debates in Global and World Christianity. Rebecca Kim, a sociologist at Pepperdine University, has just written a book called The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America, where she details the emergence of three schools of thought in this area – Global Christianity, World Christianity, and American Global Christianity. As Kim sees it, academics with a ‘Global Christianity’ vein examine how Christians participate in processes of political, economic, and cultural globalization and may be complicit even with neocolonial processes in the global economy. By contrast, scholars of ‘World Christianity’ analyze how Christians in non-European and non-American contexts contextualize Christian practices within their own symbolic framework. ‘American Global Christianity,’ which is Kim’s work, looks at how non-Western Christians come to America having been educated in the context of the global political economy and attempt to change Christianity here in America. What’s interesting is that if you read Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism, most people will see his ‘cultural captivity of the Western church’ as a critique of people who participate in American Global Christianity, but he uses work in World Christianity (e.g. Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls, Phil Jenkins, and Dana Robert) to get the job done. To all this, I’ll also add a thriving field in the anthropology of Christianity, which is a field of study that Christian communities probably should be grappling with at some point, as it goes beyond contextualization to examining how Christians actually participate in the making of modern cultural practices; examples are Webb Keane, Omri Elisha, Pamela Klassen, Susan Harding, etc. I teach all the views in my trans-Pacific Christianities course, if you’re wondering.

I say all of this because Ritchie is making us think about why these debates matter. Does it matter to communities that there are schools of thought that differ on the question of colonization and Christianity? Does it matter to communities that academic need more funding to do ethnographic field work and quantitative data collection among ‘American Global Christian’ communities? How does it matter? Why does it matter?

Ritchie’s answer is probably that it does matter, which is why he interestingly lumps me, someone who is not speaking at Missions Fest, in with the Missions Fest speakers. In his words:

This has nothing to do with Missions Fest, but it is consistent with the messages of Soong-Chan Rah and Lawrence Tong, and is a good example of a situation in which Asian-influenced Christianity is affecting culture, both in Hong Kong and here in Vancouver.

This statement raises all sorts of questions about how what Ritchie calls an ‘Asian-influenced Christianity’ and ‘culture’ should be conceptualized. It makes me think about what would happen if Rah, Tong, and I ended up on a panel together. Would we really agree? What would be the lines of convergence? Where would we diverge? And, best of all, if this really happens, could we get Rebecca Kim to moderate?

A final thought: if Ritchie is wanting to get a sense of ‘non-Western voices,’ perhaps the Asian Americans on the panel aren’t the only people he should be looking at. Hidden in the program is the presence of my friend and colleague, University of British Columbia philosopher of education Sam Rocha. He is playing music at 1:30 PM before the 2 PM plenary session, and his set will be drawn from his recent soul/jazz album Late to Love, which is his cryptic ‘folk phenomenology’ reading of St. Augustine’s Confessions. For what ‘folk phenomenology’ means, see my review of the album. But folk phenomenology is not read about. It’s experienced – better, it’s encountered. If Ritchie wants to get a sense of what ‘non-Western voices’ feel like, here’s where he’s going to get it.

In short, even though I won’t be there, I’m making an argument about Missions Fest. If you’re going, perhaps the most important thing to see this year won’t be a plenary session or an evangelical charity. Perhaps it will be a little opening ‘Prelude of Praise’ by this Catholic among the evangelicals who will orientate you in precisely the ways that Ritchie wants to describe the ‘non-Western voices’ as doing.

1:30 PM, January 31, Saturday, right before the 2 PM plenary session. Be there.

South China Morning Post Hongcouver Blog: How Hong Kong’s history helps explain the Umbrella Movement and Vancouver’s activist evangelicals

I’m grateful that Ian Young has taken the time to post thoughts from my lecture at Regent College on his blog at the South China Morning Post, The Hongcouver. The argument in my lecture was fairly big, so I appreciate how Young has digested the work and tailored it to a Hong Kong-Vancouver public sphere.

Photo: Yu Chung-yin/SCMP

The main point I was trying to make in this lecture was that Hong Kong can be theorized as having what public sphere theorist Michael Warner calls an ‘evangelical public sphere.’ This term is based on recent developments as social theorists, sociologists, and historians have begun thinking about how the Anglo-American public sphere came about. It turns out that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the structures of the public sphere had a lot to do with evangelical Protestants circulating their materials for moral reform. As it turns out, events like the Golden Jubilee Incident in 1978 – far into the twentieth century – set the tone for much of the protest culture that is to come. Moreover, this protest culture bifurcated into two understandings of democracy – one very much based on this sort of protest culture that may not even be dominated by evangelicals anymore, and one that seems to get a lot more evangelical attention which focuses on maintaining the rule of law for economic stability. The Umbrella Movement, as I suggest, is the climax of these two protest cultures going head to head, and while the Umbrella Movement is most certainly not dominated by evangelicals, what I am saying is that the structures of the evangelical public sphere put in place a sort of anti-corruption strategy through ‘genuine universal suffrage.’

These suggests raise several points of clarification that I need to make to this Hong Kong-Vancouver public sphere. As an academic, most of my arguments are targeted toward intervening into what we still need to know more about. What we don’t know much about in the academy is the role of evangelicals in Hong Kong’s public sphere – there has been much more substantial talk about mainline Protestants (historic and official Protestant denominations) and the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong, and this is arguably the same in the Vancouver and San Francisco Asian Canadian and Asian American studies contexts as well. With this massive gap in the academic literature about the role that evangelicals have played in shaping these trans-Pacific public spheres, it makes sense to understand their centrality in pushing back against some of the more dominant social, political, and religious forces in this region’s cities. These knowledge gaps are important for the public to know about because they inevitably affect public discourse later down the road, especially when the public comes calling for academics to weigh in.

However, I still need to make some clarifications. First, to the Vancouver public sphere. My work in this lecture suggested that the Umbrella Movement demands a recalibration of how Chinese Christians in Vancouver are understood, including in the ways that they have protested, including for socially conservative causes like traditional family values politics. Indeed, the larger point that I made was that Vancouver’s public sphere itself needs to be reconceptualized as perhaps more theological than we think, for the conversations on racialization, indigenous sovereignty politics, environmental issues, sexuality politics, and property values have a lot more theological lacing than perhaps the participants in this public sphere have realized. However, I did not flesh it out more fully, so do hold your breath for how that will come about – I have stuff coming through my own academic pipeline, so to speak (with apologies to the actual pipeline debates). There is some talk, for example, about how many of the more recent traditional family values politics in schools have been populated by more recent Putonghua-speaking migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That is only a surface observation. Stay tuned for more work from me.

As for the Hong Kong public sphere, I recognize that in an era of post-1980s and post-1990s local identity politics, observations made in a Hong Kong-Vancouver transnational public sphere can be received as ‘not local.’ I agree that Hong Kong issues should be framed in Hong Kong terms – and I hope that the lecture does indeed just that – but I disagree that Hong Kong issues should only be spoken to Hong Kong people.

And thus, a few clarifications.

In terms of traditional family values politics, I fully recognize that Hong Kong has had its fair share of evangelical Protestants working this vein of the public sphere, including the Hong Kong Sex-Culture Society, the Society for Truth and Light, and the Alliance for Family Values. I have kept up with the debates about the Hong Kong Cathedral protest in 2003, the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance and its effect on the 2005 1 July Demonstration, the Gay Lovers documentary fiasco and the subsequent Cho Man Kit v. Broadcasting Authority, the Family Domestic Violence Ordinance, 113, and etc. This will require a separate paper to flesh out, and indeed, I’ve begun revising a conference presentation from a few years back to do just that.

Also, it’s fairly important to notice that I’ve titled the paper ‘the Hong Kong protests and evangelical theology.’ While the impetus for this paper is certainly the Umbrella Movement, the paper was not about the Umbrella Movement, per se, but about the emergence of a Hong Kong protest culture that may have roots in the participation of evangelicals in the nascent democratic activism of the 1970s and its effects on contemporary democratic geographies in Hong Kong, including the Umbrella Movement. A deeper analysis of the Umbrella Movement’s protest landscapes and religious participation in creating them is still necessary, and indeed, is coming out of more than one academic’s pipeline, including mine. Stay tuned.

Many thanks to Ian Young for reporting on the talk, and I hope that this will generate a lot of conversation in this trans-Pacific public sphere.

Regent College: ‘What Can I Do For This City?’ The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology

On January 22, I gave a talk at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia titled ‘”What Can I Do For This City” The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology.‘ It was a noon hour talk. Here was the description:

Known as the “Umbrella Movement,” the 2014 Hong Kong protests for democracy have captured the world’s attention, not least for the participation of Christians. This talk will trace this Christian democratic tradition to the rise of an evangelical tradition in Hong Kong, emphasizing the separation of churches and the colonial state, and the trans-Pacific dimensions of Hong Kong’s evangelical tradition. This lecture will be of interest to those who want to know why Christians in Vancouver should care about Hong Kong.

We had quite the turnout. Room 100, a standard lecture classroom, packed out. The motley crew appeared to include first-generation Chinese Christian leaders, second-generation pastors, and a diverse crowd of Regent College students. It was – for all intents and purposes – fun!

Regent College did make a recording, and the Cantonese-speaking Omni News also covered the event for that day. We will put a link to the recording here when it is available.

I want to thank everyone who came out on what could have been their lunch hour. Specific thanks go to Regent Bookstore’s Bill Reimer and Regent College VP Patti Towler and Dean Jeff Greenman, as well as Trish Pattenden for organizing and advertising, and Rick Smith and Joe Lee for helping with audiovisual equipment. My hope is that this talk was informative for all who attended and will be useful going forward for Regent College in engaging Asian Canadian and trans-Pacific communities in their endeavour to put an ecumenical flavour of evangelical graduate education to work on the Pacific Rim.

UPDATE: This lecture received full reporting from Ian Young at the South China Morning Post. I’m grateful to Ian for attending and for reporting so generously.