Social and Cultural Geography: ‘Highway to Heaven’: the creation of a multicultural, religious landscape in suburban Richmond, British Columbia (co-authored with Claire Dwyer and David Ley)

I am pleased to announce that a paper from the collaborative project that I conducted with Claire Dwyer (University College London) and David Ley (UBC) on the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, British Columbia has been published by Social and Cultural Geography. It has been quite a journey getting this one published from its earlier incarnation as a conference paper and now into a peer-reviewed journal. I’m glad that it’s out, and I hope to take a crack at another one soon enough.

The abstract is as follows:

We analyse the emergence of the ‘Highway to Heaven’, a distinctive landscape of more than 20 diverse religious buildings, in the suburban municipality of Richmond, outside Vancouver, to explore the intersections of immigration, planning, multiculturalism, religion and suburban space. In the context of wider contested planning disputes for new places of worship for immigrant communities, the creation of a designated ‘Assembly District’ in Richmond emerged as a creative response to multicultural planning. However, it is also a contradictory policy, co-opting religious communities to municipal requirements to safeguard agricultural land and prevent suburban sprawl, but with limited success. The unanticipated outcomes of a designated planning zone for religious buildings include production of an agglomeration of increasingly spectacular religious facilities that exceed municipal planning regulations. Such developments are accommodated through a celebratory narrative of municipal multiculturalism, but one that fails to engage with the communal narratives of the faith communities themselves and may exoticize or commodify religious identity.

Our main intervention is directed toward the celebration of multicultural planning in contemporary cities and suburbs. What we found was that the multiculturalism that is apparent on our celebrated road in Richmond wasn’t planned to be that way at first. It was Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and still is, and whatever multiculturalism one might see there is accidental.

In its early stages, Claire took the lead in writing this paper up for conferences, with me as a second author and David as a third. After presenting it at the American Association of Geographers 2012, Claire again led the effort to transform this paper into the published article that is here. In turn, David added many of the insights concerning Canadian multiculturalism. As always, it has been very educational working alongside Claire in this process – I often joke that what I know of qualitative methodologies was learned from her in the field during this project – and I am very thankful to her for leading on this effort. My plan is to build off this paper to craft some pieces, perhaps, on the materiality of the interfaith landscape and the odd points of spiritual contact among the sites. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know a place that has long been a ‘wonder’ in the suburb where I lived during my undergraduate and graduate studies, especially now that we’re demystifying it.

We are also thankful for Metropolis Canada for funding this project; our report for them on the Highway to Heaven can be accessed from their website.

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Syndicate: ‘If capital is a god,’ forum post on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

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On April 8, 2015, Syndicate published my review essay on David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradiction and the End of Capitalism. Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology has been among the best outlets for my academic creativity over the last year, as they constantly push me to think thoroughly about the theory that undergirds my work on grounded theologies.

In this essay, they pushed me on my own discipline: human geography. And they did so by having me engage my PhD supervisor David Ley‘s nemesis, David Harvey.

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Harvey (left), Ley (right)

Finding the presence of theology inhabiting both Ley and Harvey’s work, I wrote my engagement with Harvey’s newest book by examining how both Ley and Harvey do theology – and how that theology can possibly bring them together under the acknowledgement that capital has become a personal god in the modern order. As you’ll see in the response, Harvey was intrigued by these thoughts, but he doesn’t buy it completely.

I had planned to write a reply to Harvey on the site, but I never got around to it as April was a very busy conference month for me. I did get to meet Harvey at the American Association of Geographers meeting later that month in Chicago – an encounter that Ley tells me he witnessed but did not want to disturb as he was descending an elevator into the hotel lobby. This essay will probably turn into something bigger (and hopefully better) as I play around some more with these ideas, and hopefully then, I’ll have an even more serious engagement with Harvey.

I’m very thankful to Syndicate’s managing editor Christian Amondson for publishing this piece and the editor/founder of Syndicate, Silas Morgan, for his very able organizational powers in making this forum happen. Read his forum introduction here.

Social and Cultural Geography: Book Review Forum: Justin Wilford, Sacred Subdivisions

I’m very excited to learn that a book review forum that Tristan Sturm put together for Social and Cultural Geography is now hot off the press. The book is Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, and it’s an ethnography of Saddleback Church in Southern California. The other reviewers included Banu Gökariksel, Betsy Olson, and Claire Dwyer.

My review focused on how Wilford’s book was put to work when Asian American evangelicals took Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren to task for an insensitive Facebook photo in September 2013. Recounting what took place leading up to the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church, I argued that Wilford’s book helped to nuance some of the on-the-ground conversation about Warren’s photo, helping those who were involved in the activism to understand that Warren situates himself within a distinctively Southern California postsuburban geography. The service that geographers like Wilford do for the community is to help make activism more precise, getting to the heart of issues and steering conversations in productive directions.

I want to thank Tristan for his hard work in pulling this review forum together. This forum originated as an ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ 2013 Annual Meeting; I was later invited by Tristan to step in to take one of the reviewers’ place. While I originally submitted a review to the forum prior to the activity around Warren’s photo, I decided to submit a new review after the activism that put the book itself to work on the ground. This was helpful because I have previously reviewed the book for Religious Studies Review and the AAG Review of Books, and I did not want to repeat myself. Focusing on activism gave me a fresh lens from which to look at Wilford’s book, and I’m thankful to Tristan for pulling it off so well. Many thanks to Justin Wilford for writing such a rich book. We are all indebted to his labours.

Association of American Geographers, Tampa, FL (8-12 April 2014)

I am writing from Tampa, Florida to talk about the national conference that I am attending. As usual, I am at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. There’s a lot going on here in geographies of religion (check out our specialty group’s newsletter) – the field seems to be growing, though many of my colleagues couldn’t attend this year! – and I will also be checking out sessions on migration, Asian geographies, urban studies, and other things, in addition to meeting colleagues and catching up with old ones.

I am presenting in a session this afternoon (Tuesday, 8 April) on Critical Geographies of Religion. My paper is titled The Civil Human Rights Front: religion and radical democracy in post-handover Hong Kong and features a lot of the field work I did among progressive Christian groups in Hong Kong in 2012. Here’s the abstract:

After Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the Special Administrative Region has seen the emergence of calls for universal suffrage, the preservation of civil liberties, and solidarity with the materially marginalized in Hong Kong’s civil society.  In one moment of collective solidarity, an umbrella group called the Civil Human Rights Front launched a protest against anti-sedition legislation based on Basic Law’s Article 23, a law whose alleged threats to free speech drove some 500,000 Hongkongers to the streets on 1 July 2003.  This paper analyzes the radical democrats who have been key to such political placemaking activities in Hong Kong, contesting the city’s policy landscape through physical demonstrations.  It argues that while a wide swath of Hong Kong’s Catholics and Protestants have historically been allied with the state establishment both under British and Chinese sovereignty, the emergence of radical democratic groups like the Civil Human Rights Front have been driven largely by Catholic and Protestant Christians who emphasize a separation of church governance from the state.  While the separation of church and state has often lent itself in other contexts to more conservative politics, this spatial schematic has led these radical democratic activists, their churches, and their solidarity groups to contest the modus operandi of Chinese sovereignty.  This is thus a contribution to critical geographies of religion, for it shows the potential power of religious movements to critique the practices of the state in order to imagine more socially just cities.

There are two parts to this session. I am the first paper on the first part, which promises to be an engaging discussion on religion, politics, and the public sphere. Find us in Room 17 on the First Floor of the Tampa Convention Center. The first session is from 2:40 PM – 4:20 PM. The second session runs from 4:40 PM – 6:20 PM.

Tomorrow (Wednesday, 9 April), political geographer John Agnew will be giving our Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Annual Lecture. His lecture is titled The Popes and the city of Rome during Fascism, 1922-1943. Here’s the abstract:

It has become popular in recent years to see the Fascist years in Italy as reflecting the relatively successful transformation of Italian society at the behest of its Fascist rulers. This reflects both the rehabilitation of Fascism in contemporary Italy and the “cultural turn” in Italian historiography that has tended to emphasize the “making” of Fascist selves and other markers, such as the makeover of many urban monumental spaces, as measures of the regime’s success. My purpose is to disrupt this emerging consensus, alongside other commentators I hasten to add, by pointing how much the Fascist regime had to collaborate with other powers, not least the Catholic Church, and was often outflanked by them in its designs, most notably in efforts at making over the city of Rome as its showcase capital.

We want as many people as we can to attend, and we hope to see many of your there! Find us in Room 23 of the First Floor of the Tampa Convention Center, Wednesday, 9 April, 10 AM – 11:40 AM.

Please also join us for our business meeting. That is scheduled for Thursday, 10 April, from 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM in Room 9, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor. I will be chairing, and if you want the meeting agenda, please email me.

I look forward to a lot of collegial interaction this week, and I am anticipating learning a lot! It’s great to be with people in my home discipline, and I hope I have more to bring this year from all of my interdisciplinary journeying.

AAG Review of Books: Review Essay: Working Evangelicalisms: deploying fragmented theologies in secular space

I am happy to announce the publication of a book review essay that I put into the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) Review of Books, a book review journal that has recently become independent of its mother publication, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, one of the flagship journals of our discipline.

My book review notes the publication of three important books that are changing human geography as a discipline. This is because they are book-length treatments of American evangelicalism, a religious phenomenon that has gone too long unexamined by human geographers. These books seek to rectify that gap in three subfields in human geography: political geography, economic geography, and cultural geography:

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  • Jason Dittmer and Tristan Sturm’s edited collection, Mapping the End Times: American Evangelical Geopolitics and Apocalyptic Visions, is a contribution to political geography, specifically critical geopolitics. This subfield of human geography examines how political borders are constructed and maintained, often critiquing these constructions in the hope of mitigating warfare and making peace between nation-states.  This edited collection explores how American evangelicals contribute to these political formations through their eschatology, their theology of the end times, and seeks to unpack a diverse range of these eschatologies and their effects on global geopolitics.

  • Jason Hackworth’s Faith Based: Religious Neoliberaism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States is a contribution to economic geography, specifically critical political economy. This subfield of human geography examines how specific places function in economic flows, explores how those flows have been informed by and inform the grounding of various economic ideologies in global and national economies, and observes that economics is integral to an understanding of state governance. What is critical about critical political economy is its exploration of neoliberalism, a style of economic governance in which states practice the deregulation of the market in an attempt to free market forces to generate capitalist prosperity in a national economy. Hackworth’s book explains how some American evangelicals have partially cooperated in the proliferation of neoliberal ideologies in the United States.

  • Justin G. Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism is a contribution to cultural geography, specifically a style of the new cultural geography practiced by the late renowned cultural geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, Denis Cosgrove. This subfield of human geography examines how the interaction of people with material artifacts in the spaces they inhabit shapes both their perception of place and their active construction of physical landmarks. The new cultural geography observes that these processes are political and contested and that the word ‘culture’ is itself often under contestation. Wilford’s book examines how Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, takes the spatial fragmentation of postsuburbia (a hyper-fragmented metropolis) and recasts it as what Pastor Rick Warren calls ‘purpose-driven.’

The angle that I take in my book review focuses on how successful these books are in capturing the range of evangelical theologies being grounded in America. Accordingly, I have questions for each author about how the version(s) of evangelicalism that they explore all have counter-examples that embrace different takes on theology and place. I recognize and commend the books as good introductions to a multi-faceted theological phenomenon that has long gone neglected in human geography, but I am insistent that these are just ‘starting points’ for further research that needs to capture the range of evangelicalisms being grounded in the United States.

I also note that this is the first of three unique and original book reviews that I have written on Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. I have worked carefully with the editors of the AAG Review of Books, as well as forthcoming reviews in Religious Studies Review and the Social and Cultural Geography review forum on Wilford’s book to guard against self-plagiarism. The result is that I have written three reviews that open up and critique three different aspects of Sacred Subdivisions. That it is possible to write three unique book reviews of Wilford’s account of Saddleback Church speaks volumes about what a multi-dimensional text it is, and though I provide critical comments on the book in each of the reviews, Wilford is to be commended for writing such a rich ethnography.

Finally, that this week’s news has been dominated in part by the interaction among Rick Warren, Asian American evangelicals, and evangelicals in Hong Kong is a matter of sheer fortuitous timing. This review, as well as the one forthcoming in Religious Studies Review, was authored in May, and the contribution to Social and Cultural Geography was submitted two weeks ago. The events of this week simply reinforce my argument in this review essay regarding the urgency for geographers to study the American evangelicalisms that have been introduced, but not fully unpacked, by these books.

UPDATE: the SCG review forum piece was substantially revised and submitted in November 2013 to better reflect the events surrounding the Asian American evangelical open letter. It should be published in 2014.

2014 AAG CFP: Geography of Religions and Belief Systems

Please distribute widely.

Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group
Call for Papers
AAG 2014: Tampa

The AAG’s Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group invites papers and session to be submitted for sponsorship for the AAG’s Annual Meeting in Tampa, FL in 2014.

GORABS promotes the use of religion as a geographical analytic. Historically, the group has focused on how religion impresses a human impact on the environment and vice versa. Complementing these environmental approaches, more recent work in geographies of religion have revealed that religion is a productive lens through which to understand and debate secularization processes, the intersection of religion in social identity formation, the role of religion in cultural processes of placemaking, and issues of religion in political geography. Geographers of religion are contributing to current conversations and challenges in race, gender, sexuality, age, migration studies, critical geopolitics, global development studies, political ecology, hauntological approaches, post-secularization, piety movements, evangelicalisms, and public religions. Religion has thus progressed beyond being an object of study or subject of inquiry in geography, but a way by which to practice human geography critically.

We are interested in papers and sessions that will push these emerging conversations further.  Specific topics that we encourage incluude:

  • Gender, religion, and sexuality
  • Youth, childhood, and religion
  • Religion and migration
  • Critical geopolitics, critical development studies, and religion
  • Religion and post-humanist approaches
  • Debating approaches to religion and the environment: cultural geography and political ecology
  • Debating the post-secular
  • Islamist/post-Islamist (geo)politics
  • Geographies of evangelicalisms
  • Geographies of race and religion
  • Geographies of religion in Latin America
  • Geographies of ‘Asian’ religions

Papers and sessions can be submitted online through the AAG’s paper submission console. During the submission process, please contact the GORABS chair, Justin K.H. Tse, at jtse@geog.ubc.ca to request sponsorship for your session.  To organize sessions, we also encourage you to contact GORABS with a call for papers before widely distributing a call so that GORABS sponsorship can be listed along with your distributed call for papers.

Chair, Geography of Religion and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group, Association of American Geographers

gorabsI’m happy to announce that I’ve been elected to be Chair of the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group at the Association of American Geographers (AAG).  This follows two years of being the GORABS secretary.  David Butler (University College Cork) is now immediate past chair, Garrett Smith (Kennesaw State University) is now secretary, and David Rutherford (University of Mississippi) has kindly agreed to stay as treasurer.

I see the job of the GORABS Chair as to promote religion as an analytic in human geography by liaising with the academic geography community through the Association of American Geographers. This means that at a practical level, my job is to represent our specialty group to the AAG organizers, to make sure religion sessions and papers at the AAG get sponsored, to recruit an Annual Lecturer for the next two years, and to raise awareness about developments in religion, secularization, and belief systems in the discipline.  I’ll be working with a very well-constituted board that is committed to advancing geographies of religion as a growing field in both human geography and religious studies. If you are working in geographies of religion and want to present a paper or organize a session at the AAG in 2014 and 2015, please contact me with any ideas you might have so that we can get those sessions sponsored.

At a theoretical level, my job, as is the job of the board, is to demonstrate to the geography community that geographies of religion are broader than what has conventionally counted as the scholarship in a small subfield of cultural geography.  Religion isn’t just an object to be mapped, nor is it a subject to be studied.  It is an analytic that seeks to unpack the uneven geographies of secularization processes, the grounded theologies that undergird both conventionally ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ practices, the experiences of lived religions (including what’s becoming known as a ‘hauntological’ approach), and the way that ‘belief systems’ aren’t fully worked out worldviews but geographical imaginations that undergird political, economic, social, and cultural processes in the world. Just as race, class, gender, and sexuality are analytics in human geography, religion as an analytic can lead to theoretical innovations and open doors to new empirical work in geography. These in turn are critical geographies, challenging modern modalities of space not only with the existence of religious phenomena, but by forcing geographers to reckon with the circulation of uncritical secular theoretical postulations even in our own discipline. Studies in geographies of religion are thus central to the continuous re-imagination of what it means to do geography as academic practitioners.

I am optimistic about the next two years, and I am excited, as our field has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last few years. I expect nothing less in the next few as well. If you want to keep track of these developments, please like us on Facebook and add yourself to the JISCMail listserv.