American Academy of Religion 2015 | Atlanta, GA

I was very happy to be given the opportunity to present two papers at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) from November 21-24, 2015. I also serve as a steering committee member for the Asian North American Religions, Culture, and Society group, so it is always good to see friends there as well. We were particularly proud to host a panel session on the new edited volume Asian American Christian Ethics, which my partner-in-crime in Asian American religious ethics Grace Kao (Claremont) had a hand in co-edited (along with ethicist Ilsup Ahn).

I’m also a steering committee member for the newly formed Chinese Christianities Seminar, and my peers – through no coercion of mine and with my abstained vote – generously allowed me to present some work on Chinese Anglicanism in Vancouver in the new session. Moderated by Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University), my colleagues in the session included Christopher Sneller (King’s College London), Stephanie M. Wong (Georgetown), Mu-tien Chiou (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Di Kang. My paper, entitled ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment‘ has the following abstract:

This paper theorizes the ‘Chineseness’ of Anglicans in Vancouver engaging with the global Anglican realignment as ideological, especially through their competing visions of Vancouver as a global city, an urban economic center of political and cultural influence. Focusing on the split between Vancouver’s local bishop Michael Ingham and two Cantonese-speaking realignment bishops in Vancouver (Silas Ng and Stephen Leung), my central argument is that Anglicans on all sides of the realignment deployed their self-defined ideological constructs of Chineseness in a contest over how to theologize Vancouver as a global city. The three Vancouver episcopal visions under debate concerned whether Vancouver should be conceptualized as a site for interreligious pluralism, spiritual purification, or civil multicultural discourse. Based on key informant interviews in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, this contention advances the study of Chinese Christianity by suggesting that the cross-regional engagements of Chinese Christians may in fact motivated by civic concerns to globalize their own cities.

We were guided as a seminar by the very able Alexander Chow (Edinburgh), who is establishing himself as quite the authority on Chinese Christianities worldwide. I’m very thankful for his collegial support and am always pleased to hear his feedback on my work. I’m also very thankful to have met Ting Guo, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue, at this seminar.

In addition, I was part of a quad session entitled ‘Enter the State: Revisiting the Making of Post-1965 Asian American Religion,’ with co-presenters Ren Ito (Emmanuel College, Toronto), Melissa Borja (CUNY Staten Island), Paul Chang (UC Riverside), and Philip Deslippe (UCSB); our respondent was Carolyn Chen (UC Berkeley), and the session was moderated by Isaac Weiner (Ohio State). My paper, entitled ‘Restructuring the Church: Cantonese Protestant organizations and economistic states,’ had the following abstract:

This paper examines the transformation of Chinese American evangelical congregations and faith-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area into corporate business models in the 1990s and 2000s. Based on ethnographic interviews with 47 key informants, the central argument is that these business models facilitated Chinese evangelical transactions with both the American and Chinese governments in the hope of shaping public policy on both sides of the Pacific. While these dreams of public engagement date back to the 1970s and 1980s, this paper also shows that the 1989 Tiananmen Beijing Spring’s aftermath intensified these efforts, leading to the restructuring of several key churches and parachurch organizations. These efforts demonstrate that fantasies of state ideologies as well as encounters with governments revamped the landscape of Chinese churches in the Bay Area, advancing the view that states are central to the formation of Asian American religious communities.

I am very excited about the comments that I received on thsi paper, especially the push from Carolyn Chen to think harder about the church in relation to neoliberal states.

I enjoyed my time in Atlanta. This was an AAR where I had some real intellectual engagements and came away feeling like a stronger scholar. I am thankful for those with whom I had conversations and am excited for next year’s iteration of this conference to see them again.

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ABC Religion and Ethics Report: The role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

I was recently on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Religion and Ethics Report with Andrew West talking about ‘the role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution.’ The other guest on the show, Professor David Palmer, is a sociologist of Chinese popular religions who chairs the University of Hong Kong’s sociology department. They told me that they found me because of my interview with Jennifer Ngo on the South China Morning Post on religion in the Hong Kong protests.

Andrew West asked some very good questions during this show. He began with my comments on Religion Ethnicity Wired and on Ethika Politika (parts 1, 2, and 3), on the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. We then moved into a clarification of how Protestant denominations and ecumenical alliances have been at work on the ground, and we had an extended discussion on the controversial role played by Hong Kong’s Anglican primate, the Most Rev. Paul Kwong, in opposing the demonstrations. Finally, West asked about the connection between the protests and religious freedom in China, to which both Palmer and I emphasized that the Umbrella Movement has little to do with ‘religious freedom’ per se, but that does not mean that people like Joseph Cardinal Zen might not have it in the back of their minds.

I’m very thankful to Andrew West and Scott Spark for an excellent interview and for this chance to meet David Palmer on air. I’m also thankful to Jennifer Ngo for creating this opportunity to speak more about the Hong Kong protests. I’ve actually regularly podcasted ABC Religion and Ethics Report during my commutes, and I was thrilled to be on this show that provides such consistently good religion reporting.

Guest content blogging for Logos Anglican

With the publication of my first guest post on Logos Anglican, I am pleased to announce that I’ve been brought on as a guest blogger to write content once a month. My first post reads the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, through the lens of fourteenth-century English visionary and theologian Julian of Norwich.

Anglicanism isn’t something that I’ve written explicitly about in my scholarly work. I do cover the resignation of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury in an early post on Religion Ethnicity Wired (I posted on the day that Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy!), and a co-authored chapter with my doctoral supervisor David Ley does discuss Global Anglicanism in the context of religious migration from the Global South.

I really do happen to know a thing or two about the Anglican Communion, though. Let me explain.

I study religious publics. In particular, I study how religious publics have formed in ‘secular’ civil societies in the Asia-Pacific and in Asian North America.

Studying religious publics in this region and among this population makes the Anglican Communion simply unavoidable. Anglicanism is everywhere, not least because of the colonial legacy of the British Empire (which is why there is a ‘Communion’ in the first place). I intend for my posts on Logos Anglican to draw out the more general implications of what I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn!) from my Asia-Pacific and Asian North American research for the Anglican Communion. Consider it me giving back in my small way to a field that has given me so much.

Indeed, Anglicanism was everywhere since the beginning of my graduate work. The pseudonym ‘St. Matthew’s Church’ that I used during my master’s thesis work (see here) referred to an Anglican church. Indeed, I was questioned repeatedly about calling this church an evangelical church by those who were used to institutions like the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church as the mainline. My defence was that this congregation, like any other church, had porous boundaries that allowed for people from other evangelical traditions to join. Because of its connections to other Chinese churches in the Metro Vancouver area, it served as a great case study for how a Hongkonger Christian church ‘family’ was constructed, regardless of denomination. But read the thesis as well as the article, and it’s pretty obvious that the evangelicalism there has an Anglican flavour, especially when members spoke about the ‘liturgy.’

My doctoral work took the question of the Anglican Communion much more seriously. My dissertation (which I am now developing into a book manuscript) dealt with how Cantonese-speaking Protestants in Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Vancouver engaged their secular civil societies. Within this Cantonese Protestant rubric, Anglicans played major roles in all three sites. If I learned anything about Anglicanism from this project, it was that there are multiple ways of doing Anglican theologies in the public sphere. I discovered also that taking a side in Anglican debates would also detract from the more interesting geographical project of mapping the diverse ways that Cantonese-speaking Anglicans approached secular civil societies.

To get at the history of Cantonese-speaking Protestantism, I had to deal with the history of colonialism in Hong Kong, including the role of the Anglican Church as an arm of the British Empire (something that the current Primate of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, the Most Revd Paul Kwong, has discussed in his Identity in Community). But lest one start throwing post-colonial rocks at the supposed uniform conservatism of Hong Kong Anglicanism, I also researched a progressive, post-colonial strand that emphasizes social justice, democratic solidarity, and sexual equality that developed in Hong Kong from the 1980s into the present day, particularly in the work of feminist theologian Rose Wu Lo Sai. If there is one thing that characterizes Hong Kong Anglicanism, it’s that it is very theologically diverse, comprising liberal, liberationist, evangelical, and Anglo-Catholic strands against a very conscious backdrop of its colonial legacy.

At the same time, the question of global Anglican politics came up during my fieldwork in Vancouver (and to some extent, in San Francisco as well). Chinese Anglicanism was a touchy political topic in Vancouver because the Diocese of New Westminster is one of the three known ‘fault lines’ in what has come to be known as the Anglican realignment, the breaking-away of parishes from home dioceses to seek alternate episcopal oversight due to disagreements usually over sexuality issues. Among Cantonese Protestants in Vancouver, the departure of three Chinese Anglican parishes from the Anglican Church of Canada (along with a lawsuit advanced by two of them, no less!) was still the talk of the town while I did my fieldwork, and because of this, my empirical work led me to research both the perception of the splits from within Cantonese Protestant circles more generally as well as what actually happened in the Anglican realignment in Vancouver. By contrast, the Chinese Episcopal parishes in the San Francisco site had not broken away from their dioceses, and that served as an interesting foil to the Vancouver case study. Add to that the fact that social geographers in the United Kingdom have been discussing this Anglican realignment in recent major publications in the geography of religion, and this is yet another geographical spin on Anglicanism that comes straight out of my dissertation.

My postdoctoral work on younger generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christian publics shows no signs of letting up on Anglicanism. Aside from the fact that I’m using my postdoctoral fellowship to churn out articles from my graduate work (including articles on Chinese Anglicanism in its very diverse forms), there are younger generation Anglicans at work forming publics. To give one immediate example, the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church last October 2013 would not have happened without the efforts of the first Korean American woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Christine Lee at All Angels’ Church (yes, for those who have read Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God, the same parish!). I have also met other Asian American and Asian Canadian evangelicals who are interested in constructing ‘sacramental publics’ and find Anglican traditions useful. These experiments with sacramentality are not just limited to Anglicans, but as I’ve hinted at in this blog post on Alliance pastor Ken Shigematsu, some experiments dovetail (likely unintentionally) with local Anglican developments. All this is work in progress, but suffice it to say that the work on Anglicanism in Asian America and Asian Canada may prove productive indeed.

In other words, my field work has immersed me in the life of the Anglican Communion with its colonial legacies, social justice work, aesthetic emphases, divergent theologies, and communion fractures. My posts on Logos Anglican are meant to draw out the implications of my work for Anglicanism, to be informed by what I’ve done ethnographically as I read Anglican texts.

It’s no secret that Logos Anglican is using these posts to sell their e-book collections of Anglican works. Their collection is impressive, comprising patristic and medieval sources as well as key Anglican divines such as Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, J.C. Ryle, John Henry Newman, Michael Ramsey, and N.T. Wright. The Anglican ecumenist Paul Avis also makes a significant contribution. But it should also be no secret that I’m approaching Anglicanism based on my particular immersion and ongoing academic reflection on Global Anglicanism and religious publics, especially in sites that grapple in diverse ways with what theologians Ian Douglas and Kwok Pui-lan call getting beyond colonial Anglicanism.

All this is to say, I look forward to giving back to a tradition that has given me so much. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to Ben Amundgaard, the product guy at Logos Anglican, thanking him especially for being simply awesome to work with. I look forward to having my immersion into all things Anglican deepened through this encounter with Logos Anglican, and I am very excited about the conversations to follow.

Vancouver Sun: Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by the Vancouver Sun‘s religion and diversity journalist Douglas Todd. His column piece on me was posted online on Friday; the print version should be out in the next few days. As usual, I’ll say a bit here about how the whole interview process went, what I think of the piece, and how this feeds into academic work. For my part, it certainly was an interesting experience being in the interviewee’s seat after talking to some 140 Chinese Christians in the Pacific Rim region and conducting 13 focus groups there as well, and it’s certainly very stimulating to read how my work is being interpreted in the press. The interpreter is being interpreted; how fun!

Douglas Todd contacted me back in May when the Statistics Canada release came out on ethnicity, language, visible minority status, and religion. We had a brief conversation about the statistics, and my hint to him at the time was to make sure that whatever he did with the large Chinese population that identifies as ‘not religiously affiliated’ (about 61%), don’t write them off as ‘non-religious,’ as many engage in popular familial religions, may hold various views of the supernatural, and may even be influenced by Christian environments, such as schools in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and various parts of Southeast Asia. Although he did not incorporate my comments at the time, we developed a professional and collegial relationship through the process, and I’m fairly pleased with the series of articles generated from the statistics, although I had the occasional question about differences of opinion that I had about how to interpret the data. I suppose that’s how we academics are trained–to be critical, but always in a spirit of collegiality.

In any case, Todd said even at that time that he wanted to do a longer piece on my work, which, after a conversation with my supervisor David Ley, we decided would be good practice for these late stages in my doctoral studies. Indeed, I reviewed some of my comments to Todd during our conversation about statistics and found that I had given him a fairly technical academic answer to his questions. Yet as we spoke, Todd reassured me that my academic comments were exactly what he wanted (which, as I’m told, is unusual for a journalist) and that we would bridge academia and journalism in our piece, as he had himself been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Vancouver School of Theology (congratulations, Doug!), and thank you for being able to pull quotes from what I imagine must be a very difficult interview from which to pull, as I like to qualify many of the things that I say.

His call came last Friday. We set up a time for this Monday, and we spoke at length for about two hours about my thesis work, as well as my various theoretical and popular interests. I also sent him various academic articles I had written, emphasizing my interest in both ‘grounded theologies’ and in the empirical work of Cantonese migrations in the Pacific region with a religious spin. There were also popular articles in the batch as well, such as the Schema autobiographical piece and the Ricepaper pieces on Ken Shigematsu and on ‘how Asian religions aren’t that exotic.’ I suppose this may be why he calls me a ‘scholarly dynamo,’ although I certainly do not feel that way most days.

Because the conversation revolved around my thesis’s interest in how Cantonese-speaking Protestants engage the public spheres and civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong SAR, the discussion naturally veered toward the sexuality issues without us even attempting to get there. As you will see in the piece, we spoke at length about some of the pressing issues in Vancouver around parental rights activism, the drama between Liberal and Conservative Chinese Christian politicians vying for the vote in Richmond, and the Anglican crisis in the Diocese of New Westminster.  What I did was to try to shed light on the internal conversations that I have been hearing in relation to what I have read in more popular and academic portrayals. Todd is right to say that the press has been interested in this story for quite some time, himself being one of this literature’s main contributors. There are also other journalists like Marci McDonald (in The Armageddon Factor), John Ibbitson and Joe Friesen at the Globe and Mail, and Chad Skelton at the Vancouver Sun, who have all written about Chinese Christians engaging the Canadian public sphere, and sexuality has often come up as an item of interest. Indeed, one might say that their work lies somewhere close to the genesis of my doctoral project, for if they were examining the conversation as outsiders, I thought that it might be interesting to tackle the question of what imaginations and practices constitute Cantonese Protestant public engagements from within the community itself.

I should note that this body of journalistic work has often been met with mixed reviews by both conservative and progressive Asian Canadians for different reasons, yet both because of the work’s philosophically (and arguably, politically) liberal framework. By ‘liberal,’ I don’t mean the archetypal open-minded opposition to ‘conservatism,’ but the philosophical bent that attempts to seek an ‘overlapping consensus’ from various groups that have bracketed their communities of identity to seek some sort of abstract common ground for political life together. On the right, this work has been seen as ‘liberal’–as in too far to the left–because it is viewed as generally unsympathetic to a case against gay rights; some Chinese Christians have often decried how they have been portrayed as a propaganda-spreading community that is generally top down and unwilling to integrate into Canadian civil society, while many others protest the ‘overlapping consensus’ approach as not paying attention to how their views might be part of a majority Canadian view that is being contested by a vocal minority.  A relevant situation was in 2011, when Todd’s Chinese New Year piece was read as saying that Chinese Christian communities were unwilling to integrate into a liberal society, sparking outrage within Chinese Christian churches and a fairly assertive rebuttal from the Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship that Chinese Christians were Canadian too. On the left, however, this body of literature has also been criticized as overly ‘liberal’–as in too far to the right–in their critique of Asian Canadian identity politics and their recent assertions that the racializing wrongs of the past can be attributed purely to economic reasons. In either case, this body of work has often been done by those who are not themselves Asian Canadian, writing often as outsiders attempting to write about a complex community. With that view in mind, I also regard this work critically while valuing it precisely for its outsider perspectives, views that can come into very interesting conversation with insider accounts, for at a methodological level, there is no monopoly on knowledge by either insiders or outsiders to a community.

All that is to say that it was pleasantly interesting to be interpreted by someone with likely a different philosophical, political, and theoretical bent from mine. As he notes, I do thank ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ in my MA thesis (and my B.A. [Hons.] as well, and it will probably make it into my PhD), and I have a whole chapter there detailing my theological orientation at the time. (I also have a positionality chapter in my PhD.) As those who have read the grounded theologies piece will know, my theological leanings are heavily shaped by the new critical re-assessments of the secularization thesis at the nexus of theology and religious studies, a reformulation of concepts like ‘theology,’ ‘religion,’ and the ‘secular’ in ways that on the one hand promise to transcend the culture wars of our time and on the other have potential to demonstrate that ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ are veiled theological concepts themselves. I’m not saying that my views would be diametrically opposed to Todd’s, but I am saying that our theoretical and philosophical approaches are probably fairly divergent. That said, with the exception of the blow-up around Todd’s 2011 piece, he has followed the Chinese Christian story very closely since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, covering stories such as the Chinese New Year celebrations at Oak Ridge Mall in the early 1990s, Bill Chu’s work with First Nations since the late 1990s, shifting immigrant voting patterns in the 2000s, Chinese Christian involvement in the Anglican Communion’s woes since synods in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the activism around Tenth Avenue Alliance Church’s challenge to the city’s requirement for them to obtain a social services permit to feed the homeless from 2007 to 2008. In other words, I’m a bit flattered that my PhD work is the latest episode in Douglas Todd’s long career of covering Chinese Christians, and I was delighted and honoured to converse with him, especially because I knew that we would have a fun conversation given our theoretical differences. (It is hard to have conversations with those who are exactly the same as oneself.)

Now for the piece itself: I am generally pleased by how the article panned out (if you must know, ‘generally pleased’ in academic-speak is generally high praise). The headline of the piece is ‘Metro Vancouver’s Chinese Christians wrestle with morality of homosexuality,’ and the new tagline just posted reads, ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand.’ As I’d point out to the editors, while the title is catchy and will certainly lead to the article being more read to my dully titled blog posts, the article is not only about homosexuality, nor is my thesis work, and Todd understands that and tries to signal that as well. After all, my thesis work is about ‘the public sphere,’ not only about sexuality issues, although it is true that sexuality issues are fascinating theoretical cases for studies of the public sphere as they challenge public-private boundaries. To that end, I hope that the small, yet necessarily incomplete, picture we painted in the article of the Chinese Christians does not make it sound like they are only concerned about sexuality issues, but about a broad range of topics that generally surround how they negotiate the boundaries between public and private spheres.

As for the content of the comments, here is a brief word for the methodologically curious. The Vancouver research is based on 50 key informant semi-structured interviews with either Cantonese-speaking Christians or those who have worked closely with them, and they are supplemented by three focus groups among Cantonese-speaking Protestants whom I met in Burnaby, Coquitlam, and Richmond. As my project is limited to ‘Cantonese,’ I did not expound on the Mandarin-speaking Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) in Vancouver, although my MA project touched on how Cantonese-speaking congregations deal with their Mandarin-speaking newcomers and neighbours (and a comment from that work made its way into the article). As this is a qualitative project, my approach was to ask key informants to share their stories and to put together the picture of their public engagements from their responses; I think of them as people who can shed insider knowledge on various churches, organizations, and networks from whose information a general portrait of their public activities can be extracted. Each of the statements in the article is defensible from the data; in fact, reading through the piece, I think immediately of key quotes from the data that come to mind. I am especially happy that Todd went to the nuance of talking about the balance of ‘rights,’ as this was one of the core issues in the Vancouver site.

The tagline ‘Community has been in the forefront of opposition to gay rights, but it’s not a unanimous stand,’ is admittedly a bit cheeky, but I see how the editors might get that impression from the piece itself. For my part, my reading of the situation is that there is no one ‘Chinese community’ as a monolithic body. Instead, respondents often spoke of the Chinese population in Vancouver as a ‘pot of scattered sand’ (一盆散沙) and of their frustrations that it was difficult to mobilize people for any sort of political action, even when it came to the sexuality issues. Moreover, some were upset that their second generation did not hold to their strong views on sexual normativity, be it for biblical reasons or for essentialized cultural reasons. Breaking down this conversation, what I found was that the fissures among Chinese Christians became extremely important for telling the story, especially to counteract the narrative in the press that a unified ‘Chinese community’ with well-defined ‘Chinese community leaders’ were able to mobilize effective ethnic political action. Quite the contrary: I found that there were debates about what was religious and what was secular, what was public and what was private, how children should be educated and what parents should do about it, who their leaders were and why they should be (or should not be) acknowledged, etc. While some also complained to me that this disunity lacked a sort of harmony, my sense was that these internal deliberations were themselves the stuff of democracy. In other words, bringing out these internal complexities and conversations is a way of demonstrating that Chinese Canadians are actively grappling with how to be democratic citizens, hardly the picture of a community that is uninterested in ‘integration.’

In other words, I’m fairly happy about the level of complexity with which Todd is willing to grapple. As I said, I’m often told that journalists do not have the patience for academic ramblings (that is to say, our closely argued theses), and I’m grateful that Todd was willing to take the time to wrestle with the nuances.

And that brings me finally to a word about public academia. My sense is that journalists and academics both perform a remarkable service to democratic deliberations because they seek to inform the public forum. My hope is that this piece can be taken as a sort of model for how the two sectors can engage each other (or perhaps, how journalists can ask pointed questions to academics to get the quotes they need!), as journalists and academics are not the same, but we can certainly complement each other. In fact, we need each other. Where we academics perform the service of close argument and teaching students and readers to do the same, journalists have a sort of immediacy in their dissemination that is also a profound public service; they are fast and direct, where we are slow and cautious, and I think that’s where we strike an excellent balance when we work together. This experience has been a good first lesson for me in interacting with a very patient journalist who is actually willing to hear my complex thoughts and to represent them with careful nuance and skill; I suspect that some in the future will be less patient with me. I also appreciate how Todd demonstrates in this article how one can represent someone from a different philosophical bent studying people who are very different from himself and come out with this level of insight.

So thank you, Doug, and I certainly hope that this piece will feed nuance and complexity into an ongoing public conversation that seriously needs that level of depth to be able to grapple with the difficult issues so skillfully articulated in this article.