Christ and Cascadia: Theory Matters in Ministry

I’m very pleased to share my latest work: a piece for the online journal Christ and Cascadia entitled ‘Theory Matters in Ministry: what I learned lecturing to Asian American pastors.’

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The post is an account of the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) course in which Soong-Chan Rah (North Park) invited me to guest lecture in early April. Because it was a course on Asian American (evangelical) ministry, many of my comments in that course were about what Asian American studies is as a discipline, which (as I read the discipline) is a tradition of negation, an activist-academic project to dispel the ideology that frames persons inhabiting Asian bodies as ‘orientals’ (and therefore rugs). As it was also a theology course, I reflected on the relationship between Asian American studies and the theological project of ‘ecumenism,’ especially with some reflections on a topic on which evangelical Protestants do not usually reflect: the Eastern Christian practice of ‘hesychasm.’

I’m grateful to Billy Vo (SPU) for organizing my collaboration with Rah. I’m also thankful that David Leong (SPU) kept on getting on my case for writing for Christ and Cascadia, an initiative in which I have had some participation in the past and am always looking to critically engage so as to provide what geographer Paul Cloke calls both ‘critical proximity and critical distance’ in its ideological engagements. Thanks are also due to Christ and Cascadia‘s editor David Dyck and assistant editor David Arinder for trimming the piece, especially with an eye to engage their evangelical Protestant readership – an audience that I engage with more critical distance than critical proximity. My hope is that this piece is helpful in continuing the conversation between evangelicalism and Asian American studies as well as helping to interrogate the ideological entanglements in which evangelicals often find themselves due to their ongoing attempts to engage ‘culture,’ a loaded word with so many possible meanings. Perhaps cultural geography – maybe even an anchoring on the word ‘ecumene’ combined with the disciplined practice of negation found in both Asian American studies and hesychastic spirituality – could provide some focus.

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Seattle Pacific University: Guest Lectures, Asian American Ministry Program Church Leaders Class with Soong-Chan Rah

I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be giving some guest lectures in Soong-Chan Rah’s ‘Church Leaders Class‘ at Seattle Pacific University’s new Asian American Ministry Program (AAMP). The course is being held on two weekends in February and March 2016: Rah kicked off the course during the February 5-6 session (which I did not attend, but I heard went extremely well), and I will be joining the March 4-5 session. I’m especially thankful to the AAMP’s director Billy Vo for making this happen.

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This is a very interesting endeavour because Rah and I probably come at the question of Asian American ministry from very different disciplinary and philosophical perspectives. Rah lays out his framework very clearly in his books like The Next EvangelicalismMany Colors, and his commentary on Lamentations Prophetic Lament. From what I understand of this work, he uses a sociological understanding of culture – think Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann on ‘plausibility structures’ and ‘externalization’ – and understands his work on Asian American theology as coming out from an immigrant church experience, especially a Korean American one. My understanding is that the first session was devoted to explicating this framework under the banner of a ‘theology of culture’ and ‘contextual theology,’ showing that all theology is done within a sociological, cultural context.

I’m coming in as a dialogue partner who is trained as a human geographer as well as in Asian American studies. My plan – which may get happily derailed by class discussion (which I understand to be very lively) – is to give two lectures. The first will be on what geography has to do with Asian American studies (answer: everything), and the second will try to locate the doing of evangelical theology in relation to (and perhaps even within – which will be an interestingly awkward fit) Asian American studies. I suppose this isn’t an altogether new endeavour; one sociologist who has achieved this remarkable synthesis throughout his career is Russell Jeung (San Francisco State).

Rah tells me that the class is mostly composed of theology students seeking to do some kind of Christian ministry, as well as by pastors who are actually practicing ministry. Because this is a class on race and pastoral ministry, part of my motivation for helping to teach this course is to get a sense of how to navigate my new postdoctoral research on Asian Americans and Black Lives Matter with a focus especially on Seattle. I’m looking forward to meeting the course – and of course, keeping Soong-Chan up until the wee hours of the night in discussion.

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.

James Wellman: The Oprahfication of Rob Bell? (University of Chicago Divinity School Religion and Culture Web Forum)

Rob Bell has gotten a lot of attention in the evangelical news cycle over the past few days. As Bell is releasing a new book and is solidifying his association with Oprah, the evangelical and ‘progressive Christian’ Internet networks have been ablaze. Books and Culture, for example, has mocked Bell. The Gospel Coalition has excoriated his new book on marriage. Danielle Shroyer has defended Bell as an evangelical. Sarah Pulliam Bailey has analyzed Bell. Tony Jones has analyzed the analysis.

My concern with much of this analysis is that it has left out the University of Washington’s resident expert on Rob Bell, James K. Wellman, Jr. True, Wellman is my postdoctoral supervisor, which might explain why I’m saying something about him.

But there’s more. It’s not only that Wellman has written a book on Rob Bell (and that the most sophisticated review I’ve seen on it is from my friend and colleague Sam Rocha on Patheos Catholic). The fact is that Wellman, Jon Pahl, and I have gone on record on the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Religion and Culture Web Forum in September to discuss Wellman’s ethnographic analysis of Rob Bell. You can find Wellman’s essay here. Jon Pahl gives a light critique of Wellman being star-struck by Bell’s celebrity. I give an analysis of Wellman’s approach through a distinctive University of Washington approach to religious studies and what I call ‘grounded theologies,’ especially by linking it to both Wellman’s previous work and his predecessor, Eugene Webb.

Have a look. This is no mere evangelical discussion. This is about the academic study of religion – and we have Wellman to thank for making that connection.

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.

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.

BBC Heart and Soul: Chinese Christians in Vancouver

I am happy to announce the airing of a radio show episode in which I was honoured to participate. The show is the BBC’s Heart and Soul. The title of the episode is “Chinese Christians in Vancouver.

It is interesting that the episode is airing in the midst of Holy Week. The show host, Matt Wells, interviewed his participants over the Chinese New Year weekend in February. I am pleased to recognize friends, acquaintances, and even some research correspondents in the show, especially Stephen Cheung, the Rev. Simon Lee, Fr. Paul Chu, and Bill Chu.

The episode presents a fairly comprehensive view of Chinese Christianity in Vancouver. It tracks the growth of Chinese evangelicalism in Vancouver, drawing from early Chinese Canadian history to the growth of wealthier Hongkonger migrants to the current influx of people from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It also compares Catholics and evangelicals, as well as generational and geopolitical divisions.

My contributions also ranged across these topics. The soundbite that Matt pulled from our fairly lengthy interview concentrated on the growth of second-generation English-speaking ministries within and without Chinese churches and their comparisons with the Southern Californian ‘silent exodus.’ I am happy to say that this serves as a preview into post-doctoral research I will be conducting next year.

It was also fascinating to see how Matt covered the other parts of my research through the other respondents’ voices. My master’s research into transnational Hongkonger evangelical churches was adequately covered by interviews with Cantonese communities and the comparisons between Protestant and Catholic voices. My PhD thesis on engagements with the public sphere, especially around sexuality issues and the provision of social services, was covered through interviews with Bill Chu, SUCCESS, and Vancouver Sun religion writer Douglas Todd. The work that I have been doing with Claire Dwyer and David Ley on the Highway to Heaven also made it into the program through the interview with Peace Evangelical Church.

As always, I need to provide a few caveats.

First, Matt always returns to China as the homeland for people in the Chinese diaspora. This needs to be more critically assessed. As Laurence Ma and Carolyn Cartier point out in their book The Chinese Diaspora, the issue of homeland is actually very complicated for people in the Chinese diaspora, as ideological claims that China is home don’t always match the material realities of multiple homelands.

Second, Matt seems to think that the church is the place where politics and social services emerge. I don’t blame him for assuming this, but the relationship between church and civil society for Chinese Christians in Vancouver is very complicated and needs to be more critically assessed. This is especially true for the sexuality issues, where it’s assumed that protests against sexual orientation discrimination bills, same-sex marriage, and anti-homophobic curricula emerge from congregations and are driven solely by a conservative theology. The reality is much more complicated, as religious values don’t always emanate from the church, but can be individually held and combined with secular factors.

Third, I worry about the near-portrayal of Chinese as homogeneously wealthy in Vancouver. While it is very true that wealthy Chinese migrants have transformed Vancouver’s urban landscape, the existence of organizations like SUCCESS that provide social services, employment help, and English-language and citizenship training indicates that there are economically disadvantaged Chinese people in Vancouver too. As a result, not all Chinese in Vancouver are of the same economic and political stripe, not even within church congregations.

However, overall, I am very pleased by the program.  I am especially happy to see that Matt has inferred with good insight the central issue here in Vancouver (though I am picky about the details): how does a multi-faceted Chinese evangelical population relate to Vancouver’s secular mainstream? To what extent is this about racialization vis-a-vis whiteness, and to what extent is it about religion? I am glad that Matt hasn’t provided definitive answers to these questions, but has framed them as starting points for further and deeper conversation and debate. In other words, Matt isn’t telling us what to think about Chinese Christians in Vancouver; he’s asking us to listen in and start a thoughtful conversation. Because of this, though I have caveats, I am happy to recommend this program as an introduction to the work that I have been doing in Vancouver. I would encourage listeners then to get in on the debate.