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.

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.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’

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.

Religion News Service: Rick Warren gets backlash from Asian American Christians for posting photo

Yesterday, Sarah Pulliam Bailey posted an article on Religion News Service detailing a controversy that has been generated by Pastor Rick Warren, the founder and senior pastor at a Southern Californian megachurch called Saddleback Church.  The article quotes me, as well as Professor Sam Tsang (Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary), Intervarsity Christian Fellowship staff worker and blogger Kathy Khang, Seattle church planter Pastor Eugene Cho, and Asian American evangelical blogger and compiler Grace Hsiao Hanford (click on all of the links to find them all).  What I want to do here is to provide some context for these remarks so that what is geographical about the events of this week can be more fully understood.

Here is what happened. On the morning of 23 September, Warren posted a picture of a Chinese Red Guard captioned with, ‘The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.’ Drawing initial criticism on the comments section of the photo itself, Warren responded by saying, ‘People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me! Did you know that, using Hebrew ironic humor, Jesus inserted several laugh lines- jokes – in the Sermon on the Mount? The self-righteous missed them all while the disciples were undoubtably giggling!’ This drew the response of several blog posts (see here, here, and here) that outlined for Warren the extent of his offence. Warren then responded on one post that was especially shared–Professor Tsang’s–where he said, ‘Thanks so much for teaching us! It was removed instantly. May God bless you richly. Anytime you have guidance, you (or anyone else) can email me directly.’ While Tsang accepted this response as an apology, Warren’s lack of public apology and explanation to his supporters drew more criticism. This story was then picked up by Religion News Service’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey.  In addition to doing due diligence through interviews and the reading of relevant posts (our interview was also very pleasant, as we had already been in contact to talk about my academic research), she also contacted Warren’s publicist. After the story broke on Religion News Service, Warren issued a public apology on his wall. (If you need this story in bullet point form, Kathy Khang outlines it here.)

Here is what I said. In my interview with Bailey, I said that, as Bailey elegantly phrases it, the ‘controversy over the photo raises questions about how public or private the evangelical conversation on ethnicity should be.’ Indeed, this scenario has raised two key issues for me. The first is that the place of Asian American evangelicals in American evangelicalism has already become a central conversation and item of debate in American religion. While Asian Americans were once target populations for missionaries to evangelize, events since the mid-2000s have shown that Asian Americans are not ‘the other’ to American evangelicalism, or to American religion more generally. Instead, they are part and parcel of it, and they are making their voices heard. Within American evangelicalism, their voices were especially pronounced in protesting Lifeway’s ‘Rickshaw Rally’ Vacation Bible School curriculum in 2004 (minor clarification on Bailey’s article: promotional materials were pulled, while the curriculum was in fact circulated), youth specialties’s ‘Mee Maw’ skit in Skits That Teach in 2007, and Zondervan’s Deadly Viper: a Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership in 2009. These protests are indicative of larger developments within American evangelicalism itself. Within academic circles, it has been commonly noted by scholars like Rudy Busto, Karen Chai Kim, and Rebecca Kim that university campus ministries are increasingly dominated by Asian Americans. Academics such as Antony Alumkal, Russell Jeung, and Sharon Kim have also studied the emergence of second-generation Asian American congregations, which themselves have been the subject of reflections by people like journalist Doreen Carvajal, evangelical writer Helen Lee, and theologians Jonathan Tran and Amos Yong. Indeed, this sea-change in American evangelicalism has prompted pastoral theologian Soong-Chan Rah to term this the ‘next evangelicalism,’ a challenge to what he terms the ‘white captivity of the evangelical church’ in America that finds difficulty with the changing geographies of American religion.

I said that what happened this week is a key episode in this unfolding conversation. In other words, the events of this week are not ‘conversation-starters.’ They are an invitation to a conversation that is already vibrant and that is objectively happening regardless of whether its existence is acknowledged.

However, the debate in this conversation revolves around how public or private it should be. This gets to the meat of what I said to Bailey:

The offensive image was public, and Warren’s initial response to it (that Asian Americans should have more humor) was also public, so the Asian American response to Warren was appropriately public. However, the apology is only semi-public because Warren has not addressed the 4,021 followers who liked the post and explained to them why he took it down.

Over the last week, there has been contention over whether this ‘backlash’ is an Asian American way of attacking Warren’s ministry and whether the blogposts that went up were indicative of Christian practice; indeed, some thought that Warren should have been approached privately and that this affair should not have boiled over into the public sphere. While I have argued in the past that all geographical debates are theological (see my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘), the question here is really a geographical one at heart. As I said in my interview, that these events began on an online public makes it uniquely appropriate that the response also happened on an online public. However, Warren’s supporters suggest that what would be Christian would be to approach this affair privately. This was my other comment, that ‘those supporting Warren [could be] part of a larger narrative that Asian Americans should assimilate into a broader white mainstream,’ that is, that instead of seeking to re-orient the racial contours of American religion through public conversation, private strategies should be pursued to preserve a status quo into which Asian Americans should integrate. While this is theologically intriguing and requires more theological reflection by competent scholars who study the Christian tradition, the larger debate that this gets at is whether Rick Warren and Saddleback should be considered as private individual institutions whose private governance insulates them from public opinion or public figures involved in a vibrant public conversation on American religion that is already happening. These are competing visions for how to make conversation in evangelical circles, and these geographies should be more thoroughly interrogated and discussed.

Yet what this means is that there must be absolute clarity that Rick Warren is neither under attack by Asian American evangelicals nor being defended by his ardent supporters. What is really going on is a conversation about two questions, the first of which concerns the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism, and the second of which interrogates the extent to which this conversation should be public or private. On all sides, there is the attempt to invite Rick Warren into these conversations, albeit on different geographical terms, with some pushing for a public conversation while others seek to keep it in the private sphere. Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article sheds very clear light on those geographies, and for that, her work in engaging this issue should be appreciated while she deserves the gratitude of everyone working in and on American religion.

Update: this story has been picked up by Christianity Today and given due diligence by Her.meneutics editor, Kate Shellnutt.
Update #2: this story has been picked up by The Huffington Post. The title is overly melodramatic, though, and does not capture the spirit of conversation that any of the parties involved intend.
Update #3: a version of this story has been picked up by Hong Kong’s ecumenical-evangelical newspaper, The Christian Times.  While I am not quoted, that the other three who are cited were originally part of the RNS piece suggests that there is some cross-fertilization. (I understand that Khang was unfortunately not cited by name in the original piece, but the first link in Bailey’s article takes the reader to Khang’s blog, More Than Serving Tea.) What follows is an analysis of that piece that I originally posted on Facebook. Reflecting the genre of social media, the writing at points is a bit more informal and has been slightly edited for the purposes of this post:

Well, our story is now in Hong Kong’s (in)famous evangelical-ecumenical newspaper, The Christian Times. That’s pretty cool. Sam Tsang, Kathy Khang, and Eugene Cho all get a mention.

Let me tell you two things that are cool about it and one that I am worried about.

First, this is Sam in a context that knows him for his sharp critiques of dubious church practices. If you thought Sam was on fire this time, you haven’t seen Sam in Hong Kong. That guy spearheaded the exposure of a major fraud in Hong Kong evangelicalism, and those with Chinese reading skills can read it here, and those with Google Translate can get the gist without reading into every mistranslated word: http://arkwhy.org/. In short, this post doesn’t see Sam as an emerging figure. It sees Sam as doing what he’s been doing all along. And this one was mild.

Second, it includes Kathy Khang by name and homes in on her most important point: that this is not just about Chinese people affected by the Cultural Revolution, but that what’s at stake is the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism. It is also sensitive to Kathy’s central contention as a co-author of the book More Than Serving Tea that Asian American evangelical women have agency and dignity and that they are not invisible figures. It also rightly subordinates Eugene Cho’s reflective contribution about the need for humility to identify blind spots.

But now let me tell you my worry. It has to do with me not being quoted, but it’s not about me. I’d rather they’d have stolen my analysis without mentioning my name than leaving it out altogether.

I don’t mind at all that this piece does not mention me, but I do mind that the Hong Kong situation, especially the planting of Saddleback HK, makes it seem like this whole thing is another episode in which the radical pro-democracy people in Hong Kong are challenging those in collusion with the established regime. Indeed, as a researcher with commitments in Hong Kong, I am slightly worried that this piece reads this Rick Warren incident through the lenses of intra-Christian politics in Hong Kong (and my, it is tempting because of Sam’s involvement). For what it’s worth, keep in mind that this is not Kung Lap Yan and Narrow Road Church against the rationalists. Daniel KT Cheung has certainly been following the story on the wall, but this is not a one-to-one comparison of his critiques of Truth-Light Society and Co. Kathy Khang is an evangelical feminist who brings a justice and solidarity element, but she is not Rose Wu Lo Sai. This is not about contesting Saddleback HK; it’s about involving Warren and Saddleback in a conversation so that their work at Saddleback, including Saddleback HK, might be more evangelically fruitful.

And that gets back to what I said in the Religion News Service piece and in my own post above. The real question here revolves around the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism, and the central concern is whether this conversation is going to happen in the public sphere or in a private domain. That is what this debate is about; it is not another episode in the democratic contestation of Hong Kong’s evangelical geographies. There are certainly linkages because of Sam’s work and my research, but the involvement of Kathy Khang and Eugene Cho precludes that interpretation. That’s all to say that I don’t mind not being quoted. But I wish that they would have at least stolen my sentiments, if only to frame this piece outside of a hegemonic intra-Hong Kong Christian conversation.

Update #4: my evangelical contacts in Hong Kong have kindly reminded me that while a ‘hegemonic intra-Hong Kong Christian conversation’ should not colonize the Asian American one, there is a conversation happening among evangelicals in Hong Kong that is producing a geography worth probing. The following open letter written by T.r. Mak is an important node in this conversation.

Update #5: the blogger David Hayward, who goes by the pseudonym, the Naked Pastor, has covered this incident on his blog on the Patheos Progressive Christian Portal. While this coverage has been appreciated by those seeking a public conversation with Warren, Hayward’s framing of Tsang as a ‘Chinese pastor’ (he is a noted New Testament theologian in both Anglophone and Sinophone academic circles) and Khang originally as a ‘Korean Christian blogger’ (this has now been amended to ‘an American of Korean descent’), as well as the lack of coverage of this incident on Patheos more generally, has generated a discussion among some Asian American theologians and pastors over the place of Asian American theologies on Patheos, especially because it is frequently omitted.

Update #6: this incident has been covered again on Patheos, this time by Unreasonable Faith on the Atheist Channel.

Update #7: Xinhua New China News Agency in Beijing has picked up on the story from the Huffington Post. Emphasizing that Warren was the pastor who gave the invocation for American President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the piece goes on to narrate the back-and-forth interaction between Professor Sam Tsang and Rick Warren. It concludes by quoting ‘a Chinese’ (一名華人), who says, ‘照片是公開的,華理克最初的回應也是公開的(指讓華人增加點幽默感),華人對華理克的評論也是公開的,但華理克的道歉卻是半公開的,他並沒有向那4021名點讚的教友解釋清楚,’ which reads in English, ‘The photo was public, and Warren’s initial response to it (that the Chinese should have more humor) was also public, so the Chinese response to Warren was appropriately public, but the apology is only semi-public because Warren has not addressed the 4,021 followers who liked the post and explained to them why he took it down.’ Doctoring my original words to substitute ‘Chinese’ (華人) for ‘Asian American’ and thus achieving a unique ideological twist, this means that my contribution to the original Religion News Service article has been edited and translated for the purposes of this article.

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.

Converge Magazine: Subverting the Culture War: why I am a Christian in the secular university and not a culture warrior

I am pleased to announce the publication of a short piece in Converge Magazine, a periodical for young evangelicals based in Vancouver.

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The article is concerned with what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called ‘culture wars,’ especially the notion that evangelicals in secular universities have a responsibility to take back academic space for Christ in a battle for the mind. After reviewing some of the prevailing evangelical approaches since the 1970s, I explain that these practices are not only naïve about the place of young people in universities, but that they may be distortions of Christian theological praxis. I base this article on a re-reading of what evangelicals call ‘the Great Commission,’ a quotation from Jesus at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew (28.18-20) where he tells his followers to go make disciples of all nations, baptize them into Triune life, and teach them to obey everything he has commanded. I propose that readings of the Great Commission have become distorted because they fail to read it in the context of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s texts. In Matthew, Jesus’ call to repentance is to a kingdom founded on humility, charity, and forgiveness, with a mission that is based less on organized strategy as it is on living out this new mode of existence. Reflecting at the end on the notion of the ‘secular,’ I also make reference to the last chapter of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age as an alternative way through which the Great Commission can be practiced in secular universities.

The argument, of course, is nothing completely original and is part of a much larger discussion both among evangelicals and about evangelicals. Younger evangelicals have reportedly become disenchanted with the notion of culture wars, and books and blogs such as Rachel Held Evans‘s Evolving in Monkey Town, Jonathan Merritt’s A Faith of Our Own, and Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God are all good examples. These cases have also been highlighted in the flagship evangelical publication Christianity Today as a sign of a generational shift. Moreover, academic studies such as Martha Pally’s The New Evangelicals (see The Immament Frame’s blog series), Omri Elisha’s Moral Ambition, and Christian Smith’s Christian America have observed these changes, and even William Connolly–a political scientist who has not been known to be sympathetic to evangelicals–gives a positive appraisal of these re-formulated paradgims in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. As for how Christians should participate in secular universities, there has been an ongoing discussion among theologians and social scientists in books like John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, Stanley Hauerwas’s State of the University, and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. In other words, what I am saying here isn’t completely new, but it is my own reflective theological reading of Christian praxis and positionality in secular universities.

My purpose in writing this article is to clarify my own positionality in my academic work for a popular evangelical audience. I began this project of public dissemination in a post I wrote for Schema Magazine, in which I detailed why being a Chinese Christian myself should not paste over my own personal intersectional complexities and thus continues to allow for what geographer Paul Cloke calls a simultaneous ‘critical distance’ and ‘critical proximity’ in ethnographic work. That piece was directed to a popular secular audience as an exercise in public academia, explaining my own social location in relation to my academic project to people who don’t do academic work for their day job. In this post, I speak more directly to evangelicals who may assume that my project is to take back the secular university for Christ, clarifying my own theological praxis while calling my brothers and sisters to reflect deeper on Matthew’s Gospel account. To address this audience more directly, I chose to publish popularly in an evangelical magazine, but I will reflect on my positionality to academic readers in a scholarly journal in the future. There is, of course, a great deal of precedent for academics in religious studies studying evangelicals to publish in evangelical magazines, including reflective pieces and regardless of their own theological orientations, such as those written by Christian Smith, Tanya Luhrmann, and Russell Jeung. Indeed, these are publics that academics studying evangelicals must engage both as a way of giving back to communities we have researched and by way of meeting our duties to contribute to public discourse.

I am pleased overall by the editors’ discretion in preparing the piece for publication, especially by clarifying my meaning in several places where my language was more convoluted. One slight modification, however, that is a bit more significant is the final sentence in which it reads that we ‘show this world another way of thinking and being, one based around His ways, rather than our own.’ My original draft was a more direct quotation from St. John’s Gospel (17.22-23) where Jesus prays for Christian unity that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son. As it is printed, it sounds like I am calling for Christians to be examples to others through their character. Yet as I read Jesus’ prayer in John and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, he doesn’t call Christians, including evangelicals, to lead from any moral high ground. Instead, the command is to simply be the church and live humbly in a sacramental ontology where justice is done precisely out of a humble spirituality and solidarity with the poor. This all said, though, the editorial choice is still sound if the reference to ‘His ways, not ours’ is taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah (55.8) where he discusses divine grace in calling out from exile a people that is marked by their new-found humility and charity. If that is so, the Isaianic passage’s meaning converges with both John’s and Matthew’s Gospel accounts about practicing a radically humble ontology, and the sentence is not only clarified, but enhanced.

I want to thank Converge Magazine for printing this piece and especially to Shara Lee for encouraging this publication. As I wrote in the byline, my friends Sam, Diana, Anna, Karl, and Aaron were valuable advisors who sharpened the piece significantly. I am thankful to be able to publish to an evangelical audience, and I hope that the piece will provoke thought and stimulate further discussion on Christian praxis.