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.’

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.

JSIS C254: American Religion

In less than two hours, I will give the introductory lecture in my first course ever. This is a course on American religion, and it is listed as Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS) C254 in the comparative religion unit.

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This course is about how religion in America may well constitute American civil society more than we might think.  The key course question that the students and I will explore together is: what is the role of American religion in the construction of American civil society? While there has been a lot of interesting work on lived religions in America and how Americans may have reshaped religion via the constructs of a voluntary society, this course will look at how religion in America affects American public life.

There are four main units in this course. In the first unit, we will explore the making of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant consensus in American religion, and we will do that by reading David Hackett Fischer’s massive tome, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. We will then do a second unit in which we look at how this consensus may have broadened out to non-Protestant religions, developed liberal and neo-orthodox strands, and formed some form of American religious pluralism, and to do that, we will read Will Herberg’s class text, Protestant-Catholic-Jew. After that, we’ll problematize the Protestant consensus by looking at race and religion in America. Our key text in this third unit will be James Baldwin’s civil rights book, The Fire Next Time, and we will supplement this unit with articles in Asian American, Chicana/o, and indigenous religions authored by Jane Iwamura, Andrea Smith, Tom Tweed, and David Yoo. Finally, our fourth unit will be on American fundamentalism as we explore the reassertions of the Protestant consensus, and we will read George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture.

To teach a course on American religion is to initiate students into a widely debated field of research. I understand, for example, that the emphasis of my course seems to be on the Protestant consensus in America may lead some to dispute whether I am privileging certain geographies or religions in America, and I am fully cognizant of revisionist histories that provincialize New England (e.g. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith), that seek to frame American religion via the geography of the Americas (e.g. Manuel Vásquez), and that seek to unsettle settler colonialism by emphasizing indigenous religions and relations. My reply would be that to do revisionist history implies still that there is a historical narrative to be revised, and I would argue that my course seeks to do that by positioning the traditional narratives of American religion via the Protestant consensus alongside the revisionist work on race. Scholars of American religion will recognize, then, that the first two units on the broadening of the Protestant consensus can be traced to Sydney Ahlstrom’s seminal Religious History of the American People. However, with the material on race, this Protestant consensus is actively being challenged and revised by groups with different senses of American geography, whether through a trans-Pacific framing (Asian American religions) or an Americas framework (a Chicana/o and indigenous religions). The idea is to look at how the conventional narratives can be juxtaposed with the alternate geographies.

As such, this course is a course on how religion can be seen as grounded in American civil society. It is not a history course, and it is not a course where we will tick off each of the religions in America. Instead, it asks the broader question of how American civil society is shaped by American religion, and my hope is that students will emerge from the course with the ability to articulate their perspective on that question critically.

SSHRC Postdoctoral Award, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington

While this will come as no news to many of my acquaintances, I am pleased to formally announce that I will be taking up a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Award at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, beginning on 1 January 2014. This is an externally funded postdoctoral award from the Government of Canada that allowed me to apply by proposing an international institution at which to hold the fellowship.  The purpose is for freshly minted Canadian doctoral graduates to be postdoctoral fellows as part of an institution’s academic life. My award funds my postdoctoral fellowship for two years while providing me with a base from which to get launched onto the academic job market.

I chose the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington because I wanted to be part of an institution where I could augment my studies in religion while being part of a community that valued my disciplinary home in human geography and my topical interest in Asian American and Asian Canadian studies. I was attracted to the Jackson School because of the Comparative Religion Unit directed by Professor James K. Wellman, Jr., who will be my postdoctoral supervisor. As a specialist in Protestant studies, Wellman is a good fit because of his knowledge of mainline Protestant studies (I have found his readings of the Niebuhr brothers very enlightening, particularly as he grounds their work ethnographically; see The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism) and evangelical studies (see Evangelical vs. Liberal), including in new evangelical paradigms and megachurch models (see Rob Bell and a New American Christianity). I look forward to working with him to develop my interests in American religion while reading and writing broadly around the nexus of religious studies and theology, which means that I will continue to engage the revisionist conversation on secularization as well. The Comparative Religion Unit is also a base from which to network with a diverse range of scholars across departments at the University of Washington whom I plan to engage in conversation about trends in the social sciences of religion. Finally, because the unit is located within the Jackson School, this situates me in an institution that cares about Canada-America relations, human geography, and Asian American/Asian Canadian/trans-Pacific migration and ethnic studies. I plan also to contact geographers and Asian Americanists for further conversation.

My postdoctoral project is titled Witnessing in the None Zone: Younger Generation Asian North American Protestants and public engagement in the Pacific Northwest. Following on the heels of my doctoral project on Cantonese Protestant engagements with the public sphere, this project now moves to a ‘younger-generation’ Asian American and Asian Canadian Protestant population and how they engage existing publics while creating new ones. By younger generation, I mean to say that I am not only interested in ‘second-generation’ Asian North Americans who are born in North America, but also 1.5-generation and transnational migrants as well. The project starts in the Pacific Northwest (especially Metro Seattle and Metro Vancouver) because much of the work that has been done on younger-generation Asian Americans has been conducted in California. This approach does not exclude the Californian case studies; instead, it can be a way to compare and contrast newer ethnographic work in the Pacific Northwest with the work in California. The Pacific Northwest is itself important because it has been conceptualized by many as a ‘none zone’ of religious life, and the fact that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians are engaging and creating theological publics in these sites may serve as a challenge to that thesis. By starting in the Pacific Northwest, I plan to later extend my postdoctoral fellowship work to other sites southward (say, to the San Francisco Bay Area, Greater Los Angeles, and sites in Texas, such as Houston and Austin) and eastward (say, to Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and New York), depending on where the connections may lead and whether these publics are bound by metropolitan units (as in my doctoral work) or conceptualize their geographical parameters differently. Again, the project does not focus on congregations, per se; it examines rather how younger-generaton Asian American and Asian Canadian Protestants engage and create publics, including in electoral politics, grassroots activism, planting congregations (one area of inquiry is whether congregational sites are conceptualized as public or private), participating in circulations of material culture, and involvement in social media (this list is not exhaustive! I am preparing to be surprised by my findings!). My plan is to start interviewing key informants at the beginning of 2014. In other words, details are forthcoming.

In addition to conducting this new research, I will also be writing papers to submit into academic journals in geography, religious studies, and American ethnic studies, while also converting my dissertation into a book to be submitted to an academic publisher. Finally, in keeping with the regulations of my grant, I will be teaching one course at the Jackson School on American religion in the Winter Quarter in 2014. I will write about that course separately.

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I look forward to my time in Seattle as an opportunity for further professional development. I anticipate that there will be a lot to learn, and I am very excited to be working with James Wellman. This postdoctoral fellowship promises to be a time that will hone my work on religious and racialized publics, and I am very eager to be challenged in ways that I will not have previously imagined.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Boston, 8-10 November 2013

I am here at the Westin Waterfront Hotel in Boston, MA, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), which is being jointly held with the Religious Research Association (RRA), from 8-10 November 2013.

I organized a session for Saturday, 9 November.  It’s a paper session titled Faith, Class, and Space: Geographies of Religion, session G-10 on the SSSR program. It will be held from 2-3:30 PM in the Carlton Room, and it will feature geographers who work on religion, including Banu Gökariksel (Geography, University of North Carolina), Anna Secor (Geography, University of Kentucky), and Betsy Olson (Geography, University of North Carolina). Ann Taves (Religious Studies, UC Santa Barbara) is our discussant; this is more than appropriate because Taves was our Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS) at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting earlier this April 2013. If you are here in Boston, you are warmly invited to attend.

The genesis of our paper session came from a conversation that I had with Lily Kong at the AAG earlier this year. Following Kong’s 2010 paper in Progress in Human Geography (which was incidentally her inaugural Annual Lecture for GORABS in 2010), we discussed the various conferences that geographers needed to attend and in which they needed to intervene in order to spread the word that geographers are interested in religion as an analytic. Having heard from Ann Taves and James Wellman (Religion, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington) that the SSSR was a conference that we must attend, I decided to organize a panel with some of the latest work in geographies of religion. Kong herself was unfortunately unable to attend. However, we really did get the cream of the crop in our discipline. Gökariksel and Secor have made fascinating interventions in the intersection of religion and consumption in their study of tesettür, Turkish veiling fashion that is seen as morally and aesthetically ambivalent and yet political in regard to secular states. Olson is presenting work that she conducted with a team of social geographers in the United Kingdom interested in the intersection of religion, childhood and youth studies, and postsecularism; her collaborators include Peter Hopkins (Geography, Newcastle University), Giselle Vincett (Geography, University of Edinburgh), and Rachel Pain (Geography, Durham University). Their collective project focuses on the young Christians in Scotland and factors in class to differentiate different kinds of youth in their sample. These two projects are some of the latest work being published in geographies of religion and represent an exciting turn in the discipline where religion is demonstrably a geographical analytic that, when it intersects with other social factors, presents a powerful entryway into theorizing how the contemporary world is constructed.

My paper is titled ‘We were very orderly and peaceful’: model minority evangelicals in public space. This paper is drawn from my PhD research, but because I want to focus on just one case study, it will explore how Cantonese evangelicals in the San Francisco Bay Area participated in activism around Proposition 8. At a theoretical level, this paper also seeks (like the other papers) to intervene in the social scientific study of religion by arguing that geographers become part of this conversation by focusing on how places are constituted, constructed, and contested. Here is the abstract:

Images of Chinese evangelical demonstrations against sexual liberalization in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong have circulated throughout a global debate about sexual minorities and marriage equality.  While anti-marriage equality demonstrators have often been portrayed as motivated by private religious convictions and homophobic sentiments, little has been done to theorize their intersections of race, ethnicity, and class.  This paper focuses on one such group: Cantonese-speaking evangelicals in the Pacific Rim.  Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2011 and 2012 that involved 140 interviews and 13 focus groups, I argue that Cantonese evangelical protests against sexual liberalization often invoke a middle-class ‘model minority’ conception of participation in public space as an orderly activity over against lower-class forms of anarchy.  While notions of the ‘model minority’ have been anathema in Asian American studies, that Cantonese evangelicals actively invoke their peaceful, legal, non-violent, and non-anarchic approach to public space as a frame for their political activities suggests that fissures along class among migrant religious populations.  These analyses must in turn be grounded in space, demonstrating that class differences as to how public spaces are used are illustrative of larger conversations about religion, ethnicity, and class in the public sphere.

So far, it’s been a very good and interesting conference. There is a lot of interesting talk about the social sciences and interdisciplinarity. I also attended a very interesting ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session for Julie Park’s new book, When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher EducationIn addition to our disciplinary intervention with human geography here at the SSSR, I am enjoying meeting and reconnecting with people who are also interested in the social scientific study of Asian American religions. All that is to say, I am very glad that I am here, and I look forward to continuing to be productive while I am here.

Posting with Jim Wellman on Niebuhr and Obama

My friend and supervisor for next year’s post-doctoral fellowship, Jim Wellman, and I collaborated on a post for his Patheos blog on American religion. It’s titled ‘Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama.

As we watched Barack Obama justify drone warfare as a just war policy yesterday, we were struck by how many allusions there were to the work of mainline Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Wellman is arguably one of the current top authorities on Niebuhr, and generously, he took on some of my comments in his blog, including some work on Christian pacifism that responds to Niebuhr. If you have not seen Obama’s speech, do watch it here:

I see these comments as continuous with my work in geographies of religion, a field that I have theorized as not only as a subfield within cultural geographies (as it is more popularly conceived), but as an analytical axis by which political, economic, and cultural geographies can be interpreted. As I argued in my piece on ‘grounded theologies,’ geographers who use religion and secularization must reveal modern geographies to be theologically constituted, as the ‘secular’ can also be read (as per the Immanent Frame) as a theological orientation. Obama’s speech on security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics is a prime example. While it is ostensibly non-religious and non-theological, that he uses Niebuhr’s ‘proximate justice’ theory to argue that drone warfare is a form of just war policy suggests that he is in fact doing theology through public policy. Wellman and I argue that whatever you think of Obama, you really have to contend with Obama’s theological framework if you want to seriously engage him in democratic conversation and debate.

The implication here is that religious and theological literacy is a primary task for any ‘secular’ discipline. While there are hard secularists who may scoff at this notion, that even those parties lay claim to something called ‘secular’ is to say something about ‘religion’ or ‘theology’; if those statements are said ignorantly, it does a disfavour to everyone in the public forum. This is why I feel so happy that I’ll be working with Wellman. Recently, he had me sit in a seminar class that he’s teaching on American megachurches, where we conversed with non-geography students with arguably one of the most important books to come out in geographies of religion, Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. As we covered a lot of ground exploring how Wilford conceptualizes Saddleback Church’s usage of space as a cultural geographer, I couldn’t help but be cheered that a discipline like human geography–one that has been conceptualized as uncritically secular until very recently–was contributing to public religious literacy in the form of these students grappling with this geography text. I think this signals good times ahead for geographies of religion, if I might be so presumptuous.

Working with Wellman will allow me to sharpen some of my own theological and religious reading, especially in American mainline Protestant theology, which will supplement what I currently know about geographies of evangelicalism and the critical crypto-Catholic conversation on secularization in theology and religious studies. This in turn will help refine what I have to say about Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific religions. All of this is not a deviation from my work in geographies of religion and grounded theologies. It’s an extension and refinement, as all of this stuff is very spatially oriented and thus very geographical.

Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity. I look forward to the fun times ahead.