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.

Book Review: Religious Studies Review: Justin Wilford (2012), Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism

I am pleased to announce that Religious Studies Review has published the second of my reviews of Justin Wilford’s wonderful 2012 book on Orange County’s Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism (New York University Press).


Over the last year, I was asked by three journals to write reviews of this book. The first was published last September 2013 in the AAG Review of Books. This piece in Religious Studies Review is the second one. The third will be part of a review forum on the book in Social and Cultural Geography and will focus on the usefulness of Wilford’s text for the Asian American evangelical activism that took place in September and October 2013. [Note: while I initially wrote a draft of that third review before the activism took place, I substantially rewrote it afterwards in order to observe how useful Wilford’s study was in the interplay of academia and activism.] The editors of the various journals understand that I have placed reviews that explore different angles of Wilford’s book, and in the spirit of transparency, I have sent copies of the different reviews to Religious Studies Review, the AAG Review of Books, and Tristan Sturm (who is organizing the SCG forum) to guard against self-plagiarism.

This present review in Religious Studies Review presents Wilford’s book to a religious studies audience. It is a very short review–what Religious Studies Review calls more of a ‘note’–that observes that Wilford has made a substantial geographical contribution to the social scientific study of religion. While geographers have often not been part of the broader conversation in the social science of religion, this book begins a conversation that I hope will continue to make inroads into a conversation of which we should be an integral part. In particular, I observe that Wilford’s ingenious examination of Saddleback’s usage of secular space for theological purposes subverts the religious studies obsession with defining ‘religion’ and calls religious studies scholars to closer analyses of how theologies are grounded in space.

For those who are wondering still if they should get this book, my answer in this review is a definitive yes. Following my thoughts in the review, I have discovered that Wilford’s text is an excellent starting place to talk about current work in geographies of religion. When I am asked at conferences about geographies of religion (i.e. where my work on Cantonese Protestant and younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian engagements with publics fits in the discipline), I often refer my interlocutors to the New York University Press book stands to pick up this book. As it was recently observed at an ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session for Sacred Subdivisions at the Association of American Geographers, books like Wilford’s remind geographers that publishing monographs would be helpful to advancing human geography as a discipline in interdisciplinary conversations. I am happy to endorse this text as a fruitful beginning point for such engagements, and I look forward to the conversations that it will generate both within and without geography.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Association of American Geographers, 9-13 April 2013: Los Angeles

I am right now at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I’m mainly attending religion panels and meeting with lots of geographers, putting what I do in conversation with everyone else. You can find the rundown of geography of religion events here in the AAG’s religion newsletter.

I am presenting as part of a panel on Post-secular Spaces: Explorations Beyond Secular Theory and Research. It’s organized by two geographers at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Banu Gökariksel and Betsy Olson. Here’s the session description:

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches. This paper session hopes to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy.

My paper is on Friday, 12 April 2013, at 1 PM at the Pacific Ballroom Salon 3 in the LA Hotel, 3rd floor. It’s titled Cantonese Protestant Activism and Secular Geographies: religion, ethnicity, and the secularization thesis. Here’s the abstract:

Geographers of religion have long assumed that the resurgence of religious practice in contemporary spaces are signs of the vitality of religion, demonstrating the falsity of the secularization thesis.  Fieldwork that I conducted in 2011 and 2012 with 140 Cantonese-speaking Protestant key informants and 115 Cantonese-speaking Protestant focus group participants in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong would seem to indicate no different, for they have been active in advocating for traditional family values and offering social services to the poor through religious agencies.  While some might label these signs of post-secular geographies, I follow Wilford’s (2010) argument that geographies of religion need to be conceptualized in the context of secularization in the modern world.  I demonstrate that Cantonese Protestants active in the public sphere imagine their contributions as secular engagements, both espousing individualistic conceptions of the self and policing their activities as universally rational, not theological.  This paper advances the geography of religion by properly understanding such phenomena in the context of secular modernity while speaking to migration, ethnic, and political geographies by showing that new religious resurgences require modern contextual interpretations.

The reference to Justin Wilford in there is part of a broader discussion with his work that is most accessible in his book on Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Go read it, if you haven’t.

The Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group this year is Professor Ann Taves (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). It’s unfortunately at the same time as a panel for post-secular spaces organized by Gökariksel and Olson, but I will be at the Taves’s lecture and skip the panel. The lecture will be on Friday, 12 April 2013, from 4:40 – 6:20 PM at the Santa Barbara B, Westin, Lobby Level. It’s titled Mapping Significance: A Building Block Approach. Following the lecture, Adrian Ivakhiv (University of Vermont) will give a response via Skype. Ann Taves’s lecture abstract is here:

Ivakhiv (2006) has argued that religion and sacrality are unstable signifiers that should be studied as ways of distributing significance across geographic spaces and distinguishing between different kinds of significance.  To implement this agenda, we need to attend more carefully to the processes that work together to create a sense of significance.  A building block approach to significance would suggest the importance of at least three factors: setting apart, which marks things as non-ordinary; valuation, which ranks and orders them; and positioning, which situates them in relation to other things.  Examples will be used to illustrate the interplay of these factors, the contestations surrounding them, and thus the way that point of view constitutes such maps and makes them unstable.

Finally, everyone is welcome to the GORABS Business Meeting. This is from 7:30 – 8:30 PM in Santa Monica D at the Westin, Level 3. You can find an agenda on p. 46 in the GORABS newsletter.

Progress in Human Geography: Grounded Theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography

As I noted in the previous post, I am excited to announce the publication of two articles today.  This post deals with the second one.

Progress in Human Geography, a widely-read journal where geographers publish reviews of current geographical research that point to new agendas for study, has published a piece that I contributed to them. It is available on OnlineFirst. It is titled ‘Grounded theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography.‘ Again, I will post again when a print issue comes out.

This is a theoretical paper that deals with how ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ should be studied in human geography.  I’ve had a long interest in examining these concepts more deeply, and I’m still interested in going deeper.  In 2007, when I began my master’s degree in geography at the University of British Columbia, I had to take an introductory course called Geography 520: Theory and Practice in Human Geography (here’s a sample syllabus, taken from 2011).  One of our assignments for that seminar was to write a short, 3,000 word essay modeled on Progress in Human Geography‘s review style. As I recall, we were told to review some 30 recent articles and books. I told our seminar instructors that I wanted to do a review essay on geographies of religion. They replied with something to the effect of: ‘Oh, let us know if you can find anything.’

In many ways, this is my way of saying: ‘I found something.’  I began developing these ideas more fully after that introductory course, which then culminated into my master’s thesis on Chinese churches in Vancouver. As I began my doctoral work, I began to toy with the idea of ‘grounded theologies’ in my directed studies courses, and I finally wrote about it in my comprehensive examinations on geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  That was when my supervisor, David Ley, encouraged me to develop this piece and put it into Progress in Human Geography, even as I was writing up my doctoral thesis proposal.

The reviews came back as I was conducting field work for my doctoral project. To my pleasant surprise, the editors and the reviewers were not only supportive, but extremely thorough, profound, and constructive, advising me on how to maximize my arguments for the best possible impact on the field. I then revised the paper, foregrounding the notion of ‘grounded theologies’ in human geography.

The paper is basically about how geographers should study ‘religion’ and the ‘secular.’ I began by engaging the work of Lily Kong, a cultural geographer and the Vice President at the National University of Singapore, who had suggested that geographers need to define what ‘religion’ is and is not.  I am an admirer of Lily’s work, as she has recently opened up many possibilities for us to study religion in geography. I was also struck by her corollary call to engage theology and religious studies more deeply. Engaging this literature, I found that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are very contested terms and that to define what religion is and is not would reinforce the binary idea that some spaces are religious and others aren’t.

The alternative path proposed in the piece is that of grounded theologies, ‘performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent’ (p. 2).  While there has been a growing literature in geography on the possibilities of ‘post-secularism’ (in fact, Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont have a piece on this in the most recent print issue of Progress), there have also been some complaints that this literature doesn’t take seriously what secularization actually means (especially by Justin Wilford, also in Progress). I propose that the way forward is to see ‘the secular’ as much as a grounded theology as ‘religion.’  After reviewing the relevant literature on ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in theology and religious studies, I demonstrate how this concept has already been put into practice by social, cultural, and political geographers.

In doing so, I had to engage with what is known as the ‘canon’ in religious studies (e.g. the foundational work of social scientists like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, William James, and Clifford Geertz), formative debates among religion scholars about what ‘religion’ is (e.g. a critical juxtaposition of the work of Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, as well as more recent work by Jonathan Z. Smith), and the recent critical conversation on secularization that blurs the lines between theology and religious studies (e.g. the work of John Milbank, William T. Cavanaugh, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Brad Gregory, and Charles Taylor). I then put this literature to work by looking at how geographers have already been engaging to some degree with grounded theologies as they undertook studies of how different religious subjects understood their identities by intersecting their social spaces. I also looked at recent discussions in critical geopolitics surrounding religion, especially as geographers have been interested in the eschatological dimensions of religious engagements with the public sphere.

My hope for this paper is that it will open avenues for geographers to research ‘religion’ and the ‘secular,’ as well as engage with scholars in theology and religious studies. Moreover, my aim has been to critique the notion that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are mutually exclusive.  By doing this, we might be able to show ironically how people conventionally labeled ‘religious’ sometimes employ ‘secular’ ways of making place while people who call themselves ‘secular’ are guided by implicit theological narratives in their geographical practices.

I’d really like to thank David Ley for guiding me through this process, as well as the editors of Progress in Human Geography who oversaw this publication, Noel Castree and Anssi Paasi. The five anonymous reviewers who critically turned over every part of this piece have greatly strengthened this paper; I also feel extremely humbled that they have taken my work so seriously and have engaged it with such profound insights. Claire Dwyer, with whom I am working concretely on a project dealing with grounded theologies in Richmond, British Columbia’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ has also been very encouraging. My friends, Robert Edwards and Carl Hildebrand, also read the piece and offered very constructive thoughts. I am very thankful that this piece is out, and I look forward to engaging fellow students of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ on how these concepts describe grounded theologies put to work in the making and contestation of real places in the world.