Guest lecturing in Steven Hu’s UCSB class

I had the privilege of guest-teaching in my friend and colleague Steven Hu‘s class on ‘Global Christianity and the Public Sphere’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Skype is such a powerful tool, and I’m glad that we can learn from each other across universities through this medium. It’s also always fantastic to be able to interact in such direct ways with the goings-on of UCSB’s brilliant religious studies department, the academic home of many crypto-geographers of religion (including Ann Taves, who gave the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Annual Lecture at the national geography conference in 2013).

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I learned a lot from Steve’s students, mostly from seeing in what they were and were not interested. Steve assigned my article on the Hong Kong democracy movement and wanted me to talk about geographies of ‘grounded theologies‘ and Hong Kong. We decided to do this in more of an interview style, with Steve asking me questions about what geography is, what Hong Kong is, and what the Umbrella Movement is. I did my standard run-down of the political system in Hong Kong, its legacy of colonization, and how to make an ideological map – all of my favourite things! We also got to talk about the different ways that Catholics and Protestants label themselves vis-à-vis the term ‘Christian,’ which is one of Steve’s favourite things, and I got to tell the class about how the colloquial Cantonese term ‘talking Jesus’ is not about evangelism – it’s about a long-winded person going on and on about meaningless things (not unlike certain points of some of my meandering answers to Steve’s questions). We also talked about some of the unexpected Byzantine practices in the Umbrella Movement because finding ways to always include the Orthodox in geographies dominated by Western Christianity is how I roll.

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Oh yes, that Syndicate forum.

 

At the end of the interview-lecture, I got to ask my own questions, and I’m so grateful to Steve for providing this time because that’s where I learned the most, as that’s when we got to talk about the students’ favourite things. I asked them whether they were personally interested in Hong Kong, and that’s where things got interesting. They told me that they were interested in comparing protest movements and that the most interesting bits of the interview-lecture were the parts about how these protest movements, far from being solely focused on the secular and the material, were laced with religion. They especially connected when I held up my copy of Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy and said that one of Schneider’s central arguments is that Occupy Wall Street generated new theologies. They also liked it when – as Steve talked about connections with the Polish Solidarity Movement – I held up my Black Madonna of Częstochowa prayer card (which they seemed to know a lot about – good job, Steve!!). And yet, I also got to respond to another student’s questions about the church’s collaboration and confrontation with the government through the lens of capital – sometimes (I said) capital will determine whether the church will kiss the state’s ass (#sorrynotsorry); after all, as I’m coming to argue, capital has amazing power to do theology – it may even be a god (or, as one of the greatest theologians of our generation, Ms Lauryn Hill, says, ‘it’s funny how money change a situation‘). That seemed to connect well with the students as well, although I could sense that there was some nervousness about the political implications of church-state-civil society separation and collaboration in protest movements. Lastly, I got to learn way more about Steve’s own research on New Calvinist urban ideologies in Shanghai, which I think for the class was a great ‘fishbowl’ moment (Steve and I being the two fish) where scholarly collegiality was put on display.

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Q. Wait, what does this have to do with Hong Kong? A. EVERYTHING.

All this is to say – thank you, Steve, for a great Skype class session. Your class has given me some things to think about, and reflecting on it will be great for keeping my scholarly focus as I keep moving forward. When you read this, please thank them for me, and by all means forward this post to them as a token of my gratitude.

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Photo taken by Steve! Thanks for having me!

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Radio Columnist: Grounded Theologies Segment, Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM

As of November 5, 2015, I became a regular columnist on geographies of religion for a local radio station in Vancouver, BC called Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM. The show on which I make my comments most Thursdays at 10:30 AM is called Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani.

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What is interesting about this show is that Minelle Mahtani is an accomplished cultural geographer in her own right at the University of Toronto-Scarborough. Working on geographies of mixed-race identities, one of the unique hallmarks of Minelle’s work is her attentiveness to the public sphere, maintaining her interest in journalism in theory and practice from her days with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Her show Sense of Place is a brilliant exploration of the ‘sense of place’ that people in Vancouver have, with interviews with local Vancouverites to tease out their understanding of placemaking, emotions, affect, and identity.

You could say that the ‘Grounded Theologies’ segment is where we get to nerd out as geography colleagues on air about the particular field of geographies of religion. Minelle usually comes at the questions from within the discipline, aiming it for a lay listening audience, and I have to take theory and practice from within the discipline to address current events. I’ve had quite a bit of fun talking about a wide variety of topics, including the #PrayforParis hashtag after the Paris attacks, religion and migration, Christmas Eve and ‘Christian privilege,’ Christmas Eve itself, religion and private property in Vancouver, and Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy.

Minelle and I have heard that there has been interest in using her show for educational purposes. To that end, our last show was on me as a geographer of religion, with the hope of kicking off a new set of topics aimed at experimenting with bringing a high level of theoretical rigour into a show for a lay audience. We’re still tinkering around with this, so updates on how we progress should be expected. As academics, I think we may well write a paper on our experiences on air talking about cultural geographies of religion as well.

But the best part is that the cornerstone of my work, the concept of ‘grounded theologies,’ is now the name of a radio segment on which I’m the commentator. There’s nothing to complain about there.

Exponential and the Open Letter

It has been one week since the Asian American Open Letter to the Evangelical Church was released on Nextgenerasianchurch.com.  I am one of the original signatories and part of the planning committee for this open letter.

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Because I have been on vacation over the last two weeks, I apologize for my delay in blogging about this important event, as well as an article in the Vancouver Sun that featured some research that Johanna Waters and I did on transnational youth between Hong Kong and Vancouver.  This post will cover my involvement in the publication of the open letter.  A forthcoming post will focus on the Vancouver Sun article.

My involvement in the Asian American open letter began when Religion News Service’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey contacted the group of us who had blogged about the Rick Warren ‘Red Guard’ fiasco and said that she had obtained information about an orientalizing incident at Exponential, a church planting conference that was incidentally being hosted at Saddleback Church but had no connection to the actual church itself.  Kathy Khang has provided a rundown here of what happened.  The gist of things is as follows: the Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean American Episcopal priest and assistant rector at All Angels’ Church, New York, tweeted that she had seen a skit at the conference where a white pastor used an orientalizing accent, but when she reported her concerns, her comments were brushed off.  This tweet was shared by Asian American writers Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, who proceeded to write the open letter.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey directly obtained the story from these tweets.

My comment to Bailey was that this second incident demonstrates the necessity for why the conversation must remain public.  I said: ‘It is worth observing that it has almost been 10 years since ‘Rickshaw Rally,’ and there are prominent American evangelical publishers, conferences, and pastors who still use Orientalizing imagery’. What I was doing was to place this incident in a historical trajectory that dates back to the Asian American evangelical campaign to pull ‘Rickshaw Rally’ from Lifeway Publishers’ Vacation Bible School publications in 2004. I am thankful that the open letter also uses this trajectory, because the concerns of Asian American evangelicals focus on whether they in fact have a place in American evangelicalism, especially if prominent pastors and publishers feel free to orientalize them despite a decade of protests. (It would be a worthy academic history project to check if there is activism that predates this decade, and whether those activists are connected to the ones at present.) As I have said repeatedly, each of these incidents were public, which makes a public response to them, including one via the press, extremely appropriate.

Over the week after Bailey’s article was published, the planning committee for the open letter gathered signatures. Exponential also issued a public apology after gathering a group of Asian Americans to talk about the skit, at which the story is that Jeya So’s story about her past of being bullied as an Asian American resonated with the conference organizers. I signed the letter to indicate my public support for this public response to these public cases of orientalization. The signatories comprise people gathered from diverse points on the theological spectrum. It is worth noting that this is a letter to the evangelical church and thus includes those conventionally labeled the ‘mainline’ and those whose theological orientations are ‘liberal’ and ‘liberationist.’

The idea now is to keep this conversation about the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism–and indeed, in American religion–public.  Indeed, the letter indicates that this is not so much a letter that goes on an attack, but rather, it is an invitation to a public conversation. As some noted to me, the letter struck them as conciliatory, and I agree; it should not sound a note of aggression.  Instead, it signals that while private conversations are necessary, like the one that led to Exponential’s informed apology, they are insufficient. If a decade has passed since Rickshaw Rally, then this conversation about race and orientalization must be had with American evangelicals in a public forum, one whose openness provides some accountability for actual change to happen.

This public conversation is in turn not a niche conversation. It is good for our public sphere. In a social and political situation where evangelicals are themselves the subject of public discourse, this conversation fits within key debates that are being had in American civil society, especially regarding the intersection of faith and politics. The openness of the open letter is one way to enter into this conversation because it interrogates whether the word ‘evangelical’ in our public discourse is inclusive of Asian Americans. If it is not, that would be curious indeed, given the observations in the social science of religion that Asian Americans are a quickly growing group of evangelicals and have historically been part of key American Protestant conversations. This open letter is thus an invitation to a broader conversation about American religion, especially because American religion concerns every person in the American public, and if that’s the case, then it is an imperative to know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘evangelicals,’ including the fact that there are many Asian Americans who are very much included in that term.

UPDATE: Those interested in how these initial thoughts turned into reflections on how ‘the private consensus is unraveling’ should read my post on Religion Ethnicity Wired. Admittedly, the framing of the ‘private consensus’ and its undoing in this blog post is limited to American religion. My postdoctoral framework for the concept has to do with the Pacific Rim.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing: Religion. Ethnicity. Wired.

I am pleased to announce that I’ve started a public blog. It’s called Religion. Ethnicity. Wired.

Religion. Ethnicity. Wired. is where I’ll be blogging about current events in light of what I work on in geographies of religion, ethnicities, migrations, politics, and Pacific cities. I explicitly apply the grounded theologies axis of analysis wherever possible to some of the things I discuss. As you’ll see, the issues there are broader than the Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians on which I’m actively writing in my doctoral dissertation. It’s a chance for readers to be able to see the breadth of what my seemingly narrow doctoral topic can actually encompass.

It’s also an exercise in public academia. On the blog, I routinely articulate how I think academia should be conceptualized as a public good. While academics are often perceived as impractical theoreticians pontificating from their revolving chairs, I make the case every so often on the blog that academics are interested in contributing the knowledge of their fields to an ongoing public democratic discussion, one that often results in concrete policy implications. This is not to say that academics pitch policy solutions–more often than not, we refrain from doing that–but this means that academics have a vital contribution to make to the public sphere that should not be overlooked by either the public or the university. In my posts, then, I try to be explicit about precisely where the academic contributions lie in the issues I’m raising.

So do follow me, and find me on Facebook and Twitter. And (I can’t resist this tagline) remember, if you stalk this page long enough, religion and ethnicity will wire you like coffee too.