Journal of the American Academy of Religion: Book Review, Rebecca Y. Kim’s Spirit Moves West

I received a kind note the other day telling me that a book review that I had published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR) had been promoted through the JAAR‘s new online book review site, Reading Religion. The book is Pepperdine sociologist Rebecca Y. Kim’s new book, The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America.

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The themes of this book dovetail well with many of my research themes; when people who do not study Asian American religion tell that I really should be studying Korean American evangelical Protestants because they are all the rage, I often reply that books written on the subject are a dime a dozen. Kim’s very interesting ‘in’ on Korean American evangelicals is to study how one Korean American evangelical Protestant organization, University Bible Fellowship, did not so much found a Korean evangelical community, but sought to evangelize non-Koreans – which usually meant ‘white Americans.’ As a phenomenon, this was very interesting because it bucked the trend of scholarship that simply assumed that religious communities usually serve people of their own ethnicities.

However, my book review focused on the theoretical thrust of the book, which I think is of more interest to people working broadly in religious studies (and thus would read the JAAR). Kim seems to think in ‘ideal types’ – Koreans, white Americans, global Christianity, world Christianity. My review examines both the usefulness and the limits of this kind of sociological analysis and will hopefully show that the study of Asian American religion has broad theoretical implications for the study of religion at a very broad scale.

I want to thank Cynthia Eller for contacting me and Tammi Schneider for accepting the book review. This was a very useful task for me to have done for the JAAR, and I hope that readers of the JAAR will find it equally as useful for their reading. I am also very excited for the new website Reading Religion, and I hope that readers there will enjoy this wonderful guide to all the latest work in religious studies.

Guest lecturing in Phil Tite’s UW class

Yesterday, I gave a guest lecture in Dr Phil Tite‘s class at the University of Washington (UW) on Theories in the Study of Religion, a course listed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies as JSIS C 380. Here’s Phil’s recap from Facebook – I won’t share the actual post because the settings are limited to Phil’s and my friends, but the text is a thank-you note I appreciate very much:

Thank you, Justin Tse, for another excellent guest lecture (via Skype) on geographies of religion. This is the third time Justin has done this for my Theories in the Study of Religion course and each time is excellent (though very unique). And each time I learn a little something more about cultural geography. I’m glad I can incorporate this emerging theoretical approach to my course.

This is indeed the third time that I’ve given a lecture on what cultural geography has to do with religious studies in his class. However, each time has been different. Perhaps this has to do with how I am constantly learning new things about geography myself, and maybe it has to do with how geographers are constantly expanding the boundaries of the discipline more generally. It may also have to do with the kinds of questions that students ask me in each class.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a new style of guest-lecturing recently. It may have to do with the ways I’m developing as a teacher more generally, but I feel a greater sense of freedom in letting go of my lecture material and engaging the interests of the students in relation to the material. In previous iterations of this lecture in Phil’s class, for example, we tended to stick to the material I prepared, which means that students often contested me, for example, on whether bodies constitute a place (such as whether Muslim women wearing headscarves is an act of placemaking) and how theologies can be grounded in secular sites. It’s all very interesting stuff, but I am starting to see guest-lecturing as an opportunity to parachute into a class that I’m not teaching and to learn something from the encounter. With the two latest guest lectures I’ve given this week (the previous one in Steven Hu’s UCSB class),  what I’m starting to discover is that guest lectures give me the chance to learn about why topics that I find interesting would be of interest to undergraduate students who are not experts in the fields where I work. The result, I am discovering, is that we dig deeper into the discipline itself as student interest guides the way.

After the experience of guest-lecturing in Steve’s class on Monday, I consciously thought about how I would structure this lecture for Phil’s class in order to learn from the students why they might find cultural geography interesting for their study of religion. We got through one section on what geography is (where I explained to them what the ecumene, the inhabited world, was – see here for an explanation I did for another class) and what religion has to do with geography (everything). As I asked for questions, we found ourselves drawn into conversation about how understanding the ecumene at the existential (or ‘ontological’) level often raised theological questions. For some reason, this led into an extended discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire and how geographies of religion could be understood throughout the series, both in the book and on the HBO show. The students emphasized to me that their mouths were all wide open (jaw hit floor, that is) when we started talking about this, and I emphasized to them that this was neither my original idea nor my fully developed research (although, as a point of announcement, Game of Thrones is factoring into my postdoctoral work on politicized civil societies and theological communities more than I have anticipated). For this allusion, I acknowledged the work and teaching of Susan Johnston at the University of Regina for helping me take this series seriously (note to Susan: I’m still reading and catching up, and to be honest, I’m still only at the beginning of the first book! Ned Stark is still alive for me!). I also took similar questions about topics that are more tangential to my area of study (which means that the students took the time to educate me), such as neo-Nordic religiosity (such as belief-but-not-really in Wodin) in Black Nordic Metal, nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (maybe hanging out with Eastern Catholics is helping with this one, though – also, I invoked Timothy Snyder‘s work and basically called him a new cultural geographer for his attention to ideology and the making of place in the ‘bloodlands‘ of Eastern Europe), cataclysmic events in the physical environment (we talked about Jared Diamond and his detractors), and the ancient accounts of the Flood.

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The interesting part is that this led to us talking about key themes in human geography that I often don’t cover in my survey of geographies of religion. For example, Phil pointed out that what I was describing was a ‘relational’ geography of religion, and while Phil came up with this independent of the literature, this is indeed the word that is widely used especially in UK geography, especially by Gill Valentine. We also talked about the ‘activation of landscapes,’ which is a term that is sometimes used by geographers, though I don’t think it’s technical. What is more of a technical term, though, is stuff – geographers do have the debates about the materiality of stuff (and ‘shit,’ for that matter), although I have to thank Sam Rocha for drawing my attention to how important the word stuff is as a serious word.

What I took away from this conversation is that the students in Phil’s class are into the grand epic narratives and operating fictions in our contemporary society. We had some debate in our exchange about whether secularization really could be thought of as a theological process and whether secular social theory really could be understood (pace Milbank) as theology, but there was no question when we got down to the nitty gritty that in the fantasies and fictions that permeate our everyday lives, there is something theological going on, even if few actually believe in them. In some ways, this is a Žižekian insight – reality is ‘less than nothing‘ because ideologies can still operate even if nobody believes in them.

I want to thank Phil for the opportunity once again to work these thoughts out on screen and for his class for being so open to exploring these avenues in geography with me. I think I will stick to this approach to guest lecturing; it seems to bring me through more material than the stuff I prepare in advance, and because of that, we actually get to try to do geography together.

First as Sociology, Then as Geography: review essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion

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At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a review essay for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion entitled ‘First as Sociology, Then as Geography.’ It’s an essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s 2014 edited volume, New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion. As a 2000-word essay, it’s a bit longer than the average book review.

I had received the book during a coffee session with the Bulletin‘s editor Philip Tite. Among Tite’s many accomplishments, he has taught quite a number of courses at universities in Seattle, including at the University of Washington, and having met at a faculty meeting, we had coffee. He suggested that I review the book for the Bulletin, and as time passed, the book review became expanded into a ‘review essay,’ a long-form essay inspired by the book that simultaneously reviews it and expands on some of my thinking based on the book.

As the review essay will show, I learned quite a bit from the book about the shape of religious studies as a discipline. In fact, I found that one of the greatest insights from the book was that ‘religious studies,’ a field of study often disparaged as a hodgepodge collage of disciplines that takes as its focus a topic of study that is under crisis (‘what is religion?’ and increasingly ‘what is the secular?’), actually has a unitary disciplinary core that inquires into what ‘religion’ is and how it is constituted, with a disciplinary canon to boot. This ambitious edited volume attempts to recast that disciplinary canon away from the founding fathers of religious studies (who happen also to be the usual suspects in terms of the founders of social science writ large) in a New Age key.

It is this second move with which I take some issue. It’s not that I have some commitment to the original founding texts of modern religious studies. However, one of the points of agreement in this diverse volume was that at a sociological level, New Age spiritualities could be seen as becoming the new normal of how to do religion. This basic sociological point about new institutional religions fails to take seriously how this is also a geographical point – that this new sociology often is spatially exhibited by a certain class of middle-class workers trying to find inner peace through New Age spiritualities (a geography about which the authors themselves talk explicitly), and that reframing religion in this social geographic key would reinforce the stereotype that the entire discipline of religious studies is a factory for liberal bourgeois ideology.

It’s funny that I came to this while reading this book and writing this essay prior to taking the work of Slavoj Žižek seriously, even though the essay’s title certainly takes its inspiration from the title of Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (but if you read the essay, you’ll find that there isn’t really a serious engagement with Žižek, not even with First as Tragedy – there’s only a very, very brief reference to Žižek on ideology). By the end of the review essay, I found myself appealing to Marx to suggest that ‘New Age spiritualities’ may well be the new opiate of the masses. However, this is the same point that Žižek makes about ‘Buddhism,’ especially in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. You could say that I’m thankful to the authors of this book, as well as to Tite and the Bulletin, for the chance to get these new thoughts going through pondering such new moves in religious studies as a discipline, though I suspect that it was never anyone’s intention for me to become so critical. I think it’s safe to say that you can expect me to follow this line of thought in my upcoming work.

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2014 AAG CFP: Geography of Religions and Belief Systems

Please distribute widely.

Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group
Call for Papers
AAG 2014: Tampa

The AAG’s Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group invites papers and session to be submitted for sponsorship for the AAG’s Annual Meeting in Tampa, FL in 2014.

GORABS promotes the use of religion as a geographical analytic. Historically, the group has focused on how religion impresses a human impact on the environment and vice versa. Complementing these environmental approaches, more recent work in geographies of religion have revealed that religion is a productive lens through which to understand and debate secularization processes, the intersection of religion in social identity formation, the role of religion in cultural processes of placemaking, and issues of religion in political geography. Geographers of religion are contributing to current conversations and challenges in race, gender, sexuality, age, migration studies, critical geopolitics, global development studies, political ecology, hauntological approaches, post-secularization, piety movements, evangelicalisms, and public religions. Religion has thus progressed beyond being an object of study or subject of inquiry in geography, but a way by which to practice human geography critically.

We are interested in papers and sessions that will push these emerging conversations further.  Specific topics that we encourage incluude:

  • Gender, religion, and sexuality
  • Youth, childhood, and religion
  • Religion and migration
  • Critical geopolitics, critical development studies, and religion
  • Religion and post-humanist approaches
  • Debating approaches to religion and the environment: cultural geography and political ecology
  • Debating the post-secular
  • Islamist/post-Islamist (geo)politics
  • Geographies of evangelicalisms
  • Geographies of race and religion
  • Geographies of religion in Latin America
  • Geographies of ‘Asian’ religions

Papers and sessions can be submitted online through the AAG’s paper submission console. During the submission process, please contact the GORABS chair, Justin K.H. Tse, at jtse@geog.ubc.ca to request sponsorship for your session.  To organize sessions, we also encourage you to contact GORABS with a call for papers before widely distributing a call so that GORABS sponsorship can be listed along with your distributed call for papers.

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.

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.

CFP: Consolation-scapes (Emotional Geographies, Groningen 1-3 July 2013)

I’ll likely be unable to make this conference, but I thought this was an excellent example of how geographies of religion are integral to current trends in social and cultural geography.  If you are interested, please apply following the instructions at the end of the call for papers.

Consolation-scapes: Analysing grief and consolation between space and culture
Emotional Geographies, Groningen 1-3 July 2013

Human beings are grieving animals and, moreover, animals that cannot let death have the last word. Anthropologist Douglas Davies (1997) famously suggested the simile of ‘words against death’ to address the manifold ways in which human beings respond to bereavement (words, music, rituals, architecture) and express their ‘trust in hope over fear’.

With the ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities and the social sciences at large, and the growing interest in human geography for the works of mourning, the phenomena of bereavement and memorialization have increasingly been analysed through a ‘spatial lens’ (see e.g. Maddrell & Sidaway 2010) and from the perspective of material culture (see e.g. Hockey et al. 2010).

The present session wants to carry the discussion further by focusing on consolation, a phenomenon which stayed on the background of earlier discussions. This altered focus is compounded in the session’s title. There have seen excellent analyses of ‘deathscapes’ (Hartig & Dunn 1998; Kong 1999; Maddrell & Sidaway 2010), what we want to achieve in this session is an analysis of ‘consolation-scapes’. How is space/place involved in consolation? How can material culture approaches inform analyses of consolation? Where do we stand today, consolation-wise, and how have we got here? How does our contemporary outlook differ from the outlook of times past, and how does all this relate to the spatial dimension of consolation?

The present session calls for contributions from a wide range of disciplines: geography, history, theology, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology.

Session convenors:
Christoph Jedan (c.jedan@rug.nl), Associate Professor of Ethics, Department Christianity, Philosophy and Culture, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen. Currently working on the history and continuing relevance of argumentative consolation across theology and philosophy. Together with Eric Venbrux (see below), he is founder of the thematic group Death and Consolation in the Netherlands School for Advanced Studies in Religion. Most recent monograph: Stoic virtues: Chrysippus and the religious character of Stoic ethics, London/New York 2009.

Eric Venbrux (e.venbrux@ftr.ru.nl), Professor of Anthropology of Religion, at Radboud University Nijmegen. He is director of its Centre for Thanatology. Eric Venbrux has researched widely on ritual change, in particular the transformation of rituals surrounding death in the Netherlands. Among his numerous publications is also the co-edited volume Rituele creativiteit: Actuele veranderingen in de uitvaart- en rouwcultuur in Nederland [Ritual creativity: Recent transformations in the burial and bereavement culture in the Netherlands], Zoetermeer 2008.