Association of Critical Heritage Studies – what does heritage change?: Montreal 2016

I’m so happy to have been invited to Montréal to give a presentation on behalf of the collaborative project that Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), David Ley (UBC, Geography), and I have been working on since 2010. Our joint project revolves around No. 5 Road, a 3-kilometre stretch of road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’ because it is home to over twenty religious institutions. So far, our project has yielded a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia (our funders) and a peer-reviewed article in Social and Cultural Geography. This is heads-up that there is more coming down the pipeline.

The conference at which I am representing our team is called the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS); their theme for this year’s 2016 (from June 3 to 8) meeting in Montréal is ‘what does heritage change?’ David was contacted by Luc Noppen, one of the organizers for this conference who put together a very interesting session titled ‘Heritage and the New Fate of Sacred Places/La patrimoine et le destin des leux sacrés.‘ Luc said that he had heard about our project from various places; we have indeed been presenting snippets of it at various conferences, such as the American Association of Geographers in 2011 and 2012 as well as Metropolis Canada at a policy symposium and their national conference. I was also once on the radio about it. Luc offered to fly one of our team over to Montreal, and after some discussion, the more junior member of the team (me!) got to go.

It will be interesting to be at a conference on critical heritage. I usually associate critical heritage with my friend and colleague Lachlan Barber, who is Assistant Professor of Geography at Hong Kong Baptist University, and when I think of critical heritage, I think of Lachlan’s dissertation on Hong Kong heritage politics, something that I have been thinking a great deal about in light of the origins of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Lachlan is in fact here at this conference talking about Hong Kong. But I won’t be talking about Hong Kong. I’m going to be talking about Richmond. Oh, all of my favourite things…

As I peruse the program, I’m finding that there are a good many sessions on religion at this conference. There is a session on Saturday, for example, on ‘Religion as Heritage – Heritage as Religion?‘ On Monday, there will be an all-day session at the historic church of Saint-Michel de Vaudreuil titled ‘Beyond Re-uses: The Future of Church Monuments in a Secular Society/Au-delà de la conversion: l’avenir des églises monumentales dans une société sécularisée.’ On Tuesday morning just before the session in which I am presenting, there is yet another round on religion as heritage at Concordia University. I’ll try to be at most of these sessions and will be definitely be brushing up on my high-school French when the Francophone presentations happen. Maybe I’ll try to sneak into my schedule a few Asia-Pacific sessions too, especially Lachlan’s paper.

It turns out that the session in which I am presenting on the fate of sacred places is being hosted in a site that has some special meaning for me. On Tuesday afternoon, we’ll be in a conference room at St Joseph’s Oratory. This parish – really, a minor basilica in its final form – was founded by the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), St André Bessette. CSC tends to be known in secular circles for the University of Notre Dame (which I have not attended) and in Roman Catholic circles for Family Theater (which I do not watch). However, CSC does many other things as well in Catholic education, including running the high school that I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moreau Catholic High School (MCHS), which is named for the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau. Moreau was an educator, and he imparted to his order a philosophy of education with which I continue to resonate: ‘We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart’ (Circular Letter 36). If there was anyone who embodied what that kind of education looked like in practice, it was St André, the illiterate doorkeeper who had St Joseph’s Oratory built in the first place. Widely known as a healer who lovingly embraced everyone who came to meet him at the door, St André shows us what the cultivation of the heart in education is: we are educated so that we can come to understand ourselves in relation to others as persons who can look each other in the face with love. One of my closest mentors at MCHS, Fr Harry Cronin CSC (we cofounded a literary magazine there in 2003 called Sea Changes), in fact wrote a play recently about St André called ‘The Lesson of Wood‘ that compares the simple carpentry of Jesus’ earthly father, St Joseph, to St André’s building of St Joseph’s Oratory. St André’s body is still at the Oratory, which means that not only will I get to visit this man who embodies everything I know education to be, but he will be within earshot of what I have to say at this critical heritage conference.

And what will I be talking about in the presence of St André’s relics? SHIT.

Yes, you read that right. Shit. As my students in cultural geography will know well – as well as those who have attended my more recent guest lectures – shit is becoming a bit of a technical term for me. I’d like to say that my new fecal interests were developed by reading the new materialist turns in critical theory, but if I were to be honest, it was because of a previous incarnation of the talk that I’m giving at this conference. I developed the thesis of this talk for a policy symposium with Metropolis BC and Embrace BC – that dialogue on No. 5 Road was really more about infrastructure than interfaith topics – and one item that seemed to make an impression on the audience was my discussion of sewage on No. 5 Road. Because of that, I was promptly invited to Comox for a panel the next month by the Community Justice Centre’s Bruce Curtis. As Curtis introduced me, he declared to a crowd of mostly older, respectable Vancouver Island folks, ‘Justin is going to tell you about SHIT!’ That is the scene that sticks with me now as I make my way through the new materialists, their more-than-human geography disciples, and their theoretical foes who, like Slavoj Žižek (my personal favourite), are equally scatological.

In any case, here’s the abstract for my talk next Tuesday:

Interfaith and intercultural dialogues frequently have an air of immateriality about them, focusing usually on abstract concepts in an effort to reach an idealistic overlapping consensus. The coexistence of over twenty religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as ‘Highway to Heaven,’ provides a remarkably grounded contrast. While this spectacular landscape appears on the surface to be fertile ground for abstract interreligious conversation, our findings from interviews conducted with the City of Richmond and the religious institutions suggest that the religious institutions often conceptualize their property as private, working together only to solve infrastructure problems related to parking, sewage, agricultural land, and the city’s proposals to rework the roads surrounding the area. Advancing an approach to the study of interreligious dialogue in contemporary sacred landscapes that focuses on the material and the mundane, we argue that there has been a shift in the conception of faith communities in relation to their property that has centralized private ownership as a practice of faith for these institutions. We therefore advance the critical study of religious institutions in Canada by showing that religion is not so much a matter of ideological identity as it is related to practices related to land that may have more in common with the secular than previously thought.

That looks tamer than what I think I am going to deliver. What has given me more courage is that I have discovered that I will have thirty minutes instead of my usual twenty. I am sure I could use that to (if I may) talk more shit, especially to sketch out some shitty theory – now that I indeed have a stake in this debate about shit between the so-called ‘new materialists’ and their theoretical foes (as all cultural geographers do, I would argue).

St André Bessette, pray for us indeed. Or as Moreau writes in the same Circular Letter I quoted above, ‘Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No; we wish to accept science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know.’ I can only pray that my excremental presentation will be true to this sacramental spirit, which imbues the place where I will deliver it.

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MONTREAL MATERIALIST MADNESS!!

I am thankful to the Highway to Heaven team for tolerating this scatological turn in my scholarly endeavours. I am also thankful to Luc Noppen for so kindly inviting me to this conference. As always, we thank our funders Metropolis BC, who also enabled us to hire the best transcriber who exceeded our hopes and dreams, Airra Custodio. I am looking forward to the hilarity that will inevitably ensue as we discuss heritage this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

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

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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