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.

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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CLASS: JSIS C 490C: Special Topics in Comparative Religion: Trans-Pacific Christianities

I am teaching a course next Winter Quarter 2015 at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s a fourth-year special topics class in comparative religion, and it will focus on what I call ‘trans-Pacific Christianities.’

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Here’s the syllabus. We will have quite the variety of literary, historical, sociological, and even theological readings. We will read both the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church and Killjoy Prophets’ critique of it à la Suey Park and Andy Smith. We will read both Reinhold Niebuhr’s Irony of American History and the irreverent/bombastic/Asian American nationalist anthology Aiiieeeee! We will watch both Wong Fu Productions’ Just a Nice Guy and Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse. We will read both the histories of sex in Chinatown and spirits in Korea. We will plough through both Catholic and Protestant sociologies of Asian American Christianities and explore the callings of Asian and Asian American liberation theologies. We will read the Proposition 8 trial transcript featuring Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam, and we will examine both ‘silent exodus‘ and Sa-I-Gu. Our assignments are blog comments and a paper on a topic of your choice. We will criticize all of these people and ideas to no end, and we will let ourselves be criticized by them to no end.

If you are at the UW and want to come have some fun making trouble with us, please consider taking this course. If you have friends at the UW who want to make some trouble, please consider telling them to take this course. The trouble we will make will magnify as we come closer to both discovering and deconstructing what this term ‘trans-Pacific Christianities’ means.

This is going to be fun. I’m excited. I am also heavily indebted to the philosophers of education (especially Sam Rocha) that I met in Chicago last week at the Society for the Philosophical Study of Education for the crafting of this syllabus and for helping me think through how to teach – I’m experimenting with this society being my annual teaching workshop, and I’m anticipating good things coming out from these critical pedagogical conversations.

UPDATE: A previous version of this course was listed as JSIS C 490B. The administration, however, saw fit at the last moment to change it to JSIS C 490C. The poster describes the previous course number, but the content in the transfer from ‘B’ to ‘C’ stayed very much the same.

Columbia Journalism Review: Beware labeling Pope Francis a liberal

Columbia Journalism Review‘s Chris Ip has done a major service for the American public sphere with his report on Pope Francis. Interviewing John Allen, Jr., Inés San Martin, and yours truly, he has put together an article that criticizes the way that American journalists have been reporting on the Vatican, while also remaining sympathetic to the particular tendencies of the American public.

Here’s what I told him:

The media’s tendency to make all religious statements political comes from the heart of American political culture. The US media interprets the pope according to an “American protestant narrative,” where religion is read in terms of what it means for politics, said Justin Tse, a University of Washington scholar on religion and public life. “The question people are asking is, ‘Is the Catholic Church promoting or inhibiting democracy?’” said Tse. “It’s a good question, but when that’s the only question on the table, then you start to twist narratives to fit the agenda.”

You’ll see that I’ve drawn from figures like Tocqueville, Bellah, Marty, Wuthnow, Warner, and Wellman to construct that answer.

I’m very thankful to Chris for taking the time to write such a fine report. I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a much longer and very fruitful conversation.

SANACS: Book Review: Jiwu Wang, “His Dominion” and the “Yellow Peril”

The fourth journal issue of the Society of Asian North American Christian Studies (SANACS) is out. The issue features some very interesting pieces, with contributions from Esther Chung-Kim, Amos Yong, Charlene Jin Lee, Richard Mouw, Miyoung Yoon Hammer, Andrew Sung Park, Annie Tsai, Jeney Park-Hearn, Andrew Lee, and Henry Kuo. During the course of my fieldwork in the San Francisco Bay Area and Metro Vancouver, I heard some of these pieces presented live, and my humble opinion is that some of them will become classics in the field of Asian North American Christian studies.

My small contribution (p. 153-6) is a book review of Jiwu Wang’s (2006) “His Dominion” and the “Yellow Peril”: Protestant Missions to Chinese Immigrants in Canada, 1859-1967. Wang’s general argument is that the racializing attitudes of Protestant missionaries in various Canadian Chinatowns led to the rejection of their Christian message even as it crystallized prevailing ‘Chinese’ cultural frameworks. The book also draws on an extensive array of archival sources, which makes it fairly valuable as a record of sources for further research.

Unfortunately, I also had to pan the book for its theoretical framework. As you will see in the review, Wang’s approach relies a little too much on what he calls ‘sociological conflict theory,’ in which two groups–in his case, the Anglo-Canadian Protestant missionaries and the Chinatown communities–reinforce each other’s cultural frameworks by conflicting with each other. There are two problems that I unfold in this review. The first is that Wang’s idea of what ‘white missionaries’ and ‘Chinese communities’ were is a bit too static, even drawing from traditional Chinese texts to explain ‘Chinese culture’ for these southern Chinese rural migrants. Second, this sociological conflict model fails to take into account the rich literature in Asian Canadian studies that also explores white missionary movements among Chinatown communities in Canada. In other words, while this book bills itself as the first of its kind, it really isn’t, and he really needs to engage the ones that came beforehand.

You’ll find the details of my critique in the review, and you will find articles in the main section of the journal issue that are destined to become classics. My hope is that this issue will begin to fill the hiatus in Asian North American Christian research and will point out ways that one should–and should not!–conduct this kind of research as we develop this field together.