Summer 2019 update

photo by wife

The 2018-2019 school year has wrapped up, and summer is upon us. It’s been quite a year for me. I have a number of things coming through the pipeline, some articles, some book chapters, even a manuscript for a monograph that I’ve been crafting on Cantonese Protestants and postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim.

Some stuff has been happening already. A chapter of mine on cultural geography came out in the volume Theorizing ‘Religion’ in Antiquity, edited by Nickolas Roubekas, in which I continue my unlikely defence from my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘ of the legacy of Mircea Eliade as a historian of religion who is a central figure (at least as I argue) in geographies of religion. I gave a colloquium talk at Calvin College’s Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies on an article I’ve been crafting on Chinese American megachurches in the Silicon Valley. My critical reflective piece on the concepts ‘uniatism’ and the ‘model minority’ that the magazine Patriyarkhat invited me to write has come out, first in Ukrainian translation in the print version in December 2018, then online in English, and now also with footnotes and extended clarifications in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I’ve attended four conferences — the American Academy of Religion in November 2018, a very interesting conference on Christian social activism and Chinese societies at Purdue’s Center for Religion and Chinese Society, the American Association of Geographers in April 2018 where I organized and presented an exegesis of Paulo Freire in a session on pedagogy and religion in geography, and the Association for Asian American Studies in that same month, during which I had the honour of organizing an all-star, standing-room-only panel on the historian Gary Okihiro’s provocation ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’ We are going to continue the intervention with Okihiro’s work at the American Studies Association later this November in Honolulu, with another panel titled Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies, as a conversation around Okihiro’s longstanding argument that the internationalist sensibilities that gave rise to anti-colonial critiques of racial formations caved to liberal nationalist frameworks that led to the siloing of identity in the academy.

As I wrapped up my third and final year as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, I expanded the scope of my teaching. My course offerings this year ranged the full gamut of my repertoire in Asian American studies: Asian American history, Chinese American studies, Asian American religion, Asian American social movements, Global Chinatowns, and Asian American geographies. But this year especially, I have been drawn more directly into the formal individual supervision of students. In the past, I had taught some directed studies courses, as well as supervised research, on topics closer to my own research interests on Asian American Christianities and their relationship to Asian American studies. But this year, there has been a wide much range of independent studies topics, including Korean dance and ‘the invention of tradition,’ sonic orientalism in popular movie soundtracks, Global China and feminism, research methods in Chicago’s Chinese churches and trans-Pacific theologies, indigeneity and orientalism on the Pacific, the postsecular Pacific, and psychoanalysis and the Pacific. I also had the privilege of supervising my first thesis student Irina Huang, an undergraduate senior in American studies, who wrote a theoretically rigorous piece woven in with personal creative nonfiction essays on how obsessive-compulsive disorder functions in the normative public sphere as a ‘model minority’ of mental illness.

I continue to be active in my public engagements as well. The journalist Douglas Quan interviewed me for a very interesting piece last October on Richmond’s ‘cultural diversity policy.’ I have also been invited by Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago four times over the last school year to offer scholarly analyses of Hong Kong, its tradition and practice of protests, and the recent blow-ups about the incarceration of some figures from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement occupations in 2014 as well as the controversial extradition law.

In terms of service, one role that I have taken on over the last year is to be program co-chair of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Reading through the abstracts and thinking about organizing the program has given me new insight into what we do as social scientists of religion. I am glad to be working with our president Elaine Howard Ecklund and my co-chair Ryon Cobb as we expand the diversity of our organization, especially for the conference in St Louis this year in October.

Finally, my biggest and most exciting announcement is that I have just started work as Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University. In addition to teaching courses in the School of Social Sciences, my major role there is to offer the Core Curriculum, a program that seeks to engage students across the school with the big concepts that are fused throughout our contemporary world. This year, the theme will be Happiness and Suffering, which I will teach, along with my colleagues, as a philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular exploration of these affects, emotions, and orientations to the world. As an academic, my work is to write and to probe the complex phenomena common to our shared inhabitation of the earth, so it obviously goes without saying that my published views anywhere are in no way to be associated with my employers, as if academics could fully agree on anything anyway. Indeed, my convictions about all academic work — whether under the pillar of research, teaching, service, or community engagement — is that it should all be a springboard into a larger discussion in which all participants are strengthened through engagement, never the final word on any topic. I am thrilled to ‘let my work grow up,’ as I heard one senior academic once describe to a junior colleague, in this intellectual community, and I look forward to spirited engagements and enthusiastic conversation here.

October 2018: full website update

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Photo credit: Julian Hayda

It has been too long since I have updated this website — two years, in fact. Since that time, much has happened. I am still Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, still churning out the scholarly publications and presentations. In the haze of all of that work, I have forgotten to update this website and all of its parts to be synchronized with what I have been doing and what I have accomplished. To compensate for that forgetfulness, I have acquired my own domain name and fully updated the site.

My hope is that I will continue to be able to update this site with what I am doing in my scholarly life, as well as with calls for papers and other interesting news that should be circulated. Links in the pages on publications, presentations, teaching, service, and community engagement have been posted to the announcements of their occurrences, with apologies for not being able to reflect on them as deeply as I have done in the past. I hope to be better about this in the future.

Finally, the sections about who I am and what I do have been fully updated. Needless to say, they are fully copyrighted, so I am not very concerned about revealing a bit of what is happening in the workshop. I offer it therefore for perusal with the hope of generating some critical conversation as I continue to work on executing it.

Ching Feng: ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Mapping the Ideologies of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Asian Values’ in the Global Anglican Realignment in Vancouver

Having recently received copies of the full journal issue of Ching Feng: A Journal of Christianity and Chinese Religion and Culture (vol. 15, issues 1-2) where I published ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Mapping the Ideologies of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Asian Values’ in the Global Anglican Realignment in Vancouver,’ I read it again. In all sincerity, I think I liked it.

With that liking comes the courage to share. Perhaps the scariest thing for a scholar is to be evaluated by the communities that first gave us life, but we also must not, I am reminded, take from the community without giving back by making the scholarship part of the commons for all of us to enjoy. I must share it and did so on my Facebook, and again here on this website, which has not been updated for some time. I have in fact promised it to a number of people who have been interested in it, some of whom are even named in the piece because they were either interviewed for it during my doctoral work as far back as 2011 and 2012 or because they are named in documents and books. That amount of persons is too many to count, and while I could have sent them all an email copy, I figure that if there was ever a time to use social media and a blog to spread it, it is now. I will not tag them so as not to single them out, but I look forward to their responses when they read it. Perhaps they will even reply to my social media posts, or they might seek me out via email at jkhtse (at) northwestern (dot) edu.

‘A Tale of Three Bishops’ is my attempt to parse out the Anglican realignment in Vancouver since the late 1990s. I argue that with all the talk about Anglicans splitting over sexuality issues, what is more salient in the Vancouver case is ideologies of the ‘global city’ and the concepts of ‘Chineseness’ that spin out of that urban economic fantasy. I think this is the most fair way to describe a fracture in which folks on all sides have their own stories to tell about a side they don’t like. I try to portray each of them in their own words, as the only stake I now have in this Communion is an ecumenical one, as an ecclesial outsider from the vantage point of my Eastern Catholic church and in my professional work as an Asian American geographer of postsecular Pacific publics. I hope that this work presents a modest but worthwhile contribution to the fields of Global Christian studies, Chinese Christianities, and the integral part that the Anglican Communion continues to play in the work of what the theologian Paul Murray calls ‘receptive ecumenism.’

I am thankful to everyone who went on the record for this when it was part of the doctoral dissertation and now is much expanded from the three pages in the doctorate to the published peer-reviewed article it is now. As I say in the piece, I consider myself friends with folks on all three sides, and I hope that our friendship is magnified, not diminished, by the publication of this piece. Indeed, a memorable line from one of the reviewers said that I was able to resist the temptation to editorialize and speak in the terms of conspiracy, preferring instead to write from the perspective of the participants themselves. While I am honoured by that affirmation, all errors of judgment are of course my own, and my gratefulness belies an openness to criticism, correction, and ongoing conversation with communities and persons whom I have loved for very long and continue to love with a full heart.

BOOK: Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016)

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As the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement – a collection of essays that takes as its theological cue the 79-day protest occupations in Hong Kong in 2014 – I am happy to formally announce on this blog that I have received a hard copy of the book. The text has been available as an e-book since July, and I am now glad to see that a physical version is now available.

I think it’s incumbent on me as the lead editor to say something about how we put together this book, what the book is about, where this book sits in relation to my larger research agenda, and what the book’s limitations are in the ever-shifting situation in Hong Kong at present.

The book had its genesis in a forum that occurred during the Umbrella Movement on Syndicate Theology. In 2014, I was recruited by Syndicate‘s managing editor Christian Amondson to edit its Theology and Social Theory section – a task that included editing fora on Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order before the site’s format was radically revised – and my first initiative as this section’s editor was to put together a forum on the Umbrella Movement, which I modeled after another quite successful series of essays on Syndicate titled Ferguson and Theology. For this forum, I recruited some of my colleagues in Hong Kong such as Kung Lap Yan, Rose Wu, and Sam Tsang (there were others in the mix as well, but because it was a volatile time in Hong Kong, these three were the only ones who could find the time to write), and I also wrote an original essay for the series critiquing the way that theology in Hong Kong had been done up until the Umbrella Movement and what changes the movement might contribute to the task of grounding theological reflection in the actual material and ideological conditions of Hong Kong as a city with a rich and conflicted history of colonization.

As this Syndicate series wrapped up, Jonathan Tan approached me with an idea that had come out of a conversation with Kwok Pui-lan (who wrote our foreword) to write a book on the Umbrella Movement that would be in English for readers who might not have any knowledge of Hong Kong but could also benefit them in the task of contemporary theological reflection. I drafted and submitted a proposal to the series editors for Palgrave MacMillan’s Christianity in the Asian Diaspora series, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Joe Cheah, as well as a request to Christian Amondson to publish the Syndicate essays in a substantially revised form. Tan also brought on Mary Yuen, who substantially revised an essay she had put into AsiaNews.it on Catholic social teaching and the Umbrella Movement.

As all such writing projects go, the task of ‘substantially revising’ quite rapidly turned into ‘original writing’; indeed, Sam Tsang ended up writing a completely different essay from what he had given to me at Syndicate, and the other essays have been expanded and reworked. My own submission to Syndicate has never been republished, although I’m sure one can find the seeds of what I wrote on the forum now in the book.

When I began to receive the submissions, it occurred to me that what makes sense in Hong Kong’s local context may not be intuitive for those who have no knowledge of Hong Kong. At the same time, Tan found himself consumed by another editing project. While the original plan was for him to write an essay situating the Umbrella Movement in the liberation theologies of Asia (indeed, one has glimpses of this in Kwok’s foreword to our volume when she discusses liberation theologies and the ‘multitude’), it fell completely to me to truly lead with a vision for what this volume would be – combing through the essays with a fine toothcomb to make sure they would speak directly to English-speaking readers and thinking about the scholarly discussions to which this volume would contribute. This is to say, of course, that most of the editorial errors in this book should be attributed to me, though I am thankful to Tan for the initial idea to turn this into a book and for recruiting Yuen.

The plan of the book emerged from these editorial challenges. The volume is divided into two parts. Part I is a detailed primer that I single-authored on Hong Kong’s politics and how it can be used for theological reflection, and Part II contains the four theological reflections from Mary Yuen on Catholic social teaching and the occupy movement, Rose Wu on the queer Pentecost that gave rise to an interstitial Hong Kong identity, Kung Lap Yan on the kairos moment of opportunity and danger of the political movement, and Sam Tsang with a stunningly original account of the colonial occupation of Hong Kong and how such an understanding of occupation radically revises the liberation politics of an occupy movement in Hong Kong.

These two parts are sandwiched between two pieces on liberation theology, an introduction and an epilogue, that I took the liberty of single-authoring as lead editor. Thinking through Tan’s original plan to situate the Umbrella Movement in the context of theologies of liberation in Asia, it occurred to me that what was awkward about the Umbrella Movement’s relation with the notion of liberation theology is that it wasn’t a straight-forward application of models advanced in the past; indeed, our authors – disagree as they might about every other aspect of the movement – agree on this one point. My introduction thus outlines the contours of the liberation theology that has gone before and how using the ‘see-judge-act’ analytic lens of theologies of liberation in Hong Kong will yield some surprising results. This transformed the primer that I wrote in Part I into an argument that demands for ‘genuine universal suffrage’ during the Umbrella Movement wasn’t a vacuous ideological slogan but came out of the actual material conditions of Hong Kong. In turn, the epilogue became about the relationship between the concept of conscientizaçao as understood in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and how the Umbrella Movement played out. In other words, my vision as the lead editor was not so much to fit the Umbrella Movement into a model of liberation, but to situate the Umbrella Movement as a contemporary challenge for how to do theology in solidarity with the materially oppressed in both Hong Kong and around the world. Each of the authors contributes to this vision by showing how their vastly different Christian traditions shaped the Umbrella Movement’s theological challenge to reflections on liberation, and my job as the lead editor was to fine-tune these four distinct voices as they made their original arguments to a readership that may not even be familiar with Hong Kong. As I made my way through these tasks, I received constant encouragement from my friend and colleague (and now Patheos Catholic editor) Sam Rocha, a philosopher of education who has thought a lot about liberation theology and who exhorted me to keep in mind the pedagogical aims of the volume.

Leading this editorial work (which included single-authoring about half of the book) forced me to think about what doing all of this work had to do with my larger scholarly agenda. I came to understand working on this volume as a sort of pivot point between my first and second projects and as the culmination of my Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington. The first project (which became my PhD dissertation and on which I am still generating publications) was my attempt at an ideological map of Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with Pacific Rim civil societies, especially Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. While the research for this project ended before the Umbrella Movement, it can be said that the lead-up to the protests, the protests themselves, and the aftermath has been fascinating to watch in light of this research, especially because Cantonese Protestants (and Catholics) are key to understanding the Umbrella Movement, both its supporters and detractors. This topical interest has led to a broader thematic inquiry that is becoming my second project, which is on the relationship between the theological underpinnings of some of these contemporary occupy movements and the intriguing ideology of ‘capitalism with Asian values’ (which, as Slavoj Žižek reminds us, has very little to do with persons whose bodies are marked as ‘Asian’). Some of my new interests – Asian Americans getting involved with Black Lives Matter, the rhetoric of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv around ‘Eurasia,’ and protests in Vancouver’s Chinatown that bring together issues of housing and indigeneity – might seem to have only a tangential connection to Hong Kong, but what holds this together are the inquiry into what forms liberation, solidarity, and occupy movements take – which are precisely the concerns of the book. In this way, I’m thankful for the task of leading the editing on this volume, because it pushed me to think about why I do what I do.

This book has been described as ‘timely,’ and I take that as a compliment. However, I of all people am deeply aware of how timeliness can hardly describe any book about Hong Kong because political developments in Hong Kong have always moved quickly. The book was written in 2014, substantially revised and edited in 2015, and touched up in 2016. The last reference to an actual event in Hong Kong is the Fishball Revolution that took place in February 2016. The book came out around the lead-up to the Legislative Council elections of 2016 and doesn’t include much about the emergence of youth political parties such as Demosistõ and Youngspiration. It certainly does not contain any information about the assassination threats made against Eddie Chu Hoi-dick.

My hope, then, is that the ‘timeliness’ of this book is a reference to the themes of the book, that people both inside and outside of Hong Kong want to read the events of contemporary occupy movements closely and judge them theologically before making the next move. That is why what we have offered are reflections and why we are so pleased that Benny Tai’s endorsement of our book also speaks about this book perhaps being able to help with writing Hong Kong’s next chapter. Certainly, we expect criticism for what we have written, but we hope that that process of critique will not be about us, but for the good of Hong Kong as a city that is wrestling with questions of justice and peace. This book is an offering to readers who want to join us in that task of reflection. May our conversation be lively!

Chinese America: History and Perspectives: Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco

I am very pleased to announce the publication of one of my articles in the very interesting peer-reviewed academic-community-collaboration journal, Chinese America: History and Perspectives – The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America. I picked up my copy of the most recent issue at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) directly after the field trip that I led for the American Association of Geographers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Founded by the late Chinese American historian Him Mark Lai, this journal’s point of interest for me is that it speaks directly to how the academic work done at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) College of Ethnic Studies – the founding site of critical ethnic studies – is immediately related to community organizations. With the recent academic controversy around the university budget cuts that immediately affect this College, the perseverance of this journal is quite moving, especially as it looks like the journal is growing with an editorial board that is starting to look like a who’s who of Chinese American studies.

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My contribution to this issue, which is backdated to 2015 (academic journals sometimes take time to produce!), is titled ‘Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco.‘ Here’s the first paragraph as an abstract of sorts:

This paper is about the cultural geography of what I call “Liberal Protestant Chinatown” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I show that, since the 1920s and 1930s, a younger generation of Chinese Americans coming of age in San Francisco espoused a “liberal” theology, which in American Protestantism refers to the interpretation of Christian conversion as the “social gospel,” the call to convert the structures of society to be more politically and economically equitable based on a rational, scientific view of just distribution in modern circumstances. While this liberalism is usually opposed to a “fundamentalist” position seeking to defend the scientific inerrancy of the biblical text and the primacy of individual subjective conversion in Christian experience, Liberal Protestant Chinatown rejected both the conservatism of Christians who placed their emphasis on personal subjectivity and a non-Christian Chinese establishment in Chinatown that sought to retain village kinship structures, clan associations, and ritual practices. In this way, liberal Protestants sought to build a new trans-Pacific cultural geography in Chinatown, one marked neither by missionary activity to westernize China nor by an economy linking the United States with Chinese villages, which they alleged at the time to be fraught with the criminal underworld trafficking of persons and narcotics (although this is difficult to fully substantiate and led during this period also to the unfair stereotyping of Chinese American young men as gangsters and “gooks,” which the liberal Protestants also sought to mitigate). My central argument is that the social gospel of Liberal Protestant Chinatown thus configured the cultural geography of Chinatown into a network of non-profit organizations seeking legitimate economic advancement for Chinese Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, reframing “Chineseness” as the local heritage of the Chinatown community for which they sought material improvement.

Consider this my first published try at attempting a theological re-reading of the discipline of Asian American studies. Certainly, there have been many other attempts at this – look no further than the work of Rudy Busto, David Kyuman Kim, Russell Jeung, and Timothy Tseng, especially at their essays in the formidable Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America –  but I suppose what I’m trying to contribute to this enterprise in this essay is to show that a site like San Francisco’s Chinatown is a place ripe for studying the material manifestations of Asian America as a theology. Moreover, my paper deals explicitly with the rift within Chinese American studies (which has spilled out across Asian American studies) between Frank Chin’s anti-Christian advocacy within Asian American literature and feminist novelists who have some connection to San Francisco’s Chinatown (especially Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan). For these ideas, I am also very grateful to Dean Adachi for organizing a session at the Association of Asian American Studies in 2014 on San Francisco as the ‘Asian American Holy City,’ where I presented the first iteration of this paper. I also cite one of my students from my trans-Pacific Christianities class, Mariam Mathew, who wrote a very helpful paper probing why Frank Chin hates Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club so much. In some ways, then, this is also a contribution to understanding that academic-community nexus in Asian American studies as constituted by ‘grounded theologies.’ You could say that I think that the grounded theologies in Chinese American studies are worth much more interrogation, and I plan to do just that in future articles, hopefully to be published in other Asian American studies journals.

Some have asked about which churches I covered in this essay. The answer is that my research is awkwardly situated in relation to the norms of sociological congregational studies, which means that I often engage churches as institutions when they are part of the story I am telling about Cantonese Protestant engagements with civil society. While readers will find references, say, to First Chinese Baptist Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Chinese Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, this paper is really about San Francisco’s Chinatown more generally as a civil society – that Chinatown itself should be read theologically.

I am very thankful to Chinese America: History and Perspectives‘s editor-in-chief Jonathan X. Lee (SFSU) for encouraging me to submit to this journal. Because of him, I am a big fan of this journal now; indeed, the authors in the past issues read like a who’s who in Chinese American studies. I am also grateful to the two anonymous peer reviewers whose comments strengthened this essay significantly and for the CHSA’s Johnson Zheng for seeing through all the logistics for this essay’s publication; I especially appreciated personally connecting with him when I picked up my complimentary issue from the CHSA museum last week.

Social and Cultural Geography: ‘Highway to Heaven’: the creation of a multicultural, religious landscape in suburban Richmond, British Columbia (co-authored with Claire Dwyer and David Ley)

I am pleased to announce that a paper from the collaborative project that I conducted with Claire Dwyer (University College London) and David Ley (UBC) on the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, British Columbia has been published by Social and Cultural Geography. It has been quite a journey getting this one published from its earlier incarnation as a conference paper and now into a peer-reviewed journal. I’m glad that it’s out, and I hope to take a crack at another one soon enough.

The abstract is as follows:

We analyse the emergence of the ‘Highway to Heaven’, a distinctive landscape of more than 20 diverse religious buildings, in the suburban municipality of Richmond, outside Vancouver, to explore the intersections of immigration, planning, multiculturalism, religion and suburban space. In the context of wider contested planning disputes for new places of worship for immigrant communities, the creation of a designated ‘Assembly District’ in Richmond emerged as a creative response to multicultural planning. However, it is also a contradictory policy, co-opting religious communities to municipal requirements to safeguard agricultural land and prevent suburban sprawl, but with limited success. The unanticipated outcomes of a designated planning zone for religious buildings include production of an agglomeration of increasingly spectacular religious facilities that exceed municipal planning regulations. Such developments are accommodated through a celebratory narrative of municipal multiculturalism, but one that fails to engage with the communal narratives of the faith communities themselves and may exoticize or commodify religious identity.

Our main intervention is directed toward the celebration of multicultural planning in contemporary cities and suburbs. What we found was that the multiculturalism that is apparent on our celebrated road in Richmond wasn’t planned to be that way at first. It was Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and still is, and whatever multiculturalism one might see there is accidental.

In its early stages, Claire took the lead in writing this paper up for conferences, with me as a second author and David as a third. After presenting it at the American Association of Geographers 2012, Claire again led the effort to transform this paper into the published article that is here. In turn, David added many of the insights concerning Canadian multiculturalism. As always, it has been very educational working alongside Claire in this process – I often joke that what I know of qualitative methodologies was learned from her in the field during this project – and I am very thankful to her for leading on this effort. My plan is to build off this paper to craft some pieces, perhaps, on the materiality of the interfaith landscape and the odd points of spiritual contact among the sites. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to know a place that has long been a ‘wonder’ in the suburb where I lived during my undergraduate and graduate studies, especially now that we’re demystifying it.

We are also thankful for Metropolis Canada for funding this project; our report for them on the Highway to Heaven can be accessed from their website.

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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