Syndicate: The Umbrella Movement and Theology

I’m happy to announce that I’ve become a section editor for Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology. Syndicate is a new publication with both online and print fora for new titles and issues in contemporary theology. I’m responsible for topics relating to what theologian John Milbank has called ‘theology and social theory,’ which as a geographer I include to encompass geographies of religion, secularization, and social theory.


My first foray into this editorial role has been to collate a forum on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Theology. Modelled after the forum on Ferguson and Theology, this conversation brings together three theologians to talk about the theological significance of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that erupted into international attention on September 28, 2014 and that are expecting to be cleared on December 11. Because a fourth contributor was unable to submit his essay, I contributed the final piece in this forum.

The four essays are:

Here’s a bit from the blurb that I wrote to introduce the forum:

While all this has been novel for Anglo-American audiences, the protests have been long in coming for those who have watched and participated in shaping the ground in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. If theology has percolated to the surface of the Umbrella Movement, one can be sure that theologians have also been watching and participating. The Umbrella Movement may be far from over. But if its themes of democracy, church-state relations, and grounded theologies have been simmering under the surface for quite some time, it is still worth asking some theologians how the movement’s theological significance might be articulated.

With a liberation theologian (Kung), a feminist theologian (Wu), a New Testament scholar (Tsang), and a social scientist interloper (yours truly), we’ve only scratched the surface of what theologies need further exploration in Hong Kong, but we hope that we have raised enough issues for good conversation for some time to come.

WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Some of the forthcoming titles that I’ll be working on include Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order. I’ll also be contributing to a forum on geographer David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Stay tuned.

James Wellman: The Oprahfication of Rob Bell? (University of Chicago Divinity School Religion and Culture Web Forum)

Rob Bell has gotten a lot of attention in the evangelical news cycle over the past few days. As Bell is releasing a new book and is solidifying his association with Oprah, the evangelical and ‘progressive Christian’ Internet networks have been ablaze. Books and Culture, for example, has mocked Bell. The Gospel Coalition has excoriated his new book on marriage. Danielle Shroyer has defended Bell as an evangelical. Sarah Pulliam Bailey has analyzed Bell. Tony Jones has analyzed the analysis.

My concern with much of this analysis is that it has left out the University of Washington’s resident expert on Rob Bell, James K. Wellman, Jr. True, Wellman is my postdoctoral supervisor, which might explain why I’m saying something about him.

But there’s more. It’s not only that Wellman has written a book on Rob Bell (and that the most sophisticated review I’ve seen on it is from my friend and colleague Sam Rocha on Patheos Catholic). The fact is that Wellman, Jon Pahl, and I have gone on record on the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Religion and Culture Web Forum in September to discuss Wellman’s ethnographic analysis of Rob Bell. You can find Wellman’s essay here. Jon Pahl gives a light critique of Wellman being star-struck by Bell’s celebrity. I give an analysis of Wellman’s approach through a distinctive University of Washington approach to religious studies and what I call ‘grounded theologies,’ especially by linking it to both Wellman’s previous work and his predecessor, Eugene Webb.

Have a look. This is no mere evangelical discussion. This is about the academic study of religion – and we have Wellman to thank for making that connection.

Bulletin for the Study of Religion: Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus

I’m happy to announce that the Bulletin for the Study of Religion has published a piece that I recently wrote in a review forum on New Testament scholar James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism.

While most of the commentators were biblical scholars, I was asked by the Bulletin‘s editor Phil Tite to comment as a human geographer on Crossley’s book. As it happens, there has indeed been some cross-polllination between biblical studies and human geography, and I knew about this because many of my biblical studies colleagues have expressed to me that their discipline is more like a secular social science than it is theology and that the field comprises people from a variety of theological orientations. In fact, in stark contrast to the high-profile biblical studies firings that we have witnessed in the evangelical world, the mainstream of biblical scholarship would maintain that Crossley’s own theological convictions are completely moot; certainly, they influence his scholarship as any positionality would, but that’s why all scholarship circulates in discplinary conversations. For the conversation between biblical studies and human geography, there has been a five-volume series titled Constructions of Space that has attempted to use the work of human geographers like Henri Lefebvre, Lily Kong, and (honorary geographer) Kim Knott to examine how biblical authors conceptualize and make places.

Crossley’s book is different. His idea of New Testament studies is not simply the study of the New Testament as a text, but also the study of the study of the New Testament. In other words, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism doesn’t look at Jesus in the New Testament text. It examines how contemporary New Testament scholars have interpreted Jesus, and it critiques them for making Jesus a proponent of the political economic ideology that has arguably taken over the world in the last forty years, neoliberalism, i.e. the ideology that the free market must be allowed to run unhindered by government intervention and that it must be protected from violent threats, which has often led to the framing of the MIddle East as an ‘oriental’ geopolitical threat.

As a geographer, I found that Crossley and I seemed to speak the same language. The geographers (and honorary geographers) he cites are similar to the ones on my reading list — Edward Said, David Harvey, Derek Gregory, for example.

As a result, I used my essay to push Crossley to come into his own right as an honorary geographer. Crossley locates New Testament scholars as diverse as John Dominic Crossan, Bruce Malina, N.T. Wright, and even the Pope Emeritus as unintentionally tied up with neoliberal ways of thinking. However, to locate someone in a train of thought is just the beginning of a geographical study, not the end. I wanted to push Crossley to show how New Testament scholars are actually creating and contesting neoliberal political regimes and everyday practices. I don’t just want to read that the historical Jesus is a neoliberal fiction; I want to see how the historical Jesus gets put to work in constructing neoliberalism, as well as challenging it from the inside-out. Indeed, Crossley has a chapter on how one pseudonymous biblio-blogger, N.T. Wrong, consistently challenges his/her/xyr colleagues on their neoliberal assumptions, and I wanted to see how these contestations actually work them out in the production of space.

The example that I gave that illustrates this dynamic is the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). Because Crossley protests against the ‘orientalizing’ practices of neoliberalism, the work of the historical Jesus in this ex-British colony and current site of a ‘one country, two systems’ experiment would be fascinating to investigate. I gave the example of the exchange between megachurch pastor Rev. Daniel Ng Chung-man and the OCLP leader Rev. Chu Yiuming as a case where the historical Jesus became a subject of intense public political debate. I also give a shoutout to my colleagues at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, such as Sam Tsang, Freeman Huen, Nathan Ng, Vincent Lau, and Andres Tang, who have been doing excellent work in public theology in Hong Kong.

This article should be of interest to all who want to understand the contemporary significance of biblical studies in the public sphere. What remains fascinating to me is how much geography is done by biblical scholars, and I am encouraged by what seems to be an exciting trend in exploring how the work of those who study the biblical text (regardless of their theological orientation) has contributed to the making of the world today. I’d like to thank the Bulletin‘s editors Phil Tite and Arlene MacDonald for this exciting opportunity to engage, as this encounter has also shaped my scholarship insofar as I am coming to understand how important it is for me as a social scientist to keep up with my social science colleagues who work in biblical studies.

AAG Review of Books: Review Essay: Working Evangelicalisms: deploying fragmented theologies in secular space

I am happy to announce the publication of a book review essay that I put into the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) Review of Books, a book review journal that has recently become independent of its mother publication, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, one of the flagship journals of our discipline.

My book review notes the publication of three important books that are changing human geography as a discipline. This is because they are book-length treatments of American evangelicalism, a religious phenomenon that has gone too long unexamined by human geographers. These books seek to rectify that gap in three subfields in human geography: political geography, economic geography, and cultural geography:


  • Jason Dittmer and Tristan Sturm’s edited collection, Mapping the End Times: American Evangelical Geopolitics and Apocalyptic Visions, is a contribution to political geography, specifically critical geopolitics. This subfield of human geography examines how political borders are constructed and maintained, often critiquing these constructions in the hope of mitigating warfare and making peace between nation-states.  This edited collection explores how American evangelicals contribute to these political formations through their eschatology, their theology of the end times, and seeks to unpack a diverse range of these eschatologies and their effects on global geopolitics.

  • Jason Hackworth’s Faith Based: Religious Neoliberaism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States is a contribution to economic geography, specifically critical political economy. This subfield of human geography examines how specific places function in economic flows, explores how those flows have been informed by and inform the grounding of various economic ideologies in global and national economies, and observes that economics is integral to an understanding of state governance. What is critical about critical political economy is its exploration of neoliberalism, a style of economic governance in which states practice the deregulation of the market in an attempt to free market forces to generate capitalist prosperity in a national economy. Hackworth’s book explains how some American evangelicals have partially cooperated in the proliferation of neoliberal ideologies in the United States.

  • Justin G. Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism is a contribution to cultural geography, specifically a style of the new cultural geography practiced by the late renowned cultural geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, Denis Cosgrove. This subfield of human geography examines how the interaction of people with material artifacts in the spaces they inhabit shapes both their perception of place and their active construction of physical landmarks. The new cultural geography observes that these processes are political and contested and that the word ‘culture’ is itself often under contestation. Wilford’s book examines how Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, takes the spatial fragmentation of postsuburbia (a hyper-fragmented metropolis) and recasts it as what Pastor Rick Warren calls ‘purpose-driven.’

The angle that I take in my book review focuses on how successful these books are in capturing the range of evangelical theologies being grounded in America. Accordingly, I have questions for each author about how the version(s) of evangelicalism that they explore all have counter-examples that embrace different takes on theology and place. I recognize and commend the books as good introductions to a multi-faceted theological phenomenon that has long gone neglected in human geography, but I am insistent that these are just ‘starting points’ for further research that needs to capture the range of evangelicalisms being grounded in the United States.

I also note that this is the first of three unique and original book reviews that I have written on Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. I have worked carefully with the editors of the AAG Review of Books, as well as forthcoming reviews in Religious Studies Review and the Social and Cultural Geography review forum on Wilford’s book to guard against self-plagiarism. The result is that I have written three reviews that open up and critique three different aspects of Sacred Subdivisions. That it is possible to write three unique book reviews of Wilford’s account of Saddleback Church speaks volumes about what a multi-dimensional text it is, and though I provide critical comments on the book in each of the reviews, Wilford is to be commended for writing such a rich ethnography.

Finally, that this week’s news has been dominated in part by the interaction among Rick Warren, Asian American evangelicals, and evangelicals in Hong Kong is a matter of sheer fortuitous timing. This review, as well as the one forthcoming in Religious Studies Review, was authored in May, and the contribution to Social and Cultural Geography was submitted two weeks ago. The events of this week simply reinforce my argument in this review essay regarding the urgency for geographers to study the American evangelicalisms that have been introduced, but not fully unpacked, by these books.

UPDATE: the SCG review forum piece was substantially revised and submitted in November 2013 to better reflect the events surrounding the Asian American evangelical open letter. It should be published in 2014.

Metropolis BC Working Paper 13-06: Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC

I am very pleased to announce the publication of a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia on our collaborative project on the ‘Highway to Heaven,’ No. 5 Road in Richmond, BC, on which over 20 religious institutions are arrayed on a stretch of 3 kilometres. Titled ‘Immigrant Integration and Religious Transnationalism: the case of the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, BC,’ this co-authored report among Claire Dwyer (University College London), David Ley (UBC), and myself explores the question of what ‘immigrant integration’ means on the Highway to Heaven.

The paper can be accessed here. A policy briefing note is also available. For the complete list of published reports in 2013, please click here.

Here is the abstract:

This paper draws on a case study of religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia to explore the role of religious institutions in the process of immigrant integration. Colloquially known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’, No. 5 Road includes over twenty religious communities on a three-kilometre stretch of road, their location the result of a planning policy for an ‘Assembly District’ in the Agricultural Land Reserve. Drawing on interviews conducted with twenty-two out of twenty-four of the religious institutions as well as with policymakers and staff at Richmond City Hall from 2010 to 2012, we argue that integration is a complex term, which can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. We identify a range of different ways in which the religious institutions along No. 5 Road might defi ne their activities as contributing to the integration of immigrants, and we discuss a range of practices that support integration. However, we argue that immigrant integration was not the primary planning objective, nor was it the main theological purpose for religious congregations. Nonetheless, we conclude that policy makers could draw on the range of activities we explore to use the road as an educational resource to promote public conversation about the intricate relationships between faith, migration, and the contested meanings of ‘integration.’

This report is important as an act of public academic engagement with questions in Metro Vancouver’s civil society. In the last few years, accusations and insinuations have circulated that new immigrant populations are not ‘integrating’ in Vancouver, a discourse that is made even more confusing because there are migrants who both support and challenge this claim. Our report shows that when the question of ‘integration’ is examined in a geographical site like No. 5 Road, there are a variety of ways in which migrants say that they are ‘integrating.’ As a result, our advocacy is not based on whether migrants should or should not integrate. We’re saying that sites like No. 5 Road are excellent sites for public education and discussion about what ‘integration’ actually means.

This is the first in a series of papers that we will be publishing on No. 5 Road’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ and we will also actively be revising this report for publication in an academic journal. Please feel free to send comments and feedback. We look forward to the public conversation that can develop from this report.

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.

Global Networks: Transnational Youth Transitions: becoming adults between Vancouver and Hong Kong

I want to announce the publication of two papers today in two separate posts.  Let me take each in order.

The first is a collaborative paper that Dr. Johanna Waters (University of Birmingham, Geography) and I co-authored.  It is titled ‘Transnational youth transitions: becoming adults between Vancouver and Hong Kong,’ and is published in Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Studies. It is currently available in Early View. I will post again when it comes into a print journal version.

The genesis of this paper is quite interesting. Jo Waters is a leading scholar in transnational geographies in the United Kingdom. Jo and I both received our graduate education in Geography at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, and we shared a common supervisor, Professor David Ley. Jo wrote her master’s thesis on transnational Hong Kong family experiences in Vancouver (check out her pieces on astronaut women and transnational family settlement) and her doctoral thesis on how Hong Kong families strategized to send their children to Vancouver for education to gain cultural capital for future employment prospects in East Asia (it is now a book). Jo and I did not overlap in the department, but when I began to study Hongkonger migration as I wrote my master’s thesis on a transnational Hongkonger church, Jo’s work provided a very interesting launching point. I remember checking out both of her theses from the Geographic Information Centre in our department and reading them with rapid page-turning interest. At this point, I also contacted Jo, telling her how much I admired her work. She was very nice to me.

As I began my doctorate, Jo and I began talking about the common points between our data, especially as I had collected more recent data in Chinese churches in both Vancouver in 2008 and Hong Kong in 2010 that corroborated her earlier findings in 2002. Deciding to focus on what we found in common about young people’s experiences of transnational families between Hong Kong and Vancouver, we merged the data. We submitted the piece to Global Networks, from where we got very good feedback from the editors and the reviewers. Jo was then extremely generous in letting me take the lead on the revisions, as this gave me a chance to undergo some crucial professional development. We then revised the piece, and then sent it back to Global Networks with my name as the corresponding author.

The article sheds light on how young people become adults in families that straddle the distance between Hong Kong and Vancouver. It examines how these young people transition from youth to adulthood, combining the literature in social geography on youth and childhood (which is itself drawn from the new social studies of childhood) with the literature on transnational migration. We looked at how young people reacted to the ways that their parents and extended family attempted to supervise them and maintain contact with them at a distance, and we explored the young people’s own sense of place. One of our central contributions is that while many people predict that youth growing up in these families often return to Hong Kong for work, we have to be cautious about describing this as a norm, for young people were often critical of their own families’ transnational strategies.

We hope that this will be a helpful paper in transnational studies more broadly. We also hope that it will give back to the communities we have studied by accurately portraying them and by shaping conversations about them that are not overly determinative about their families’ patterns of migration. Moreover–and this is only implicit in the article–as I reflect on my own engagements with Asian American ethnic studies, my hope is that this paper will help empower Asian American and Asian Canadian families and young people by taking seriously their own sense of place instead of forcing them to constantly answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ We thank Ali Rogers, the previous editor of Global Networks, as well as our three anonymous reviewers and the copy editors, for their very constructive feedback on our paper. For my part, the experience of working with Jo Waters has been phenomenal and a part of my graduate education and professional development that I will always consider valuable.