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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Relegens Thréskeia: Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC

I am very pleased to announce that I’ve published a piece in a special issue of Relegens Thréskeia, an open-access Brazilian religious studies journal. This recent special issue, edited by geographer Clevisson Pereira (Universidade Federal do Paraná), focuses on Espaço e Religião (Space and Religion). While most of the articles are published in Portuguese, they also brought on Thomas Tweed (University of Notre Dame) and myself to contribute English-language pieces. While Tweed’s piece proposes a theoretical framework for the study of geographies of religion, my piece is an empirical study of Ken Shigematsu, an Asian Canadian pastor in Vancouver. It also puts to work themes from my theoretical piece on ‘grounded theologies’ to understand Shigematsu’s church, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, as what theologian John Milbank calls a ‘complex space.’

My piece is titled ‘Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC.’ Focusing on the spirituality of Ken Shigematsu, it demonstrates that his spiritual practice and his Asian Canadian sensibilities have reshaped Tenth Church, a historic Anglo-Canadian church, into a complex, multiracial, multi-class space. This analysis also suggests that there is a theoretical link between church growth theory and the ‘new religious economics’ in the sociology of religion and contends that a geographical approach might be able to complicate the models proposed by these approaches. The theological basis for Shigematsu’s theology, moreover, is the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) from New Testament studies; while I have written elsewhere of postcolonial Paul-within-Judaism models espoused by Mark Nanos and Sam Tsang, what is important to understand is that Shigematsu is himself deploying NPP and achieving these spatial results.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how the evangelical spatiality of an Asian Canadian senior pastor at a historically Anglo-Saxon congregation has transformed it from an ethnically homogeneous, aging church to a heterogeneously-constituted gathering in an evangelical Protestant tradition. This piece challenges the conventional wisdom of the church growth movement and the new religious economics in the sociology of religion, both of which advise religious groups to construct homogeneity and consensus in efforts for numerical growth over against secularizing forces. The paper argues instead that Pastor Ken Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality from the mid-1990s to the present must be understood as a theological embrace of difference in a church gifted to him by God over which he prayerfully pastors along with his staff. This paper understands Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality through his own New Testament exegesis, his denominational affiliation with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, his ancient spiritual practices of indiscriminate hospitality, and his mystical reception of Tenth as a welcoming space toward a multiplicity of ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. This article contributes to Asian Canadian Christian studies by discouraging a future where pan-Asian churches in Canada are homogeneously constructed and by exploring the concrete possibility of non-strategies in which heterogeneous, complex spaces that include Asian Canadians are received by pastors and studied by academics as a divine gift.

I am thankful to Clevisson Pereira for inviting me to participate in what for me is an exciting international endeavour, and I am also grateful to have worked so closely with Ken Shigematsu to have this paper produced. I have written about Shigematsu at a popular level in Ricepaper Magazine; consider this the full academic spelling-out of the thinking there. The paper is open-access, so I will be posting it on Academia.edu, and interested readers can also download it directly from Religens Thréskeia.

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.

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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:

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  • 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.