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.

Social and Cultural Geography: Book Review Forum: Justin Wilford, Sacred Subdivisions

I’m very excited to learn that a book review forum that Tristan Sturm put together for Social and Cultural Geography is now hot off the press. The book is Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, and it’s an ethnography of Saddleback Church in Southern California. The other reviewers included Banu Gökariksel, Betsy Olson, and Claire Dwyer.

My review focused on how Wilford’s book was put to work when Asian American evangelicals took Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren to task for an insensitive Facebook photo in September 2013. Recounting what took place leading up to the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church, I argued that Wilford’s book helped to nuance some of the on-the-ground conversation about Warren’s photo, helping those who were involved in the activism to understand that Warren situates himself within a distinctively Southern California postsuburban geography. The service that geographers like Wilford do for the community is to help make activism more precise, getting to the heart of issues and steering conversations in productive directions.

I want to thank Tristan for his hard work in pulling this review forum together. This forum originated as an ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session at the Association of American Geographers’ 2013 Annual Meeting; I was later invited by Tristan to step in to take one of the reviewers’ place. While I originally submitted a review to the forum prior to the activity around Warren’s photo, I decided to submit a new review after the activism that put the book itself to work on the ground. This was helpful because I have previously reviewed the book for Religious Studies Review and the AAG Review of Books, and I did not want to repeat myself. Focusing on activism gave me a fresh lens from which to look at Wilford’s book, and I’m thankful to Tristan for pulling it off so well. Many thanks to Justin Wilford for writing such a rich book. We are all indebted to his labours.

Book Review: Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origin of the Model Minority

I’m happy to announce that I’ve got a book review of a very good book in the newest issue of Amerasia Journal. That I am announcing that I have a book review in a new journal issue means that this announcement is in fact a chance to rave about this new book. And rave I shall.

The book that I reviewed is Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.

If you have not read this book already, you must. It is a magnificent historical account of how Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans were in fact part and parcel of the construction of the model minority ‘success story’ myth after the Second World War. It provides rich institutional histories of organizations like the Chicago Resettlers’ Committee, the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL), Chinese News, and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA). It is a complicated history, combining policy structures with community activism and the agency of individual actors. It accounts for both ideologically conservative and progressive strands among Asian Americans. It opens up theoretical questions about American liberalism. It is — dare I say it — a tour de force.

I want to especially thank Arnold Pan, the Associate Editor of Amerasia Journal, for making this book review happen. The journal issue is titled Asian American Religions in a Globalized World, a topic that is of immediate interest to me. When I asked him last December whether Wu’s book was taken for review, he told me that if I could give him a one-month turnaround, then I could be part of this special issue. This review was the first thing that I published during my postdoctoral fellowship, and I honestly feel so privileged to have started by reviewing such a good book. While some might consider book reviews part of the tedium of academia, this particular book review was a real treat (in fact, I am bold enough to say that I consider most books that come across my desk as gifts, not a grind! – but this one really takes the cake!). I think it’s also appropriate that this review ended up in this particular special issue. With her questions about liberal ideologies of assimilation and community structures, Wu opens up many possible avenues for theorizing Asian American religion.

This book will be of wide interest to many. As I say in the review, Wu is walking in the footsteps of giants like Yuji Ichioka, Him Mark Lai, Lisa Lowe, Henry Yu, Kandice Chuh, and Madeline Hsu. Read it. And read the special issue.

Book Review: Religious Studies Review: Justin Wilford (2012), Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism

I am pleased to announce that Religious Studies Review has published the second of my reviews of Justin Wilford’s wonderful 2012 book on Orange County’s Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism (New York University Press).

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Over the last year, I was asked by three journals to write reviews of this book. The first was published last September 2013 in the AAG Review of Books. This piece in Religious Studies Review is the second one. The third will be part of a review forum on the book in Social and Cultural Geography and will focus on the usefulness of Wilford’s text for the Asian American evangelical activism that took place in September and October 2013. [Note: while I initially wrote a draft of that third review before the activism took place, I substantially rewrote it afterwards in order to observe how useful Wilford’s study was in the interplay of academia and activism.] The editors of the various journals understand that I have placed reviews that explore different angles of Wilford’s book, and in the spirit of transparency, I have sent copies of the different reviews to Religious Studies Review, the AAG Review of Books, and Tristan Sturm (who is organizing the SCG forum) to guard against self-plagiarism.

This present review in Religious Studies Review presents Wilford’s book to a religious studies audience. It is a very short review–what Religious Studies Review calls more of a ‘note’–that observes that Wilford has made a substantial geographical contribution to the social scientific study of religion. While geographers have often not been part of the broader conversation in the social science of religion, this book begins a conversation that I hope will continue to make inroads into a conversation of which we should be an integral part. In particular, I observe that Wilford’s ingenious examination of Saddleback’s usage of secular space for theological purposes subverts the religious studies obsession with defining ‘religion’ and calls religious studies scholars to closer analyses of how theologies are grounded in space.

For those who are wondering still if they should get this book, my answer in this review is a definitive yes. Following my thoughts in the review, I have discovered that Wilford’s text is an excellent starting place to talk about current work in geographies of religion. When I am asked at conferences about geographies of religion (i.e. where my work on Cantonese Protestant and younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian engagements with publics fits in the discipline), I often refer my interlocutors to the New York University Press book stands to pick up this book. As it was recently observed at an ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session for Sacred Subdivisions at the Association of American Geographers, books like Wilford’s remind geographers that publishing monographs would be helpful to advancing human geography as a discipline in interdisciplinary conversations. I am happy to endorse this text as a fruitful beginning point for such engagements, and I look forward to the conversations that it will generate both within and without geography.

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.

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.