Syndicate: Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity

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In February 2015, I edited a symposium of review essays on Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity for the Theology and Social Theory section of Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology.

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Gil Anidjar

Blood is a powerful set of essays on the pervasiveness of Christian political concepts in the modern West. You can read my symposium introduction here. The four essays are as follows:

I’m thankful to Anidjar for his generosity in responding to each of the essays and for catching my slip-up in the symposium introduction about the ‘one-drop rule’ (it has been corrected). As usual, I’m grateful to Christian Amondson, our managing editor, for assigning this book to my section, as reading this book and synthesizing my thoughts has helped me immensely with my own theoretical orientation in my own work, especially in the development of the concept of ‘grounded theologies.’

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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Book Review (Social and Cultural Geography): Yi-Fu Tuan, Humanist Geography

I’m very happy that the book review I wrote for the Canadian Geographer on Yi-Fu Tuan’s Humanist Geography: An Individual’s Search for Meaning is out.

It’s a neat little book. It’s typical Yi-Fu Tuan — very phenomenological, very personal, and very philosophical. It’s a geographical work aimed at a popular audience to try to suss out the meaning of good and evil in everyday life.

What I found the most intriguing was Tuan’s usage of Buddhist philosophies and Christian theology to answer some of his questions. Indeed — and this is a bit of a spoiler alert — the end of the book is a theological meditation on humanistic geography. Because of this, my review relates what Tuan is trying to say here about humanism, morality, and phenomenology to the work in geographies of religion on how ‘grounded theologies‘ disrupt conventional narratives of the secular.

I’m very excited that this is out, and I’m also excited to let people know that I’m also working on another review of Tuan’s work, also for Canadian Geographer. The next one is called Romantic Geography. Stay tuned!

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.