American Academy of Religion 2015 | Atlanta, GA

I was very happy to be given the opportunity to present two papers at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) from November 21-24, 2015. I also serve as a steering committee member for the Asian North American Religions, Culture, and Society group, so it is always good to see friends there as well. We were particularly proud to host a panel session on the new edited volume Asian American Christian Ethics, which my partner-in-crime in Asian American religious ethics Grace Kao (Claremont) had a hand in co-edited (along with ethicist Ilsup Ahn).

I’m also a steering committee member for the newly formed Chinese Christianities Seminar, and my peers – through no coercion of mine and with my abstained vote – generously allowed me to present some work on Chinese Anglicanism in Vancouver in the new session. Moderated by Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University), my colleagues in the session included Christopher Sneller (King’s College London), Stephanie M. Wong (Georgetown), Mu-tien Chiou (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Di Kang. My paper, entitled ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment‘ has the following abstract:

This paper theorizes the ‘Chineseness’ of Anglicans in Vancouver engaging with the global Anglican realignment as ideological, especially through their competing visions of Vancouver as a global city, an urban economic center of political and cultural influence. Focusing on the split between Vancouver’s local bishop Michael Ingham and two Cantonese-speaking realignment bishops in Vancouver (Silas Ng and Stephen Leung), my central argument is that Anglicans on all sides of the realignment deployed their self-defined ideological constructs of Chineseness in a contest over how to theologize Vancouver as a global city. The three Vancouver episcopal visions under debate concerned whether Vancouver should be conceptualized as a site for interreligious pluralism, spiritual purification, or civil multicultural discourse. Based on key informant interviews in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, this contention advances the study of Chinese Christianity by suggesting that the cross-regional engagements of Chinese Christians may in fact motivated by civic concerns to globalize their own cities.

We were guided as a seminar by the very able Alexander Chow (Edinburgh), who is establishing himself as quite the authority on Chinese Christianities worldwide. I’m very thankful for his collegial support and am always pleased to hear his feedback on my work. I’m also very thankful to have met Ting Guo, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue, at this seminar.

In addition, I was part of a quad session entitled ‘Enter the State: Revisiting the Making of Post-1965 Asian American Religion,’ with co-presenters Ren Ito (Emmanuel College, Toronto), Melissa Borja (CUNY Staten Island), Paul Chang (UC Riverside), and Philip Deslippe (UCSB); our respondent was Carolyn Chen (UC Berkeley), and the session was moderated by Isaac Weiner (Ohio State). My paper, entitled ‘Restructuring the Church: Cantonese Protestant organizations and economistic states,’ had the following abstract:

This paper examines the transformation of Chinese American evangelical congregations and faith-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area into corporate business models in the 1990s and 2000s. Based on ethnographic interviews with 47 key informants, the central argument is that these business models facilitated Chinese evangelical transactions with both the American and Chinese governments in the hope of shaping public policy on both sides of the Pacific. While these dreams of public engagement date back to the 1970s and 1980s, this paper also shows that the 1989 Tiananmen Beijing Spring’s aftermath intensified these efforts, leading to the restructuring of several key churches and parachurch organizations. These efforts demonstrate that fantasies of state ideologies as well as encounters with governments revamped the landscape of Chinese churches in the Bay Area, advancing the view that states are central to the formation of Asian American religious communities.

I am very excited about the comments that I received on thsi paper, especially the push from Carolyn Chen to think harder about the church in relation to neoliberal states.

I enjoyed my time in Atlanta. This was an AAR where I had some real intellectual engagements and came away feeling like a stronger scholar. I am thankful for those with whom I had conversations and am excited for next year’s iteration of this conference to see them again.

Regent College: ‘What Can I Do For This City?’ The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology

On January 22, I gave a talk at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia titled ‘”What Can I Do For This City” The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology.‘ It was a noon hour talk. Here was the description:

Known as the “Umbrella Movement,” the 2014 Hong Kong protests for democracy have captured the world’s attention, not least for the participation of Christians. This talk will trace this Christian democratic tradition to the rise of an evangelical tradition in Hong Kong, emphasizing the separation of churches and the colonial state, and the trans-Pacific dimensions of Hong Kong’s evangelical tradition. This lecture will be of interest to those who want to know why Christians in Vancouver should care about Hong Kong.

We had quite the turnout. Room 100, a standard lecture classroom, packed out. The motley crew appeared to include first-generation Chinese Christian leaders, second-generation pastors, and a diverse crowd of Regent College students. It was – for all intents and purposes – fun!

Regent College did make a recording, and the Cantonese-speaking Omni News also covered the event for that day. We will put a link to the recording here when it is available.

I want to thank everyone who came out on what could have been their lunch hour. Specific thanks go to Regent Bookstore’s Bill Reimer and Regent College VP Patti Towler and Dean Jeff Greenman, as well as Trish Pattenden for organizing and advertising, and Rick Smith and Joe Lee for helping with audiovisual equipment. My hope is that this talk was informative for all who attended and will be useful going forward for Regent College in engaging Asian Canadian and trans-Pacific communities in their endeavour to put an ecumenical flavour of evangelical graduate education to work on the Pacific Rim.

UPDATE: This lecture received full reporting from Ian Young at the South China Morning Post. I’m grateful to Ian for attending and for reporting so generously.

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.

ABC Religion and Ethics Report: The role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

I was recently on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Religion and Ethics Report with Andrew West talking about ‘the role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution.’ The other guest on the show, Professor David Palmer, is a sociologist of Chinese popular religions who chairs the University of Hong Kong’s sociology department. They told me that they found me because of my interview with Jennifer Ngo on the South China Morning Post on religion in the Hong Kong protests.

Andrew West asked some very good questions during this show. He began with my comments on Religion Ethnicity Wired and on Ethika Politika (parts 1, 2, and 3), on the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. We then moved into a clarification of how Protestant denominations and ecumenical alliances have been at work on the ground, and we had an extended discussion on the controversial role played by Hong Kong’s Anglican primate, the Most Rev. Paul Kwong, in opposing the demonstrations. Finally, West asked about the connection between the protests and religious freedom in China, to which both Palmer and I emphasized that the Umbrella Movement has little to do with ‘religious freedom’ per se, but that does not mean that people like Joseph Cardinal Zen might not have it in the back of their minds.

I’m very thankful to Andrew West and Scott Spark for an excellent interview and for this chance to meet David Palmer on air. I’m also thankful to Jennifer Ngo for creating this opportunity to speak more about the Hong Kong protests. I’ve actually regularly podcasted ABC Religion and Ethics Report during my commutes, and I was thrilled to be on this show that provides such consistently good religion reporting.

Entry on ‘Christianity’ in SAGE: Asian American Society: An Encyclopedia

I’m very excited to have recently received news that the SAGE: Asian American Society: An Encyclopedia (ed. Mary Yu Danico), in which I have an entry on Christianity, has been published. These 2000+ pages of Asian American sociological goodness are going to serve us well for much time to come.

I took a historical look at the literature on Asian American Christianities in my piece and observed that Christianities in Asian American society are both very diverse and very focused on the question of assimilation into white American society. Tracing Christian practice in Asian American communities from missionary encounters (both Protestant and Catholic) down to the articulation by an early twentieth-century second generation that their identities were ‘East/West’ hybrids, I also explored the impact of the Asian American Movement on developing liberation theologies and social justice movements led by Asian American Christians. Finally, I wrapped up with what I interpret as a resurgent conservatism both within Asian American Christian evangelical communities and among those who seek to police Asian American Christian faith, both Protestant and Catholic. I also have a reading of the Los Angeles Koreatown riots in 1992 here that I plan to develop into further research.

I’m very thankful to Mary Yu Danico (Cal Poly Pomona) for taking my piece on board, and I’m grateful to Jane Iwamura (University of the West) for referring me for this project. This was a great way to start finding my bearings during this postdoctoral fellowship. I also used this piece in its manuscript form to push hard for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States to include much more about Asian Americans. I’m hoping to develop many of the ideas that I’ve suggested in this piece into journal articles, and I’m grateful after writing this to realize that for all the talk about there being a dearth of material on Asian American Christianities, our field has plenty of material with which to work.

Christ and Cascadia, Seattle, WA, September 26-27, 2014

I am delighted to announce that I will be presenting in two sessions at an exciting new conference in Seattle. Organized by Fuller Seminary Northwest, the conference, Christ and Cascadia, aims to start a conversation about how Christianity is practiced in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a conference aimed at both practitioners and academics. The venue is First Church at 180 Denny Way, and the dates are September 26-27, 2014.

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Registration details can be found here. The schedule can be found here.

I will be speaking at two sessions, both on September 26. The first session, Solidarity and Empowerment, is from 11 AM – 12 PM in Room 3. The organizers tell me that I have 20 minutes to deliver a talk entitled ‘Faith Communities Committed to Solidarity with the Poor: Religious Freedom, Interfaith Initiative, and Poverty Ministry at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver.‘ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how repositioning religious freedom arguments in a Cascadian context may rearticulate their political emphases. From 2007 to 2008, an interfaith coalition of religious congregations and organizations formed Faith Communities Committed to Solidarity with the Poor (FCCSP). Its objective was to lobby the City of Vancouver for Tenth Avenue Alliance Church’s religious freedom to run a homeless food and shelter program without a social services permit. Arguing that a new mandate to obtain a permit dictated to the church what religious practice was and was not, the campaign successfully deployed a religious freedom argument to contend that faith communities of a variety of religious traditions should be able to serve the poor as a core part of their theological practice. Although more conventional religious liberty cases around socially conservative issues have been filed in Cascadia on both the Canadian and American sides, I argue that religious freedom has been rearticulated by FCCSP as a progressive cause that gained wide social acclaim in a liberal Cascadian political climate. This argument is based on key informant interviews with core participants in this activism. This paper thus advances conversations in Christ and Cascadian culture by demonstrating that the oft-celebrated politically progressive politics of the region offers opportunities for faith communities to reframe their public engagements away from a set of narrow ideological issues in order to display the complex totality of their theological commitments.

The second session is on the same day from 4:15 – 5:30 called Mega Churches and Gender: What’s Sex Got to Do With it? in Room 3. Organized by my colleague Elizabeth Chapin, the panel will address gender at a prominent megachurch in Seattle. Because this is a panel session that is meant to be more conversational, I am compiling my thoughts into a paper for publication right now, but tentatively, my talk will focus on Mars Hill Church in Seattle and private property ownership.

If you are interested in Christianity in the Pacific Northwest, we really hope to see you there!

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.

Postdoctoral Update, March 2014

It has been two months since my SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington has started, and I think now is a good time to publicly take stock of the work that I’ve done so far and then look ahead into the future.

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A major part of the first three months of this postdoctoral fellowship (January to March) has been, is, and will be devoted to teaching my course, JSIS C 254, on American religion. Depending on who is speaking, friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed this course tell me that I am perhaps the most fortunate and/or blessed of new teachers: the students participate without my prompting, seek me out during office hours, and genuinely care about the material. We have successfully journeyed through the development of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant consensus in early American religion and explored the rise of a liberal consensus in twentieth-century America. We have also just recently completed a unit on the politics of race in American religion and are now starting a final unit on American fundamentalism.

I will do a more comprehensive reflection on the course when it is completed in late March. What I want to do here is to sketch the ways that teaching this course has shaped my research. As I’ve stated in previous posts, the two objectives of my postdoctoral fellowship are 1) to develop my doctoral research into publications and 2) to embark on new postdoctoral research on younger generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians.

Much of what I’ve done over the last two months has helped me to clarify what exactly my research is about and what philosophical and theoretical trajectories I find myself engaging as I prepare for a round of empirical work for my postdoctoral project.

First, I am seeing much more clearly that my work on Asia-Pacific and Asian American Christians ties in intimately with what might be called the liberal tradition. As I’ve said before, liberalism is not the opposite of conservatism. It is instead a philosophical and theoretical tradition that emphasizes the formation of public overlapping consensuses while upholding both rational argument and self-interest. I developed an interest in how liberal ideologies become geographies during my doctoral research on Cantonese Protestants and my argument that they were upholding a theological form of secularity. I realize increasingly that the implication is that while conservative Cantonese Protestants decry the liberalism of mainline Protestants and secular civil society, they themselves have emphasized to me (rightly so!) that they themselves should be considered ‘liberal’ as well for their focus on rationality and self-interest.

In other words, I am clarifying the centrality of interrogating the liberal tradition in my ongoing research agenda. My teaching in American religion has clarified for me the trajectory of how an American consensus was formed and the contributions of Protestant theology to the formation of a liberal tradition in America, one that has come to tentatively also include Catholics and Jews, as Will Herberg would say. On the same token, my recent readings in Asian American studies have also emphasized the connections among religion, racial formations, and liberalism. In the forthcoming issue of Amerasia Journal (40, vol. 1), I reviewed Ellen Wu’s phenomenal history of Chinese and Japanese American collaborations in the making of the model minority stereotype, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority Myth. (This review will get its own post when it is out.) The major theme that I picked up in Wu’s history emphasized how American liberal ideologies produced a politics of assimilation, repeatedly framing issues in Chinese and Japanese Americans around integration issues. While Wu doesn’t talk much about religion, her book, combined with my own teaching on liberalism in American religion, brought clarity as I authored the encyclopedia entry on ‘Christianity’ for the SAGE/AAAS Asian American Society Encyclopedia, which I am pleased to announce has been accepted by the editors. My entry focuses on how both Protestant and Catholic threads in Asian American Christianity revolved around the question of assimilation for Asian Americans and that this is why the place of Christianity in Asian American communities is often so contested. Finally, the work around the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church has helped me to see the centrality of liberal ideologies in Asian American evangelical communities and has made me wonder openly about how such liberalism has managed to produce a ‘private consensus’ in American religion.

To the end of exploring the connections between liberalism and Asian American religion more thoroughly, I have a set of publications on which I am actively working that will be sent out over the course of this year. These articles, as well as a possible book manuscript, will develop my doctoral work on Cantonese Protestants and my postdoctoral work on younger generation Asian North American Christians around these theoretical formulations. This is possible because as a geographer, I am no stranger to dealing with what might be called grounded liberalisms. Indeed, when David Harvey published Social Justice and the City in 1973, he meant it to be a philosophical intervention that revealed the grounding of moral philosophies in concrete urban spaces, and he spends much of the book dealing with the insufficiencies of Rawlsian liberalism in urban geography, so much that he has to propose a Marxist way forward. By the time that David Livingstone wrote The Geographical Tradition in 1993, the notion that philosophy and theory were integral to any geographical research project was already the common consensus in the discipline. I’ll be using the resources from my home discipline, then, to address these philosophical concerns in publications that I will submit this year.

Second, I am finally coming to admit that while I have billed my research as focusing on Protestants, the truth is that both my doctoral and post-doctoral research is as ecumenical as it is evangelical, for Roman Catholics are inextricable from the Protestant story. It is thus more fair to say that I research Asia-Pacific and Asian American Christians for the simple fact that I have always included both Protestants and Catholics in my story, just as I have always sought to integrate liberal, liberationist, and evangelical voices in both my research and in my networks. In my doctoral research, I found that Catholicism was more integral to my Protestant story than I had anticipated. My research in the San Francisco Bay Area suggested that the push by some mainline Cantonese Protestants to pursue social justice as an ecumenical effort in fact stemmed from the success of the very successful ministry of the Paulist Fathers at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown. While Chinese American Catholics and Protestants went quite separate ways after the 1970s in North America, that was precisely the time that they were being drawn together in Hong Kong. Democracy movements as from the Golden Jubilee Incident in the 1970s, the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, and the post-1997 protests for universal suffrage, migrant and labour rights, and religious freedom were all ecumenical efforts. Such ecumenism is calling me to revisit my data for the presence of Catholics throughout my research in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. Indeed, I included research interviews with Catholics in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong; at what was perhaps one of the highest points of my research, I was allowed to interview Joseph Cardinal Zen twice in Hong Kong! As it is, my research has never been exclusive to Protestants. Catholics show up in my dissertation. They need to be explicit in my research.

I see the theological interests that can be derived from this empirical research as closely connected with the philosophical concerns that come from my discussion of liberalism. As I showed in my grounded theologies piece in Progress in Human Geography, theological thinkers (both Protestant and Catholic, and beyond the purview of Christianity, by all means!) can be read as honorary geographers because they are primarily interested in how theologies can be grounded in space. My postdoctoral research is causing me to revisit a variety of Protestant and Catholic thinkers from across the theological and ideological spectra to erect a theoretical framework that is fair to the empirical findings.

What you can expect, then, is that there will be a series of publications around my more ecumenical findings from my doctoral project, as well as a commitment to discovering ecumenical collaborations and contestations in my postdoctoral work. I suspect that most of my readers think that I focus exclusively on Asian American conservatives. They would not be wrong to think that social conservatism and the grounded theologies of family values politics takes up a significant chunk of my research agenda, but I expect that they will be surprised as I start publishing on ecumenical partnerships and progressive democratic movements this year. In addition, my emphasis on my research focusing on both Catholics and Protestants will mean that there may be some Catholic publication surprises in the works as well, including some publications targeted for Catholic Studies audiences.

Third, I am discovering that I need to publicly acknowledge my debts to what Cornel West calls ‘the black prophetic tradition.’ By the black prophetic tradition, I refer to a tradition of liberation critique and performative praxis that African American communities have contributed to the public rethinking of racialization in the public sphere. In many ways, these are personal debts that I have discussed when I have written about my personal history, especially my family’s ties to the African American patriarch, the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. However, I have seldom discussed how much I have long been influenced by the work of James Baldwin (since high school!), so much to the point that I am in fact teaching Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in American religion as a book that brings together the poles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the black prophetic tradition, much as the academic corpus of James Cone does. In addition, with the emergence of theologians of race like Brian Bantum, J. Kameron Carter, and Willie Jennings, it is much easier to theorize connections between secularization and the geographical politics of race in modernity.

My thinking on race and religion again ties back with my ecumenical interests and my concerns with liberalism. If grounded liberalisms and theologies contribute to placemaking, then in the same ways do racialization and the myriad struggles for racial justice also produce geographies. These spaces have been documented by geographers, and I plan to emphasize that more strongly in my work. Again, this realization about the centrality of race to my work will show up in publications, both in theoretical contributions in my reading of key texts on race in a geographical way as well as in empirical explorations of how my doctoral and postdoctoral projects highlight ongoing problems of orientalization, including self-orientalization.

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All this is to say that my plate is quite full, and I am quite happy about that. I will be presenting some of this emerging work at various conferences this year, and I will use this blog, as usual, to make announcements about those. Publications are also in the works, as well as teaching syllabi. I look forward to the work ahead of me during this postdoctoral fellowship, and I hope that my colleagues, my readers, and indeed the various publics to which my work may have relevance will find my scholarship helpful and constructive.

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.

Posting with Jim Wellman on Niebuhr and Obama

My friend and supervisor for next year’s post-doctoral fellowship, Jim Wellman, and I collaborated on a post for his Patheos blog on American religion. It’s titled ‘Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama.

As we watched Barack Obama justify drone warfare as a just war policy yesterday, we were struck by how many allusions there were to the work of mainline Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Wellman is arguably one of the current top authorities on Niebuhr, and generously, he took on some of my comments in his blog, including some work on Christian pacifism that responds to Niebuhr. If you have not seen Obama’s speech, do watch it here:

I see these comments as continuous with my work in geographies of religion, a field that I have theorized as not only as a subfield within cultural geographies (as it is more popularly conceived), but as an analytical axis by which political, economic, and cultural geographies can be interpreted. As I argued in my piece on ‘grounded theologies,’ geographers who use religion and secularization must reveal modern geographies to be theologically constituted, as the ‘secular’ can also be read (as per the Immanent Frame) as a theological orientation. Obama’s speech on security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics is a prime example. While it is ostensibly non-religious and non-theological, that he uses Niebuhr’s ‘proximate justice’ theory to argue that drone warfare is a form of just war policy suggests that he is in fact doing theology through public policy. Wellman and I argue that whatever you think of Obama, you really have to contend with Obama’s theological framework if you want to seriously engage him in democratic conversation and debate.

The implication here is that religious and theological literacy is a primary task for any ‘secular’ discipline. While there are hard secularists who may scoff at this notion, that even those parties lay claim to something called ‘secular’ is to say something about ‘religion’ or ‘theology’; if those statements are said ignorantly, it does a disfavour to everyone in the public forum. This is why I feel so happy that I’ll be working with Wellman. Recently, he had me sit in a seminar class that he’s teaching on American megachurches, where we conversed with non-geography students with arguably one of the most important books to come out in geographies of religion, Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. As we covered a lot of ground exploring how Wilford conceptualizes Saddleback Church’s usage of space as a cultural geographer, I couldn’t help but be cheered that a discipline like human geography–one that has been conceptualized as uncritically secular until very recently–was contributing to public religious literacy in the form of these students grappling with this geography text. I think this signals good times ahead for geographies of religion, if I might be so presumptuous.

Working with Wellman will allow me to sharpen some of my own theological and religious reading, especially in American mainline Protestant theology, which will supplement what I currently know about geographies of evangelicalism and the critical crypto-Catholic conversation on secularization in theology and religious studies. This in turn will help refine what I have to say about Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific religions. All of this is not a deviation from my work in geographies of religion and grounded theologies. It’s an extension and refinement, as all of this stuff is very spatially oriented and thus very geographical.

Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity. I look forward to the fun times ahead.