My contribution works through how ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,’ an evangelical chorus from the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, became for a while the informal theme song of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. Bringing the fields of Global Christianities and secular studies into conversation, I attempt to make a methodological argument. Most journalists and scholars will be tempted, as I show, to try to figure out which Christians and Christian communities are behind the song. I propose another way forward, to look at what the song does in the secular publics of Hong Kong.
I am thankful to Mona Oraby, Olivia Whitener, and Nusrat Chowdhury for helping me sharpen this essay for this exciting forum, as well as to my colleagues who read it carefully and helped me navigate some of the thorny writing issues that befall every essay. I am also grateful to my friend Richard Wu for allowing me to publish his photo of an Eastern Orthodox icon of the Harrowing of Hades at the Hong Kong protests along with my piece. It’s not taken from the day I write about — June 12, 2019 — when ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord’ began to be sung, but it’s from the time afterward when, as I argue, the chorus took on a life of its own. I look forward to seeing what conversations I may find myself in as I continue the work that I have announced myself to be doing in this piece.
My friend Thea Reimer, at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, has started a podcast entitled ‘The #RacismIsHeresy Project.’ It’s a neat experiment, affiliated with a Catholic theological school in the Latin Church, that, like a few others in theology who are curious about modes of communication in a digital age, interrogates the utility of hashtags as well as the importance of social media in theological work.
Thea has done me the flattery of attributing the idea of this project to my ‘coining’ of the hashtag ‘SexismIsHeresy’ on an older Twitter account. The truth is that, at the time, I was trying to figure out my relationship to the New Calvinism of my youth as an Eastern Catholic in my first year of mystagogy and really thought of it in the heat of the moment. If Thea thought of ‘#RacismIsHeresy’ from watching me muddle through my oedipal complex with evangelicalism at the time, then the credit really goes to her.
Still, Thea has honoured me with the first interview in the series. It was an opportunity to share what I had learned from my mystagogical steeping in the Kyivan Church, especially with my sisters and brothers at St Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship, about race and anti-colonialism in the practice of Byzantine Orthodoxy in the contemporary world. As I say in the podcast, I am just a lay person in the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv. My theological knowledge is born out of being part of this family and praying in its midst as we make Christ present together in the liturgies we serve.
I’m thankful to Thea for making this podcast happen, as well as to the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology for this bold new venture. I look forward to following Thea’s journey in learning from people, most of whom will be wiser and more knowledgeable than me, about the connections between racism and heresy, the construal of orthodoxy in the modern world, and its continuing relevance in the circulation of digital publics.
I am so pleased to have been interviewed by D. Cheng in a Christianity Today article that came out on November 18, 2019, entitled ‘Praying for Hong Kong Can Be Disruptive — Even in America.’ The title, admittedly, is a bit overdetermined. What the article is really about is how Chinese Christians in North America do not really seem to do much by way of explicitly addressing the recent protests in Hong Kong, almost, as I say, for the same reasons that Christians in Hong Kong appear to have been front and centre. ‘Just as Hong Kong Christians most want peace,’ I say to Cheng, ‘those in the diaspora also want peace in their churches and in Hong Kong.’ The question, of course, is what peace looks like.
To me, this Christianity Today article is interesting for its contributions to how Asian American Christianity is conceived. Almost as a follow-up to Helen Lee’s classic pieces also in this magazine on ‘the silent exodus‘ and ‘silent no more,’ terms that were original to the Los Angeles Times reporter Doreen Carvajal in her exploration of Koreatown’s communities in 1994, Cheng’s piece contrasts one clear case of Asian North American prayerful alignment with the Hong Kong protests — the case of the Vancouver Christians for Love, Peace, and Justice group being protested by pro-Beijing elements of the Chinese community at Tenth Church Vancouver — with the reticence of most Chinese Protestant churches in North America to say much publicly about them. Referring also to my journey to Eastern Catholicism in Vancouver, it is almost as if Cheng is making the case that the silence of Chinese churches generating a new silent exodus, a point that also aligns with Esther Yuen’s writing about how Tenth Church is a multi-ethnic congregation formed by ‘mass exodus’ from Chinese immigrant churches as well as my piece showing how Tenth’s senior pastor, Ken Shigematsu, was one of the original planters of Newsong Church in Irvine, California, with Dave Gibbons, who was the poster child of the original ‘silent exodus’ articles by Carvajal and Lee. Narrating my Eastern Catholic conversion in the terms of the silent exodus was indeed provocative for me, and I will have to think some more about its implications and its play on silencing and silences in Asian American Christianities.
I am grateful to Cheng for writing this piece, as well as to Christianity Today for publishing it. I’m also gratified that my communities, both scholarly and ecclesial, could be included in it, the former in the form of the towering figure of Fenggang Yang in the social scientific study of religion and the latter in the ecumenical bonds that tie our Eastern Catholic Church in Richmond to Christians across the theological spectrum. It has also made me reflect on how the book that I am writing on Cantonese Protestants in postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim speaks to these apparent silences and motivates me in light of what is happening in Hong Kong to shed light on these complexities.
I was pleased with how this interview went, though the truth of the matter is that Mondays are my most serious workday, and my greatest hope when I arrived to speak with Jerome McDonnell was that I would at least be coherent. The questions were, as usual, very good, covering a range of topics from the appeals to the American government for support, Joshua Wong’s visit to Germany, the drama around the announcement about the bill’s imminent withdrawal in Legislative Council, and the possible futures of the protests. Jerome’s questions even got me to pull back deep into the heart of the research that consumed me from my undergraduate days and has percolated into the graduate work that fuels my career: the identity politics of the ‘Hong Kong person’ from the 1970s to the present. We also got to speak about protest music; my only regret is that I did not mention the new song being sung as an anthem titled ‘Glory to Hong Kong.’
I see these interviews as the community engagement portion of my scholarly work. As I told Jerome, the task of scholarship is to describe, not prescribe, so all that I am doing here is to see, to sort, and to say what I see and am sorting. It is an offering, then, for ongoing conversation on these momentous events in Hong Kong. I am thankful to Jerome and the team at Worldview, especially the producer Julian Hayda, for bringing me in yet again, and I hope that I was coherent enough in my description of the problems and prospects at hand to encourage further discussion among the publics who listened and will listen to this segment.
I’m very pleased to have been interviewed as part of the journalist Douglas Todd’s piece ‘Hong Kong protesters turn 1970s hymn into anthem.’ My main role in this article is to sketch how the protests in Hong Kong have been using the Jesus Movement chorus ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,’ which I also did with my colleague Melissa Borja on her Anxious Bench group blog on Patheos, and how Christians may or may not be part of the protests in personal and institutional ways.
I like how Todd positions my comments as the lead-in to the story that he really wants to talk about, which is the hundred or so pro-China protesters who picketed the evangelical Tenth Church Vancouver during a Hong Kong prayer rally organized by an inter-denominational and ecumenical group of clergy. Interviewing one of the clergy leaders Samuel Chiu, Todd sketches a broader picture of Chinese Christians in North America — and indeed, Chinese communities in a more secular sense — that are internally divided in terms of transnational politics.
In addition to the Hong Kong interest, this is a developing and interesting story in Vancouver. I’ve written about the senior pastor Ken Shigematsu before as a ‘different kind of evangelical‘ who emphasizes an Asian Canadian sense of social justice and contemplative spirituality, and I’ve also put an article on Tenth into the Brazilian journal Relegens Thréskeia. On this particular issue, Shigematsu has commented on the church’s solidarity with ‘justice issues’ in a non-partisan way, and Fr Richard Soo SJ — the Eastern Catholic priest who brought me into the Greek-Catholic church that has formed so much of my recent musings on the postsecular even while I continue to write, research, and teach on publics on the Pacific Rim — has written an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun about how religious solidarity with Hong Kong is not the practice of partisan politics.
I am so pleased that my friends on the show Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago had me back on to discuss the Hong Kong protests and the recent mass arrests there. The host Jerome McDonnell wanted to discuss a number of issues with me, including the significance of the date August 31 to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the (non)ideological stances of the protesters and the issues of (non)representation in a leaderless movement, the ramifications of ‘one country, two systems’ for the question of rule of law, and the future of the protests. My reflection on working through each of these themes is that it was not unlike giving an undergraduate lecture. There were quite a few technical terms that I found myself having to define as I was speaking, including ‘black hand’ and ‘white terror.’
As usual, my interpretations represent no one except for me, and in the context of a rapidly developing story, that ‘me’ is but a snapshot in time. The tentative arguments I make are, if you will, the work of a scholarly observer, and as I’ve clarified numerous times in the past, I have never claimed to be a ‘Hong Kong person.’ I also note that analytical commentary on protests is not the same as participating in them, and my comments are descriptive, not prescriptive. Just as I did as the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement(Palgrave, 2016), my aim is to offer analysis based on what we know to be facts, not invented opinions. Needless to say, scholars like me also have minds of our own, so as is always the case, our views do not represent anyone except for ourselves. This understanding is the basis for the academic freedom that enables the dialogue and conversation that helps us to understand the world, instead of imposing on it models, theories, and conjectures that lead more to confusion than clarity. It also means that all errors of judgment are strictly my own and that acknowledging them is how we come together to grow in knowledge.
The 2018-2019 school year has wrapped up, and summer is upon us. It’s been quite a year for me. I have a number of things coming through the pipeline, some articles, some book chapters, even a manuscript for a monograph that I’ve been crafting on Cantonese Protestants and postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim.
Some stuff has been happening already. A chapter of mine on cultural geography came out in the volume Theorizing ‘Religion’ in Antiquity, edited by Nickolas Roubekas, in which I continue my unlikely defence from my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘ of the legacy of Mircea Eliade as a historian of religion who is a central figure (at least as I argue) in geographies of religion. I gave a colloquium talk at Calvin College’s Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies on an article I’ve been crafting on Chinese American megachurches in the Silicon Valley. My critical reflective piece on the concepts ‘uniatism’ and the ‘model minority’ that the magazine Patriyarkhat invited me to write has come out, first in Ukrainian translation in the print version in December 2018, then online in English, and now also with footnotes and extended clarifications in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I’ve attended four conferences — the American Academy of Religion in November 2018, a very interesting conference on Christian social activism and Chinese societies at Purdue’s Center for Religion and Chinese Society, the American Association of Geographers in April 2018 where I organized and presented an exegesis of Paulo Freire in a session on pedagogy and religion in geography, and the Association for Asian American Studies in that same month, during which I had the honour of organizing an all-star, standing-room-only panel on the historian Gary Okihiro’s provocation ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’ We are going to continue the intervention with Okihiro’s work at the American Studies Association later this November in Honolulu, with another panel titled Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies, as a conversation around Okihiro’s longstanding argument that the internationalist sensibilities that gave rise to anti-colonial critiques of racial formations caved to liberal nationalist frameworks that led to the siloing of identity in the academy.
As I wrapped up my third and final year as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, I expanded the scope of my teaching. My course offerings this year ranged the full gamut of my repertoire in Asian American studies: Asian American history, Chinese American studies, Asian American religion, Asian American social movements, Global Chinatowns, and Asian American geographies. But this year especially, I have been drawn more directly into the formal individual supervision of students. In the past, I had taught some directed studies courses, as well as supervised research, on topics closer to my own research interests on Asian American Christianities and their relationship to Asian American studies. But this year, there has been a wide much range of independent studies topics, including Korean dance and ‘the invention of tradition,’ sonic orientalism in popular movie soundtracks, Global China and feminism, research methods in Chicago’s Chinese churches and trans-Pacific theologies, indigeneity and orientalism on the Pacific, the postsecular Pacific, and psychoanalysis and the Pacific. I also had the privilege of supervising my first thesis student Irina Huang, an undergraduate senior in American studies, who wrote a theoretically rigorous piece woven in with personal creative nonfiction essays on how obsessive-compulsive disorder functions in the normative public sphere as a ‘model minority’ of mental illness.
I continue to be active in my public engagements as well. The journalist Douglas Quan interviewed me for a very interesting piece last October on Richmond’s ‘cultural diversity policy.’ I have also been invited by Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago four times over the last school year to offer scholarly analyses of Hong Kong, its tradition and practice of protests, and the recent blow-ups about the incarceration of some figures from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement occupations in 2014 as well as the controversial extradition law.
In terms of service, one role that I have taken on over the last year is to be program co-chair of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Reading through the abstracts and thinking about organizing the program has given me new insight into what we do as social scientists of religion. I am glad to be working with our president Elaine Howard Ecklund and my co-chair Ryon Cobb as we expand the diversity of our organization, especially for the conference in St Louis this year in October.
Finally, my biggest and most exciting announcement is that I have just started work as Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University. In addition to teaching courses in the School of Social Sciences, my major role there is to offer the Core Curriculum, a program that seeks to engage students across the school with the big concepts that are fused throughout our contemporary world. This year, the theme will be Happiness and Suffering, which I will teach, along with my colleagues, as a philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular exploration of these affects, emotions, and orientations to the world. As an academic, my work is to write and to probe the complex phenomena common to our shared inhabitation of the earth, so it obviously goes without saying that my published views anywhere are in no way to be associated with my employers, as if academics could fully agree on anything anyway. Indeed, my convictions about all academic work — whether under the pillar of research, teaching, service, or community engagement — is that it should all be a springboard into a larger discussion in which all participants are strengthened through engagement, never the final word on any topic. I am thrilled to ‘let my work grow up,’ as I heard one senior academic once describe to a junior colleague, in this intellectual community, and I look forward to spirited engagements and enthusiastic conversation here.