Christianity Today: ‘Praying for Hong Kong Can Be Politically Disruptive—Even in America’

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.

My final post on Patheos

Today, I wrote my final post on Patheos. As I told the Catholic channel editor Rebecca Bratten Weiss when I resigned a few weeks ago, I am leaving on very good terms. The community of writers on the Catholic channel has been a dream to work with, and I hope that the friendships I’ve made there will last a lifetime and maybe even spin off into new projects. I’ve written my heart out there, literally, in keeping with the words of the original channel editor who brought me there in the first place, the philosopher of education Sam Rocha.

Writing for Patheos has been the fulfillment of an aspiration of mine since I was in graduate school. Then, a few of us started a blog called A Christian Thing hoping to write about how we negotiated the secular academy as persons of faith. We aspired to be a group blog not unlike the Catholic portal Vox Nova, which challenged the neoconservative lines that had become standard in American Catholicism with fresh new voices. We also looked to the conversations that were happening on Patheos, a portal of blogs that seemed to break new ground in allowing persons across religious and theological traditions to write deeply about their faiths, even if it sometimes made for some personal discomfort. As a postdoctoral fellow, I studied with James Wellman at the University of Washington, who also wrote on American religion on his Patheos Progressive Christian blog.

I always wanted to be part of the Catholic channel, though I haven’t always been Catholic. It was suggested to me before I was received into the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv that I might consider writing for the Evangelical or Progressive Christian channels, as my practice of Anglicanism might be amenable to both. The trouble was that there are, broadly speaking, three streams of practice in the Anglican Communion — evangelical, broad church, and Anglo-Catholic — and despite getting along with people in all three, my convictions, mostly shaped by my scholarly involvement in the critical revision of the secularization thesis afforded by John Milbank, Charles Taylor, and Talal Asad, tended to be more Catholic, in the sense of attempting to tap directly into how the world is constituted and sustained by the supernatural. A Catholic sensibility presumes that the path to such connection is primarily personal, through the person who at the end of the day is, in a variation of what the ancient monastic Macarius the Great put it in his meditations on the visions of the Prophet Ezekiel, a face faced by others. It is the interrelation with a world that is primarily spiritual that is what is universal in the sense of Catholicism, a sublime connectedness with the divine that is common to all humanity and throughout all creation. After my formal reception into the Kyivan Church, I was also received onto the blog, with the name Eastern Catholic Person.

It would be a mistake to think that the blog title made me a sort of representation of Eastern Catholicism. On Patheos alone, there are at least three Eastern Catholic blogs other than mine, such as Henry Karlson’s Little Bit of Nothing, Chase Padusniak’s Japplers and Janglers, and Pete Vere’s Orthodoxy in Communion with Rome, as well as the Pezzulos’ writing on Steel Magnificat about their own forays through Byzantine churches. The name of the blog was much more about being a person who has now found myself in an Eastern Catholic church, much to my own surprise. It took three years to blog through that story and to admit that I really have found my way home.

The reason for my resignation is simple: with a new permanent academic position, I simply cannot do everything. As it is, the blog is going dormant today, the exact date of its third anniversary. It is poetic that when Rocha brought me on, he said he’d give me three years to narrate myself. It is now exactly three years, and I’m done with the narration, there at least.

I am beyond grateful to my channel editor Rebecca Bratten Weiss for being such a stellar editor and for making my transition so smooth. My heart is very full, and in this last week there, I’ve written three summary posts that sum up the themes that have threaded through my writing there: an Asian American racial politics drawn from my upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area, the unraveling of what I have called the ‘private consensus’ as I have become more engaged with the theoretical practice of psychoanalysis, and my mystagogy as an Asian American evangelical who entered the Kyivan Church while engaging with Hong Kong protests and black feminism. The posts there, as is all my writing online, remain copyrighted, and the rights to them remain mine for future revision, re-publication, and development. I think I might do that eventually. But now I have to focus on my new position, and I depart from Patheos, a portal for which I have always dreamed of writing, with gratitude and a very full heart.

Horizons: Review of Kin Sheung Chiaretto Yan’s Evangelization in China: Challenges and Prospects

I am happy to announce the publication of a book review that I wrote in Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society. The book that I reviewed was Evangelization in China: Challenges and Prospects, by Kin Sheung Chiaretto Yan; it concerns the Catholic Church in China’s practice of evangelization, the call for the Church to proclaim the Christian Gospel to the nations. The timing of this review’s publication in the May 2016 issue of Horizons dovetails with a recent guest post I put on Artur Rosman’s blog Cosmos the in Lost, also concerning Chinese Catholicism.

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While I would not call myself a scholar of Chinese Catholicism, per se, I am more broadly interested in religion, civil society, and Asian modernities on the Pacific Rim, so Chinese Catholicism has been of interest to me, and I have written and presented on it especially during the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement in 2014 and hope to write more seriously about it in the future. Catholicism more generally has become increasingly interesting to me since I finished my PhD on Cantonese Protestants and civil society, not least because the Catholic communion has some notable similarities and differences around church-state-civil society relations in relation to the Protestant churches, and I have spoken about my interest in Catholicism both at Catholic venues (on topics such as church-society relations and ecumenism) and to the press. I intend to try to think more deeply about Catholicism in my scholarship going forward. Certainly, this is influenced by my having become Eastern Catholic recently, but I hasten to note that my scholarship in this vein does not seem very affected by Eastern Catholicism as I have not yet written very much about Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy as well as the Assyrian Church of the East, despite my personal religious practice.

I think my review of Yan’s Evangelization in China goes along the same vein as my previous thinking on Catholic church-state relations. While Yan proposes that the Catholic Church become an ideological dialogue partner with the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) government ideology of the ‘harmonious society’ (和諧社會, héxié shèhuì), I use a term invented by Chinese netizens – ‘river crab’ (河蟹, héxiè), which sounds almost exactly like ‘harmonious society’) – to show that this would entail the Church ceasing to be Catholic and becoming Protestant in China. As such, I hope that my review is helpful in sorting through some of the theological problems in Yan’s proposals, especially because they seem to be entertained even at the highest levels of the Vatican in its thinking on how to dialogue with the PRC.

I expand some of my thinking from this review in my guest post on Rosman’s blog. Here, I examine a hit piece written in La Stampa against the retired bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-ken, in which the Italian journalist Gianni Valente accuses Zen of calling for schism if the Vatican were to sign a deal recognizing the government-sponsored segment of the Church. Examining Valente’s claims, I find that they do not match with Zen’s own practice of Catholic church-state relations in Hong Kong and the PRC. My post is thus devoted to explicating how Zen relates the church to both state and civil society and how his admonition to Pope Francis’s Vatican needs to be read – not least in light of Francis’s own pontificate.

My hope is that these two items will show an ongoing developing interest of mine in Catholic geographies, which as geographer John Agnew puts it, are fascinating political geographies in their own right. I am thankful to Luke Hopkins at Horizons for the initial contact to review Yan’s book and to Christine Bucher, also at Horizons, for the brilliant editing work that made me agree with my own review of the book even more than the more verbose version that I had originally submitted. As usual, I am grateful to Artur Rosman for letting me post occasionally on his blog on Patheos Catholic, and especially to his graciousness in letting me post all of my verbosity on Zen there. Perhaps as my thinking on Catholicism matures, my wordiness on the subject will also be mitigated.

Christ and Cascadia: Theory Matters in Ministry

I’m very pleased to share my latest work: a piece for the online journal Christ and Cascadia entitled ‘Theory Matters in Ministry: what I learned lecturing to Asian American pastors.’

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The post is an account of the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) course in which Soong-Chan Rah (North Park) invited me to guest lecture in early April. Because it was a course on Asian American (evangelical) ministry, many of my comments in that course were about what Asian American studies is as a discipline, which (as I read the discipline) is a tradition of negation, an activist-academic project to dispel the ideology that frames persons inhabiting Asian bodies as ‘orientals’ (and therefore rugs). As it was also a theology course, I reflected on the relationship between Asian American studies and the theological project of ‘ecumenism,’ especially with some reflections on a topic on which evangelical Protestants do not usually reflect: the Eastern Christian practice of ‘hesychasm.’

I’m grateful to Billy Vo (SPU) for organizing my collaboration with Rah. I’m also thankful that David Leong (SPU) kept on getting on my case for writing for Christ and Cascadia, an initiative in which I have had some participation in the past and am always looking to critically engage so as to provide what geographer Paul Cloke calls both ‘critical proximity and critical distance’ in its ideological engagements. Thanks are also due to Christ and Cascadia‘s editor David Dyck and assistant editor David Arinder for trimming the piece, especially with an eye to engage their evangelical Protestant readership – an audience that I engage with more critical distance than critical proximity. My hope is that this piece is helpful in continuing the conversation between evangelicalism and Asian American studies as well as helping to interrogate the ideological entanglements in which evangelicals often find themselves due to their ongoing attempts to engage ‘culture,’ a loaded word with so many possible meanings. Perhaps cultural geography – maybe even an anchoring on the word ‘ecumene’ combined with the disciplined practice of negation found in both Asian American studies and hesychastic spirituality – could provide some focus.

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.

Ethika Politika: Hong Kong Catholicism interviews with Artur Rosman

It has occurred to me after I posted on the Missio entry that I have not yet put on this blog my work on the Catholic moral theology venue, Ethika Politika, courtesy of Artur Rosman. I’ve spoken to evangelicals, but I should say that I spend an equal amount of time with Catholics. Rosman interviewed me for a three-part series on the role of Catholicism in the Hong Kong protests. It seems to have also gotten the attention of UCA News, which bills itself as ‘Asia’s most trusted independent Catholic news source.’

The first post is titled ‘Hong Kong’s Moment of Zen‘ and deals with the protesters’ aims and whether religion has been deployed in protest. The ‘Zen,’ of course, refers to Joseph Cardinal Zen, the outspoken retired Bishop of Hong Kong who was with the student protesters from the beginning of their strike. As you will see in this first post, I tried to give a complicated view of the Umbrella Movement:

It depends on what you mean by the “protesters.” There are several different groups involved in this occupation, such as student groups like Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students and democracy groups from across the political spectrum like the more moderate Occupy Central for Love and Peace and the more radical Civic Passion, as well as individual citizens who aren’t associated with a group. There are also pan-democratic legislators who have joined in the protests. No one claims to be the single leader of this movement, and anyone who does is readily rebuffed.

The second post deals with the ‘Catholic Umbrella in Hong Kong‘ and examines how the Catholic Church has carefully engaged with the protests through the mode of ‘passive compliance‘:

My reading of passive compliance is that it’s taken straight out of the playbook of Zen’s predecessor, John Baptist Cardinal Wu. When Wu became bishop in the 1970s, the diocese was allied with the colonial British government in the provision of schools, hospitals, and charities. However, as the 1997 handover drew near, Wu penned a pastoral letter in 1989 called “March Into the Bright Decade.” The central contention of the letter was that even though the 1997 handover would divide Catholics ideologically between supporters of and protesters against the Chinese regime, the Church should focus on parish formation, developing grounded Catholic communities that could resist division. Passive compliance is taken straight out of Wu’s playbook because it’s the practice of balancing out the ideological divisions within the Church vis-à-vis the state regime.

The third post examines the ‘Theopolitical Chess Game in Hong Kong and China‘ and advances political scientist Beatrice Leung’s framework of Sino-Vatican relations as a geopoltical concern:

Here we see the heart of what passive compliance is about. Cardinal Zen developed ‘passive compliance’ ostensibly because he did not want to officially endorse or oppose the Hong Kong Government’s Election Committee. But what precluded active compliance was that fact that the Hong Kong Government, despite being in a ‘one country, two systems’ framework, was effectively under Chinese sovereignty, a state that persecuted unregistered religious minorities like the Falun Gong and the underground Catholic Church.

I’m thankful to Artur Rosman for these excellent interview questions, through which I got a sense of the kinds of questions a Catholic public would have for this, especially Catholics who think about political theology. I’m also very grateful to the Catholics with whom I got to engage through my field work in 2012, including Joseph Cardinal Zen. As with my engagements with academia proper, the public news, and evangelicals, Catholics are an audience with whom I have enjoyed engaging in conversation (see here and here). I’m glad that I’ve been on the record on this issue – indeed, ABC News and Ethics Report has also picked up on this conversation – and I’m thankful that this public discourse around Catholicism and Hong Kong is shaping publications that I hope to submit soon. In short, I’m thankful to be engaged with this audience, and I hope that this too is a conversation that is only beginning.