I am presenting two papers at the upcoming American Academy of Religion 2019 meeting in San Diego.
The first is based on my book project, which is in preliminary agreement with University of Notre Dame Press, and is entitled ‘Sheets of Scattered Sand: Cantonese Protestants on the Pacific Rim and the Shadow of Sun Yatsen,’ and will be part of the Chinese Christianities Seminar, as part of our theme this year ‘Exceptionalism in Chinese Christianities.’ We can be found on Sunday, 3:30-5 pm, in the Hilton Bayfront-Indigo 202A. Chairing our session is Christie Chow (City Seminary of New York). I’m looking forward even more to hearing my co-panelists Gideon Elazar (Ariel University, Bar Ilan University) and Stephanie Wong (Valparaiso University) talk about their work. Responding to us is my co-editor on Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University).
The second is based on a side project that I am working on in the field of philosophy of education, which is the discipline with which I converse to develop my teaching philosophy, and is titled ‘The Miseducation of Model Minorities: The “Gospel of Schoolvation” in Asian American Studies.’ The panel is called ‘The 50th Anniversary of the Creation of Ethnic Studies: Asian American Genealogical and Cross-Disciplinary Reflections.’ My friend SueJeanne Koh (UC Irvine) is presiding, and my co-panelists include Teng-Kuan Ng (Georgetown) and Girim Jung (Claremont). The fourth panelist Tian-An Wong (Smith College) is unable to make it, but his paper will be read by Joseph Cheah (University of St Joseph). We will be on Tuesday, 8:30 – 10 am, in the Hilton Bayfront-Sapphire 402.
I look forward to seeing all of my colleagues in theology and religious studies in San Diego!
The book itself is controversial, for reasons that you can read about here in the symposium introduction that I wrote. This led to a controversial forum, which we rolled out in the order of most sympathetic to most outright hostile:
Milbank is beyond generous in his responses. Not only were his answers thoughtful and thorough, but they managed to elicit a new response from Singh calling Milbank’s project ‘racist.’ There’s also a point-for-point refutation of McCarraher that not only reads as a genuine invitation to conversation, but also is surprisingly revelatory of Milbank’s own working-class position in relation to both British politics and the hegemonies embedded in the academic discipline of theology.
Not that anyone is counting, but as a point if one were to go down the ‘identity politics’ route and accuse us of selling out to white theology: I note that three of the contributors are men of colour (in fact, two are Asian American, and one is Asian Australian) from very different ideological perspectives, and the white woman is married to a Korean American. I am (quite obviously) not white. And yet, here we are – engaging. There’s something to be reflected upon there – I’m not quite sure what it is, but it may have something to do with Milbank’s theology, for all the shots fired at it as a white man’s ideology, having some resonance in geographies that are not white, surprisingly not from the elite classes, and perhaps weirdly socialist in political orientation.
I’m grateful to Christian Amondson for having the fortitude to host such a wild and crazy symposium on Syndicate. Milbank’s oeuvre has been profoundly influential in my own work on grounded theologies, so to have done this forum where the contributors engaged each other with such gusto is a deep honour and privilege. As for the symposium being widely read, all I can say to our readers is, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘Hang on tight!’
I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.
The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:
In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.
My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.
But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’
I’m grateful as this symposium’s editor for Pfau’s close engagement with each of these essays, as well as these authors’ close reading of Pfau’s very deep book. The interaction in this forum speaks to each of these persons’ deep commitment to the real mission of the academy, the rigorous close reading and dialectical engagement for which Pfau calls in Minding the Modern.
I’m also grateful for Christian Amondson and his very able skills as the managing editor, freeing my hands to simply engage as the Theology and Social Theory section editor.
In 2015, the Review of Religion in Chinese Society published a peer-reviewed paper that I wrote trying to unpack the Umbrella Movement’s cultural geographical background. In this paper, I especially advance the approach of the new cultural geography in understanding the many layers of history behind democratic movements in Hong Kong and their engagement with Christian theological sources. Here’s the abstract in both English and Chinese:
Taking the geographies of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as the point of departure, this paper provides a geographical reading of democratic landscapes in Hong Kong. Using a new cultural geography approach, this study unpacks the grounded theologies that undergird the participation of Christians in democratic movements in Hong Kong. The central argument is that two Christian grounded theologies in Hong Kong – collaborative and critical – have been generated by how Christians acting within two different working alliances have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Hong Kong government. Drawing from both ethnographic and public archival research, I trace the origins of a democratic working alliance to the 1978 Golden Jubilee Incident, after which a democratic consensus was developed in Hong Kong. Following this thread through the 1997 handover, I demonstrate that this consensus bifurcated among Christians who disagreed theologically as to whether collaborating or critiquing the government was the ideal way to implement democratic reform. This paper contributes to the study of religion in Chinese societies by providing a geographical approach that can be used for comparative work in the social scientific study of religion and democracy.
I’m deeply thankful to the editor, Fenggang Yang (Purdue), for graciously accepting this manuscript and seeing to its speedy publication. I hope this paper is useful for understanding democracy movements in Hong Kong,their many complex histories, and their relation to theory in social science.
From April 30 to May 2, 2015, I attended the ‘Freedom of (and from) Religion’ Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Hosted by the UCSB Religious Studies Department alongside their Virgil Cordano Catholic Studies Program, this conference was part of their conference series on religion and law. There was a stellar lineup of speakers, including Winnifred Sullivan (Indiana University), among other junior scholars as well. Ann Taves, who was our GORABS Annual Lecturer in 2013, played a representative faculty role for UCSB Religious Studies and Catholic Studies.
My paper, which took a different spin (a more legal one) from the iteration I gave at the AAAS earlier in the month, was titled ‘The Passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: Perry v. Schwarzenegger and the Question of Religious Privacy.’ Here’s the abstract:
Some religious activists claim that their public actions against same-sex marriage should not only be publicly accommodated, but understood as fundamentally private. Instead of philosophizing on the actual legitimacy of this claim, I examine why its proponents argue that it is legitimate. My case study centers on Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam in the federal court case Perry v. Schwarzennegger, which ensued after the passage of California’s Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples. Called as a hostile witness, Tam – an official grassroots proponent of Proposition 8 – argued that his privacy had been violated when his private emails were introduced as evidence that he had imposed his private religious animus against gays and lesbians onto the public sphere. That the court discredited the Proposition 8 proponents based on this evidence suggested to Tam and his colleagues that the judiciary was in the sway of the private interests of sexual minorities. A closer examination of the Perry transcript shows that this privacy emphasis framed the interests of sexual minorities as competing with those of religious communities. I argue that Tam’s privacy claim was part of an attempt to fashion a legal consensus where public action on either side of Proposition 8 was fundamentally about defending private communities. In this way, the Proposition 8 proponents defended actions such as Tam’s by claiming that he had not so much sought public accommodation for his views, but the victory of his private interests over against competing ones. Claims to religious freedom may not thus only be requests for public accommodation; they may well be political tools to refashion American society as solely composed of competing interests vested in private communities.
I enjoyed the chance to be at UCSB and to interact with the conference participants and the UCSB faculty. As this signals an interest that I have developed in geographies of religion and law from since my PhD, I hope this is the first of many encounters to come.
In this essay, they pushed me on my own discipline: human geography. And they did so by having me engage my PhD supervisor David Ley‘s nemesis, David Harvey.
Finding the presence of theology inhabiting both Ley and Harvey’s work, I wrote my engagement with Harvey’s newest book by examining how both Ley and Harvey do theology – and how that theology can possibly bring them together under the acknowledgement that capital has become a personal god in the modern order. As you’ll see in the response, Harvey was intrigued by these thoughts, but he doesn’t buy it completely.
I had planned to write a reply to Harvey on the site, but I never got around to it as April was a very busy conference month for me. I did get to meet Harvey at the American Association of Geographers meeting later that month in Chicago – an encounter that Ley tells me he witnessed but did not want to disturb as he was descending an elevator into the hotel lobby. This essay will probably turn into something bigger (and hopefully better) as I play around some more with these ideas, and hopefully then, I’ll have an even more serious engagement with Harvey.
I’m very thankful to Syndicate’s managing editor Christian Amondson for publishing this piece and the editor/founder of Syndicate, Silas Morgan, for his very able organizational powers in making this forum happen. Read his forum introduction here.
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.’
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.
Columbia Journalism Review‘s Chris Ip has done a major service for the American public sphere with his report on Pope Francis. Interviewing John Allen, Jr., Inés San Martin, and yours truly, he has put together an article that criticizes the way that American journalists have been reporting on the Vatican, while also remaining sympathetic to the particular tendencies of the American public.
Here’s what I told him:
The media’s tendency to make all religious statements political comes from the heart of American political culture. The US media interprets the pope according to an “American protestant narrative,” where religion is read in terms of what it means for politics, said Justin Tse, a University of Washington scholar on religion and public life. “The question people are asking is, ‘Is the Catholic Church promoting or inhibiting democracy?’” said Tse. “It’s a good question, but when that’s the only question on the table, then you start to twist narratives to fit the agenda.”
You’ll see that I’ve drawn from figures like Tocqueville, Bellah, Marty, Wuthnow, Warner, and Wellman to construct that answer.
I’m very thankful to Chris for taking the time to write such a fine report. I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a much longer and very fruitful conversation.