Syndicate: Gil Anidjar, Blood: A Critique of Christianity

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

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Gil Anidjar

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

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

First as Sociology, Then as Geography: review essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion

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At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a review essay for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion entitled ‘First as Sociology, Then as Geography.’ It’s an essay on Steven Sutcliffe and Ingvild Saelid Gilhus’s 2014 edited volume, New Age Spiritualities: Rethinking Religion. As a 2000-word essay, it’s a bit longer than the average book review.

I had received the book during a coffee session with the Bulletin‘s editor Philip Tite. Among Tite’s many accomplishments, he has taught quite a number of courses at universities in Seattle, including at the University of Washington, and having met at a faculty meeting, we had coffee. He suggested that I review the book for the Bulletin, and as time passed, the book review became expanded into a ‘review essay,’ a long-form essay inspired by the book that simultaneously reviews it and expands on some of my thinking based on the book.

As the review essay will show, I learned quite a bit from the book about the shape of religious studies as a discipline. In fact, I found that one of the greatest insights from the book was that ‘religious studies,’ a field of study often disparaged as a hodgepodge collage of disciplines that takes as its focus a topic of study that is under crisis (‘what is religion?’ and increasingly ‘what is the secular?’), actually has a unitary disciplinary core that inquires into what ‘religion’ is and how it is constituted, with a disciplinary canon to boot. This ambitious edited volume attempts to recast that disciplinary canon away from the founding fathers of religious studies (who happen also to be the usual suspects in terms of the founders of social science writ large) in a New Age key.

It is this second move with which I take some issue. It’s not that I have some commitment to the original founding texts of modern religious studies. However, one of the points of agreement in this diverse volume was that at a sociological level, New Age spiritualities could be seen as becoming the new normal of how to do religion. This basic sociological point about new institutional religions fails to take seriously how this is also a geographical point – that this new sociology often is spatially exhibited by a certain class of middle-class workers trying to find inner peace through New Age spiritualities (a geography about which the authors themselves talk explicitly), and that reframing religion in this social geographic key would reinforce the stereotype that the entire discipline of religious studies is a factory for liberal bourgeois ideology.

It’s funny that I came to this while reading this book and writing this essay prior to taking the work of Slavoj Žižek seriously, even though the essay’s title certainly takes its inspiration from the title of Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (but if you read the essay, you’ll find that there isn’t really a serious engagement with Žižek, not even with First as Tragedy – there’s only a very, very brief reference to Žižek on ideology). By the end of the review essay, I found myself appealing to Marx to suggest that ‘New Age spiritualities’ may well be the new opiate of the masses. However, this is the same point that Žižek makes about ‘Buddhism,’ especially in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. You could say that I’m thankful to the authors of this book, as well as to Tite and the Bulletin, for the chance to get these new thoughts going through pondering such new moves in religious studies as a discipline, though I suspect that it was never anyone’s intention for me to become so critical. I think it’s safe to say that you can expect me to follow this line of thought in my upcoming work.

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Columbia Journalism Review: Beware labeling Pope Francis a liberal

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.

The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC | Society for the Scientific Study of Religion | Indianapolis 2014

Congregation in front of the Christ Church of China, Vancouver, B.C., 1955 | Creator: Leong Ding Bong | Source: UBC Library Digital Archives

I am pleased to be presenting a paper at this current Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Indianapolis during this weekend of 31 October to 2 November.

My paper is titled ‘The legal implications of ‘internal doctrinal disputes’: Chong v. Lee, Asian Canadian congregational fractures, and new religious publics in Vancouver, BC.’ It will be given at 1 PM on 31 October, in White River Ballroom B of the JW Marriott Indianapolis in a session titled ‘Religion, Policy, Doctrine.’ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores the legal implications of immigrant congregational fractures. Examining British Columbia’s 1981 precedent case Chong v. Lee, I explore how internal congregational disputes regarding both the meaning of Chineseness and the practice of baptism at Vancouver’s Christ Church of China produced the Canadian legal doctrine that religious property cannot be diverted for theological purposes that differ from the community’s founding teaching. Drawing 50 key informants interviews, I argue that the private congregational tensions often explored in ethnographies of immigrant religious communities must be re-examined for their legal implications. Not only have other Asian Canadian communities drawn on the Chong case to take their internal theological disputes to court, but Anglican parishes (including three Chinese Canadian ones) departing from the Vancouver diocese over sexuality issues engaged the precedent to insist on keeping their buildings. This paper intervenes in the sociology of religion by insisting that putatively private congregational dynamics in immigrant religious communities inevitably engage the state’s legal apparatus.

I will focus mostly on Chong as a legal precedent and will attempt once again to engage the social scientists of religion here with an argument on the constitution of congregational space. All are welcome. I look forward to a great conversation.

University of Washington: In the Shadow of Tiananmen: Democracy, Christianity, Hong Kong

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On 21 October, I gave a talk at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies (full disclosure: my home department) entitled ‘In the Shadow of Tiananmen: Democracy, Christianity, Hong Kong.’

The talk was about how ‘the shadow of Tiananmen’ generates what I call ‘grounded theologies‘ in Hong Kong. My concerns were about Hong Kong, not China, in light of the Umbrella Movement. The talk was not about the Umbrella Movement per se, but was a deep 35-year history of local democratic movements in Hong Kong and Christian involvements in them.

I’m thankful for James Wellman and Loryn Paxton, who organized the talk. I’m also grateful for all the constructive comments I received and for the UW Daily‘s fairly accurate coverage of my remarks.

Bulletin for the Study of Religion: Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus

I’m happy to announce that the Bulletin for the Study of Religion has published a piece that I recently wrote in a review forum on New Testament scholar James Crossley’s Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism.

While most of the commentators were biblical scholars, I was asked by the Bulletin‘s editor Phil Tite to comment as a human geographer on Crossley’s book. As it happens, there has indeed been some cross-polllination between biblical studies and human geography, and I knew about this because many of my biblical studies colleagues have expressed to me that their discipline is more like a secular social science than it is theology and that the field comprises people from a variety of theological orientations. In fact, in stark contrast to the high-profile biblical studies firings that we have witnessed in the evangelical world, the mainstream of biblical scholarship would maintain that Crossley’s own theological convictions are completely moot; certainly, they influence his scholarship as any positionality would, but that’s why all scholarship circulates in discplinary conversations. For the conversation between biblical studies and human geography, there has been a five-volume series titled Constructions of Space that has attempted to use the work of human geographers like Henri Lefebvre, Lily Kong, and (honorary geographer) Kim Knott to examine how biblical authors conceptualize and make places.

Crossley’s book is different. His idea of New Testament studies is not simply the study of the New Testament as a text, but also the study of the study of the New Testament. In other words, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism doesn’t look at Jesus in the New Testament text. It examines how contemporary New Testament scholars have interpreted Jesus, and it critiques them for making Jesus a proponent of the political economic ideology that has arguably taken over the world in the last forty years, neoliberalism, i.e. the ideology that the free market must be allowed to run unhindered by government intervention and that it must be protected from violent threats, which has often led to the framing of the MIddle East as an ‘oriental’ geopolitical threat.

As a geographer, I found that Crossley and I seemed to speak the same language. The geographers (and honorary geographers) he cites are similar to the ones on my reading list — Edward Said, David Harvey, Derek Gregory, for example.

As a result, I used my essay to push Crossley to come into his own right as an honorary geographer. Crossley locates New Testament scholars as diverse as John Dominic Crossan, Bruce Malina, N.T. Wright, and even the Pope Emeritus as unintentionally tied up with neoliberal ways of thinking. However, to locate someone in a train of thought is just the beginning of a geographical study, not the end. I wanted to push Crossley to show how New Testament scholars are actually creating and contesting neoliberal political regimes and everyday practices. I don’t just want to read that the historical Jesus is a neoliberal fiction; I want to see how the historical Jesus gets put to work in constructing neoliberalism, as well as challenging it from the inside-out. Indeed, Crossley has a chapter on how one pseudonymous biblio-blogger, N.T. Wrong, consistently challenges his/her/xyr colleagues on their neoliberal assumptions, and I wanted to see how these contestations actually work them out in the production of space.

The example that I gave that illustrates this dynamic is the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). Because Crossley protests against the ‘orientalizing’ practices of neoliberalism, the work of the historical Jesus in this ex-British colony and current site of a ‘one country, two systems’ experiment would be fascinating to investigate. I gave the example of the exchange between megachurch pastor Rev. Daniel Ng Chung-man and the OCLP leader Rev. Chu Yiuming as a case where the historical Jesus became a subject of intense public political debate. I also give a shoutout to my colleagues at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, such as Sam Tsang, Freeman Huen, Nathan Ng, Vincent Lau, and Andres Tang, who have been doing excellent work in public theology in Hong Kong.

This article should be of interest to all who want to understand the contemporary significance of biblical studies in the public sphere. What remains fascinating to me is how much geography is done by biblical scholars, and I am encouraged by what seems to be an exciting trend in exploring how the work of those who study the biblical text (regardless of their theological orientation) has contributed to the making of the world today. I’d like to thank the Bulletin‘s editors Phil Tite and Arlene MacDonald for this exciting opportunity to engage, as this encounter has also shaped my scholarship insofar as I am coming to understand how important it is for me as a social scientist to keep up with my social science colleagues who work in biblical studies.

Association of American Geographers, Tampa, FL (8-12 April 2014)

I am writing from Tampa, Florida to talk about the national conference that I am attending. As usual, I am at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. There’s a lot going on here in geographies of religion (check out our specialty group’s newsletter) – the field seems to be growing, though many of my colleagues couldn’t attend this year! – and I will also be checking out sessions on migration, Asian geographies, urban studies, and other things, in addition to meeting colleagues and catching up with old ones.

I am presenting in a session this afternoon (Tuesday, 8 April) on Critical Geographies of Religion. My paper is titled The Civil Human Rights Front: religion and radical democracy in post-handover Hong Kong and features a lot of the field work I did among progressive Christian groups in Hong Kong in 2012. Here’s the abstract:

After Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the Special Administrative Region has seen the emergence of calls for universal suffrage, the preservation of civil liberties, and solidarity with the materially marginalized in Hong Kong’s civil society.  In one moment of collective solidarity, an umbrella group called the Civil Human Rights Front launched a protest against anti-sedition legislation based on Basic Law’s Article 23, a law whose alleged threats to free speech drove some 500,000 Hongkongers to the streets on 1 July 2003.  This paper analyzes the radical democrats who have been key to such political placemaking activities in Hong Kong, contesting the city’s policy landscape through physical demonstrations.  It argues that while a wide swath of Hong Kong’s Catholics and Protestants have historically been allied with the state establishment both under British and Chinese sovereignty, the emergence of radical democratic groups like the Civil Human Rights Front have been driven largely by Catholic and Protestant Christians who emphasize a separation of church governance from the state.  While the separation of church and state has often lent itself in other contexts to more conservative politics, this spatial schematic has led these radical democratic activists, their churches, and their solidarity groups to contest the modus operandi of Chinese sovereignty.  This is thus a contribution to critical geographies of religion, for it shows the potential power of religious movements to critique the practices of the state in order to imagine more socially just cities.

There are two parts to this session. I am the first paper on the first part, which promises to be an engaging discussion on religion, politics, and the public sphere. Find us in Room 17 on the First Floor of the Tampa Convention Center. The first session is from 2:40 PM – 4:20 PM. The second session runs from 4:40 PM – 6:20 PM.

Tomorrow (Wednesday, 9 April), political geographer John Agnew will be giving our Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Annual Lecture. His lecture is titled The Popes and the city of Rome during Fascism, 1922-1943. Here’s the abstract:

It has become popular in recent years to see the Fascist years in Italy as reflecting the relatively successful transformation of Italian society at the behest of its Fascist rulers. This reflects both the rehabilitation of Fascism in contemporary Italy and the “cultural turn” in Italian historiography that has tended to emphasize the “making” of Fascist selves and other markers, such as the makeover of many urban monumental spaces, as measures of the regime’s success. My purpose is to disrupt this emerging consensus, alongside other commentators I hasten to add, by pointing how much the Fascist regime had to collaborate with other powers, not least the Catholic Church, and was often outflanked by them in its designs, most notably in efforts at making over the city of Rome as its showcase capital.

We want as many people as we can to attend, and we hope to see many of your there! Find us in Room 23 of the First Floor of the Tampa Convention Center, Wednesday, 9 April, 10 AM – 11:40 AM.

Please also join us for our business meeting. That is scheduled for Thursday, 10 April, from 7:30 PM – 8:30 PM in Room 9, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor. I will be chairing, and if you want the meeting agenda, please email me.

I look forward to a lot of collegial interaction this week, and I am anticipating learning a lot! It’s great to be with people in my home discipline, and I hope I have more to bring this year from all of my interdisciplinary journeying.