Religium Podcast: ‘A Person with a Face, Facing Other People’

I am thankful to my friend and colleague Maren Haynes Marchesini for having me on the Religium Podcast this week. Maren is undertaking the much-needed task of interviewing those of us who can be called Millennials about our religious affiliations. We talked about how I ended up Eastern Catholic on this week’s podcast, titled ‘A Person With a Face, Facing Other People.’

I was thrilled to get Maren’s invitation to reflect on my spiritual – or perhaps better put, mystagogical – journey. Maren and I had in fact been discussing this story for quite some time beforehand, and it only seemed right to tell her the truth on air. Previously, I had tended to use more benign phrases like ‘hanging out with Eastern Catholics,’ but one simply does not lie to Maren Haynes Marchesini, especially not on a podcast about Millennial religious affiliation. At the time we recorded this podcast, I was still a ‘catechumen’ thinking about whether I should be received into full communion. Maren published this shortly after I had been received.

As you’ll hear on the podcast, ‘communion’ (as far as I understand it) is not a matter of ideology. It is much more about being a person – to be a face, faced by other persons and facing other persons. I am a bit of a stickler about this because my professional academic work is so tied up with Asian and Asian American Christianities, which most people seem to assume means ‘some kind of Protestant’ with a bit of ‘Catholicism’ thrown in (but only the Latin tradition). In this way, most people understand me to be studying myself. As you’ll hear on the podcast, this is not altogether untrue, as I shamelessly talk about my upbringing in a variety of Protestant traditions (I’ve also written about them at Schema Magazine). But as far as I understand my own professional work (and despite the self-deception that often comes with self-interpretation), I do not think of myself as an Eastern Catholic scholar. This does not mean that my scholarship and my professional life aren’t tied together – listeners will note well that my academic interests in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement played no small part in my spiritual explorations – but what I mean to say is that my research agenda on Asian and Asian American religions and civil societies is probably not going to shift any time soon to places that are more populated by Eastern Catholics, such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East – fascinating as those places are in their own right!

Perhaps some may ask about why I am so daring, courageous, or some other romantic word to talk about my own religious affiliations as a ‘secular’ scholar. Most of these comments come from those who assume that ‘secularities’ refer to what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as ‘subtraction stories,’ the elimination of religion from contemporary life. But as Taylor has shown (among many other scholars, such Linell Cady, Winnifred Sullivan, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, etc.), ‘secularism’ as an ideology isn’t very coherent, and as far as I understand it, I prefer to think of ‘secularity’ in its more classical understanding of ‘something to do with the contemporary age,’ however ‘contemporary’ is defined. As far as this goes, my work on Asian and Asian American religions, ideologies, and social and cultural geographies are as ‘secular’ as they go!

In this sense, I don’t think of myself as particularly brave for talking about who I am as a person. In fact, having been trained as a social and cultural geographer to disclose my positionality as I conduct ethnographic research, I think of it more as par for the course. In fact, in previously published writings, I have talked at length about my Protestant backgrounds. I don’t see why it would be bad to talk about Eastern Catholicism either.

So how does Eastern Catholicism affect my scholarship? I don’t think it does very much, actually. If anything, Eastern Christian theology (for all of its current ideological shenanigans) seems at best to place a lot of emphasis on personhood, which is simply about facing other persons. As far as I know, this is how I’ve always operated as a researcher and a teacher. Maybe the only thing it will really do is to give these personal convictions about personhood some extra theological oomph. By ‘theology,’ of course, I don’t mean ‘ideology’; as I said earlier, my journey has been ‘mystagogical’ in the sense that I have been taught by being plunged into the mystery of personhood itself instead of thinking about it in the abstract.

In fact, this circles back to how Maren and I first met: on a panel on the ill-fated Mars Hill Church in Seattle and its former bombastic pastor Mark Driscoll. Organized by my friend Elizabeth Chapin, the panel at the Christ and Cascadia conference in 2014 featured Maren, Elizabeth, my postdoctoral supervisor James Wellman, and me working through issues of gender at Mars Hill Church. Maren presented a spectacular paper on the music of Mars Hill and its imaginations of masculinity, drawn from her doctoral research in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. After this panel, we went out with a group of colleagues for drinks and became fast friends. Quite literally, we faced each other and continue to do so even now.

To have done a panel on Mars Hill presupposes that we have some kind of ideological stake in American Protestantism. In fact, we are often told to present our positionality in order to make our agendas clear; this is what is often meant by ‘ethical’ scholarship. Perhaps talking about my personal affiliation with the Eastern Catholic churches will show that I have no stake in engaging Protestants except to be a person faced by their faces and facing them in turn. Or perhaps I do not know very much about what my stakes are yet, as I also talk about my own background in Protestant Christianity and may still be more attached to it than I imagine. Perhaps my readers and listeners will be generous enough to inform me and even criticize me, if they feel like it. In any case, I hope that these clarifications will be helpful for my readers, who should not expect very much from me on the Eastern Catholic front in my professional scholarship any time soon, although perhaps they might find some entertainment in finding little Eastern Christian tidbits buried in my work and in their kindness tell me about them so that I can learn something too.

I want to thank Maren for being such a kind and generous interviewer. I hope that these mystagogical reflections will be entertaining to my listeners. Hopefully, they will help us understand the religious affiliations of Millennials just a little better, but then again, I don’t think of myself as a representative for Millennials – or for Protestants, Eastern Catholics, or even Asians and Asian Americans, for that matter. However, there will be more good interviews by Maren on the Religium Podcast, and I know that I for one will be trying to listen to most of them so that I can learn more about Millennial religious affiliation myself.

SCMP: ‘God’s servant’: Beijing-friendly and born again, former HK official Stephen Lam wants to woo Christians in Canada

I am thrilled that journalist extraordinaire Ian Young has put up a story about the upcoming visit to Vancouver of Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, on his blog, The Hongcouver on the South China Morning Post. I was interviewed for this piece. I also discovered that – independent of my leads (which means that Ian has to be credited for doing his homework!) – my colleague Dr Sam Tsang (Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary and Ambrose University) also gave his two cents.

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Here’s what’s happening. Later this month in June 2016, Lam will be visiting three Chinese evangelical churches as part of a ‘cross-Canada evangelistic tour’ where he will be speaking on the theme, ‘From Public Servant to God’s Servant.’ The event is being hosted by the Chinese Christian Mission (CCM) Canada, a parachurch organization that tries to bridge the gap between ‘the church and the world.’ This upcoming set of talks has been generating some commotion among Christians about whether Chinese Protestant churches in Vancouver are, in Hong Kong terms, ‘pro-establishment’ (supportive of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing) or ‘pro-democracy’ (critical of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing for not allowing Hong Kong residents full political agency in, say, ‘genuine universal suffrage’ or even ‘Hong Kong autonomy,’ depending on how radically democratic one is). It is uncontroversial to say that Lam himself is ‘pro-establishment’: as the former second-in-command in Hong Kong’s government establishment, he was active in attempts to push forward a democratic reform bill that would lead to a Hong Kong that would have a democratic façade but be ultimately controlled by Beijing. As Young rightly notes, this reform package split the pan-democratic parties in Legislative Council in 2010 and ultimately generated the frustration that led to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 79-day street occupation where Hong Kong residents demanded ‘genuine universal suffrage’ (instead of democratic reforms that were all for show with no real substance).

Here were my comments to Young on Lam’s upcoming visit:

Lam’s visit is being debated in Chinese-speaking Christian circles in Vancouver, according to Dr Justin Tse, who teaches religious studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and human geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He said the tour and the reaction to it were emblematic of the way “democracy and establishment forces in Hong Kong [are] vying for the attention of the diaspora” in Canada. Churches, he said “served as political hubs” of the Hong Kong diaspora in Canada, even as they claimed apolitical status.

“It’s a contest over whether these churches should be having a pro-Beijing politician speak for an evangelistic event, a mass rally intended to convert people to Christianity,” he said. The debate was being played out in private Chinese-language social media, drawing hundreds of comments.

One Facebook posting highlighted by Tse called for “joint action” against the tour. “If any of you or your righteous relatives would like to welcome in Vancouver Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the servile former official who tries to wipe the slate clean with theology, please send me your personal messages,” said the poster.

“There’s no denying that for Chinese people living in Vancouver, there is a sense that the Church has a moral voice. Even if you are not Christian, for instance, you might want to send your kids to Sunday school so that they can learn to be good and moral people,” said Tse. “There’s a sense [even among non-Christians] to think of the church as a moral centre of the Chinese community, and we have the former chief secretary come over to speak and spout a particular version of Hong Kong ideology.”

Tse said that Lam’s previous efforts in such venues had amounted to a “Christianised account of his time in office”. “Chinese churches in Vancouver have this thing where famous people – politicians, movie stars, singers whatever – are used to attract people. Stephen Lam’s celebrity comes from his time in political office. That’s the draw.”

He said the CCM was not overtly political, and Chinese evangelical churches traditionally prided themselves on being able to separate “the private face of the church from public political life”. “It’s being billed as an apolitical event, but what we have seen of the content [of Lam’s previous evangelical speeches] they are fairly ideological” he said, and likening such events to claiming a “biblical mandate”.

“Democracy people or autonomy people are lamenting this event – not just that Stephen Lam is being given this platform, but from their understanding that the church as an apolitical institution… is very easily manoeuvred into political positions without knowing it.”

In this way, I hope that I have successfully and clearly made several important points that Young’s audience can easily understand. For many historical and ideological reasons, Chinese evangelical churches in Vancouver have billed themselves as apolitical since the 1970s – they take particular pride in being able to distinguish their private religious community from their involvement in secular, non-Christian politics. That Lam is a politician means nothing except that he is an individual who will be speaking on putatively apolitical things, like why his audience needs to convert to (evangelical Protestant) Christianity. However, as pro-democracy Christians in Hong Kong have been pointing out, this apolitical bent is a politics in and of itself. What sometimes happens is that people and institutions that are good at circulating ideologies will couch their messages in apolitical tones and be able to convince people in apolitical churches that what they are saying is simply the way things are in reality. As Young’s reporting shows several paragraphs above my comments, this is what Lam has been doing since his resignation from political office in 2012: in 2014, he spoke about the ‘resurrection’ of the hotly contested political reform package in 2010 as an example of how God was with him in his political maneuvering. The God-talk feels apolitical; the content, for those who know the context, has a bit more of a bite.

This is by no means something that is unique to Hong Kong-Vancouver Chinese Christianity. The relationships between churches and transnational political geographies constitute a particularly interesting part of our news cycle currently. One useful comparison, for example, could be the way that the ‘Russian World’ ideology from Putin’s government circulates through the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox world and is combatted by, say, Ukrainians who have churches of their own; interestingly, this ideology may well be affecting the last-minute preparations and scrambling for the Orthodox to get their Holy and Great Council together next week. Another interesting case to come through Vancouver’s news cycle is of a Filipino man who fled an authoritarian church in the Philippines but is currently being targeted by that institution through its international membership. All of this seems to be about the political attempts of national church structures attempting to ideologically influence their transnational diaspora churches, which is not a straightforward process because this often results in ideological contestation in the diaspora religious communities – and increasingly so because of social media. I find all of this very geographically interesting, which is why I said what I said to Young.

I am thankful to Young for being interested in this story. It is also good and interesting to have my comments alongside my friend Sam Tsang. I hope that SCMP/Hongcouver readers will find this piece interesting because Chinese evangelical churches are part and parcel of the landscape of Vancouver’s civil society.

Association of Critical Heritage Studies – what does heritage change?: Montreal 2016

I’m so happy to have been invited to Montréal to give a presentation on behalf of the collaborative project that Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), David Ley (UBC, Geography), and I have been working on since 2010. Our joint project revolves around No. 5 Road, a 3-kilometre stretch of road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’ because it is home to over twenty religious institutions. So far, our project has yielded a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia (our funders) and a peer-reviewed article in Social and Cultural Geography. This is heads-up that there is more coming down the pipeline.

The conference at which I am representing our team is called the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS); their theme for this year’s 2016 (from June 3 to 8) meeting in Montréal is ‘what does heritage change?’ David was contacted by Luc Noppen, one of the organizers for this conference who put together a very interesting session titled ‘Heritage and the New Fate of Sacred Places/La patrimoine et le destin des leux sacrés.‘ Luc said that he had heard about our project from various places; we have indeed been presenting snippets of it at various conferences, such as the American Association of Geographers in 2011 and 2012 as well as Metropolis Canada at a policy symposium and their national conference. I was also once on the radio about it. Luc offered to fly one of our team over to Montreal, and after some discussion, the more junior member of the team (me!) got to go.

It will be interesting to be at a conference on critical heritage. I usually associate critical heritage with my friend and colleague Lachlan Barber, who is Assistant Professor of Geography at Hong Kong Baptist University, and when I think of critical heritage, I think of Lachlan’s dissertation on Hong Kong heritage politics, something that I have been thinking a great deal about in light of the origins of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Lachlan is in fact here at this conference talking about Hong Kong. But I won’t be talking about Hong Kong. I’m going to be talking about Richmond. Oh, all of my favourite things…

As I peruse the program, I’m finding that there are a good many sessions on religion at this conference. There is a session on Saturday, for example, on ‘Religion as Heritage – Heritage as Religion?‘ On Monday, there will be an all-day session at the historic church of Saint-Michel de Vaudreuil titled ‘Beyond Re-uses: The Future of Church Monuments in a Secular Society/Au-delà de la conversion: l’avenir des églises monumentales dans une société sécularisée.’ On Tuesday morning just before the session in which I am presenting, there is yet another round on religion as heritage at Concordia University. I’ll try to be at most of these sessions and will be definitely be brushing up on my high-school French when the Francophone presentations happen. Maybe I’ll try to sneak into my schedule a few Asia-Pacific sessions too, especially Lachlan’s paper.

It turns out that the session in which I am presenting on the fate of sacred places is being hosted in a site that has some special meaning for me. On Tuesday afternoon, we’ll be in a conference room at St Joseph’s Oratory. This parish – really, a minor basilica in its final form – was founded by the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), St André Bessette. CSC tends to be known in secular circles for the University of Notre Dame (which I have not attended) and in Roman Catholic circles for Family Theater (which I do not watch). However, CSC does many other things as well in Catholic education, including running the high school that I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moreau Catholic High School (MCHS), which is named for the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau. Moreau was an educator, and he imparted to his order a philosophy of education with which I continue to resonate: ‘We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart’ (Circular Letter 36). If there was anyone who embodied what that kind of education looked like in practice, it was St André, the illiterate doorkeeper who had St Joseph’s Oratory built in the first place. Widely known as a healer who lovingly embraced everyone who came to meet him at the door, St André shows us what the cultivation of the heart in education is: we are educated so that we can come to understand ourselves in relation to others as persons who can look each other in the face with love. One of my closest mentors at MCHS, Fr Harry Cronin CSC (we cofounded a literary magazine there in 2003 called Sea Changes), in fact wrote a play recently about St André called ‘The Lesson of Wood‘ that compares the simple carpentry of Jesus’ earthly father, St Joseph, to St André’s building of St Joseph’s Oratory. St André’s body is still at the Oratory, which means that not only will I get to visit this man who embodies everything I know education to be, but he will be within earshot of what I have to say at this critical heritage conference.

And what will I be talking about in the presence of St André’s relics? SHIT.

Yes, you read that right. Shit. As my students in cultural geography will know well – as well as those who have attended my more recent guest lectures – shit is becoming a bit of a technical term for me. I’d like to say that my new fecal interests were developed by reading the new materialist turns in critical theory, but if I were to be honest, it was because of a previous incarnation of the talk that I’m giving at this conference. I developed the thesis of this talk for a policy symposium with Metropolis BC and Embrace BC – that dialogue on No. 5 Road was really more about infrastructure than interfaith topics – and one item that seemed to make an impression on the audience was my discussion of sewage on No. 5 Road. Because of that, I was promptly invited to Comox for a panel the next month by the Community Justice Centre’s Bruce Curtis. As Curtis introduced me, he declared to a crowd of mostly older, respectable Vancouver Island folks, ‘Justin is going to tell you about SHIT!’ That is the scene that sticks with me now as I make my way through the new materialists, their more-than-human geography disciples, and their theoretical foes who, like Slavoj Žižek (my personal favourite), are equally scatological.

In any case, here’s the abstract for my talk next Tuesday:

Interfaith and intercultural dialogues frequently have an air of immateriality about them, focusing usually on abstract concepts in an effort to reach an idealistic overlapping consensus. The coexistence of over twenty religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as ‘Highway to Heaven,’ provides a remarkably grounded contrast. While this spectacular landscape appears on the surface to be fertile ground for abstract interreligious conversation, our findings from interviews conducted with the City of Richmond and the religious institutions suggest that the religious institutions often conceptualize their property as private, working together only to solve infrastructure problems related to parking, sewage, agricultural land, and the city’s proposals to rework the roads surrounding the area. Advancing an approach to the study of interreligious dialogue in contemporary sacred landscapes that focuses on the material and the mundane, we argue that there has been a shift in the conception of faith communities in relation to their property that has centralized private ownership as a practice of faith for these institutions. We therefore advance the critical study of religious institutions in Canada by showing that religion is not so much a matter of ideological identity as it is related to practices related to land that may have more in common with the secular than previously thought.

That looks tamer than what I think I am going to deliver. What has given me more courage is that I have discovered that I will have thirty minutes instead of my usual twenty. I am sure I could use that to (if I may) talk more shit, especially to sketch out some shitty theory – now that I indeed have a stake in this debate about shit between the so-called ‘new materialists’ and their theoretical foes (as all cultural geographers do, I would argue).

St André Bessette, pray for us indeed. Or as Moreau writes in the same Circular Letter I quoted above, ‘Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No; we wish to accept science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know.’ I can only pray that my excremental presentation will be true to this sacramental spirit, which imbues the place where I will deliver it.

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MONTREAL MATERIALIST MADNESS!!

I am thankful to the Highway to Heaven team for tolerating this scatological turn in my scholarly endeavours. I am also thankful to Luc Noppen for so kindly inviting me to this conference. As always, we thank our funders Metropolis BC, who also enabled us to hire the best transcriber who exceeded our hopes and dreams, Airra Custodio. I am looking forward to the hilarity that will inevitably ensue as we discuss heritage this week.

Guest lecturing in Phil Tite’s UW class

Yesterday, I gave a guest lecture in Dr Phil Tite‘s class at the University of Washington (UW) on Theories in the Study of Religion, a course listed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies as JSIS C 380. Here’s Phil’s recap from Facebook – I won’t share the actual post because the settings are limited to Phil’s and my friends, but the text is a thank-you note I appreciate very much:

Thank you, Justin Tse, for another excellent guest lecture (via Skype) on geographies of religion. This is the third time Justin has done this for my Theories in the Study of Religion course and each time is excellent (though very unique). And each time I learn a little something more about cultural geography. I’m glad I can incorporate this emerging theoretical approach to my course.

This is indeed the third time that I’ve given a lecture on what cultural geography has to do with religious studies in his class. However, each time has been different. Perhaps this has to do with how I am constantly learning new things about geography myself, and maybe it has to do with how geographers are constantly expanding the boundaries of the discipline more generally. It may also have to do with the kinds of questions that students ask me in each class.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a new style of guest-lecturing recently. It may have to do with the ways I’m developing as a teacher more generally, but I feel a greater sense of freedom in letting go of my lecture material and engaging the interests of the students in relation to the material. In previous iterations of this lecture in Phil’s class, for example, we tended to stick to the material I prepared, which means that students often contested me, for example, on whether bodies constitute a place (such as whether Muslim women wearing headscarves is an act of placemaking) and how theologies can be grounded in secular sites. It’s all very interesting stuff, but I am starting to see guest-lecturing as an opportunity to parachute into a class that I’m not teaching and to learn something from the encounter. With the two latest guest lectures I’ve given this week (the previous one in Steven Hu’s UCSB class),  what I’m starting to discover is that guest lectures give me the chance to learn about why topics that I find interesting would be of interest to undergraduate students who are not experts in the fields where I work. The result, I am discovering, is that we dig deeper into the discipline itself as student interest guides the way.

After the experience of guest-lecturing in Steve’s class on Monday, I consciously thought about how I would structure this lecture for Phil’s class in order to learn from the students why they might find cultural geography interesting for their study of religion. We got through one section on what geography is (where I explained to them what the ecumene, the inhabited world, was – see here for an explanation I did for another class) and what religion has to do with geography (everything). As I asked for questions, we found ourselves drawn into conversation about how understanding the ecumene at the existential (or ‘ontological’) level often raised theological questions. For some reason, this led into an extended discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire and how geographies of religion could be understood throughout the series, both in the book and on the HBO show. The students emphasized to me that their mouths were all wide open (jaw hit floor, that is) when we started talking about this, and I emphasized to them that this was neither my original idea nor my fully developed research (although, as a point of announcement, Game of Thrones is factoring into my postdoctoral work on politicized civil societies and theological communities more than I have anticipated). For this allusion, I acknowledged the work and teaching of Susan Johnston at the University of Regina for helping me take this series seriously (note to Susan: I’m still reading and catching up, and to be honest, I’m still only at the beginning of the first book! Ned Stark is still alive for me!). I also took similar questions about topics that are more tangential to my area of study (which means that the students took the time to educate me), such as neo-Nordic religiosity (such as belief-but-not-really in Wodin) in Black Nordic Metal, nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (maybe hanging out with Eastern Catholics is helping with this one, though – also, I invoked Timothy Snyder‘s work and basically called him a new cultural geographer for his attention to ideology and the making of place in the ‘bloodlands‘ of Eastern Europe), cataclysmic events in the physical environment (we talked about Jared Diamond and his detractors), and the ancient accounts of the Flood.

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The interesting part is that this led to us talking about key themes in human geography that I often don’t cover in my survey of geographies of religion. For example, Phil pointed out that what I was describing was a ‘relational’ geography of religion, and while Phil came up with this independent of the literature, this is indeed the word that is widely used especially in UK geography, especially by Gill Valentine. We also talked about the ‘activation of landscapes,’ which is a term that is sometimes used by geographers, though I don’t think it’s technical. What is more of a technical term, though, is stuff – geographers do have the debates about the materiality of stuff (and ‘shit,’ for that matter), although I have to thank Sam Rocha for drawing my attention to how important the word stuff is as a serious word.

What I took away from this conversation is that the students in Phil’s class are into the grand epic narratives and operating fictions in our contemporary society. We had some debate in our exchange about whether secularization really could be thought of as a theological process and whether secular social theory really could be understood (pace Milbank) as theology, but there was no question when we got down to the nitty gritty that in the fantasies and fictions that permeate our everyday lives, there is something theological going on, even if few actually believe in them. In some ways, this is a Žižekian insight – reality is ‘less than nothing‘ because ideologies can still operate even if nobody believes in them.

I want to thank Phil for the opportunity once again to work these thoughts out on screen and for his class for being so open to exploring these avenues in geography with me. I think I will stick to this approach to guest lecturing; it seems to bring me through more material than the stuff I prepare in advance, and because of that, we actually get to try to do geography together.

Guest lecturing in Steven Hu’s UCSB class

I had the privilege of guest-teaching in my friend and colleague Steven Hu‘s class on ‘Global Christianity and the Public Sphere’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Skype is such a powerful tool, and I’m glad that we can learn from each other across universities through this medium. It’s also always fantastic to be able to interact in such direct ways with the goings-on of UCSB’s brilliant religious studies department, the academic home of many crypto-geographers of religion (including Ann Taves, who gave the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Annual Lecture at the national geography conference in 2013).

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I learned a lot from Steve’s students, mostly from seeing in what they were and were not interested. Steve assigned my article on the Hong Kong democracy movement and wanted me to talk about geographies of ‘grounded theologies‘ and Hong Kong. We decided to do this in more of an interview style, with Steve asking me questions about what geography is, what Hong Kong is, and what the Umbrella Movement is. I did my standard run-down of the political system in Hong Kong, its legacy of colonization, and how to make an ideological map – all of my favourite things! We also got to talk about the different ways that Catholics and Protestants label themselves vis-à-vis the term ‘Christian,’ which is one of Steve’s favourite things, and I got to tell the class about how the colloquial Cantonese term ‘talking Jesus’ is not about evangelism – it’s about a long-winded person going on and on about meaningless things (not unlike certain points of some of my meandering answers to Steve’s questions). We also talked about some of the unexpected Byzantine practices in the Umbrella Movement because finding ways to always include the Orthodox in geographies dominated by Western Christianity is how I roll.

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Oh yes, that Syndicate forum.

 

At the end of the interview-lecture, I got to ask my own questions, and I’m so grateful to Steve for providing this time because that’s where I learned the most, as that’s when we got to talk about the students’ favourite things. I asked them whether they were personally interested in Hong Kong, and that’s where things got interesting. They told me that they were interested in comparing protest movements and that the most interesting bits of the interview-lecture were the parts about how these protest movements, far from being solely focused on the secular and the material, were laced with religion. They especially connected when I held up my copy of Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy and said that one of Schneider’s central arguments is that Occupy Wall Street generated new theologies. They also liked it when – as Steve talked about connections with the Polish Solidarity Movement – I held up my Black Madonna of Częstochowa prayer card (which they seemed to know a lot about – good job, Steve!!). And yet, I also got to respond to another student’s questions about the church’s collaboration and confrontation with the government through the lens of capital – sometimes (I said) capital will determine whether the church will kiss the state’s ass (#sorrynotsorry); after all, as I’m coming to argue, capital has amazing power to do theology – it may even be a god (or, as one of the greatest theologians of our generation, Ms Lauryn Hill, says, ‘it’s funny how money change a situation‘). That seemed to connect well with the students as well, although I could sense that there was some nervousness about the political implications of church-state-civil society separation and collaboration in protest movements. Lastly, I got to learn way more about Steve’s own research on New Calvinist urban ideologies in Shanghai, which I think for the class was a great ‘fishbowl’ moment (Steve and I being the two fish) where scholarly collegiality was put on display.

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Q. Wait, what does this have to do with Hong Kong? A. EVERYTHING.

All this is to say – thank you, Steve, for a great Skype class session. Your class has given me some things to think about, and reflecting on it will be great for keeping my scholarly focus as I keep moving forward. When you read this, please thank them for me, and by all means forward this post to them as a token of my gratitude.

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Photo taken by Steve! Thanks for having me!

International Conference on Paulo Freire 2016: Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements

I’m at a conference at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at Vancouver organized by my friend and colleague Sam Rocha (UBC). Titled the ‘International Conference on Paulo Freire,’ it has a stellar lineup of philosophers of education and other people who think about pedagogy. I usually treat these as my super-enhanced teaching workshops as I sit and learn from people who think about teaching all day in a way that is philosophically smart. The keynotes are phenomenal – Eduardo Mendieta (Penn State), Deborah Britzman (York), and Eduardo Duarte (Hofstra) – with an undercurrent of theologies of liberation carrying through all the talks and paper sessions.

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I’m happy to also be presenting this afternoon. My paper is titled: ‘Mechanizing Conscientization in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace: failures of pedagogy, theology, and solidarity in contemporary social movements.’ Here’s the abstract:

Critics of Anglophone critical pedagogy have suggested that North American readings of the word conscientizaçao in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed tend to reduce the building of a liberating consciousness to a liberal ‘mechanization of Freire’s revolutionary pedagogical proposals’ (Macedo 2000: 24). These critiques also apply to activists attempting to use technical educative approaches for conscientization, mistakenly framing the use of religious overtones in such mechanized pedagogies as liberation theology while foregoing a ‘communion with the people’ that ‘is really human, empathetic, loving, communicative, and humble, in order to be liberating’ (Freire 2000: 171). However, these liberal misreadings of Freire may also be fostering the contemporary phenomenon of ‘occupy’ movements, said to be primal eruptions of a collective consciousness while also failing to actually overturn oppression before their dissipation. My case study is Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), an initiative noted for its Christian leadership that attempted to ‘conscientize’ (as its founder Benny Tai put it) the Hong Kong public through a mechanistic model of civic dialogue and ultimately failed to deliver on its promises of civil disobedience. Instead of stifling activism, the disappointment of OCLP arguably generated the protest occupations in 2014 known as the ‘Umbrella Movement,’ said to be a primal (and theological) explosion of the Hong Kong populace’s discontent with oligarchic oppression, but which ultimately met its demise due to internal dissension. I argue that OCLP’s misappropriation of conscientization as a liberal mechanistic pedagogy generated an ‘occupy’ movement that externalized the primal unconscious of the oppressed without a cognate sense of solidarity derived from the communion for which Freire actually calls. Contemporary ‘occupy’ movements may thus manifest incomplete processes of conscientization due to mechanistic readings of Freire leading to activist expressions that may even be religious, but are not truly theological in the humanizing tradition of liberation theology. Closely re-receiving Freire’s call to communion may in turn yield pedagogies of the oppressed with more primal depths, perhaps generating the ontological revolutions that can truly negate the oppressions ineffectively protested by contemporary social movements.

I’m looking forward to learning a lot this weekend. I’m also going to attend many of the Spanish- and Portuguese-language sessions, even though I am in no way competent in any of those languages, in order to broaden my horizons. Many thanks, Sam, for letting me play along!

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.

Chinese America: History and Perspectives: Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco

I am very pleased to announce the publication of one of my articles in the very interesting peer-reviewed academic-community-collaboration journal, Chinese America: History and Perspectives – The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America. I picked up my copy of the most recent issue at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) directly after the field trip that I led for the American Association of Geographers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Founded by the late Chinese American historian Him Mark Lai, this journal’s point of interest for me is that it speaks directly to how the academic work done at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) College of Ethnic Studies – the founding site of critical ethnic studies – is immediately related to community organizations. With the recent academic controversy around the university budget cuts that immediately affect this College, the perseverance of this journal is quite moving, especially as it looks like the journal is growing with an editorial board that is starting to look like a who’s who of Chinese American studies.

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My contribution to this issue, which is backdated to 2015 (academic journals sometimes take time to produce!), is titled ‘Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco.‘ Here’s the first paragraph as an abstract of sorts:

This paper is about the cultural geography of what I call “Liberal Protestant Chinatown” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I show that, since the 1920s and 1930s, a younger generation of Chinese Americans coming of age in San Francisco espoused a “liberal” theology, which in American Protestantism refers to the interpretation of Christian conversion as the “social gospel,” the call to convert the structures of society to be more politically and economically equitable based on a rational, scientific view of just distribution in modern circumstances. While this liberalism is usually opposed to a “fundamentalist” position seeking to defend the scientific inerrancy of the biblical text and the primacy of individual subjective conversion in Christian experience, Liberal Protestant Chinatown rejected both the conservatism of Christians who placed their emphasis on personal subjectivity and a non-Christian Chinese establishment in Chinatown that sought to retain village kinship structures, clan associations, and ritual practices. In this way, liberal Protestants sought to build a new trans-Pacific cultural geography in Chinatown, one marked neither by missionary activity to westernize China nor by an economy linking the United States with Chinese villages, which they alleged at the time to be fraught with the criminal underworld trafficking of persons and narcotics (although this is difficult to fully substantiate and led during this period also to the unfair stereotyping of Chinese American young men as gangsters and “gooks,” which the liberal Protestants also sought to mitigate). My central argument is that the social gospel of Liberal Protestant Chinatown thus configured the cultural geography of Chinatown into a network of non-profit organizations seeking legitimate economic advancement for Chinese Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, reframing “Chineseness” as the local heritage of the Chinatown community for which they sought material improvement.

Consider this my first published try at attempting a theological re-reading of the discipline of Asian American studies. Certainly, there have been many other attempts at this – look no further than the work of Rudy Busto, David Kyuman Kim, Russell Jeung, and Timothy Tseng, especially at their essays in the formidable Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America –  but I suppose what I’m trying to contribute to this enterprise in this essay is to show that a site like San Francisco’s Chinatown is a place ripe for studying the material manifestations of Asian America as a theology. Moreover, my paper deals explicitly with the rift within Chinese American studies (which has spilled out across Asian American studies) between Frank Chin’s anti-Christian advocacy within Asian American literature and feminist novelists who have some connection to San Francisco’s Chinatown (especially Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan). For these ideas, I am also very grateful to Dean Adachi for organizing a session at the Association of Asian American Studies in 2014 on San Francisco as the ‘Asian American Holy City,’ where I presented the first iteration of this paper. I also cite one of my students from my trans-Pacific Christianities class, Mariam Mathew, who wrote a very helpful paper probing why Frank Chin hates Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club so much. In some ways, then, this is also a contribution to understanding that academic-community nexus in Asian American studies as constituted by ‘grounded theologies.’ You could say that I think that the grounded theologies in Chinese American studies are worth much more interrogation, and I plan to do just that in future articles, hopefully to be published in other Asian American studies journals.

Some have asked about which churches I covered in this essay. The answer is that my research is awkwardly situated in relation to the norms of sociological congregational studies, which means that I often engage churches as institutions when they are part of the story I am telling about Cantonese Protestant engagements with civil society. While readers will find references, say, to First Chinese Baptist Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Chinese Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, this paper is really about San Francisco’s Chinatown more generally as a civil society – that Chinatown itself should be read theologically.

I am very thankful to Chinese America: History and Perspectives‘s editor-in-chief Jonathan X. Lee (SFSU) for encouraging me to submit to this journal. Because of him, I am a big fan of this journal now; indeed, the authors in the past issues read like a who’s who in Chinese American studies. I am also grateful to the two anonymous peer reviewers whose comments strengthened this essay significantly and for the CHSA’s Johnson Zheng for seeing through all the logistics for this essay’s publication; I especially appreciated personally connecting with him when I picked up my complimentary issue from the CHSA museum last week.

American Association of Geographers, 2016: San Francisco

I’m writing from the Hilton in San Francisco’s Union Square on this second day of the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting 2016, which this year takes place from March 28 to April 2. I’m happy to report that we had some very successful sessions yesterday for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group, and the events this week seem to be gathering momentum for geographies of religion to become increasingly mainstream within the discipline.

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The paper I presented at this year’s AAG was titled ‘”Under a Vast Sky”: Religious Protest Art and Hong Kong Localism’s Demystification of Urban Ideologies.‘ Along with some brilliant graduate students Natalie Hyacinth (Royal Holloway, London) and Laura Cuch (University College London), I co-organized a series of incredibly well-attended sessions titled Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City (March 28). The sessions were titled: 1) Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion, 2) Exploring Faith Through Participatory Public-Engagement Art, and 3) Negotiating Difference and Urban Space; I chaired the first session and presented my paper in the third session. My abstract was as follows:

The 2014 Umbrella Movement democracy protests in Hong Kong have been noticed for their production of protest art featuring religious themes in makeshift street shrines and sanctuaries. I claim that such religious protest art, which has been a staple of Hong Kong urban heritage preservation (or ‘localist’) politics since the mid-2000s, offers geographers an opportunity to theorize the ontological nature of religion in global cities. While both religious and artistic production are often seen as belonging to the realm of the purely subjective (sometimes to the point of mystifying material processes), Hong Kong localists – usually describing themselves as a ‘post-80s’ and ‘post-90s’ younger generation – have attempted to use religious protest art since the mid-2000s to exegete the Hong Kong government’s urban vision of the Special Administrative Region as an international financial centre as itself a religious artistic vision, one that demolishes local Cantonese cultural geographies to make way for urban spectacles of conspicuous consumption. Based on ethnographic interviews conducted among 45 Hong Kong Christians in 2012 and an audiovisual archive collected from 2013-5, I argue that Hong Kong localist religious art demystifies the seemingly secular state vision of Hong Kong as a global capitalist city by exposing its theological logics. Localist religious protest art thus works against superstition by recasting the symbolism of the urban landscape in Hong Kong. This paper thus contributes to the creative study of religious cultural geographies by showing that reversing the conventional theoretical wisdom on ideology, as religious art reveals the secular as superstitious.

I am happy to have received some very good feedback and supportive comments, including from colleagues from Hong Kong, on this paper. But more as a point of pride, I’m ecstatic to say that this was among the most well-attended and diverse sessions in the history of GORABS. We had a series of excellent papers, as well as the honour of having Harriet Hawkins (Royal Holloway, London) and David Gilbert (Royal Holloway, London) as discussants to our second and third sessions.

This year, as the Chair of GORABS, I also organized a few more sessions, two of which have a time change for today. They are as follows:

GORABS ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, March 30, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.

GORABS BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.

JOINT KEYNOTE:
On Thursday, March 31, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.

CHINATOWN WALKING FIELD TRIP:
This walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown covers the largest Chinatown in the United States. It will be of interest to geographers studying ethnicity, race, religion, and China. Food is available throughout, and much street shopping will be involved. The walking trip is sponsored jointly by the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems and China Geography Specialty Group. We will depart at 2 PM on Thursday, March 31, from the Taylor Street Entrance of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and will return to the same building at 4 PM.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in attendance this year – it’s been fun so far!

AAG 2016 GORABS IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENTS

The AAG is almost upon us! I’m excited to be making the following announcements for the AAG:

ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.

BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.

JOINT KEYNOTE:
On Thursday, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.