Book Review: Religious Studies Review: Justin Wilford (2012), Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism

I am pleased to announce that Religious Studies Review has published the second of my reviews of Justin Wilford’s wonderful 2012 book on Orange County’s Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism (New York University Press).

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Over the last year, I was asked by three journals to write reviews of this book. The first was published last September 2013 in the AAG Review of Books. This piece in Religious Studies Review is the second one. The third will be part of a review forum on the book in Social and Cultural Geography and will focus on the usefulness of Wilford’s text for the Asian American evangelical activism that took place in September and October 2013. [Note: while I initially wrote a draft of that third review before the activism took place, I substantially rewrote it afterwards in order to observe how useful Wilford’s study was in the interplay of academia and activism.] The editors of the various journals understand that I have placed reviews that explore different angles of Wilford’s book, and in the spirit of transparency, I have sent copies of the different reviews to Religious Studies Review, the AAG Review of Books, and Tristan Sturm (who is organizing the SCG forum) to guard against self-plagiarism.

This present review in Religious Studies Review presents Wilford’s book to a religious studies audience. It is a very short review–what Religious Studies Review calls more of a ‘note’–that observes that Wilford has made a substantial geographical contribution to the social scientific study of religion. While geographers have often not been part of the broader conversation in the social science of religion, this book begins a conversation that I hope will continue to make inroads into a conversation of which we should be an integral part. In particular, I observe that Wilford’s ingenious examination of Saddleback’s usage of secular space for theological purposes subverts the religious studies obsession with defining ‘religion’ and calls religious studies scholars to closer analyses of how theologies are grounded in space.

For those who are wondering still if they should get this book, my answer in this review is a definitive yes. Following my thoughts in the review, I have discovered that Wilford’s text is an excellent starting place to talk about current work in geographies of religion. When I am asked at conferences about geographies of religion (i.e. where my work on Cantonese Protestant and younger-generation Asian American and Asian Canadian engagements with publics fits in the discipline), I often refer my interlocutors to the New York University Press book stands to pick up this book. As it was recently observed at an ‘Author Meets the Critics’ session for Sacred Subdivisions at the Association of American Geographers, books like Wilford’s remind geographers that publishing monographs would be helpful to advancing human geography as a discipline in interdisciplinary conversations. I am happy to endorse this text as a fruitful beginning point for such engagements, and I look forward to the conversations that it will generate both within and without geography.

AAG Review of Books: Review Essay: Working Evangelicalisms: deploying fragmented theologies in secular space

I am happy to announce the publication of a book review essay that I put into the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) Review of Books, a book review journal that has recently become independent of its mother publication, the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, one of the flagship journals of our discipline.

My book review notes the publication of three important books that are changing human geography as a discipline. This is because they are book-length treatments of American evangelicalism, a religious phenomenon that has gone too long unexamined by human geographers. These books seek to rectify that gap in three subfields in human geography: political geography, economic geography, and cultural geography:

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  • Jason Dittmer and Tristan Sturm’s edited collection, Mapping the End Times: American Evangelical Geopolitics and Apocalyptic Visions, is a contribution to political geography, specifically critical geopolitics. This subfield of human geography examines how political borders are constructed and maintained, often critiquing these constructions in the hope of mitigating warfare and making peace between nation-states.  This edited collection explores how American evangelicals contribute to these political formations through their eschatology, their theology of the end times, and seeks to unpack a diverse range of these eschatologies and their effects on global geopolitics.

  • Jason Hackworth’s Faith Based: Religious Neoliberaism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States is a contribution to economic geography, specifically critical political economy. This subfield of human geography examines how specific places function in economic flows, explores how those flows have been informed by and inform the grounding of various economic ideologies in global and national economies, and observes that economics is integral to an understanding of state governance. What is critical about critical political economy is its exploration of neoliberalism, a style of economic governance in which states practice the deregulation of the market in an attempt to free market forces to generate capitalist prosperity in a national economy. Hackworth’s book explains how some American evangelicals have partially cooperated in the proliferation of neoliberal ideologies in the United States.

  • Justin G. Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism is a contribution to cultural geography, specifically a style of the new cultural geography practiced by the late renowned cultural geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, Denis Cosgrove. This subfield of human geography examines how the interaction of people with material artifacts in the spaces they inhabit shapes both their perception of place and their active construction of physical landmarks. The new cultural geography observes that these processes are political and contested and that the word ‘culture’ is itself often under contestation. Wilford’s book examines how Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, takes the spatial fragmentation of postsuburbia (a hyper-fragmented metropolis) and recasts it as what Pastor Rick Warren calls ‘purpose-driven.’

The angle that I take in my book review focuses on how successful these books are in capturing the range of evangelical theologies being grounded in America. Accordingly, I have questions for each author about how the version(s) of evangelicalism that they explore all have counter-examples that embrace different takes on theology and place. I recognize and commend the books as good introductions to a multi-faceted theological phenomenon that has long gone neglected in human geography, but I am insistent that these are just ‘starting points’ for further research that needs to capture the range of evangelicalisms being grounded in the United States.

I also note that this is the first of three unique and original book reviews that I have written on Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. I have worked carefully with the editors of the AAG Review of Books, as well as forthcoming reviews in Religious Studies Review and the Social and Cultural Geography review forum on Wilford’s book to guard against self-plagiarism. The result is that I have written three reviews that open up and critique three different aspects of Sacred Subdivisions. That it is possible to write three unique book reviews of Wilford’s account of Saddleback Church speaks volumes about what a multi-dimensional text it is, and though I provide critical comments on the book in each of the reviews, Wilford is to be commended for writing such a rich ethnography.

Finally, that this week’s news has been dominated in part by the interaction among Rick Warren, Asian American evangelicals, and evangelicals in Hong Kong is a matter of sheer fortuitous timing. This review, as well as the one forthcoming in Religious Studies Review, was authored in May, and the contribution to Social and Cultural Geography was submitted two weeks ago. The events of this week simply reinforce my argument in this review essay regarding the urgency for geographers to study the American evangelicalisms that have been introduced, but not fully unpacked, by these books.

UPDATE: the SCG review forum piece was substantially revised and submitted in November 2013 to better reflect the events surrounding the Asian American evangelical open letter. It should be published in 2014.