Book Review: Joining the Choir: Religious Membership and Social Trust Among Transnational Ghanaians, by Nicolette Manglos-Weber (in Sociology of Religion)

I’m very pleased to receive word that my book review of the sociologist Nicolette Manglos-Weber’s Joining the Choir: Religious Membership and Social Trust Among Transnational Ghanaians (Oxford University Press) is out in the most recent issue of Sociology of Religion. It was a real pleasure to read, especially since it concerned Ghanaians in the city of Chicago, where I was living when I wrote the review.

Many thanks to Grace Yukich for asking me to do this review, and of course to Nicolette Manglos-Weber for writing such a fun book. By way of a more personal recommendation, friends came over around the time I was moving to look for interesting books to pilfer from my collection and thus lighten my load. Joining the Choir was instantly taken from me by a sister and brother in my own church choir — it is not only the Ghanaians who use this terminology among transnational religious communities in Chicago (mine is ‘transnational’ with Kyiv) — though in the throes of packing, it slipped my mind. A few weeks later, I was at these friends’ house and saw the book. Isn’t this mine? I said, and no one could be sure. But it had been read, so they were sure it was theirs now.

Summer 2019 update

photo by wife

The 2018-2019 school year has wrapped up, and summer is upon us. It’s been quite a year for me. I have a number of things coming through the pipeline, some articles, some book chapters, even a manuscript for a monograph that I’ve been crafting on Cantonese Protestants and postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim.

Some stuff has been happening already. A chapter of mine on cultural geography came out in the volume Theorizing ‘Religion’ in Antiquity, edited by Nickolas Roubekas, in which I continue my unlikely defence from my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘ of the legacy of Mircea Eliade as a historian of religion who is a central figure (at least as I argue) in geographies of religion. I gave a colloquium talk at Calvin College’s Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies on an article I’ve been crafting on Chinese American megachurches in the Silicon Valley. My critical reflective piece on the concepts ‘uniatism’ and the ‘model minority’ that the magazine Patriyarkhat invited me to write has come out, first in Ukrainian translation in the print version in December 2018, then online in English, and now also with footnotes and extended clarifications in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I’ve attended four conferences — the American Academy of Religion in November 2018, a very interesting conference on Christian social activism and Chinese societies at Purdue’s Center for Religion and Chinese Society, the American Association of Geographers in April 2018 where I organized and presented an exegesis of Paulo Freire in a session on pedagogy and religion in geography, and the Association for Asian American Studies in that same month, during which I had the honour of organizing an all-star, standing-room-only panel on the historian Gary Okihiro’s provocation ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’ We are going to continue the intervention with Okihiro’s work at the American Studies Association later this November in Honolulu, with another panel titled Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies, as a conversation around Okihiro’s longstanding argument that the internationalist sensibilities that gave rise to anti-colonial critiques of racial formations caved to liberal nationalist frameworks that led to the siloing of identity in the academy.

As I wrapped up my third and final year as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, I expanded the scope of my teaching. My course offerings this year ranged the full gamut of my repertoire in Asian American studies: Asian American history, Chinese American studies, Asian American religion, Asian American social movements, Global Chinatowns, and Asian American geographies. But this year especially, I have been drawn more directly into the formal individual supervision of students. In the past, I had taught some directed studies courses, as well as supervised research, on topics closer to my own research interests on Asian American Christianities and their relationship to Asian American studies. But this year, there has been a wide much range of independent studies topics, including Korean dance and ‘the invention of tradition,’ sonic orientalism in popular movie soundtracks, Global China and feminism, research methods in Chicago’s Chinese churches and trans-Pacific theologies, indigeneity and orientalism on the Pacific, the postsecular Pacific, and psychoanalysis and the Pacific. I also had the privilege of supervising my first thesis student Irina Huang, an undergraduate senior in American studies, who wrote a theoretically rigorous piece woven in with personal creative nonfiction essays on how obsessive-compulsive disorder functions in the normative public sphere as a ‘model minority’ of mental illness.

I continue to be active in my public engagements as well. The journalist Douglas Quan interviewed me for a very interesting piece last October on Richmond’s ‘cultural diversity policy.’ I have also been invited by Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago four times over the last school year to offer scholarly analyses of Hong Kong, its tradition and practice of protests, and the recent blow-ups about the incarceration of some figures from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement occupations in 2014 as well as the controversial extradition law.

In terms of service, one role that I have taken on over the last year is to be program co-chair of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Reading through the abstracts and thinking about organizing the program has given me new insight into what we do as social scientists of religion. I am glad to be working with our president Elaine Howard Ecklund and my co-chair Ryon Cobb as we expand the diversity of our organization, especially for the conference in St Louis this year in October.

Finally, my biggest and most exciting announcement is that I have just started work as Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University. In addition to teaching courses in the School of Social Sciences, my major role there is to offer the Core Curriculum, a program that seeks to engage students across the school with the big concepts that are fused throughout our contemporary world. This year, the theme will be Happiness and Suffering, which I will teach, along with my colleagues, as a philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular exploration of these affects, emotions, and orientations to the world. As an academic, my work is to write and to probe the complex phenomena common to our shared inhabitation of the earth, so it obviously goes without saying that my published views anywhere are in no way to be associated with my employers, as if academics could fully agree on anything anyway. Indeed, my convictions about all academic work — whether under the pillar of research, teaching, service, or community engagement — is that it should all be a springboard into a larger discussion in which all participants are strengthened through engagement, never the final word on any topic. I am thrilled to ‘let my work grow up,’ as I heard one senior academic once describe to a junior colleague, in this intellectual community, and I look forward to spirited engagements and enthusiastic conversation here.

American Association of Geographers, 2015: Chicago, IL

In April 2015, I attended the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, IL. I presented a paper, took part in a panel, and presided over the Business Meeting of the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS).

The paper I presented was titled ‘Sexualized unions: Cantonese evangelicals, educational politics, and labour politics in Vancouver, BC.’ This was in a session called Education, Faith, and Place 2 (3522) organized by Peter Hemming (Cardiff) and chaired by Betsy Olson (UNC-Chapel Hill). The abstract is as follows:

Since the late 1990s, Cantonese evangelicals in British Columbia have become known for their socially conservative politics against sexual liberalization, especially with regards to schools. Not only did they oppose the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, but they have organized against school boards introducing anti-homophobia curriculum and transgender policies while standing in solidarity with Trinity Western University in its struggle against the teachers’ union refusing to acknowledge its Teachers’ College because its community covenant proscribes homosexual practices. These socially conservative politics have seldom been interrogated in relation to the geographical literature on the transnational Hong Kong-Vancouver social field, where geographers have observed that Asia-Pacific migrants import a style of neoliberal privatization to Vancouver’s property market and educational institutions (Olds 1996; Mitchell 2004; Waters 2008; Ley 2010). Instead of presuming that religious sensibilities predispose Cantonese evangelicals toward social conservatism, my ethnographic findings reveal that economic subjectivities also shape ‘grounded theologies’ (Tse 2014). I argue that Cantonese evangelicals who oppose sexual liberalization in British Columbian schools do so because their practice of faith is shaped by their neoliberal opposition to labour unions. Cantonese evangelicals suggested that the teachers’ union used sexual liberalization as part of a larger public strategy to undermine their private economic and educational aspirations. This paper advances geographies of religion, education, and migration by examining how secular economic subjectivities can be deeply embedded in the practice of grounded theologies.

The panel in which I took part was: Geography and Asian-American Studies: Past Reflections and Future Collaborations. This was an intimate discussion organized by Sean Wang (Syracuse University), and featured some very good reflections from Wendy Cheng (Arizona State), Yui Hashimoto, Timothy Huynh (Pennsylvania State), Stevie Larson (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Ishan Ashutosh (Indiana University).

I was also privileged to preside as chair over this year’s Annual Lecture for GORABS given by Banu Gökariksel (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Anna Secor (University of Kentucky) on ‘the post-secular problematic.’

Our specialty group also had a field trip organized by Richard Dodge to Sacred Places in Chicago, in which participants visited the Seventeenth Church of Christ Science, the Chicago Temple (Methodist), the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette.

As I’m posting this super-late, I’m just going to end by saying that I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at AAG 2016 this year in San Francisco!

APARRI 2010: McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL (5-7 Aug 2010)

I have returned from Singapore and Hong Kong, and I am leaving tonight for CHICAGO!

The conference is part of a movement called the Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative.  Started originally by religious studies academics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the movement was taken on by the PANA (Pacific and Asian North American) Institute at the Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  This year, the conference has moved to Chicago and is organized by the Centre for Asian American Ministries at McCormick Theological Seminary.  Some of the major publications from the movement include New Spiritual Homes: Religions and Asian Americans (1999, ed. David Y. Yoo), Religions in Asian America: Building Faith Communities (2002, ed. Pyong Gap Min and Jung Ha Kim), and Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America (2003, ed. Jane Naomi Iwamura and Paul Spickard).  The conversation every year is a very interesting dialogue among theologians, academics in other disciplines (like me!), and religious leaders.

This year, the conference theme is: Bridging Yesterday and Tomorrow: Memory and Generational Change in Pacific and Asian America.  As the call for papers has it:

Plenaries feature a discussion on memory, the role of personal faith in academia, and an intergenerational panel.  Plenary Speakers include Anju Bhargava (Member of President Obama’s Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships), Bandana Purkayastha (Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Connecticut), Peter Cha (Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Soong-Chan Rah (Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism, North Park Theological Seminary), Roy Sano (Bishop, the United Methodist Church), and Mai-Anh Tran (Assistant Professor of Christian Education, Eden Theological Seminary). Concurrent sessions will showcase research-in-progress, and structured mentoring sessions will be available for students and junior faculty members.

I am presenting a paper entitled The Silent Exodus in a Trans-Pacific Migration Context: The Challenges of Youth in a Hongkonger Church in Canada.  It will be similar to the paper earlier this year I gave at the Association of American Geographers’ Annual Meeting in Washington DC.  It will focus more on Generational Change, the session I have been slotted in for 7 Aug at 8:30 AM (early!!!).  Here is my abstract:

Students of ethnic religious congregations in North America have often noted the phenomenon of “the silent exodus” (Carjaval, 1994), a quiet departure of the young people from ethnic religious congregations that has resulted in both diminishing numbers within ethnic congregations and the emergence of second-generation ethnic churches. The often-cited reason for this exodus is language: while the ethnic church tends to operate in an ethnic tongue, the second generation that has been educated in North America prefers English as a lingua franca. But the case of St. Matthew’s Church—the Hongkonger congregation in Metro Vancouver at which I conducted nine months of ethnographic research—has contributed nuance to this view in two ways. First, while the departure of English-speaking youth has been an ongoing concern to members of the church, I also note members of the second generation who have decided to learn Cantonese as a way of preserving their contribution to Canadian multiculturalism. Second, I demonstrate that trans-Pacific migrations also affect generational dynamics in the transnational Hongkonger church: 1) the second generation that knows Cantonese may migrate back to Hong Kong for work and become too geographically distant to attend the migrant church and 2) a ‘second wave’ of migrants from the People’s Republic of China currently takes up more attention in the Hongkonger church than issues of youth and generational transmission. This paper contributes to the study of generations in migrant religious congregations by placing their spiritual needs in the context of in a specific transnational geography of religion that problematizes the dominant view that young people pose the dominant challenge to the ethnic religious congregation in North America.

I’d love to see you there if you’re at APARRI! I can also make my paper available if you’d like a copy.

Chicago, here we come!!!!!