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.

Making a Cantonese-Christian Family: Quotidian Habits of Language and Background in a Transnational Hongkonger Church (Population, Space, and Place)

My first article is finally out in press.

It is entitled ‘Making a Cantonese-Christian family: quotidian habits of language and background in a transnational Hongkonger church.’ It is part of a special issue of Population, Space, and Place: A Journal of Population Geography on Migration and Everyday Matters: Materiality and Sociality.  Edited by Elaine Ho (Leeds) and Madeleine Hatfield (Royal Holloway, University of London), this issue represents an approach to geographies of migration from the ground up.  We investigate everyday lives and quotidian geographies: how is space materially and socially created by people who have moved from one place to another?

My contribution tackles geographies of everyday life in both the religious dimension and the Hong Kong-Vancouver migration network.  This is based on my MA research, which took place in a transnational Hongkonger church in Metro Vancouver I have anonymised as St. Matthew’s Church.

This paper looks at how St. Matthew’s Church became and is continually reinforced as a transnational Hongkonger church.  For the examination of everyday lives, I use the work of Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life as an heuristic, differentiating between strategies in which ordinary citizens consciously plot political resistance and tactics in which people unconsciously and unreflectively use everyday habits to prop up their lifeworlds.  As I suggest in the paper, most of what goes into making a Cantonese-Christian family are everyday habits (de Certeau’s tactics) that are often subtle, unconscious, seemingly insignificant, and unreflected upon, but which turn out to be politically constructive at the end of the day. By advancing the geography of religion, I also am working within the boundaries of new cultural geography in which James Duncan famously showed in The City as Text that geographical landscapes, networks, and spaces don’t just exist superorganically in some abstract space above us, but are in fact constructed politically over time.

Here’s the abstract:

Studies of the Hong Kong-Vancouver transnational migration network seldom pay close attention to religion in the everyday lives of Hongkonger migrants. Based on 9 months of ethnographic fieldwork at St. Matthew’s Church, a Hong Kong church in Metro Vancouver, this paper examines the tacit assumptions and taken-for-granted quotidian practices through which a Hongkonger church is made. I argue that St. Matthew’s Church has been constructed as a Hong Kong Cantonese-Christian family space through the everyday use of language and invocations of a common educational background. This argument extends the literature on Hongkonger migration to Metro Vancouver by grounding it in a religious site whose intersections with Hong Kong migration to Vancouver consolidates the church as a religious mission with a specifically Hongkonger migration narrative. This consolidation is problematised as I show that contestations in church life by migrants from the People’s Republic of China over language and asymmetrical educational backgrounds both reinforce and challenge the church as a Hongkonger congregation. Through an examination of these everyday interactions at St. Matthew’s Church, this paper advances the geography of religion as I demonstrate that specific geographical narratives and networks shape quotidian practices in religious sites.

The paper is available on Wiley-Blackwell’s Early View.  Inquiries regarding the paper can be directed to: jkhtse@interchange.ubc.ca or tse.justo@gmail.com.