Relegens Thréskeia: Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC

I am very pleased to announce that I’ve published a piece in a special issue of Relegens Thréskeia, an open-access Brazilian religious studies journal. This recent special issue, edited by geographer Clevisson Pereira (Universidade Federal do Paraná), focuses on Espaço e Religião (Space and Religion). While most of the articles are published in Portuguese, they also brought on Thomas Tweed (University of Notre Dame) and myself to contribute English-language pieces. While Tweed’s piece proposes a theoretical framework for the study of geographies of religion, my piece is an empirical study of Ken Shigematsu, an Asian Canadian pastor in Vancouver. It also puts to work themes from my theoretical piece on ‘grounded theologies’ to understand Shigematsu’s church, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, as what theologian John Milbank calls a ‘complex space.’

My piece is titled ‘Difference and the Establishment: An Asian Canadian Senior Pastor’s Evangelical Spatiality at Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver, BC.’ Focusing on the spirituality of Ken Shigematsu, it demonstrates that his spiritual practice and his Asian Canadian sensibilities have reshaped Tenth Church, a historic Anglo-Canadian church, into a complex, multiracial, multi-class space. This analysis also suggests that there is a theoretical link between church growth theory and the ‘new religious economics’ in the sociology of religion and contends that a geographical approach might be able to complicate the models proposed by these approaches. The theological basis for Shigematsu’s theology, moreover, is the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) from New Testament studies; while I have written elsewhere of postcolonial Paul-within-Judaism models espoused by Mark Nanos and Sam Tsang, what is important to understand is that Shigematsu is himself deploying NPP and achieving these spatial results.

Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores how the evangelical spatiality of an Asian Canadian senior pastor at a historically Anglo-Saxon congregation has transformed it from an ethnically homogeneous, aging church to a heterogeneously-constituted gathering in an evangelical Protestant tradition. This piece challenges the conventional wisdom of the church growth movement and the new religious economics in the sociology of religion, both of which advise religious groups to construct homogeneity and consensus in efforts for numerical growth over against secularizing forces. The paper argues instead that Pastor Ken Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality from the mid-1990s to the present must be understood as a theological embrace of difference in a church gifted to him by God over which he prayerfully pastors along with his staff. This paper understands Shigematsu’s evangelical spatiality through his own New Testament exegesis, his denominational affiliation with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, his ancient spiritual practices of indiscriminate hospitality, and his mystical reception of Tenth as a welcoming space toward a multiplicity of ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. This article contributes to Asian Canadian Christian studies by discouraging a future where pan-Asian churches in Canada are homogeneously constructed and by exploring the concrete possibility of non-strategies in which heterogeneous, complex spaces that include Asian Canadians are received by pastors and studied by academics as a divine gift.

I am thankful to Clevisson Pereira for inviting me to participate in what for me is an exciting international endeavour, and I am also grateful to have worked so closely with Ken Shigematsu to have this paper produced. I have written about Shigematsu at a popular level in Ricepaper Magazine; consider this the full academic spelling-out of the thinking there. The paper is open-access, so I will be posting it on Academia.edu, and interested readers can also download it directly from Religens Thréskeia.

JSIS C254: American Religion

In less than two hours, I will give the introductory lecture in my first course ever. This is a course on American religion, and it is listed as Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS) C254 in the comparative religion unit.

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This course is about how religion in America may well constitute American civil society more than we might think.  The key course question that the students and I will explore together is: what is the role of American religion in the construction of American civil society? While there has been a lot of interesting work on lived religions in America and how Americans may have reshaped religion via the constructs of a voluntary society, this course will look at how religion in America affects American public life.

There are four main units in this course. In the first unit, we will explore the making of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant consensus in American religion, and we will do that by reading David Hackett Fischer’s massive tome, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. We will then do a second unit in which we look at how this consensus may have broadened out to non-Protestant religions, developed liberal and neo-orthodox strands, and formed some form of American religious pluralism, and to do that, we will read Will Herberg’s class text, Protestant-Catholic-Jew. After that, we’ll problematize the Protestant consensus by looking at race and religion in America. Our key text in this third unit will be James Baldwin’s civil rights book, The Fire Next Time, and we will supplement this unit with articles in Asian American, Chicana/o, and indigenous religions authored by Jane Iwamura, Andrea Smith, Tom Tweed, and David Yoo. Finally, our fourth unit will be on American fundamentalism as we explore the reassertions of the Protestant consensus, and we will read George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture.

To teach a course on American religion is to initiate students into a widely debated field of research. I understand, for example, that the emphasis of my course seems to be on the Protestant consensus in America may lead some to dispute whether I am privileging certain geographies or religions in America, and I am fully cognizant of revisionist histories that provincialize New England (e.g. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith), that seek to frame American religion via the geography of the Americas (e.g. Manuel Vásquez), and that seek to unsettle settler colonialism by emphasizing indigenous religions and relations. My reply would be that to do revisionist history implies still that there is a historical narrative to be revised, and I would argue that my course seeks to do that by positioning the traditional narratives of American religion via the Protestant consensus alongside the revisionist work on race. Scholars of American religion will recognize, then, that the first two units on the broadening of the Protestant consensus can be traced to Sydney Ahlstrom’s seminal Religious History of the American People. However, with the material on race, this Protestant consensus is actively being challenged and revised by groups with different senses of American geography, whether through a trans-Pacific framing (Asian American religions) or an Americas framework (a Chicana/o and indigenous religions). The idea is to look at how the conventional narratives can be juxtaposed with the alternate geographies.

As such, this course is a course on how religion can be seen as grounded in American civil society. It is not a history course, and it is not a course where we will tick off each of the religions in America. Instead, it asks the broader question of how American civil society is shaped by American religion, and my hope is that students will emerge from the course with the ability to articulate their perspective on that question critically.