Battling my imposter syndrome

Over the past three months, I’ve been busy transitioning our Grad and Faculty ministries to on-line platforms in anticipation of a challenging new academic year. But, I’ve also had the privilege to talk and teach about anti-Asian racism and Asian American history and theology.

I’m not comfortable promoting my work or myself. Some may think that the diversity of experiences I’ve had would boost my self-confidence. Actually, the opposite is true. It’s not really humility, either. Since the trauma of leaving theological education and the academic community fifteen years ago, I’ve wrestled with “imposter syndrome” in almost everything I’ve done.

But reconnecting with my academic peers at last year’s American Academy of Religion meeting, being invited to re-engage anti-Asian racism by the Asian American Christian Collaborative and the Alliance of Asian American Baptists, and having a chance to provide a reflection for the Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary has renewed me spiritually and intellectually. I still don’t like seeing or hearing myself on video, but what the heck. I need to hear the advice that GFM gives to grad students and young faculty when facing imposter syndrome – trust God because he has placed us in these stations of life for a bigger purpose. And, for me, the larger purpose is giving voice to Asian Americans and reforming Christianity to face its global and multi-racial future. So, here is a little bit of my passion…

I. Having my academic work mentioned as recommended summer reading!

I’m grateful that some of my academic publications were referred to by Dr. Jane Hong in Melissa Borja’s blog, “Asian Americans and American Religion: Recommendations for Your Summer Reading and Fall Syllabi.” The field of Asian American religion has really expanded since I was active in it. I’ve been focused on a history and theology of Chinese American Christianity project, but working with Grad and Faculty Ministries has justified re-entering the wider field.

II. Giving a video devotional for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Fuller Theological Seminary’s Asian American Center invited me to give a reflection on Panethnicity and the Bible for their Centered Blog. Three other scholars also shared their devotionals during AAPI heritage month. Please have a look at the blog!

Panethnicity and the Bible

III. Addressing Anti-Asian Racism during the coronavirus pandemic

The Alliance of Asian American Baptists invited me and Katharine Hsiao to discuss racism against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rev. Florence Li, National Coordinator of Asian Ministries at American Baptist Home Mission Societies hosted the conversation. Katharine discusses how Asian American Baptists are responding to reports of anti-Asian racism. I provided a historical overview about how anti-Asian attitudes and ideas permeated American society. Something that I hope to share more is about how Christians have been complicit with racism and how some Christians have also fought against racism. Each generation of believers have a choice to make.

Rev. Florence Li interview about anti-Asian racism during COVID-19

Here is a short interview with Kwok Pui Lan on “Why I signed the AACC Statement” for the Asian American Christian Collaborative. It was hastily organized, but I was blessed to re-connect with one of the leading Asian theologians of our generation!

A conversation with Dr. Kwok Pui Lan

I also was on a panel at U.C. Diego’s Asian American InterVarsity chapter with Jenn Louie (InterVarsity’s California Central Valley Area Director). We discussed the effects of Anti-Asian sentiment and some practical ways to respond to it. Thanks, Zach Wong, for inviting me!

We now resume regularly scheduled programming…

The Changing Face of Evangelicalism (ASCH 2017 Roundtable)

One of the privileges of being in academia that I miss is the opportunity to share my research and, hopefully, encourage a better future for society and the Christian movement. As a contributor to The Future of Evangelicalism in America (edited by Candy Brown and Mark Silk), I was invited to share a short summary and reflection at a roundtable devoted to the book on January 7, 2017 at the American Society of Church History 2017 Annual Meeting in Denver, CO. Mark Silk wrote a press release about the roundtable. Here is an overview of the roundtable program:

asch-panel-2017

My remarks about my chapter “The Changing Face of Evangelicalism” (updated Jan. 11, 2016) follow:

When I first joined this research effort, oh so many years ago, writing a chapter on the recent racial-ethnic transformation and influence on evangelicalism seemed an impossible task. But in recent years, more studies about Evangelical People of Color (I’ll call them EPOCs – hopefully never to be confused with Ewoks of Star Wars fame) have been published. So my chapter, hopefully, contributes to this growing awareness of evangelical diversity.

Of course, media attention is still drawn to white Evangelicals – especially during the recent Presidential campaign where 81% of white evangelicals were said to have voted for Donald Trump. Media attention to EPOCs remains spotty. In a Faith and Freedom Coalition post-election survey of 800 people, however, 59% of non-white evangelicals voted for Clinton and 35% for Trump.[1] A LifeWay survey conducted shortly before the elections indicated that only 15% of nonwhite evangelicals said they would vote for Donald Trump; 62% would vote for Hillary Clinton.[2]

pre-election-evangelical-survey

More recent media attention had been given to Latino evangelicals, particularly on the issue of immigration reform. The Evangelical Immigration Table and G92, for example, are recent collaborative efforts to garner evangelical voice around immigration reform and paths to citizenship. When it comes to immigration reform and the election campaign of Mr. Trump, EPOC appear to vary from white evangelicals. On issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, EPOCs are generally aligned with white evangelicals and swimming against the views of most people of color in general, but there are signs of a generational divide among EPOCs, too. For example, Deborah Jian Lee’s book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism claims that “believers of color have changed church demographics and church politics. Women are rising in the ranks. LGBT Christians are coming out and issues like global AIDS and the environment have become priorities in many Evangelical congregations. Young people are returning to evangelicalism.”

Well, maybe not – in light of recent decisions by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to request staff who support same-sex marriage to voluntarily resign. In any event, I think my thesis remains salient – namely, that “American evangelicalism, when viewed as a religious ethos rather than as an organized movement, has always been [multiracial] multicultural and multiethnic, and…will become increasingly so in the future.” (174) However, EPOCs and their concerns will continue to be marginal to mainstream white evangelicals unless adjustments in theology and practices that account for racial and cultural differences are made at both high and the grass-roots levels.[3]

Before I address these proposed adjustments that conclude my chapter in the book, I wanted to highlight the changing demography of evangelicalism based on the recent ARIS and Pew surveys. And then I reviewed the history of race and ethnicity in American Christianity.

Briefly, the surveys show that Latino and Asian American Christian affiliation with the evangelical label has increased in the last twenty years.[4]

increasting-racial-diversity-christians-pewFor Latinos this represents a shift away from Roman Catholicism, though I’m not certain if this movement is increasing. The percentage of Asian American Christian affiliation has declined overall, but that is due to the rise of immigrants from South Asia and Islamic countries. But Asian American Christian identification with mainline Protestantism has diminished as most now identify with recognizably evangelical organizations. African Americans have a more established history and remain less inclined to adopt the evangelical label despite sharing its theological and spiritual ethos.

As I alluded to earlier, the impact of the growth of EPOCs upon mainstream evangelicals will most likely be felt how well mainstream evangelicals embrace EPOC’s concerns about racial justice, economic policy, and immigration reform. I also wonder, however, that as mainstream evangelical organizations like the NAE, World Relief, and many Christian colleges begin to engage the concerns of EPOCs, might they alienate rank and file white evangelicals and repeat the white flight from mainline Protestantism in the 1970s.

Perhaps white evangelicals will not repeat history, but I was pessimistic in my chapter. Indeed, I argued that white evangelicals are even less equipped to handle the challenge of racial-ethnic diversity, in part, because of their history of defining themselves against mainline Protestantism. I have no intention of valorizing mainline Protestantism, but there is ample evidence of cross-racial and multicultural relationships in the history of mainline Protestantism. Hispanics began converting to Protestantism in the wake of the post-Mexican War annexations; Asians, after the Gold Rush; Blacks, as part of post-abolition missions to the freedmen; and Native-Americans through Christianizing missions. Thus, in the 19th century, American Protestantism was already becoming ethnically diverse.

And through the nadir of Jim Crow and scientific racism, racial reform resurfaced among mainline Protestants after the mainline-fundamentalist split. Now influenced by the Social Gospel and Niebuhrian realism, mainline churches turned traditional missions into social work and leaned on the social sciences, which led to an explicit engagement with race and the civil rights movement.

But fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals aligned with segregationist social mores and rejected the social sciences as worldly. Instead they focused on soul-winning which led them to ignore racial realities. Where fundamentalists did experience multiculturalism it was primarily through church planting and overseas missions. Ironically, this racial separation gave Hispanics and Asians the freedom to do missions more effectively leading to their rapid growth.

Given this development, one might say that the history of EPOCs is one of realignment from mainline Protestantism to evangelicalism since in the twentieth century. Certainly there were people of color who were engaged with the mainline Protestant ethos. I’d like to refer you to two recent studies tell the stories of how liberal and progressive Asian American Protestants advocated civil rights during the early and middle 20th century. Stephanie Hinnershitz’s Race, Religion, and Civil Rights: Asian Students on the West Coast, 1900-1968 and Anne M. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. Despite this, the new wave of immigration from Latin America and Asia was disconnected from mainline Protestants and, instead, fueled the EPOC dominance we witness today. As history Juan Martinez quips, “Mainline churches opted for Latino civil rights; but Latinos opted for Pentecostalism.” (p 185)

So it would appear that the color-blind, but Anglo-normative, individualistic, but American nationalist gospel of white evangelicals succeeded in winning over racial-minorities despite their ignorance and antipathy towards people of color. But will mainstream evangelicalism be able to truly listen to EPOC voices in the future?

Thus my conclusions about adjustments that white evangelicals would have to make in order to fully embrace the changing face of evangelicalism:

  1. Biblical Theology in Context
  2. Recognizing Structural Racism
  3. Grappling with White Privilege and Racial Equity for Intentionally Multicultural Organizations

Mainline Protestant success among EPOCs came as they made these adjustments. But just as they started to experience multicultural success within their denominational structures, they started to experience massive decline at the grass roots – white flight to evangelicalism. Would that be repeated among white evangelicals?

On the other hand, perhaps evangelicalism won’t repeat mainline Protestant history. Jim Wallis of Sojourners believed that the 2012 re-election of Barack Obame might have signaled “a new evangelical agenda for a new evangelical demographic.” If this is the case, then “the promise of American evangelicalism will be fulfilled only when white evangelicals are no longer hesitant to seek a multicultural and multiracial future characterized by racial equity. Although much work remains, there are promising signs that American evangelicals are willing to allocate resources to face, embrace, and shape a racially diverse future. Indeed…that future has arrived. So, too, have new opportunities to build a global and multiracial evangelical future.” (196)

Notes

[1] Todd Beamon, “Faith & Freedom Coalition Poll: 81 Percent of White Evangelicals for Trump” NewsMax (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/poll-white-evangelicals-voted/2016/11/09/id/758096/

[2] “2016 Elections Exposes Evangelical Divides” http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/10/14/2016-election-exposes-evangelical-divide/

[3] This is confirmed by the results of the 2016 presidential elections, which may be leading to an even greater gap between white evangelicals and EPOCs. Carol Kuruvilla, “After Trump’s Win, White Evangelical Christians Face A Reckoning: There’s a growing divide in evangelical Christianity and it has a lot to do with race.” Huffington Post (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/evangelicals-election_us_5820d931e4b0e80b02cbc86e

[4] See also Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (May 12, 2015) http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

The Elliot Rodger tragedy and Asian American ministry

Most of the responses to the Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage have drawn necessary attention to mental illness and gun violence. Emil Guillermo, after analyzing Rodger’s “manifesto,” highlights a racial dimension that has implications for ministry in racially diverse contexts. Guillermo argues that Rodger acted largely out of disdain for his mixed-race features (he was hapa, i.e., half-Asian; his mother is Chinese).

Emil Guillermo 8-100x100See Emil Guillermo’s blog “Elliot Rodger’s manifesto shows self-hate fueled anti-Asian violence that kicked off Isla Vista rampage” (May 25, 2014)

Blaming this for his sexual frustration and relational isolation, Rodger lashed out last Friday. The Isla Vista rampage left 7 dead and 13 wounded. Three of the dead were Chinese Americans from the S.F. Bay Area (one attended a youth ministry of a Chinese church in San Jose).

I don’t want to over-analyze the racial dimensions of this tragic situation. But I believe that they have implications for ministry, especially ministry among Asian Americans. Let me begin by assuming that a racialized world will reproduce racialized subjectivities. That is to say, the way we view and value ourselves is largely determined by the way our society structures and assigns value, power, and beauty to different racial categories. Much of our self-worth depends on what we embrace from our society’s diverse perceptions about race.

Of course we don’t all think the same way about race. Many of us who grew up in an Asian ethnic “bubble” did not feel devalued until we entered the mainstream, despite the media’s tendency to present “whiteness” as the norm. Those who grew up in largely white or multiethnic settings sometimes resort to “colorblindness” to escape self-stigmatization. Others might exaggerate their race/ethnicity/culture in order to garner attention that can be, in some cases, very rewarding. Race may be deeply submerged, laying just beneath the surface, or at the core of our feelings about ourselves. But it is always present within our consciousnesses. It gives us this nagging feeling that being white (and male) is simply better. That nagging feeling is one of the ways racialization in our social structure is reproduced within us. What does this say about ministry to Asian Americans?

God’s acceptance: the Asian American evangelical gospel?

Christians believe that our identity in Christ ought to be our most distinguishing feature. We are encouraged to live each day as a public witness to our faith, as if we were standing before the face of God (corem deo). Usually this means that our Christian identity renders irrelevant all the other aspects of who we are – such as race, gender, and social status. In fact, these identities are the result of sin. Christians should overcome, not dwell on them. Ministry and mission should therefore be blind to culture, gender, and social status.

As appealing as this sounds, it misses an important reality: social inequality, not social difference, is the result of sin. When being seen as “not” white has negative ramifications for how that person is valued or treated, it is not simply racial prejudice (check out this study). This is symptomatic of a social structure that privileges whiteness. Social inequality grows out of sinful social structures. Corporate and structural sin is just as real as individual and personal sin.

But racial, gender, and economic inequality don’t exist in a worldview where structural sin is not seen. In this worldview, racialized subjectivities are not ministry concerns.

However, can one say that the God of the Bible doesn’t care about social inequality?

Many Christians believe that God cares deeply. For them, living corem deo includes bearing witness against structural sins and their consequences. Over the last twenty years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has developed a ministry strategy for overcoming the negative effects of racial inequality that Asian Americans experience. The inequality often finds expressions through self-hatred, feeling unaccepted and devalued, seeking worth through performance, and placing undue faith in meritocracy. This ministry stresses the importance of embracing Asian American culture, ethnicity, and race.

The basic gist of this ministry is this:

God created and placed us in our cultural, ethnic, and racial settings. Sin diminishes Asian social identities and favors others. Rather than rejecting or escaping them, we need to realize that our identities are not marks of worthlessness. Rather, they are gifts from God. God transforms what our world sees as insignificant into something with tremendous significance and purpose. So we don’t have to feel embarrassed or devalued. 

An example of this approach can be found in this video clip (thanks Roy Tinklenburg):

 

As you can see, the spiritual discovery happens when the Asian American believer realizes that God accepts him or her. Instead of the futile efforts of earning societal acceptance and meeting family expectations, we rest in God’s declaration that we are worthy (in view of Christ’s work on the cross). This message transposes into the Asian American context the basic Reformation and evangelical insight of sola gratia.

There is no doubt in my mind that God’s acceptance is a message Asian Americans need to hear. It is a message that rings true for multi-race people and others who are marginalized, too.

But, in my opinion, it is just a first step. There are many questions that still need to be considered by Asian Americans as we minister to them. For example:

  • Now that I can accept who I am, what do I do with this knowledge? [i.e., the sanctification question]
  • What in my Asian culture needs to be redeemed? After all, God’s creation, despite being declared good originally, is still marred by sin.
  • What does social equality look like as an Asian American Christian? Does this mean fighting against any and all forms of discrimination and injustice?
  • Should I openly support Asian American causes? (e.g., APA programs in colleges or seminaries, Asian American politics or community activism, Asian American specific ministries)
  • Should I take pride in being Asian? How? (e.g., promote Asian American studies or cultural immersions)
  • How do I share this new insight to non-Asians? What role do they play in all of this?
  • Should I belong to an immigrant Asian church? Should I go to a multi-ethnic church?
  • Whichever church or ministry I join, how much of my Asian American identity should be part of conversation? How can I contribute this part of who I am?

I don’t know all the answers, but I’m eager to connect with others who are also interested in these questions.  I cannot say that the message of God’s acceptance would have prevented Elliot Rodger from slipping down the slope of self-destruction, hatred, and violence. I wonder if he and many others would have benefited from a ministry that pays as much attention to the “racial dimensions” of our contemporary life as InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries. But I’m convinced that greater attention to the questions raised by those who are invested in Asian American ministries will contribute to a better self-image,  mental health, and spiritual maturity for the Church and those to whom she is called to minister.

Rick Warren and Conversations with One’s Feet

“Why are all these Asian Americans so upset with Pastor Rick Warren? It’s just a humorous use of an image, after all? It’s just a joke, right?”

– Link to Christianity Today story
– Link to Religion News Service story.

Red_GuardApparently not. The huge outcry over Rick Warren’s posting of a Red Guard led to Pastor Warren’s half-hearted public apology yesterday. (As it turns out the figurine was not dressed in a Red Guard uniform, so it may not be accurate to identify it from the Cultural Revolution.)

I confess that I didn’t give much thought to this incident when my cousin Rev. Dr. Sam Tsang brought it to my attention [see his blog].  I’m rather cynical about the practice of protesting “stereotypical” images. All they do is garner attention to the loudest protesters who often use the incident to enhance their own platforms. In the end, we wind up censoring yet another Asian representation because it is labeled culturally insensitive.

Would it have been better if Pastor Warren used the image of Rosie the Riveter to make his “funny point”?

Rosie-the-Riveter

Maybe. But would we complain about a lack of Asian American representation?

I posted a link to an academic op/ed I wrote a few years ago that makes this same point [see blog]

But then it occurred to me that the image itself or the motives behind using it were not really the issue (well, maybe they would be for the rabidly anti-communist). Ignorance of another people’s cultural and historical sensitivities can be forgiven. After all, many Chinese American immigrants who are unaware of the Japanese American internment experience or of the story of the Black Civil Rights movement harbor deep resentment and prejudice towards Japanese and African Americans. The fortunate ones learn and appreciate. So even if Rick Warren should have known better because he lives and ministers in a region with a very large Asian American population, it doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t be aware of Chinese Christian feelings about the Cultural Revolution. We all live in cultural bubbles.

To me, the real issue was the type of responses Pastor Warren and his defenders gave to Dr. Tsang and those who expressed concern. Using a despised image ignorantly is understandable, but disrespecting those who object to its use is not. I refer you to Kathy Khang’s blog.

As leaders grow in prominence in the evangelical world (and this includes Asian American evangelical leaders), they must make choices about who to pay attention to and who to ignore. Pastor Warren’s initial dismissive response and subsequent half-hearted apology (and especially those of his defenders) reproduce a world view where Asian Americans don’t have to be taken seriously. According to this outdated 19th century perspective, the body of Christ may be diverse, but the white person is always the face and the Asian (and other non-white people) are always the feet. Asian Americans are only useful as contract laborers or vehicles for bringing a Westernized gospel to Asia. There is no need to hear their voice, their joys and sorrow. They speak a foreign language anyway.

This brings to mind the bible text that I’ll be preaching from this Sunday. In Genesis 40, Joseph interprets the dreams of a baker and cupbearer, two fellow prisoners. After predicting that the cupbearer would be released and have his position restored, Joseph asks him to “remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison.” (verse 14) Unfortunately, we are told that “the chief cupbearer…did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” (verse 23)

It’s unfortunate that Asian American contributions to the American church and to society in general is largely forgotten. But if Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America) is correct, Asian Americans, along with other immigrants, will continue to impact American Christianity positively in the future.

It becomes even more imperative for prominent evangelical leaders in America today (including Asian American leaders) to view this incident as an opportunity to have a serious, but loving, discussion about the role of Asian Americans in the church (see Justin Tse’s blog )

It is time for the Body of Christ in America to speak to its feet!

P.S. Chinglican does a far better job of explicating this point: http://achristianthing.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/it-would-not-be-funny-if-i-said-that-rick-warren-was-the-rick-in-rickshaw-rally/

My AAAS Presentation – Part 2/3

As promised, I am posting part 2 of 3 of my presentation at the Asian American Studies Conference:  “Color-blinded by the Light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area”

I almost forgot to post this because I’m having so much fun at the Hispanic and Asian North American consultation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [click da link]

But be warned, I mention some people by name who may not agree with my assessment. Let me say right now that my assessment does not diminish my respect for these individuals or their disciples. Okay, so we now move on another way that evangelicalism deconstructs Asian American consciousness and identity….

B. Fundamentalist Gnosticism (intellectual absolutism and moral hierarchy)

Earlier I had mentioned that evangelicalism is far more porous and fragmented than what is usually portrayed in the media. This is especially true for theological reflection. But one particular strand that has blossomed over the last twenty years has attracted many second-generation Asian American evangelicals. Its representative voices are not unified, but are very strident in their confidence in the absolute correctness of their theology and biblical interpretation. Among these I would count superstars teachers/preachers such as John MacArthur and John Piper (locally Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church). To a lesser extent the Gospel Coalition can fit under this canopy of what some have labeled neo-Calvinism or, more pejoratively, neo-fundamentalism. Personally, I would label this theological expression a form of fundamentalist Gnosticism – a kind of teaching that rejects personal, social, cultural, and historical contexts even more aggressively than does the iconoclastic tradition.

The emergence of fundamentalist Gnosticism parallels, and can be seen as a reaction to the increased ethnic and religious diversity and rise of postmodernist thought and sentiments in late Twentieth Century United States. Since the 1980s many “younger evangelicals” have sought to adjust their inherited evangelicalism to the changing culture. This birthed a broad and diverse “emergent Christianity” movement whose most identifiable representative is Brian McLaren. Most emergent Christians express discomfort with the Christian Right’s political aims, are egalitarian with regards to gender, and seek to reform what they perceive to be culturally irrelevant practices in neo-evangelicalism.

A powerful cadre of preacher/teachers mentioned earlier responded to the emergents and other perceived drift from evangelical truth, by organizing teaching platforms to defend orthodoxy against cultural accommodation and theological error. Their teachings offer absolute dogmatic certitude within a perceived airtight logical system. They have attracted a sizable following of largely evangelical young men who came of age in the late 1990s and later. And, I argue, they represent a contemporary form of gnosticism.

Fundamentalist Gnostics are locked into an intellectual system that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. The sole source of authority is the Bible, usually read through the lens of neo-Calvinism. They usually claim a literal, ahistorical, non-cultural way of interpreting the Bible. Giving historical and cultural contexts any authority in biblical interpretation would be a concession to the “world’s way of thinking.”  If salvation is about conversion to a new creation, it means that the old must pass away – or at very least, be rendered irrelevant to faith. Thus, history and the contemporary world is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. After all, in order to think about race, one must allow social science and theory to have authoritative claims to truth.

As J. Kameron Carter suggests in his very important study entitled Race: A Theological Account, modern Christian theology and popular culture assumes a “hierarchy of anthropological essences and the supremacy of those of a pneumatic nature within the hierarchy.” Anything rooted in history and race are considered inferior to the spiritual realm. Carter suggests that this tendency is more akin to Gnostic desire to repudiate the Jewish roots of Christianity in favor of a spiritualized Christ. Indeed, by Orientalizing the Jewish Jesus, the Gnostic strategy was to establish a hierarchy of spiritual elites. Thus began what Carter calls “a discourse of death, the death of material existence.” This is one of the origins of racial ideology in the West. And it lies beneath the Fundamentalist absolutism of these preacher-teachers who are popular among so many young adults today.

Why do these teachers attract Asian American evangelicals? Most of the Asian ethnic churches that younger Asian American evangelicals grew up in are family-oriented communities. They therefore do not invest heavily into intense theological teaching. Younger Asian Americans, after some exposure to these teachers, begin to perceive their ethnic home churches to be inferior or sub-Christian enclaves. When interviewed, they often describe their churches as culture-bound ethnic social clubs with shallow (or non-existent) Christian teaching. Indeed, many young adults become avowedly hostile to any cultural “seepage” into their belief structure and seek to join churches where a purer gospel is preached, a more passionate spiritual worship is experienced, and a tight and fervent community of faith is found. Asian American evangelicals claim that none of these attributes characterizes the Asian immigrant congregations that they grew up in.

The practical effects of Asian American evangelical attraction to fundamentalist gnosis is to be completely severed from any discussion that legitimizes Asian American identity. To “transform” culture means erasing it in favor of a more truthful Christian belief system. In the Bay Area, there are numerous incidents of Asian American disciples of John MacArthur who have caused division in Asian American congregations because of their insistence of promoting their particular brand of gospel truth. Rather than attempting to understand or listen to Asian American contexts, they seek to eradicate its presence. So in these cases, fundamentalist gnosticism does more than deconstruct Asian American identity and culture, it replaces it with a worldview that believes itself to be superior to human culture.

Fundamentalist gnosticism has many different forms, so I am not making a blanket assessment. But it has the potential to lead to abusive practices as any dogmatic ideology can do. For the purposes of this paper, I argue that this evangelical intellectual style renders it almost impossible to think about Asian American identity and culture. Later in this paper, I will discuss some ways that Asian American evangelicals have been able to or can respond to the excesses of this way of thinking.

C. Evangelical consumerism:

The iconoclastic impulse and fundamentalist gnosticism are two important factors that lead to the deconstruction of Asian American identity and consciousness. But I believe that the most powerful factor is evangelical consumerism.

In the Bay Area, Roman Catholicism represents the largest and most dominant expression of Christianity. Mainline Protestantism has declined precipitously. Among Protestants in general, evangelicals now dominate numerically – but not politically (e.g., the largest Presbyterian congregations are seceding from the S.F. Presbytery in large part, because of the Presbytery’s willingness to allow ministers to conduct same sex marriages). But evangelicals are also relatively marginalized from mainstream Bay Area culture, for they offer no unified public voice. Some participate in conservative family values activism, but most prefer to avoid this form of public engagement. The most common form of public engagement is in the religious marketplace where evangelicals tirelessly place their “spiritual products.” Such products include packaged DVDs and curriculum of “platformed” authors such as John Ortberg, Chip Ingram, and others. Churches (especially mega-churches) are branded carefully and marketed heavily. Indeed, superstar speakers and brand name congregations attract spiritual consumers. This has been the main focus of Bay Area evangelicals for now.

Asian American evangelicals, raised in upper middle-class and well-educated families, are drawn to what they perceive to be quality brands. Drawing her data from the 2008 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS), Janelle Wong notes that “Asian Americans who identify as born again Christians are more than twice as likely to report graduating from college than any other group. There is a substantial income gap between Asian Americans who identify as born again and other groups as well. Approximately 25 percent evangelical Asian Americans claims that their annual household income consists of $100,000 or more, compared to about 10 to 15 percent of other groups. White evangelicals are the group most likely to own their homes (88%), followed by Asian American (73%), Latino (69%) and black (64%) evangelicals.”[5]

This certainly characterizes many younger Asian American evangelicals in the Bay Area. To extend the data further, Lisa Sun-Hee Park, in her book, Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs (Stanford University Press, 2005) examined the consumerist behavior of second generation Asian Americans. She suggested that these Asian Americans exert social citizenship through material consumption. They felt compelled to remind others of their legitimate existence in the United States by demonstrating a form of conspicuous consumption.

This may indeed translate into religious consumption. More than one respondent I spoke to shared this sentiment (to paraphrase): “City Church in San Francisco [a protégé of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with a very large percentage of Asian Americans] is like Stanford, the Chinese immigrant church like is a community college.”

****

So what do you think? Look for part three where I will assess the evangelical empire and discuss Asian American evangelical reconstructive efforts.

NOTE:

[5] Janelle S. Wong, “Evangelical Asian Americans and Latinos: Reshaping the Right?” (Paper presented at the Cornell University Institute for the Social Sciences Immigration Seminar, April 30, 2012), p. 12.

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