The Revival will not be Televised

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

It might be live streamed…

Everyone wants revival.  Christianity in American needs revival. But just what kind of revival?

After the crazy year we’ve had, I’m even more convinced we need the kind of revival that leads to renewal not restoration.  Renewal is the good kind of revival, restoration … not so much. Why? Consider this..

Just before Jesus’ ascension, his disciples asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus kind of side-stepped the question and instead talked about spiritual renewal: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:6, 8)

According to William G. McLoughlin, one of the most prominent historians of American revivalism, the Great Awakenings were periods “when the cultural system had to be revitalized in order to overcome jarring disjunctions between norms and experience, old beliefs and new realities, dying patterns and emerging patterns of behavior.” [Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (1978), page 10] They led to “fundamental ideological transformations necessary to the dynamic growth of the nation in adapting to basic social, ecological, psychological, and economic changes…It constitutes the awakening of a people caught in an outmoded, dysfunctional world view to the necessity of converting their mindset, their behavior, and their institutions to more relevant or more functionally useful ways of understanding and coping with the changes in the world they live in.” [page 8]

Though the awakenings “were confusing and tumultuous,”  McLoughlin stresses “the positive, unifying results… The Puritan Awakening led to the beginnings of constitutional monarchy in England; America’s First Great Awakening led to the creation of the American republic; our Second Great Awakening led to the solidification of the Union and the rise of Jacksonian participatory democracy; our Third Awakening led to the rejection of unregulated capitalistic exploitation and the beginning of the welfare state; and our Fourth Awakening appears to be headed toward a rejection of unregulated exploitation of humankind and of nature and towards a series of regional and international consortiums for the conservation and optimal use of the world’s resources.” [page 11]

On the other hand, some revivals were not so good. Of Dwight Moody’s urban revivals, McLoughlin says, “He was brought to the cities in times of unemployment by middle-class churchgoers and businessmen precisely to tell the workers that the American dream was true, that the system was fundamentally sound… To Evangelical believers in the Protestant ethic, the poor were poor because they had some flaw of character that conversion would quickly remove.” [p 144]

“In the end, however, Moody had to admit that his revivals did not reach the poor in the cities. His audiences were essentially middle-class, rural-born native Americans who had come to the city to make their fortunes; they believed that he spoke God’s truth in extolling hard work and free enterprise. But he was not a spokesman for those who were becoming discouraged or disillusioned with the success myth; not did he reach the foreign-born or Catholic poor who made up so large a proportion of the labor class. “ [p 144-145]

McLoughlin concludes that “professional revivalism of this sort was an effective stress-relief mechanism for the majority in these years. Until the 1890s evangelists (and their audiences) continued to believe complacently that this was the best of all possible worlds: God was in his heaven, and all was right with America.” [p 145]

Good revival renews people and society. Revivals that are not so good restores or maintains the status quo.

One might fault McLoughlin for relying so heavily on anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace‘s theory of revitalization movements. But in my observation of evangelicalism and religion in America over the past fifty years, I believe Wallace’s theory and McLoughlin’s adaptation of it to the history of revivals helps makes sense of what is happening today.

Some background: In 1956, Wallace published a paper called “Revitalization Movements” [American Anthropologist 58: 264-281.] to describe how cultures change. Based on his study of religious movements among Native Americans, Wallace argued that a revitalization movement is a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture” (p. 265). Wallace believed that religious movements (such as revivals) are the agents of the revitalization of a society that is stuck or in crisis. McLoughlin believes that this process helped revitalize the United States during five Great Awakenings.

I think we are at the cusp of a new awakening. The question is will Christians be viewed as purveyors of the good or bad kind of revival. Let’s deep dive.

The Five Stages of Revitalization in U.S. Awakenings

According to McLoughlin, revival movements begin with a crisis of legitimacy. Earlier adaptation to the social and natural environment is no longer satisfactory. [Revivals, 12]  This leads to a period of individual stress where changes in society frustrate efforts of many people to obtain normal satisfactions of their needs. In the last twenty years, we’ve witnessed more young people abandoning traditional religious communities and practices and joining the ranks of religious “nones.” A recent study, “Democracy in Dark Times,” points to America’s legitimation crisis and its impact of race, religion, and politics. Is it possible that this trend reflects a feeling of cultural disorientation (or Emile Durkheim’s anomie)? Has Christianity has lost its legitimacy in a changing American society? If so, this would not have been the first time in American history.

During the second stage, a period of cultural distortion, we witness a divided populace. “The people cannot agree on proper measures for coping with dangers; instead of joining together to meet it, they quarrel and divide, often blaming those in authority. They refuse to unite on any scheme.” [13] At this point, “there almost always arises a nativist or traditionalist movement within the culture, that is, an attempt by those with rigid personalities or with much at stake in the older order to argue that the danger comes from the failure of the populace to adhere more strictly to the old beliefs, values, and behavior patterns.” [14] This is a double-edged solution because it creates more crisis of legitimacy. But this is also when a religious revival or a great awakening begins. New leaders and practices emerge. “People must be found who can help to formulate a new consensus, create new maze ways. These new maze ways must be understood to be in harmony not only with daily experiences but also with the way in which the experience is understood to reflect the realities of the mysterious power that controls the universe.” [15]

Stage three is a period of restructuring of old institutions. It is a time to build new world views or maze ways.  Rigid reactionaries are unable to make the transition and become the minority, the dissidents. A new consensus, new religious organizations, new social norms begins to take shape. New prophets shed  “new light.” [17]  “Orthodoxy in America has been progressive or syncretic, offering new definitions for old truths,” notes McLoughlin. “God is, of course, always and everywhere the same, but his spirit manifests itself in new ways to meet new needs. It is the old lights in each of our awakenings (variously called ‘Old Sides,’ ‘Old School,’ ‘Old dignity,’ or ‘Fundamentalists’) who have clung to the letter and ignored the spirit of God’s will. Their reliance on dead formalism and shibboleths that have lost their meaning has enabled the new lights to capture the imagination of a confused people and lead them out of the old churches and into new ones, constantly revitalizing the mazeways.” [18] 

In the fourth stage this “new light” movement grows, attracting more flexible (usually younger) members of society. It also leads to experimentation. Some of these movements are destructive. Eventually, all revitalized or new organizations that flourish require experiences of conversion, transformation or regeneration. McLoughlin claims that in each awakening “the successful new-light prophets have achieved this important organizational transition. When the Puritan movement died, the evangelistic spirit within it was reborn in Congregationalism and Presbyterianism and was later revitalized by the Baptists, Methodists, Campbellites, Disciples of Christ, and by Progressive, Liberal Protestants.” [22]

Finally, in the fifth stage, the new consensus succeeds. It anchor changes in the culture as most people are won over – even those who do not experience conversion. “But old light never quite dies,” says McLoughlin, “and the process is never finished.” As new lights become dominant, “there is considerable revision of the institutional structure, often through political action. Familial patterns change, sex roles alter, schools reform their curriculums and teaching methods, courts revise their interpretations, governments enact new laws and reorganize their recruitment of civil servants.” [22]

Writing in the 1970s, McLoughlin optimistically concluded  that “It was through following the new guidelines of our revitalization movements that Americans abandoned allegiance to the king, abolished human slavery, regulated business enterprise, empowered labor unions, and is now trying to equalize the rights of women, blacks, Indians, and other minorities.” [22-23] 

He didn’t live to see the rise of the Christian Right, which he would most certainly consider “old lights.” He probably would have been surprised at the dominance of  “old lights” among white Christians today. But I think his insight is correct. What the media calls white evangelicals are today’s “old lights” because they want to restore a mythic past rather than join the diverse cloud of witnesses that will be the future of Christianity and America.

Will The Revival be Live-Streamed?

Of course, it is the Holy Spirit who will guide us into revival, but we have a choice. In the coming revival, will we focus on renewal or restoration? I vote for renewal. Live-streaming > televising.

  • We must not restore the old ways that assume that white, male experiences, perspectives, and leaders are the norm for all people, let along American Christianity.
  • We must not restore the old ways that expect knee-jerk reactions against the Movement for Black Lives, Critical Race Theory, or biblical social justice.
  • We must not restore the old ways that require Christians to distrust facts-based science, to be loyal to one political party, or demonize members of a different political party.
  • We must not restore the old ways that equate Christianity with Western civilization and American nationalism.

Instead, in the new year, I’m praying for a revival that is rooted in the Incarnation of Christ, by which God’s promise to make all things is being fulfilled. Exactly 400 years ago, John Robinson declared “The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”

I don’t know what 2021 will look like, but I hope to be part of a new revival – one that follows the “new light” of renewal.

Have a Joyous Christmas and Renewed 2021!

Pandemic Podcasts: What I listened to in 2020

Photo by Juja Han on Unsplash

December 7, 2020

If not for the pandemic, I probably would not have listened to very many podcasts. But our dog needed to be walked and I needed something to do while walking her. Good podcasts offer short and simpler ways to introduce myself to topics and issues that would take more time to research on my own. I don’t really use my blog to journal or share about stuff I do, so this is an unusual entry. Anyway, here are my favorite pandemic podcasts of 2020:

The Christian-oriented podcasts

The Bible Project has already developed quite a following because of their smartly packaged animated videos that offer academically solid interpretations of biblical texts and themes. But the podcast drills deep into the socio-historical contexts surrounding Scripture while making Jesus the center of their unifying interpretation of the Bible. Consciousness of the socio-historical contexts surrounding the Bible and its reader not only offers richer explorations of Scripture, but also helps us avoid bringing our cultural baggage unconsciously into our reading and interpretation of the Bible. Over 220 episodes have already been produced! I think the current series on the Family of God will be especially relevant today’s conversations about social justice and human responsibility.

The Inverse Podcast unpacks how Christian leaders and scholars read and are empowered by Scripture even though they acknowledge that the Bible has been used to justify hatred and oppression. The podcast’s mission is to rescue the “good” news from an abusive use of the Bible and retrieve God’s good and just vision in it. Hosts Jarrod McKenna and Drew Hart provide delightful interviews, though the conversations sometimes wander. But if you have time for 90 minutes per episode, it will feel like sitting in conversations with some of the most interesting and exciting voices in the Christian church today.

I’ve also enjoyed Karen Marsh’s Vintage Sinners and Saints podcast based on her book by the same title. In it, she discusses how historical figures in Christian history can model discipleship for us today. These “saints” include well-established personas such as Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, Julian of Norwich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as those not yet included in the saintly pantheon such as Juana Ines De La Cruz, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Howard Thurman, and Mary Paik Lee. Guest commentators join her to reflect further on the significance of these imperfect saints. While it is true that every disciple of Jesus abides by the light of Scripture, no one can understand the Bible by herself. We can all benefit from the guidance of our fore-bearers, as flawed as they might have been, for there is a rich store of wisdom in that great cloud of witnesses. By the way, Karen Marsh leads Theological Horizons a community that supports Christians and seekers in academia to engage faith, thought and life. TH is based in Charlotteville, Virginia.

Church Politics Podcast of the (&) campaign. 2020 was a year that many Christians were deeply divided and confused about their place in American society and role in politics. Led by Justin Giboney, the (&) campaign seeks to speak truth with compassion (&) conviction. Tying together social justice and values-based issues, their largely African-American thought leaders are trying to raise a new generation of urban Christians who will address today’s dilemmas with courage, kindness and an unshakeable faith – for the common good. They haven’t produced that many episodes yet, but I’ve appreciated their efforts to embrace and critique both progressive (social justice) and  conservative (values) agendas. 

Asian American Christian Podcasts

There are several other Facebook groups and YouTube channels that provide platforms for scholars of Asian American Christianity to share their research, but the following two podcasts are helpful for lay leaders and Church leaders (practitioners).

Centering: The Asian American Christian Podcast of the Asian American Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. This podcast provides devotionals, conversations about the Christian life, church and theology, and other topics that focus on Asian American Christians.

Asian American Christian Collaborative Reclaim Podcast focuses on Asian American Christian perspectives on social justice. AACC started as a Christian response to Anti-Asian discrimination in the wake of COVID-19 and has grown into a resource for social engagement and public witness.

The NPR Podcasts

As a historian, I know that perfect objectivity is impossible to achieve. But truth is not completely subjective or partisan despite what we’ve witnessed recently in the political arena. Because of their commitment to high standards of journalistic objectivity and integrity, I choose to get most of my news and information from NPR. Their podcasts are very engaging! I’ve enjoyed “Hidden Brain,” “Car Talk” and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! But in 2020, “Throughline” and “Code Switch” grabbed most of my attention. Here are some of my favorite episodes:

The Invention of Race” (Througline, Nov. 20, 2020). A fascinating conversation with Charles King, author of Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (which I’m currently reading). It tells the story of Frank Boaz (the focus of the podcast) and three of his women protege who upended American notions about race and gender in the 1920s and 1930s. Boaz’s research helped undermine the false scientific views about race at the time. As a result, eugenics was eventually de-legitimized and cultural relativism was introduced to academia. Boaz also impacted theology, Christian public policy engagement, and Asian and Asian American Christians – something I plan on writing about.

The Most Sacred Right” (Throughline, October 29, 2020). In the face of slavery, the Civil War and the violence of Jim Crow, Frederick Douglass fought his entire life for what he believed was a sacred, natural right that should be available to all people – the right to vote. This podcast covers Douglass’ life journey.

America’s Caste System” (Throughline: August 6, 2020). “Race” is often used as a fundamental way to understand American history. But what if “caste” is the more appropriate lens? It certainly broadens our concept of systemic injustice and structural sin. This podcast examines how “caste” has shaped our country through a conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

The Long, Bloody Strike For Ethnic Studies” (Codeswitch: August 5, 2020). Ethnic studies might not even exist if it weren’t for some students at San Francisco State University. Fifty years ago, they went on strike – and while their bloody, bitter standoff has been largely forgotten, it forever changed higher education in the United States. It also launched the Asian American Studies movement.

Claim Us If You’re Famous” (Codeswitch: November 10, 2020). I always wondered why so little attention was given to Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris’ South Asian identity. This episode opens up that conversation. “We get into a lot of messy territory, like what her political prominence might help illuminate (or obscure) about South Asian political identity, how multiracial people are perceived, and how Blackness intersects with all of those things.”

A Treaty Right For Cherokee Representation” (Codeswitch: October 7, 2020). In elementary school, one of my classmates called me an “Indian giver” because I changed my mind after giving him a fancy pencil. He made me angry (I don’t remember why), so I wanted it back. Well, this episode explains where that term originated. Back in 1835, during the Andrew Jackson administration, the Treaty of New Echota granted the Cherokee Nation a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. But it’s also the same treaty that led directly to the Trail of Tears, and the death of an estimated 4,000 Cherokee.

Podcasts about Evangelicalism and Conservative Politics

The Evangelical Vote” (Throughline rebroadcast: September 24, 2020). How and when did white evangelicals become so intertwined with today’s political issues, especially abortion? What does it mean to be a white evangelical today and how has that changed over time?

The White Elephants In The Room” (Codeswitch: November 18, 2020). While their numbers have dwindled from 21 to 15% of the U.S. population, white evangelicals are a force to be reckoned with in politics, says Robert P. Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity and the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. They make up a little over a third of Republicans, Jones says, and have an outsized impact on elections, making up about a quarter of voters. That’s right—15% of Americans account for around 25% of those who turn out to vote. A conversation with Jones about the power of this voting bloc, and what that means for the national discussion around race in this country.

Honorable mentions:

Mobituaries

Finally, there is this non-NPR podcast, Mobituaries, that shares some intriguing stories of people who’ve died. Mo Rocca loves obituaries so he wrote a book and created this podcast, “an irreverent but deeply researched appreciation of the people (and things) of the past who have long intrigued him.“ Here are some episodes worth listening to: 

What have you been listening to? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

Sowing Seeds for Virtual Campuses. A Ministry Update.

Sowing Seeds for Virtual Campuses
Tim Tseng | September 13, 2020

Photo by Dương Trí on Unsplash

It has been a summer of discontent. It has also been a summer of possibilities. The pandemic and protests have plowed soil that had lain fallow far too long. In response to where we believe the Spirit is leading the church’s ministry to campuses, our GFM Pacific Team is transitioning to digital platforms in anticipation of virtual campus life. Moving on-line also gives us flexibility to increase outreach and jump start hybrid ministries when we return to in-person gatherings. It has been hard work for our staff, grad student leaders, and faculty. Because there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of these changes, it feels more like sowing than planting.  But it also feels like spiritual renewal.

Most of the heavy lifting has been done. But to be honest, I think we’ll be quite busy for the remainder of the academic year as we learn from these experiences and tweak our digital ministries. Anyway, have a look at what we did. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

1. We created a website for the Pacific Area GFM. The website serves as a portal to our grad student chapters, faculty/staff ministries, and student blogs.

2. We created social media accounts for communication and marketing:

3. We appointed Esmond Lee to serve as the volunteer Dean of students for the Pacific GFM Area. Esmond is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. He has brought together student leadership from our six grad student chapters (Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, U.C. San Francisco, U.C. Santa Cruz, and University of Hawaii Manoa) to plan student-led digital events.

Speaking of which, our grad students are organizing Square Inch Stories (SIS) Exchanges and other on-line events. The SIS provide opportunities for grad students and postdocs to share how they see God working in every square inch of their lives (including their academic disciplines). The name draws inspiration from the declaration of Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920):

No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’

Kuyper’s quote is not about Christian colonialism. Rather, it speaks to the conviction that God seeks to redeem every area of life – all of creation – for good. I’m delighted that our students are affirming Christian discipleship that includes the integration of faith with their professional vocation and academic disciplines.

Pacific Area GFM student zoom-inar

We anticipate more student-led zoom-based events this fall. Many of them will be open to undergrad students, faculty, and ministry partners, too! So check our Facebook pages and Instagram regularly for more information.

4. The digital platform has also enhanced our ministry with faculty and college staff. Some faculty/staff chapters have experienced an increase in participation because the zoom app makes it easier to meet. We have improved collaboration with the InterVarsity Pacific Region staff (who minister to undergrads and faculty) and with Cru’s Faculty Commons. In Hawaii, thirty faculty/staff participated in a virtual lunch gathering on April 24 and a virtual retreat on August 13-14. Thirty also joined the Northern California faculty/staff “meet and greet” on August 12. Even more participated in the GFM West Coast Virtual Faculty Conference on July 28-29 and a digital Camino spiritual pilgrimage over the summer (sponsored by IV’s National Faculty Ministries). These summer activities for faculty more than made up for the postponed Nor Cal Faculty/Staff Conference. I sensed that our faculty/staff were spiritually refreshed, enjoyed connecting with and praying for one another, and energized to bear witness to Christ on their campuses this fall.

I hope to see some of our faculty work on projects that can inform students, colleagues, and the Church about ways to live out Christian faith in the midst of change. I believe their expertise is much needed for our times. (For some examples, see the Venn diagram project of So Cal GFM, the Carver Project, the Consortium of Christian Study Centers)

5. Also, on July 13 and 17 we hosted a virtual watch party for Chinese Church ministry partners to view “Gimme a Faith,” a PBS documentary about the experiences of students from China who were met by a Chinese church in North Carolina. The after party conversation led to some substantial reflection about how to connect with and reach students from China during our very challenging political climate. We hope to offer more opportunities to share and learn from our ministry partners. Special thanks to Darren Hsiung, our campus staff at UC Berkeley (and who is now fully funded!) and Callie Chaspuri, International Student Ministries in Las Vegas, for organizing the watch party!

6. Finally, I want to officially welcome Howard Chang to our team! Pastor Howard pastored the Davis Chinese Christian Church since 2014. Prior to that he had over twenty years of pastoral ministry experience in Chinese churches in Northern and Southern California. He completed his D.Min. in Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2016.

This past year, Howard served as Staff Associate (volunteer) at the Grad and Professional Students Fellowship at U.C. Davis, along with his wife, Lori. Howard will be a Team Leader for the California Central Valley. As soon as he completes support raising, he will lead our grad and faculty ministries at U.C. Davis and explore collaborative efforts in Sacramento and U.C. Merced. His passion in ministry is equipping Kingdom-minded leaders through personal mentoring and team building.

Howard is also an active patient health advocate and blogger. He is motivated by empowering and inspiring those living with chronic illness to thrive emotionally and spiritually. He draws from his experience living with severe psoriasis, a chronic autoimmune skin disease, since childhood. His award-winning column, The Itch to Beat Psoriasis, has been hosted by Everyday Health since 2007. WEGO Health, a patient leader network, named Howard to their Top 10 List: 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his advocacy work.

Please pray for him as he raises support this fall!

Unlike planting, the sowing metaphor implies a willingness to relinquish control over the end results. Jesus used this metaphor in his well-known parable. Some seeds fell on the wayside or were choked by thorns and thistles, unable to produce fruit. Others fell on rocky soil and never grew deep roots. Yet, some fell on good soil and bore much fruit. We don’t know if our efforts this past summer will yield good fruit, but we trust God to provide the growth. I’m confident that God will bring about renewal. Thank you, ministry partners, for your prayers and financial support!

Would you consider making, renewing, or increasing your financial support for my ministry this month? Just go to http://givetoiv.org/Tim_Tseng and login or set up an account in order to make a secure on-line donation. Let me know if you prefer to contribute by other methods.

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…

Asian Americans Documentary – initial thoughts

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I’ve eagerly anticipated the new Asian Americans documentary that aired on PBS the last two days. I viewed the previews and promoted it heavily among my friends. And I was not disappointed.

Asian Americans is a five hour patchwork of intriguing personal and family stories woven into a long, complex and rich history. Under the shadow of white supremacy in U.S. history, various Asian Americans have struggled to survive, fought for civil rights, and refused to be silenced. The documentary’s dominant meta-narrative is that of heroic Asian Americans who battled racial exclusion and marginalization to prove that they are Americans. Thus, resilient victims, vocal social activists, conscientious political leaders, achievers and celebrities who reflected on their Asian American identities were the given the most attention in this documentary.

One of the participants in a post-air watch party wondered who this documentary’s audience was. Many thought that it was primarily for Asian Americans and questioned whether non-Asians American would be much interested. I agreed that Asian Americans would be most interested in the documentary. It resonated with me and many of my friends who can identify with the experience of being marginalized and silenced. There were many cathartic moments in the documentary that left me in tears: the devastating impact of the World War II concentration camps on one Japanese American family, the trauma of the Southeast Asian refugee experience, or the all-too familiar images of Vincent Chin’s grieving mom. Indeed, the recent surge of anti-Asian racist incidents in the wake of COVID-19 is a visceral reminder that anti-Asian sentiment, despite recent Asian American progress, lie just beneath the surface, waiting to be sparked. So, yes, this documentary is an important reminder to Asian Americans that despite our “breakthrough” (the title of the final episode), the hard fought victories of the past can be easily snatched away.

But the documentary was also for a mainstream American audience. This is not just our story, but an American story. Rather, a revision of the American story that centers the narrative on a racialized people. Those who despise multiculturalism or bemoan the deletion of Western Civilization in the curriculum cannot escape the truth of the whole story of America. This is a truth that I’ve engaged in my scholarship. This is the truth of “The 1619 Project” that the New York Times featured last August to commemorate the 400 anniversary of slavery in the U.S. Namely, that the United States was build on the backs of people of color. Or more generously, America was built by people of color.

I spent much of my adult life trying to persuade Asian American Christians that this truth needed to be part of our theology and ministry. As long as American Christianity is complicit with perpetuating a narrative that centers on Euro-American heroism and leadership, we’ll never see how truly global Christianity has become. For example, Douglas Jacobsen notes that

When the twentieth century began, Christianity was still a predominantly European faith. Today, two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. No other religion has ever experienced so much change in such a short period of time. Global Gospel (2015), p. xv

But, in the end, despite its efforts to speak a broader truth to mainstream Americans, Asian Americans is still quintessentially patriotic and doesn’t question the American dream all that much. I appreciate the nuanced and honest snippets that appear occasionally (e.g., the mystery of Buddy Uno, the Korean and Black conflict just prior to the 1991 Los Angeles uprising, the huge economic divide among Asian Americans in Silicon Valley, etc.). But the core values of equality, inclusivity, and opportunity drives the documentary. As one of the interviewees noted, “Asian American can become whatever they want to be.”

The one major shortcoming that I see in the documentary may be self-serving, but I think it is important. Religion is virtually no where to be found. Sure, Alex Koh talks about going to church in Koreatown before the 1991 L.A. uprising. Erika Lee nonchalantly equated being Christian with trying to quietly fit in to America during the 1950s. But the omission of religion, something that would be unthinkable in documentaries of African Americans and Latinx, continues despite more than twenty years of rich scholarship about Asian Americans and religion. The most obvious erasure, in my opinion, can be found in the discussion about Joseph and Mary Tape’s fight against the exclusion of their daughter from San Francisco’s public school in the 19th century. We are shown their protest letter that was published in a local newspaper. While the letter explicitly appeals to Christian values as a reason to include their daughter, that part was completely ignored.

Asian American studies is no longer as dogmatically anti-religion (though there continues to be a feeling that ethnic studies is hostile to Christianity, largely due to its association with Western colonialism. See Robert Chao Romero, “Towards a Perspective of the Christian-Ethnic Studies Borderlands and Critical Race Theory in Christianity,” Christianity Next (Winter 2017), pp. 45-66). Since the publication of the 1999 issue of AmerAsia Journal that was dedicated to religion, a generation of scholarship have highlighted the richness and nuances of AAPI religion. I wonder if any of the scholars who participate in Asian North American Religion and Cultural Studies group (ANARCS) at the American Academy of Religion or the Asian Pacific American Religious Research Initiative (APARRI) were consulted in the making of the documentary? If they were, the producers would have had to contend with Josh Padison’s important point:

religion was central to the formations of race and citizenship in the post-Civil War United States…Most studies emphasize economics in the development of race…Though the strength of such economic forces is undeniable, attention to the public and private discourses of the nineteenth century – the way in which Americans talked, wrote, and thought – shows the powerful ways religion shaped the day-to-day expression of those forces. — American Heathen: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (2012), page 4

But, by erasing religion, intentionally or not, a very big part of the AAPI story is missing. Recent studies have revealed how religion (in particular, Christian faith) has provided inspiration, philosophical grounding, and the moral impetus for much of AAPI social activism. Religious institutions and facilities were often centers for assembling workers and gathering places for communities to organize. Religious leaders – Asian, white, Black, and Latino – joined, and in some instances, led campaigns for civil rights, Native Hawaiian resistance, immigration reform, and Japanese American internment camp redress.

Despite this critique, Asian Americans, is, to me, a remarkable achievement. We are witnessing a new generation of AAPI scholars, community leaders, artists, and workers who can build the United States of the future, a nation that will, hopefully, be more true its democratic vision. I especially pray for a new generation of AAPI Christians who will not only contribute to the common good, but, through their witness, also be the conscience of the nation.

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