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.

Asian American Ministry and the Deconstruction of Asian American Christianity (Webinar)

This webinar was held on Oct 26, 2011.
My appreciations to Judson Press and the Rev. Florence Li (American Baptist Churches, USA) for sponsoring it.
OVERVIEW
Like many churches in North America today, Asian American churches are experiencing the loss of their young adults. The new “Silent Exodus” is also about the erasure of Asian American identity and history within American Christianity. Will being Asian American matter in a “post-racial” generation? What does the deconstruction of Asian American Christianity mean for ministry to Asian Americans? What can Christians do to respond to this crisis? Join presenter Dr. Timothy Tseng as he explores and addresses these critical issues.
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The webinar can be downloaded here
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To view other webinars sponsored by Judson Press go to:

The Young Adult Black Hole

Published in Inheritance Magazine #13 (Sept/Oct 2011)

Young Adults and the American Church

It is becoming a well-established fact: young adults are vanishing from the American Church. Recent surveys indicate that emergent Americans who identify themselves as Christians today have declined sharply over the past twenty years (see figures 1 and 2 below). [1] Even White evangelicals, who have usually retained a higher percentage of young adults than mainline Protestants or Catholic, are experiencing a decline of this treasured cohort. But even though many more young adults say that they are not affiliated with any religion it doesn’t mean that they are rejecting spirituality. In fact, we are witnessing the spectacular growth of emergents who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”

Figure 1: Distance from organized religion today

Distance from Organized religion Emerging Adults Other Adults
Attend church weekly or more 15% (20 plus)30% (30 plus) 40% (older adults)
Not members of a church 35% 19% (all adults)
Belong to no religious tradition 20% 14% (all adults)
“Secular” or “somewhat secular” 23% 15% (ages 25-64)10% (over 64)

* * * * *

Figure 2: Comparing Church attendance (1970s and today)

Church attendance of Americans under 45 1970s Today
Attend weekly or more 31% 25%
Never attend 14% 20%

 

Some speculate that the conservative politics of many Christians may be turning off and tuning out the emergents, who are generally more liberal. Others think that the increase in privatization and consumerism in recent years has made the culture of young adults less interested in participating in organized communities. Rather, communities are formed to cater to the needs and desires of the young adult. Whatever the cause, the Church in America is facing one its greatest challenges.

Asian American emergents and the “renewal” of American Christianity

Though racial-ethnic Christian communities also face similar challenges, young adult engagement in church life is still relatively high when compared to the wider American Church. In fact, the significant presence of younger Asian Americans in thriving non-African American urban churches and in many campus ministries can be interpreted as a sign that God is using Asian Americans to revitalize (White) American Christianity. Asian American presence in previously White ministries legitimizes a multi-ethnic vision as do Asian American ministries that reject being identified as Asian American.

But these developments can also be a sign that Asian American churches have no future. The “Silent Exodus” will continue as generations of young adults who remain Christians leave their immigrant churches for White or multi-ethnic churches. From the perspective of immigrant Asian churches (who should also be considered Americans), the wider American church can be viewed as a Black Hole, a parasite, or a vampire that sucks the young life out their congregation’s families.

I have very little sympathy for immigrant churches that drive their young adults out because of insensitive leadership, authoritarian parenting, or uncaring coworkers. These churches don’t deserve their children.

But for the churches that have made a concerted effort to build intergenerational and multicultural faith communities (by the way, immigrant churches may be more multicultural than most multiethnic churches because they have to navigate language diversity), the revitalization of American Christianity seems to come at a great cost to them. The way American Christians treat the immigrant (and refugee) church is a test of our capacity to love the foreigner among us. Thus, the struggles and concerns of immigrant churches should matter to all Christians.

Furthermore, the fate of those who embark on the “Silent Exodus” should also matter. Do Asian American Christians in non-Asian ministries have any role other than increasing multi-ethnicity? Are their unique needs cared for? Are their contributions and gifts valued?

The bottom line: Can the American church truly be renewed if immigrant churches are dismissed and “exodused” Asian Americans are only valued as window dressing?

Raising these questions begs a deeper question: Why do Asian American Christian young adults leave immigrant or pan-Asian churches? I’d like to suggest a few reasons. Since I believe that immigrant and pan-Asian churches are to be valued as important members of the American Church, their desire to retain young adults must be taken seriously. So I’ll close with a few recommendations for these ministries.

The “Silent Exodus” or the “Babylonian Captivity”?

The usual reasons given for young adult flight from racial-ethnic churches center on four narratives. First, the culture of immigrant churches is incompatible with the Americanized young adult. It is too “Asian,” too foreign. Second, assimilation and integration into American culture is desirable, more compatible, and inevitable. Third, many Christians believe that multiethnic congregations are more biblical, therefore, morally superior to racialized churches. Hence, there is, among many evangelicals today, a race to become multi-ethnic – often at the expense of immigrant and pan-Asian churches. Fourth, underlying most evangelical conviction is that our earthly identities ultimately do not matter. Our Christian identity is the most important. Even in many multi-ethnic evangelical churches, the goal is to shed, not affirm, our earthly identities.

Together, these narratives create what I call the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America.” I’m not saying that evangelicalism intentionally seeks to destroy Asian Americans. But Asians and Asian Americans who have their faith shaped by evangelicalism usually think that being Asian American is irrelevant. So this is how the evangelical sub-culture “deconstructs” Asian America (and other earthly identities).

Now perhaps Asian America should be deconstructed. Perhaps there should be no “ethnic” churches. Perhaps all Asian Americans should join the “silent exodus.” But these narratives sound suspiciously like “cultural captivity” to the “American dream” rather than entry into the Promised Land. Indeed, the American dream is the secular version of these four narratives. Immigrants are too foreign to matter. Their children can integrate and succeed. Together they create a multi-ethnic America where ethnic identities are less important than American identity.

Given these narratives, is it any wonder that Asian Americans prefer to leave their ethnic ghettos behind? Leaving the ethnic immigrant or pan-Asian church is equivalent to moving up in the world.

I won’t suggest very loudly that Jesus’ incarnation moves in the opposite direction. Nor do I blame Asian American young adults for wanting to pursue the American-Evangelical dream. But I do believe that these narratives powerfully shape all Americans. They create social scripts that ensure that the American norm is colored White despite the reality that there will no longer be a racial majority in the United States by 2040. It’s easier to conform to these social scripts than to change them or write new ones. That is why the “silent Exodus” will continue in the foreseeable future.

Of course, negative experiences in immigrant or pan-Asian churches will exacerbate the “silent Exodus,” but even healthy churches won’t stem the flow. Insofar as evangelicalism is captive to the American Dream, insofar as Asian Americans are captive to the evangelical deconstruction of Asian America, there is no future for Asian American Christianity. Immigrant and pan-Asian churches will never be able to develop sustainable young adult ministries. Indeed, unless we prayerfully rely on the creative work of the Holy Spirit, these social scripts are much too pervasive and powerful for us to change.

Here is an example of its power. Imagine what it will be like to dine at Christ’s great banquet when his kingdom finally reigns. Who will be seated at that banquet? Will it not be a great cloud of witnesses from every nation and every race? Who would you want to sit next to (someone else will be seated at Jesus’ side, so you probably can’t sit next to him right away)? Augustine? Luther? Calvin? Wesley? Billy Graham? All the male heroes of Western Christianity? Would you want to meet the Asian and Asian American heroes? Would you know who they are? If not, why? Isn’t this because of the Christian social script that we’ve inherited? We’re conditioned to think that only certain people are representative of Christianity – and that doesn’t usually include Asian Americans.

Creating counter narratives

But I believe that God is alive. Surprising things can and will happen. We can counter these narratives by creating alternative or counter narratives. These new narratives can capture the attention of Asian American young adults and, possibly, move their hearts towards embracing immigrant and pan-Asian Christian faith communities. I suggest three ways create counter narratives:

1. Re-envision the Asian American Christian role in the new global reality: church leaders need to capture a biblical vision of God’s redemption of all nations and peoples that includes ethnic and racial minorities. Asian Americans should not be fully identified with the dominant American culture or with Asia. They are stewards of a unique set of gifts from God (Asian American cultures, ethnicities, histories, etc.) and will be asked to demonstrate how they have multiplied their “talents.”

2. Retrieve and retell Asian American Christian stories: churches and wealthier Christians could fund research in the study of Asian American Christianity. Insist that seminaries and universities hire specialists in the area. Create scholarships that encourage such research. By retrieving stories from the past and present, a treasure trove of resources will be available to help churches tell Asian American stories. Don’t let Asian American Christian young adults grow up with no knowledge of their unique story and gifts for the wider church and the world.

3. Redeem representation: Embrace the reality that immigrant and pan-Asian churches need to encourage greater Asian American representation in the mainstream American church. Don’t simply consume what is offered by the mainstream – rather insist that Asian American voices be heard in major conferences and events. This also means promoting and advocating for Asian American speakers and leaders who understand and embrace immigrant and pan-Asian ministries. The other meaning of representation is the creation of new ways of being Asian American and Christian in our worship, literature, and arts. Churches and wealthier Christians can fund artists to articulate traditional and contemporary expressions and forms. It is not enough to protest the way mainstream culture defines and stereotypes Asian Americans. Asian Americans must create their own representations.

Multi-ethnic churches can also participate in this creative activity, but immigrant and pan-Asian churches are more deeply rooted in the Asian American experience so have a greater advantage.

In the end, the only way to stem the deconstruction of Asian America is to re-construct Asian American Christianity again and again – in new forms and expressions. Like other emergents, Asian American Christian young adults are attracted to opportunities to create. So, let us assume that immigrant and pan-Asian churches have created healthy intergenerational cultures and are responsive to the “Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults.” These churches can then become “culture making” laboratories and carve out space for creating counter narratives. There may yet be hope for Asian American Young Adults!

REFERENCES

  • 60 Minutes. (2008, May). “The millennials are coming!” www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3486473n
  • Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Brooks, David. (2001). “The Organization Kid.” Atlantic Monthly. www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks
  • Changing Sea: The changing spirituality of emerging adult project. http://www.changingsea.org/
  • Cooper, Marianne. (2008). The inequality of security: Winners and losers in the risk society. Human Relations, 61 (9): 1229–1258.
  • Crouch, Andy (2008). Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
  • Edgell, Penny (2005). Religion and family in a changing society: The transformation of linked institutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Park, Lisa Sun-Hee (2005). Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs Stanford University Press.
  • PewResearchCenter (Feb. 2010). “Religion among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional in Other Ways.”  http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=510
  • Smith, Christian, with Patricia Snell (2009). Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson. (2011) Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Timothy Tseng (2011). “Five Cries of Asian American Young Adults” contact author or view at https://timtseng.net/2011/03/07/five-cries-of-asian-american-christian-young-adults-resource/.
  • Robert Wuthnow (2007). After the baby boomers: How Twenty- and Thirtysomethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[1] Penny Edgell, Religion and Family in a Changing Society: The Transformation of Linked Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults resource

Posted March 7, 2011 on ISAAC blog [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/five-cries-of-asian-american-christian-young-adults-resource-available/]

After presenting the “Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults” at a ISAAC Nor Cal workshop in Nov 2010, the Evangelical Formosan Church, LA’s Bridging Conference in Feb 26-28, and at the Bay Area Sunday School Convention on Mar 5, I’ve finally finalized the written presentation! It is posted at this link:

[download Tim Tseng’s Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults pdf]

The updated powerpoint presentation is here:

Peter Wang’s presentation is here:

To contact Peter Wang and to receive Josh Lee’s presentations about retaining and reaching Asian American Young Adults, contact them directly at these links:

Rev. Peter Wang
English Pastor
Southbay Chinese Baptist Church, San Jose, CA
* * *
Rev. Josh Lee
English Pastor
Crossing English Ministry
Chinese for Christ Church, Hayward, CA

Asian Pacific American Christian history: missing or dismissed?

Presented at The Second Asian American Equipping Symposium (Feb 7-8, 2011) at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA) on Feb 4, 2011

Opening Remarks

This panel presentation will introduce the theme of the symposium, namely the interrogation of the historical amnesia in church and academy regarding Asian Pacific Americans. The following questions may be addressed:

  • Why is religion (and Christianity, in particular) missing in Asian Pacific American historical studies?
  • Why is Asian Pacific America missing in the histories of American Christianity and Church History?
  • What explains the use and misuse of social sciences in the study of APA Christian history?
  • Why is understanding Asian American history, both the particular and the common, significant in constructing APA hermeneutics and identities?

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, the missing coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15 serve as a backdrop to the presentation:

8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, NRSV)

How did the woman know that she was missing a coin? Don’t all the coins look the same? We don’t know, but I suspect that she felt a sense of incompleteness and disquiet that we sometimes feel: “Something is missing, I just know it!”

Among Asian American Christians, a similar sense of disquiet surrounds us. Something is amiss. Unlike the woman and God, those who notice that our stories are missing from the narrative of Christian history are few and far between.

The recent interest in global Christianity has been a welcome development. But the ignorance of the history of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is more than missing a small coin. As the story of world Christianity justifiably receives greater attention, the story of Asian Americans is still missing. Most recently, Philip Jenkins has written The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asian – and How It Died (2008). His central point is that the expansion of Christianity is not inevitable.

Nevertheless, while scholars like Jenkins, Samuel Moffett, and others are retrieving the histories of Asian Christianity – and rescuing it from mission history – the state of Asian American Christian history remains lamentable.

1.  APA Christianity is not so much missing, but dismissed in church and academy

34“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14:34-35, NRSV)

Jesus concludes the previous chapter with this cryptic remark that seems out of place. Yet, it resonates with many in the church and the academy. If something is irrelevant or insignificant and if it doesn’t seem to have a function, it should be thrown away. In so far as Christians reify the irrelevance of history and the academy reifies the insignificance of APA Christianity, the history of APA Christianity is likely to be dismissed.

When one compares this situation with African American or Latino histories where religion is so much a part of the fabric of these communities, it is deplorable that religion (and specifically Christianity) is rendered irrelevant to Asian American history. David Yoo has rehearsed some of the reasons for this in the first issue of Amerasia Journal dedicated to religion in Asian America. Allow me to state them a little differently.

  1. The religious academy is more attuned to religious diversity than racial diversity. Thus, Asian Americans are merely ethnic or cultural variations of religious traditions. The study of the way that race shapes different religious communities has not received much attention in this arena.
  2. Asian American studies, on the other hand, has been more focused on socio-political and economic factors than religion. One even senses a denigration of Asian American Christianity in some circles.
  3. Social scientific approaches have done a great service by opening up the scholarly conversation around actual APA Christian congregrations and organizations. But they are missing the historical richness of the APA experience – and are in danger of reifying the idea that APAs are recent immigrants.
  4. Historians of the American religious experience continue to wrestle with how to craft an inclusive narrative of American religion. Twenty years ago, Martin Marty wrote an article for Church History that summed up the then current state of American church history. He noted that there had been advances in the history of African American Christianity, but a paucity in Latino and Asian Pacific American Christianity. Today, the paucity still exists. And even though the recent emergence of the history of evangelicalism has reshaped the history of American religion, the master narrative remains stubbornly the same. The recent PBS series entitled “God in America” is a good example of how difficult it is to envision a history that is not centered on White Protestantism.
  5. The nature of historical research in APA communities is itself very challenging. Identifying sources, equipping researchers, and finding financial resources for historical research for a marginalized population is extremely daunting. As mainstream funding agencies shift further towards  postracial or multicultural assumptions, ethnic and race specific resources are drying up.
  6. It therefore behooves the APA churches themselves to support and sustain the historical study of their own communities. But these churches are themselves locked into an Evangelical “born-again” theological culture that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. Most evangelicals possess an ahistorical understanding of reality. Salvation is about conversion to a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come! Thus, the old is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. 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, one from which modern Christianity in its theological and institutional expressions needs to be liberated from.

Therefore, the history of APA Christianity faces a double marginalization in the church and academy. The worst part of all this is the self-marginalization of our histories. Insofar as APA evangelicalism embraces this modern “discourse of death, the death of material existence” we will never find value in our experiences, our stories, and our histories. Instead, we will pursue the Orientalist strategy of “leap frogging” Asian America.

So what can we do? Beyond protesting this state of affairs, we must move towards representation in both senses of the word. Representation as a political act of empowering participation; Representation as an act of self-expression and culture making. But in both cases representation does not occur de nova, nor is it created ex nihilo. It must be grounded in history.

2.  God values the marginalized.

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2, NRSV)

What does God value? Outcasts and marginalized. Here, the tax collectors and sinners are the ones who are outcast. Yet, Jesus portrays God as one who actively searches for them. This continues Jesus’ lessons in Luke 14 about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to banquets (Luke 14:13-24).

Carter begins his study with an overview of Irenaeus work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies, ca 180). I’ve always liked Irenaeus – from his name, which means peace, to the pastoral heart for the flock in his theology. Indeed, to counter the Gnostic attempt to Orientalize Jesus and his Jewish identity, Iranaeus embraces the entire historical scope of the Hebrew Scriptures vis-à-vis his theology of recapitulation. Jesus Christ is the recapitulation of Creation, Fall, and Israel. Rather than renouncing Hebrew Scripture and the history of Israel, the Gospel is its fulfillment. Thus, all are welcome – not just the spiritually enlightened elite. All, including the mulatto and hybrids.

APA Christian histories are mulatto [cf. Brian Batum’s Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010)] and are therefore ignored, leap-frogged, and excluded. Nevertheless, our missing histories are of great value to God, just as the missing coin led the woman to light the lamp and to sweep diligently in order to find that coin. Indeed, this is the historian’s craft!

So what can we learn from the Asian American margins of the history of American Christianity? A few themes may be helpful to consider.

First, in contrast to the romanticized narrative of immigration into the American melting pot, the story APA Christianity prior to the Second World War is filled with nationalist discourse and transnational practices (e.g., Ng Poon Chew). Asian American Christians did not simply mimic white Christianity. They believed that Christian faith would empower Asians – whether in the homeland or the North American diaspora. Very early on, Asian American Christians sought to indigenize their Christian institutions vis-à-vis nationalist rhetoric. Institutional independence from denominational control was an effort to fight white supremacy, but also an attempt to redefine Asian participation in the church as a whole.

Second, the Asian American Christian story between World War II and the 1980s is also about a shift from an anti-segregationist to an anti-assimilationist posture within American society. During this time, Japanese American nisei (and other Asian Americans) initially valued integration, but when it came at the expense of their cultural identities and denominational representation they started to question how it was implemented. Thus the caucus movements were started in the 1970s. The story of caucus founders (e.g. Paul Nagano) within mainline Protestant denominations needs to be told – not only because the civil rights inspired stories are compelling, but because their experiences teach us about theology, identity, and empowerment within structural injustices.

A third theme is the story of the evangelical transpositioning of Asian American Protestantism. Whereas Asian American leaders in mainline Protestant denominations approached faith, culture, and civic engagement through the lens of the Niebuhr brothers, the evangelical renaissance among post-1965 immigrants created a different lens through which to understand APA Christianity. Of course, to call this a renaissance implies that it was all good – and after all, isn’t church growth a good thing? Unfortunately, it was not all good, in my opinion. For we see the re-inscription of hierarchical gender roles and a shift to a privatized and color-blind faith. Furthermore, the evangelical story is not all about immigrants. We must never forgot the witness of leaders as Hoover Wong, Stan Inouye, and many women evangelical leaders.

Having said this, I am still not convinced that an APA Christian history will be written any time soon. We live an an era that proclaims America to be post-racial. In this environment will the missing coin APA Christian history remain MIA? Perhaps. I’m not hopeful.

3. Fulfillment of our yearning and desire.

Nevertheless, it is my prayer that the search for APA Christian history will be received by the Church with the same spirit as that woman who found her missing coin. Note how she celebrated with her neighbors! Joy and fulfillment was the natural outcome! The search for our missing history is indeed motivated by a desire to correct injustice. But from the vantage point of faith, this is not the final destination. Joy and celebration with all God’s children, not just APA Christians, should be the ultimate goal of engaging our missing histories.

The search for our missing histories fulfills not only God’s yearning and desire to find the marginalized and lost, but the church’s missional call to invite all to the Great banquet!

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