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!

Colorblind and Purpose: How Differences Can Also Bind

Posted on the ISAAC blog on Dec 15, 2009 []

Hello everyone!

The new issue of Inheritance Magazine, a resource of Asian American Christian Young Adults, is now available. See it on-line at: and follow it on Facebook!

ISAAC is a big supporter of Inheritance Magazine. The following is an article that I wrote for the inaugural issue a few months ago. Please support this important work!

Colorblind and Purpose: How differences can also bind
Timothy Tseng, Ph.D.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Psalm 133:1 (NRSV)

I left New York City in 1994, but I still feel like a New Yorker deep down. I’ve come to appreciate the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live and enjoy the local sports scene, but I still secretly root for my New York teams. However, despite the fact that I am nostalgic about my experience growing up in the Big Apple, I don’t miss the feeling of being rendered invisible or silent in a black-white community. Things are different now, but in the 1970s and 80s, Asian Americans in New York City were barely noticed in public life or media.

I also didn’t realize that I was a member of a marginalized Chinese enclave until I enrolled in college. It was there that two competing emotions caused me to reflect on my faith more critically. First, I felt ashamed of being Chinese. Not only were real Chinese New Yorkers rendered invisible, but also stereotypical images of Chinese people dominated the media (well, maybe with the exception of the late Bruce Lee–maybe). My sense of shame was exacerbated by my poor Chinese language skills, which marginalized me from many of the people in my church. Thus, I entered college with a strong desire to flee the Chinese church.

The second emotion was anger at mainstream America for its history of racism towards Asians and Asian Americans–and its complete ignorance of that history in contemporary life. In college, I learned about the horrors of slavery and racism directed towards African Americans, but I had to learn about the Asian American experience on my own. Asian American activists were harshly critical of Christianity’s complicity with these historic injustices, and I was “all ears.”

I thank God for the Chinese Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity ministry at my college. Their love and willingness to hear my shame and anger helped me heal. Their enthusiastic commitment to the gospel as the way out of personal and societal brokenness convinced me to surrender my life in service for the Kingdom of God. However, they did not have good answers for the causes of my shame and anger. They held a colorblind worldview and did not have biblical and theological resources to deal with ethnicity and race. In fact, talking about race and ethnicity was very uncomfortable for them.

However, I believe that God intended creation and humanity to relish diversity. For instance, the diversity among and within plant and animal species in creation appears to be at the core of God’s design.  Also, God rescued not just one kind, but every kind of creature in Noah’s ark. Moreover, at Pentecost, God spoke to different people in their own languages. Accepting and embracing diversity gives voice and power to those who have been isolated and silenced by those who are more powerful. God intended diversity to be a good thing!

I’ve discovered, however, that many Asian American Christians today are uncomfortable talking about diversity. Many are not interested in their racial-ethnic identities because they believe that Christian identity supersedes all earthly concerns. Others have had negative experiences in Asian immigrant churches and want to leave for a mainstream American church. Still others feel that talking about one’s ethnic or Asian American experience is unbiblical and impractical for multi-ethnic ministry.  They argue that emphasizing our racial-ethnic identities creates division in church and society. They also argue that we should unite on common kingdom goals, such as winning souls for Christ and correcting social injustices.

I argue that avoiding the “Asian American” question is short–sighted, dangerous, and is an idolatrous conformity to mainstream American culture.  I do not mean that there is something innate in European or white American people that is idolatrous. Rather, what is idolatrous in any situation is when realities of power and privilege are masked by rhetoric that sounds appealing.

Being “colorblind” sounds appealing because it sounds like anti-discrimination language. It also appeals to the belief that Christians should be spiritual and avoid the messy sinful world of race politics.  Even when multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism is held up as the ideal goal for American Christians, an unconscious “colorblind mandate”– the conformity to “white norms and privileges”–remains if the ugly realities of race are not brought to the surface.

On the contrary, our full human experience–including our bodies, our cultures, and our politics–is of concern to the God who created all things. The “colorblind mandate” ignores the messy and complex realities of human experience. In contrast, some Christians now favor the term “cultural mandate,” which means that God called us to be embedded in our cultures, transforming them according to God’s purposes. If we are to find unity of purpose, Asian American Christians (indeed, all Christians), must consider how to participate in the “cultural mandate” and be very conscious of how power and privilege operate.

In order to overcome the “colorblind mandate,” each cultural or racial group within a multi-cultural organization must be allowed to represent itself. When Asian American Christians leave their immigrant churches to join or form multicultural or mainstream churches, what do they bring with them? How do they “represent?” If they bring nothing of value from their experiences or cultures, I would argue that they’ve conformed to the “colorblind mandate,” choosing to be invisible and voiceless.

There is no doubt in my mind that the “colorblind mandate” has had a devastating impact on Asian American evangelicals. It exacerbates our intergenerational gaps, separates us from the neediest Asian Americans, and leaves us feeling worthless in both the American and global contexts. Unlike the previous generation of Asian Americans who were forced to feel inferior and made invisible, our generation has a choice but has often chosen the path of isolation and self-hatred. This is one of the reasons why Asian American Christians have such a difficult time finding unity of purpose.

So how can Asian American Christians move towards unity? Perhaps we can begin by removing “colorblind” interpretations of the bible. Here are some examples: In Luke 10:27, Jesus affirmed the two great commandments: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpretation would ignore the “as yourself” part of the command. Implicit in the “as yourself” phrase is a need to be conscious of one’s own situation and identity. Maybe Asian Americans need to understand themselves better if they are to better love their neighbors.

Another example is in Ephesians 2:14-16, where Paul declares that Jesus is the peace that broke down the wall that divides Jews from Gentiles. The key phrase is in verse 15, where Christ creates “in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpreter would say, “It’s obvious that God wants to remove our cultural particularities in order to create a new and more spiritual people.” But that goes against the grain of the incarnation of God in a flesh and blood Jewish man. The new humanity is neither the erasure nor the fixation of our cultural particularities. It is the mutual transformations of our differences towards a common kingdom purpose. So rather than ignoring or rejecting our Asian American identities, we need to find ways that these identities can contribute towards the new humanity. This can take place in ethnic-specific, pan-Asian, and multi-ethnic churches.

Finally, the Great Commission is not about rescuing sinners into a “colorblind” lifeboat, but about going into the world and making disciples of all nations. This means appreciating and transforming all cultures, not assimilating them into a “colorblind” norm. The history of missions has demonstrated that the gospel can only spread if this principle is followed.

Finding unity in purpose among Asian American Christians is complex, but not impossible. It begins with removing “colorblind” interpretations of the Bible.  It also involves building relationships with fellow Asian Americans intentionally and unapologetically. These steps will help Asian Americans towards the transformation of our culture for the Kingdom of God.  Crucial to this mission is for Asian Americans to understand that we contribute towards the Kingdom of God not by dismissing our cultures and identities, but by becoming more conscious of who we are.

The Deadly Viper Incident: How Then Shall We Represent?

Posted on the ISAAC blog on Dec 4, 2009 []

This blog was originally posted on the Postcolonial Theology Network site on Facebook. Go to:

On behalf of Zondervan, I apologize for publishing Deadly Viper: Character Assassins. It is our mission to offer products that glorify Jesus Christ. This book’s characterizations and visual representations are offensive to many people despite its otherwise solid message. There is no need for debate on this subject. We are pulling the book and the curriculum in their current forms from stores permanently.

So stated Moe Girkins, President and CEO of Zondervan Books on Nov. 19, 2009. The removal of curriculum Deadly Viper Character Assassin: A Kung Fu Guide for Life and Leadership ended a two-week protest by Asian American evangelicals over the use of images that, according to Professor Soong Chan Rah, reveal “a serious insensitivity to Asian culture and to the Asian-American community” and “co-opt Asian culture in inappropriate ways.” [ – see also Rah’s weblog:] Among the Viper’s deadly sins were the use of martial arts movie themes, mock Chinese names, Asian accents, and conflation of Chinese and Japanese cultures. Rah, the key leader of this protest, is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and the author ofThe Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity Press, 2009). No stranger to the struggle against racism within American evangelical circles, he led an unsuccessful campaign several years ago against “Rickshaw Rally,” a Southern Baptist Vacation Bible School curriculum. “Rally” also employed Asian caricatures to teach children about “other” cultures. During the anti-Viper campaign many leading Asian American pastors, seminary professors, and lay leaders weighed in through letters to Zondervan and blogs. The conversations were often heated as many inside and outside the emerging Asian American evangelical community debated the seriousness of Deadly Viper.

Zondervan received increased pressure to respond as secular and Christian media such asChristianity Today and Sojourners covered the controversy. Their decision to pull the curriculum left some bewildered (“what’s the big deal?”), but most Asian American evangelicals were delighted, surprised, and relieved. There is no trace of Deadly Viper on Zondervan’s website []. The images are gone. The co-authors and publishers have repented and vow to be more culturally sensitive. Zondervan’s staff are now required to read Rah’s book. Harmony appears to have been restored.

So this is a good time to reflect on the incident. I’m particularly intrigued by the question of Asian American representation. What disturbed me most about Deadly Viper was not the stereotypes, but the lazy manner in which the authors and publisher adopted popular representations of Asians. Perhaps evangelicals are naive about the social and political power of images. Unlike their mainline Protestant cousins, they are new to the politics of racial representation. But it goes deeper than that. Iconoclasm and interiority are at the heart of evangelical spirituality. After all did not God say to Samuel “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV)? The outward appearance is not essential to evangelicals. They are willing and able to strip away “outdated” cultural accretions in order to remain fresh and relevant. For many, including myself, this makes evangelicalism appealing. Thus contemporary evangelical music mimics pop songs. Evangelicals worship in buildings that look like modern movie theatres and office parks, not cathedrals.

Yet the evangelical strategy of seeking broad appeal by casually co-opting popular culture backfired for Deadly Viper. By not doing the homework about how media and pop culture constructs Asian stereotypes, Zondervan reproduced representations that were rooted in a racist worldview. Many helpful studies would have helped writers and artists avoid such negative images. Robert G. Lee,Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999), Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America (2001), and Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (2004) come to mind. Hopefully, the Deadly Viper incident will encourage American evangelicals to destabilize the Western colonial impulse to speak for the Asian American “subaltern.”

Another issue that concerns me is the question of Asian representation itself. Prof. Rah, like many younger Asian American evangelical bloggers [see, for example,] have discovered Edward Said and orientalism. They have latched on to an idea that both explains anti-Asian racism and provides an antidote to the “model minority” path of “selling out” the Asian American soul. The common enemy is the privilege and power of white dominant institutions to represent Asians. By appealing to orientalism, emerging Asian American evangelicals have found a voice in an American racial discourse locked into white-black binaries.

However, appealing to Said’s version of orientalism alone is problematic. Indeed, not all the stereotypes in Rickshaw Rally or Deadly Viper are oppressive distortions. Nor were they all constructed by Western colonial power. In fact, Bruce Lee’s introduction of martial arts to Hollywood helped create a more positive, albeit stereotypical, image of Asian men. Saying “no” to white power leaves unanswered the question of Asian representation.

Indeed, the simplest solution for overcoming distorted Asian representation is to erase all traces of Asian-ness. I suspect many assimilationists and color-blind advocates would be happy with this approach. But if we don’t attend to the question of Asian representation, there may be nothing Asian American to represent in American evangelicalism. So what is it about Asian culture and image that Asian American evangelicals can say “yes” to?

I have two suggestions. First, Asian American evangelical church leaders and theologians ought to embrace a more pluralist and generous reading of orientalism. J. J. Clarke’s proposals in Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought (1997) is helpful in this regard. Without denying the oppressive conditions that reproduce its worst features, Clarke suggests that orientalism “cannot simply be identified with the ruling imperialist ideology, for in the Western context it represents a counter-movement, a subversive entelechy, albeit not a unified or consciously organized one, which in various ways has often tended to subvert rather than to confirm the discursive structures of imperial power.” (9) In other words, the West’s Asian gaze serves to not only dominate the East, but also to critique the West’s act of domination. So can we find something in evangelical discourse about Asian “otherness” that critiques Euro-centricity? Maybe not. But at least we should be open to the possibility. By embracing a more generous view of orientalism, it allows us to talk about Asian representation.

Secondly, Asian American evangelicals need to engage both Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” and Homi K. Bhabha’s “linguistic multivocality.” Both identify the Western production and implementation of binary oppositions such as center/margin, civilized/savage, First/ Third worlds, West/East (orientalism), North/South, capital/labor, and enlightened/ignorant as the colonial “original sin.” In The Location of Culture (1994), Bhabha argues that destabilizing these binaries opens the door to more complex inter-cultural “interactions, transgressions, and transformations” than binary oppositions can allow. The resulting hybridity and “linguistic multivocality” can reinterpret political and cultural discourse and therefore “dislocate” colonization. For Asian Americans, Bhabha’s strategy means that all the diverse Asian American voices must be heard in order to destabilize orientalist representations of Asians (Lisa Lowe also suggests this inImmigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics [1996]). Therefore the perspectives of ethnic immigrant, fifth generation, pan-ethnic, multi-racial, gay, evangelical, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. Asians Americans all must be given room to flourish.

In her classic essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) Spivak coined the term “strategic essentialism,” which is a temporary solidarity for the purpose of unified social action. Orientalism and other binary oppositions “essentializes” or stereotypes people. While recognizing the danger of “essentialism” she believes that there is still a need to speak on behalf of a group using a clear image of identity to fight opposition and to recover and represent the “subaltern” voice. In the United States, it means that Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Southeast and South Asians, who have not historically shared the predominant East Asian American experience, still ought to provisionally unite under an Asian American umbrella to overcome racial discrimination and other injustices.

I’m tempted to label Bhabha’s approach yin and Spivak’s yang. Both are necessary parts of the process of creating Asian American representations that more accurately reflect our realities or aspirations. Unifying the diverse Asian American evangelical community is necessary for a common cause such as protesting Deadly Viper. But the beautiful diversity within the Asian American evangelical community must also be embraced as a way to move beyond stereotypical representations. It’s not easy because most of us still unconsciously harbor stereotypical representations of ourselves and others, yet never discuss them openly. Unfortunately, the temptation for many Asian American evangelicals is to “leap-frog” the question of representation.

So how then shall Asian American evangelicals represent? Let’s encourage mainstream evangelical institutions to provide space for Asian Americans, in partnership with others, to create new images. A few mainline seminaries (Princeton, McCormick, and Pacific School of Religion) have created Asian American programs. But no evangelical seminary has developed such a program (some have Asian language programs). Unless there is a mass movement of Asian American evangelicals into these mainline Protestant seminaries, evangelical seminaries will be the next arena where Asian American representation is debated and created. There is evidence that evangelical seminaries are beginning to respond to Spivak’s warning that “to refuse to represent a cultural Other is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework.” Asian American consumers of evangelical theological education must decide for themselves whether it is worth their effort to struggle to create Asian representation within these settings.

The other option would be to create better Asian representation within Asian American organizations. Will Asian language seminaries and immigrant congregations be the sites for creating cultural representation in the future? A few such as Logos Evangelical Seminary are trying. But it remains to be seen since most Asian American evangelical organizations still model themselves after Western Christianity. Our efforts at the Institution for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC) [] are precisely for this purpose – to create a better representation of Asian American Christians than is currently available. The recent publication of the Asian American Christianity Reader [] is our initial effort to encourage Asian American representation. Not many of the Asian American anti-Viper evangelical leaders have paid much attention to the Reader. But at some point, for the sake of the next generation of Asian American evangelicals and the wider church, I hope that they will also embrace the call to create Asian American representation.

I believe Andy Crouch’s call for Christians to be “culture makers” especially applies to Asian American evangelicals (see Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling [2008]). In order to secure a future where Asian American evangelicals are able to fully participate in the Church and contribute to the common good, we must not only protest damaging representations, but also create new ones in theology, history, ministry, worship, and artistic expressions.

– Timothy Tseng • December 4, 2009

Look before you leap!

Posted on the ISAAC blog on Nov 20, 2009 []

As ISAAC’s most productive program year draws to a close this Thanksgiving, we are grateful for all of our supporters. We have learned many lessons. The one that stood out most to me is the necessity of resisting the urge to “leap-frog” Asian America. Asian American Christians are used to being “leap-frogged” by the academia, seminaries, and mainstream church anyway. After all, Asia is considered more exciting, exotic, and enticing than Asian America. Many well meaning friends have urged ISAAC to become more international because of the availability of greater resources. I agree that there is great benefit to engaging an emerging Asian Christianity. My research, teaching, and ministry interests have broadened to include Asia, but for ISAAC, it would be a mistake to “leap-frog” Asian America.

Because Asian American Christians are so deeply impacted by being “leap-frogged,” we are tempted to evade our own experiences in North America. It is easier to “leap-frog” challenges such as intergenerational church conflicts and diversity or poverty, racism, and other social ills in the wider American society. Today, the average South and East Asian immigrant family and their children have “leap-frogged” the inner city and settled in the suburbs. The average immigrant pastor is ill-equipped to minister to inter-generational congregations, having “leap-frogged” any training about the North American context. The average North American Asian Christian is encouraged to participate in cross-cultural ministries overseas or in urban America but “leap-frogs” the Asian American experience. The average Asian seminary professor is trained in Western theological education but is more comfortable with Asia as his or her primary context, thus “leap-frogging” Asian American Christian communities. The average university Asian American studies program “leap-frogs” Christian studies. Most Asian American evangelicals “leap-frog” the Asian American experience because they are taught that culture is to be avoided because it is sinful or that Christianity is beyond culture.

The “leap-frogging” phenomenan goes on and on – even in my personal experiences. I’ve discovered that I’m more valuable to colleges and seminaries when I teach about Asia or the traditional Euro-American curriculum, but not Asian American religion. Many of my second-third generation Asian American friends have told me that they would rather address multi-cultural issues and question ISAAC’s focus on Asian Americans. Most of my immigrant friends focus solely on Asia because they believe that the need is greater there. In the end, Asian American Christianity always winds up being more frog than prince. Is it any wonder that Asian American Christian leaders find it easier to “leap-frog” their Asian American experience?

But the truth is that “leap-frogging” Asian America is short-sighted and hurts everyone – not just Asian Americans. We’ve already witnessed the pain caused by Zondervan’s Deadly Viper curriculum that was quickly cancelled after protests by Asian American evangelical leaders. To me the biggest problem with Deadly Viper was that its authors “leap-frogged” real Asians by using pop culture representations of Asians without realizing that these images have been used in demeaning ways. Reinforcing these particularly stereotypes (which arguably may be better than “heathen” stereotypes) will render American evangelicals culturally incompetent in a global and multi-cultural world. But wait a minute! Acculturated Asian Americans also “leap-frog” when they reinforce stereotypes of immigrant church leaders as authoritarian and backward-looking. Indeed, Dr. Jonathan Tran expressed this concern during his lecture at the Asian American symposium co-sponsored by ISAAC and Fuller Seminary earlier this month. Have Asian American Christians who define themselves as over against, leaving behind, and separating from immigrant churches “leap-frogged” Asian America? Many immigrant leaders, on the other hand, “leap-frog” by romanticizing Asia, disrespecting Asian Americans, and condemning American culture. So when Zondervan invites Asian American leaders to advise them on future publications, I hope that these leaders are not “leap-froggers.” I hope that they have taken time to engage and learn about Asian Americans more fully before they are asked to represent Asian Americans. “Leap-frogging” leaves stereotypes in place, but does little to change them. It is one thing to protest negative stereotypes, it is another to create a more realistic and positive representations of Asian Americans.

We cannot afford to conveniently “leap-frog” uncomfortable situations. All of ISAAC’s work this year – our publications, co-sponsored lectures at U.C. Berkeley and University of San Francisco, the symposium at Fuller, consultations with congregations, pastoral support groups, and advocacy for research – is about Asian American Christian culture making, for the sake of the Church and the world. We invite our current Asian American Christian leaders to join us. We challenge the next generation to stay and build. It has not been not easy for us at ISAAC, but we are glad that we resisted the temptation to “leap-frog” Asian America. Instead, join us in kissing the frog! Who knows – it may be nobility in the making!

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tim Tseng

The late Ron Takaki, Him Mark Lai, and other influencers

Posted on the ISAAC blog on June 4, 2009 []

The passing of several important scholars in this past year has given me occasion to pause and reflect. Robert Handy, an American Baptist church historian, and Kosuke Koyama, theologian and advocate for Asian contextualized theology, passed away earlier this year. Both were strong influences for me while I was at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Handy encouraged me to enter the Ph.D. program in history of Christianity when I was uncertain of my scholarly abilities. Dr. Koyama served on my dissertation committee and encouraged me to enter the academy. I’m grateful for both of these men because they showed me that one could be both a scholar and church leader.

Three important historians passed away recently as well. I did not know John Hope Franklin (January 2, 1915 – March 25, 2009) or Ron Takaki (April 12, 1939- May 26, 2009) personally. I’ve corresponded with Him Mark Lai (Nov. 1, 1925- May 21, 2009) on a few occasions. These three historians profoundly shaped my thinking about race and multi-culturalism in America. Through them, I  learned not only about the hidden histories of African Americans and Asian Americans, but also how to reframe American history through the perspectives and experiences of racialized peoples. Him Mark Lai’s grassroots approach to Chinese American history linked colleges to local ethnic communities and challenged the elitism of university education. Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore, his much acclaimed  history of Asian Americans, demonstrated that the racial landscape of American history was always diverse – even before the landmark 1965 Immigration Act that allowed Asians to immigrant on an equal basis as European immigrants.

Furthermore, Takaki and other Civil Rights Era historians (they used to be called revisionist historians) also began to ask why ethnic and racial diversity were not reflected in American histories and popular culture.  The first book by Takaki that I read was Iron Cages, a sophisticated analysis of the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of white privilege in 19th century American culture. Before it became common to employ Edward Said’s Orientalism as a theoretical tool for analyzing Euro-American texts, Takaki demonstrated that paying close attention to historical documents can yield powerful critical interpretations of the use of privilege and power to create racial differences and hierarchies. Today, Soong-chan Rah’s scathing criticism of Western, white privilege in American evangelicalism [see his The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity, 2009)] will not make many white evangelicals happy, but that critique rests on the solid work of historians like Franklin, Takaki, and Lai [as well as some sociologists who see it operating in multi-racial settings today. See my review of Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005) 185 pp. ISBN: 0814722245 at:]

Their passing comes at a critical time for Asian American Christians – especially evangelicals. Our most thoughtful Asian American evangelical leaders don’t really know what to do with these historians from the Civil Rights Era. Asian American evangelicals tend not to think about their ethnic identities or public issues affecting Asian Americans – the very issues that Civil Rights Era historians focused on. Acting as if the model minority myth is reality, many embrace individualism, consumerism, and materialism (the other aspects of Western Cultural captivity that Rah critiques). Even those who are passionate about missions or social justice leap-frog the Asian American experience. Further complicating the Civil Rights narratives  is an increasing scholarly recognition that racial identities are more fluid, transnational, and complex than they were understood to be a generation ago. All this, along with the reality of multi-racial marriages, a growing number of hapachildren, greater Asian American social mobility, and a general embrace of racial non-recognition and globalization have challenged the the anti-discriminatory vision of Civil Rights Era historians. Is it any wonder that many of our Asian American evangelical leaders have a difficult time bridging past and present?

So what should  church leaders, theological educators, scholars, business and non-profit leaders do? Shall we repress the past as leaders in China appear determined to do on this 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests? Shall we ignore history and move on because the past is not directly relevant to our ministry, research, business, career, or causes? Or shall we continue to remind this generation and our children of the sins of human history such as the Holocaust, the Nanking massacre, the Japanese American concentration camps, Jim and Jane Crow, etc.? Leaders today are entrusted with the souls and the aspirations of the next generation. It is easy to write off the voices of the past as irrelevant for this generation and the future. But the responsible leader in Asian American settings will attend to the lessons of Lai, Takaki, and Koyama.

– Tim Tseng

* * *

May 31, 2009
Ronald Takaki, a Scholar on Ethnicity, Dies at 70

Ronald Takaki, who made it his life’s work to rewrite American history to include Asian-Americans and other ethnic groups excluded from traditional accounts and who helped start the first doctoral program in ethnic studies in the United States, died Tuesday in his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 70.

The cause was suicide, said his son Troy. He battled multiple sclerosis for years. “He struggled, and then he gave up,” his son said.

Mr. Takaki, whose Japanese grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in the 19th century and worked on a sugarcane plantation, became a leading scholar of ethnicity and multiculturalism in works that challenged ethnic stereotypes and chronicled struggles of non-European immigrants.

His works like “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” (1993) became seminal texts in emerging fields that he helped institutionalize by establishing a doctoral program in ethnic studies in 1984 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for 30 years.

Don T. Nakanishi, the director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Berkeley Web site: “Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America’s multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and world.”

Ronald Toshiyuki Takaki was born in Honolulu and, in his youth, spent most of his time surfing. On the beach, he was known as Ten-Toes Takaki for his hang-ten style.

He found his vocation while earning a bachelor’s degree in history at the College of Wooster in Ohio. While in Ohio he married Carol Rankin, who survives him. Besides his son Troy, of Los Angeles, he is also survived by another son, Todd, of El Cerrito, Calif.; a daughter, Dana Takaki of Chester, Conn.; a brother, Michael Young of Thousand Oaks, Calif.; a sister, Janet Wong of Chatsworth, Calif.; and seven grandchildren.

He continued his education at Berkeley, where he earned a master’s degree in 1962 and a doctorate in history in 1967. He was deeply influenced by the Free Speech movement at the university and by the civil rights struggles in the South. “I was born intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the ’60s,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.

He wrote a dissertation on slavery in the United States and returned to the subject in his first book, published in 1971, “A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade.”

At U.C.L.A., Mr. Takaki taught the university’s first black-history course, created in response to the Watts riots. When a student asked what revolutionary tools he would be teaching, Mr. Takaki said: “We’re going to strengthen our critical thinking and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so.”

In 1971 he became the first full-time teacher in Berkeley’s new ethnic studies department, where he taught a highly influential survey course that took a comparative approach in describing racism as experienced by different ethnic groups in the United States. In addition to helping establish the graduate program in ethnic studies, he helped put in place the requirement that all undergraduates take a course intended to broaden their understanding of racial and ethnic diversity. He retired in 2003.

His many books include “Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America” (1979), “Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” (1989), “Democracy and Race: Asian Americans and World War II” (1995) and “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II” (2000).

* * *

May 22, 2009

UCLA Asian American Studies Center
Him Mark Lai: Dean of Chinese American History, Passes (1925-2009)

Him Mark Lai, the internationally noted scholar, writer, and “Dean of Chinese American History” was born on November 1, 1925 in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  His ten books, more than 100 essays, and research in English and Chinese on all aspects of Chinese American life are published and cited in the U.S., the Americas, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Lai was a member of Amerasia Journal’s editorial board for more than 30 years and a contributing writer.  Among his works published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press are: A History Reclaimed: An Annotated Bibliography of Chinese Language Materials on the Chinese of America (1986); in 2000 Amerasia Journal published his autobiographical essay: “Musings of a Chinese American Historian.”

With the writer Ruthanne Lum McCunn, historian Judy Yung, and editor Russell C. Leong serving as the co-editors, the UCLA Asian American Center Press will be publishing his autobiography in 2009-2010.

* * *

Him Mark Lai was born in San Francisco Chinatown to immigrant parents from Nam Hoi District, Guangzhou, and attended local schools including Francisco Junior High, Nam Kue Chinese School, and was graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering and until his retirement worked for Bechtel Corporation.

In late 1949, he began volunteering for Chung Sai Yat Po, the first daily paper to support the People’s Republic of China, and became a member of organizations active in persuading students to return to China to serve the new government.  He also joined the Chinese American Democratic Youth League, more familiarly known as Mun Ching, where he met Laura Jung, a new immigrant, whom he married in 1953.

According to Ruthanne Lum McCunn:

“Lai joined the Chinese Historical Society of America soon after its founding in 1963.  These events, together with contemporaneous changes in the status of minorities spurred by the Civil Rights movement, led Lai towards developing a Chinese American identity, and in 1967, he accepted a proposal by Maurice Chuck, editor of the bilingual East/West, the Chinese American Weekly to write a series of articles on Chinese American history.  This marked the beginning of Lai’s career in reclaiming the Chinese/American experience-a fortuitous confluence of his passion for history and his deep commitment to his bicultural heritage and democratic principles.

His East/West articles – revised and annotated-became the cornerstone for the classic A History of the Chinese in California, A Syllabus, co-edited with Thomas W. Chin and Philip P. Choy, as well as the basis for the first Chinese American history course in the United States, which Lai team taught with Choy at San Francisco State College in Fall 1969 and which resulted in another classic Outlines: History of the Chinese in America.  Lai’s first scholarly essay, “A Historical Survey of Organizations of the Left Among the Chinese in America,” published in the Fall 1972 issue of theBulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars – together with subsequent revisions-remains a standard reference.  So do Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, co-authored/translated with Genny Lim and Judy Yung; Lai’s “Chinese on the Continental U.S.” in theHarvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups; his From Overseas Chinese to Chinese American: a History of the Development of Chinese during the Twentieth Century (in Chinese) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Overseas and Huaquiao Huaren baike quanshu [Encyclopedia of Chinese and people of Chinese descent overseas];  his studies of Chinese newspapers and schools, district associations, and communities in the Pearl River Delta.”

Indeed, almost every researcher or scholar who has studied Chinese Americans during the past forty years is indebted to Him Mark Lai’s pioneering and lifelong work based on primary Chinese-language sources.  According to editor Russell C. Leong, “Him Mark Lai gave Chinese Americans a voice in history because he listened to ordinary people both in America and China and trained himself to read what they felt and thought–in the Chinese language. His legacy challenges us to listen, to think, and to feel more deeply–to untangle, to clarify, and to refine the historical and political record of our lives here.”

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center is also grateful for Him Mark Lai’s support of the work of others as a long-standing member of the editorial committees of Amerasia Journal and of Chinese America: History & Perspectives, the two leading scholarly journals which have collectively published the most materials on Asian Americans and Chinese Americans during the past four decades.

-Russell C. Leong
Editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA

* * *

Union Mourns Professor Emeritus Kosuke Koyama, Intercultural Theologian

The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Ecumenical Studies, died on March 25, 2009, at BayState Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was 79. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, said his son, Mark.

During the 16 years he taught at Union Theological Seminary, Koyama made a name for himself as an important figure in the development of global Christianity.

He was an early proponent of multiculturalism and religious pluralism, long before those terms came into common parlance. He taught courses in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – and showed students how these faiths could inform Christian commitment.

“I feel a mission to teach about different religious traditions,” Koyama said. “I think it’s the Christian thing to do.”

Chris Herlinger, a 1993 Union MA graduate whose work with the humanitarian agency Church World Service has taken him to numerous predominately Muslim countries, said Professor Koyama was “way ahead of the curve in having students look beyond the limits of our own faith borders.

“A full decade before 9/11 and its aftermath, Professor Koyama was almost alone at Union in alerting us to the realities of religious pluralism in the world. I’m not sure everybody fully understood or appreciated that at the time, but I think we do now.”

Kosuke Koyama, known as “Ko” to his friends, was born in Tokyo on December 10, 1929, at a time when Japan was already active against Manchuria and China. He survived the bombings, violence, and destruction of the war years, and later wrote that he was baptized “not so much from an awareness of my personal sinfulness as from the immediate experience of the destruction of my country by war.

“The minister who baptized me told me that the God of the Bible is concerned about the wellbeing of all nations, even including Japan and America,” he wrote. “To hear this at the same time that we were being bombed by America was quite startling. This was my first ecumenical lesson.”

Koyama graduated from Tokyo Union Theological Seminary in 1952. He then chose to pursue his theological studies in the United States. At Drew Theological School he earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree cum laude in 1954, and at Princeton Theological Seminary he completed the Th.M. and Th.D. in 1959. (He would later refer to his nascent thinking at Drew and Princeton as his “New Jersey theology.”)

Upon graduating from Princeton with a dissertation on Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms, Koyama was sent by the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) as a missionary to the Church of Christ in Thailand. As Dale T. Irvin wrote in his introduction to The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kōsuke Koyama (a festschrift presented to Koyama on the occasion of his retirement from Union), in Thailand Koyama “found himself exploring a theology that began not with Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or Karl Barth, but with the needs of farmers among whom he worked. Out of this commitment to being a neighbor to the northern Thai farmers was born the ‘waterbuffalo theology’ that would permanently enter the name of Koyama in the register of twentieth century contextual theologies.”

In 1968 Koyama moved to Singapore to take up the position of dean of the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGST), which had come into being two years earlier − an outcome of a historic theological education consultation held in Bangkok in 1956. At this conference, Koyama later wrote, “We consciously began the process of decolonization of theology. The selfhood of the Asian church became a subject of serious discussion.”

At SEAGST, “All of the professors were people of two cultures (‘fork and chopsticks’). We explored together the nature and limits of cultural accommodation of the Gospel not from the North Atlantic theological perspective but from the contexts of diverse local cultures in Asia.”

In 1974 Koyama was appointed Senior Lecturer in Phenomenology of Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. It was there that he received a phone call from the Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver, Jr., then Union’s president, inviting him to become Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity. The first Asian appointed to the faculty at the Seminary, Koyama began teaching there in February 1980. He was later installed as the first incumbent of the newly established John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Chair in Ecumenics and World Christianity.

At Union Koyama had a profound effect on both his students and colleagues. “To say that Kosuke Koyama made his imprint on ecumenical church meetings, in unnumbered intercultural theological dialogues, and in intense classroom discussions at Union and around the world, is to forge an understatement,” Dr. Shriver wrote about Koyama’s years at the Seminary. “In his quiet, persistent way of speaking and writing, humor which cloaked his seriousness, fidelity to Gospel teaching, and readiness to listen long before he crafted another of his eloquent metaphors, he was an exemplary educator and Christian witness to all who knew him.”

And New York had a profound effect on Koyama. There he encountered Jews and African Americans for the first time, an experience that forced him to respond theologically to “the fact of enormous violence suffered by these two peoples.” He sensed, he said, “that my identity would be directly threatened if I did not come to terms with the twofold encounter… The experience of blacks and Jews challenged the heart of the Christian faith as I understood it at that time.”

Throughout his life Koyama went from encounter to encounter, hammering each into a contextual theological endeavor. He beat swords into plowshares, evoking King Zedekiah – “his eyes torn out, and taken into exile.” He wrote about a theology of the cross “in which love, becoming completely vulnerable to violence, conquers violence.” He carried on a deep theological dialogue with Buddhism, studied Judaism and Islam, and again and again returned to reflect upon the encounter between East and West.

When he stepped down as Professor Emeritus in 1996, he said he didn’t like the word “retire” and preferred, instead, to think of himself as “reappearing” through “new empowerment from the Holy Ghost.” He continued his encountering and endeavoring to the end.

In a final tribute, to Koyama, his former student Dale Irvin, now President of New York Theological Seminary, offered this remembrance:

“Koyama once remarked to me that one reason he enjoyed reading a particular work by Thomas Merton was that he could pick it up and begin reading anywhere, in any direction, and the book still made sense to him. Koyama found in Merton’s work a profound circularity in which beginning and end met in a cosmological rather than eschatological way.

“The logic was not linear and progressive, but circular and unfolding. Perhaps the same can be said of the life of Kosuke Koyama. It remains an unfolding event, circulating from the global to the local and back to the global dimensions, dancing between the cosmological and the eschatological dimensions of religious life, yet doing so with a certain agitation as he seeks to follow the God who spoke from the Mountain.

“Koyama is with that God now, and with the Christ he so passionately followed in his life,” Irvin concluded. “I am sure they are dancing together.”

Kosuke Koyama is survived by his wife of 50 years, Lois Koyama, and his children: James, who lives in Honolulu; Elizabeth, who lives in Moscow; and Mark, who lives in Western Massachusetts. He is also survived by his five grandchildren: Matthew, Isabel, Sophie, Amos and Silas.

Read President Emeritus Donald W. Shriver’s tribute to Prof. Koyama.

* * *
Union Mourns Robert T. Handy, Church Historian
Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary

The Rev. Dr. Robert T. Handy, Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, died at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community in West Caldwell, New Jersey, on January 8. He was 90 years old.

During the 36 years he taught at the Seminary, Handy made a name for himself as an impressive scholar of American church history, an exceptional teacher, and a gifted administrator.

“From the very first I knew him to be one of a cluster of faculty who could be counted on always to put the good of the school above their own good,” said former UTS president Donald W. Shriver, Jr.  As a member of Union’s presidential search committee, Handy in 1975 had helped to bring Shriver to Union.  Shriver in turn appointed Handy dean of the faculty in 1976, a post Handy held for two years.

“By the end of those two years, he felt obliged to return to full time teaching of church history,” Shriver reminisced recently in an email, “but by then he had restored many fractured relationships among faculty, administration, students and board.

“Bob was a born reconciler,” Shriver continued.  “He brought to academic work the skills and commitments of a Baptist pastor as well as the training of a disciplined scholar.  His is a combination rare in the halls of academe, rare among human beings, too.”

Handy’s students and colleagues have long since acknowledged him as a leading historian of American church history.  His work on church and state, on religious liberty, on nineteenth-century attempts to establish a “Christian America,” and his labor with fellow Union professors David W. Lotz and Richard A. Norris, Jr., in revising and updating Williston Walker’s standard, A History of the Christian Church, produced books that are still in use and considered classics.  Among his great contributions to the Seminary was A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York, published in 1987 as part of Union’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Handy’s tenure at Union as a member of both the faculty and the administration gave him particular insight into the critical issues affecting the Seminary during his time.  He also successfully illuminated events of other eras of Union’s past, particularly the troubled times of the Charles A. Briggs trial in the late nineteenth century.  An exacting and tireless researcher, Handy spent countless hours in the Seminary’s archives, fact-checking details and building on the work of earlier scholars of Union’s history, among them former Union president Henry Sloane Coffin and faculty members G.L. Prentiss and Charles R. Gillett.  The result was a readable and entertaining history, both objective and accurate, yet tempered by Handy’s respect and affection for the sons and daughters of Union Seminary.

Robert Handy was born on June 30, 1918 in Rockville, Connecticut and attended Brown University, where he majored in European history and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1940.  He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (later upgraded to a Master of Divinity) at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in 1943.  He was ordained a Baptist minister in May of that year.

At the time, Handy was still looking for a way to combine his two interests, history and the church, into one vocation.  “A congregation in Illinois,” he later wrote, “which I then served as minister for two years, enabled me to take some courses at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago ‘to fill some gaps.’

“At first I had no plans to earn a further degree,” he continued, “but a wise dean advised me to put whatever work I did on a doctoral program anyway…  Then, during an interim of nearly two years while I was serving as an Army chaplain, I concluded that my attraction to both ministry and historical scholarship could come together in the role of church historian.”

After leaving the Army, Handy returned to Chicago Divinity School, where he completed his doctorate in 1949.  The following year he was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary for a three-year term, “primarily to assist John T. McNeil and Paul Tillich in their foundational surveys of church history and the history of Christian thought, but also to teach courses in the modern and American periods.

“Little did I know that the three years would stretch into twelve times that number to the time of retirement,” he later marveled.  Handy’s full reflections on his career were published in Religious Studies Review in April 1993.  He taught at Union from 1950 to 1986, retiring as Henry Sloane Coffin Professor of Church History.

In 1989, Handy’s colleagues and former students published a festschrift in his honor, Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America 1935-1985.  While not a conventional festschrift because the contributors were not all former students of his, nor were they all professional historians, the volume celebrated  the man all the contributors considered their mentor.

“Every one of them… knows his or her indebtedness to the lifelong scholarly career of Robert Handy,” wrote the book’s editors in the preface.  They went on to praise “his strict adherence to the technical canons of historical inquiry, his sensitivity to the practical needs of Christian people, his signal labors on behalf of a sophisticated understanding of American church history, and his appreciation for the conceptual ties of history with many other disciplines.”

Teacher, author, colleague, friend, spiritual helper – Handy was all these and more.  “We know that as a historian he loves the truth of history,” the editors concluded.  “He loves as well the people who make history.  Indeed, among those scholars whom we know, we know of none who better joins the love of truth to the truth of love.”

Peggy Shriver, wife of the president emeritus, had this to say: “Once a student of Bob Handy, always a student of Bob Handy!  He cared for them, nurtured them, was solicitous of their careers and lives, and was always ready to be helpful and encouraging.

“Although I was never his student,” she went on, “I sometimes turned to him in my position as Assistant General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.  So I know how kindly and helpful he could be.  I also know how important he was to my husband during those early years of leading the seminary through some difficult times.”

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