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We’ve asked Tim Tseng, a historian and pastor, to guide us Asian American evangelicals through the intersections of Asia America, Asian American Studies and the Asian American Movement and Asian American Christians. This is one interview of five related to Asian America and Asian American Christians.
Tim on Asian American Christians and AA Studies
According to Justin Tse, Asian American Studies is of two minds about Christianity: it’s either the opiate of the masses, or it gave us some power. My impression of Asian American Christians is that many are apolitical, and they’re really turned off by Asian American Studies. Is that a fair impression?
Asian American Christians just have never really engaged Asian American Studies.
I think there is another story that needs to come out—and I’m hypothesizing now, as the scholarly community has yet to compile enough data to verify this. When the Asian American community was a grassroots movement, but not yet a university movement, Asian American Christians from mainline churches were heavily involved. For example, Russell Leong, retired editor of AmerAsia Journal and a pioneer in Asian American Studies, grew up in a church setting. Professor Emeritus Ling-Chi Wang was a seminary student just prior to his pioneering effort to establish Asian American Studies at U.C. Berkeley. Many of the founders of the Asian American movement at the grassroots level came from Japanese and Chinese mainline churches.
My hypothesis is this: When Asian American Studies Movement became more identified with universities in the late 1970s and 1980s, that was when the children of post-1965 Asian evangelical immigrants started to come of age. These immigrants bypassed the mainline churches and planted their own evangelical and very ethnic-centric churches. So they never really had a real life experience of the Asian American grassroots movement in the mainline church networks. So they never experienced or learned about the politicized and race-based concept of Asian American-ness from the English-speaking, Americanized grassroots movement leaders. Their only sense of being Asian American was in their ethnic churches and in the gospel that was preached there. The gospel that was preached in these churches, by the way, may have been culturally indigenous, but shared the same “colorblind” and socially disengaged approaches of the prevailing evangelical ethos. (See Hussein Rashad’s article in Sojourners, “Why the ‘Post-Racial’ Label Only Perpetuates Racism”)
If they weren’t exposed to activism in their churches, wouldn’t many have been exposed to it in college?
A large majority of Asian Americans (Christian or otherwise) have never taken Asian American Studies classes. Many didn’t even go the humanities route as most chose to stay in STEMS programs: science, technology, engineering and math.
So where did they ever learn this stuff except what they’ve heard anecdotally? And what did they hear? I assume what most heard was the national rhetoric about race that dominated by Black and White binary discourse. Or that America is (or ought to be) a multicultural society that tolerates or embraces different groups. They also heard the right wing responses to identity-politics [which were largely colorblind “Horatio Alger” type stories]. I suspect that Asian American young people, in general, gave equal credence to all these perspectives. But none of these conversations could provide an adequate framework for understanding Asian American identity, history, and place in the United States. The effectiveness of Asian American Studies depended largely on how ready students were to embrace an unpopular critical analysis of race in American society. Not that many were.
Few Christians have engaged Asian American Studies’ critical and conceptual awareness of what was really happening in a racialized society. Asian American evangelicals who actually took ethnic studies classes are probably the ones who are most outspoken now because they were conscientized and wanted to do something about the marginalization of Asian Americans.
But Asian American Studies, with its sophisticated theories also seemed disconnected from our actual lives…
[See Tim’s answer in this interview.]
You say also elsewhere that “Asian American” is a term activists created and scholars later adapted as their contribution to the cause. If we weren’t exposed to Asian American Studies or mainline church activism, then how did some of us come to call ourselves “Asian Americans?”
The reason why is because we borrowed from the generic and public usage of the term “Asian American” since the 1980s. By then the term was in the process of being domesticated by the media as strictly a demographic moniker. It contrasted sharply from the way the Asian American Movement had framed it. Even if Asian Americans never took an ethnic studies class when they went to college, the idea was in the air. They’d go to college and see these Asian American student clubs, [African American student clubs etc]. So racialization was something they couldn’t consciously control; they realized that they were being identified as Asian Americans.
What do you think about the ones who embraced it? Sometimes I sense a fear or a look of disgust from some Asian American Christians at the mention Asian American Studies. Is that fear warranted?
I think that Asian American Studies can de-christianize people. Rather, de-Westernize Asian American Christians.
So one of the problems is that Asian American Studies can portray religion, in particular, Christianity, in a negative light. Some scholars, teachers, and students can make you feel that in order to become a real Asian American, you have to reject the Western Christian colonization of your brain (Western equals Christian according to their analyses). Consequently many young people who grew up in church reject their faith and/or adopt community activism when they imbibe Asian American Studies. Asian American identity and empowerment replaces their evangelical convictions. So for example, [playwright] David Henry Hwang, grew up in a Chinese evangelical church. He left his faith because he became more conscious of his Asian American identity. A generation of people grew up with this perspective. I admit that I also shared this view at one time.
Asian American Studies, in contrast to African American and Latino Studies, has only recently embraced the study of religion. Without disrespecting the integrity of Asian religions or secularists, one of the biggest challenges we face is to convince scholars and students that Christianity should no longer be equated with Western colonial culture. It has a far more nuanced relationship with, and in many instances a very critical view of European history and Whiteness.
So it’s a threat because you can lose your soul?
Yes, yes. That reaction seems to always be there. But usually this reaction comes from those who fail to understand what Asian American Studies is about.
My personal view on this is that Asian American Studies, when it is not contextualized or nuanced properly, can be very dangerous. It can give people the impression that the most important purpose in life is to create intellectual space for Asian American Studies. While I agree that this is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be the total purpose in life. But for many folks in the field, religious commitment is denigrated and considered a danger to the task of establishing intellectual and political space for Asian Americans. Many community activists would also agree that the empowerment of the Asian American community excludes Christian communities and commitments because the latter competes for the attention, energy, and time of Asian Americans.
I think the danger is that if you’re not theologically sophisticated enough to dance through those assumptions, you can wind up questioning your faith or converting your faith into activism or academic work. These are not necessarily the safest places to work out your faith.
On the other hand, Asian American Christians who have completely bought into a de-contextualized (or color-blind) theology are also a danger. By completely rejecting or dismissing the insights from Asian American Studies, they unwittingly perpetuate the Western colonization and White supremacist heresy within the Christian faith. I’ve written about the importance of contextualization in my earlier posts [here and here] and about the study of Christian history. Asian Americans Studies can be the best dialogue partner for the development of contextual theology and ministry within Asian American settings.
That’s why I started ISAAC back in 2006. Our founders believed that we needed a place where Christians and Asian American Evangelicals could learn how to navigate the questions raised by Asian American Studies. We also believed that Asian American Christians needed space to discuss their own identity and issues within the wider American church contexts. Within the church, on one hand, we offered to help believers navigate and talk about Asian American contexts. On the other hand, we sought to create space to talk about Christianity within Asian American academic communities. In the end, we believed that the Asian American Movement and Studies did not have to have an adversarial relationship with Asian American Christianity. Though I’m no longer with ISAAC, this remains the core of my calling.
Those Christians who feel threatened are not being“theologically sophisticated enough.” What do you mean by this?
Asian American Studies is a threat to a comfortable, shallow, unreflective Christian identity. A parallel can be seen among Christians who see evolutionary theory and the separation of church and state as threats. Thoughtful Christians who care deeply about their faith and engage the challenges of our cultural and intellectual contexts don’t see these as threats. They are able to find ways for Christian faith to co-exist with and enhance so-called “competing” worldviews.
Similarly, many Asian American Christians feel threatened by a race or ethnic-focused social analysis because they are simply too comfortable with a Euro-centric (but seemingly “colorblind”) faith, biblical interpretation, and theology. Others who are more attuned to contextualization dislike the overtly political angle that Asian American Studies brings to the conversation. They believe that worldly politics do not belong in the church. While I respect the latter view, it is naive to believe that the power dynamics that operate in our society do not exist within the Church. Rather than exempt Christians from addressing structural injustices within the Church, we should be the most self-aware and critical of them since judgement begins in the household of the Lord (1 Peter 4:17).
But this means that we need to engage, not avoid or dismiss, the challenges presented by the Asian American Movement and Asian American Studies. If Asian American Studies has led anyone away from Christ, it is because Christians have failed to listen and provide a positive response.
There are some who embrace both like IV (InterVarsity) people.
I think IV is unique among evangelicals in that its theological posture does not usually begin on the defense. It does not view the Kingdom of God to be in utter opposition to the world. IV’s philosophy has always been to engage the intellectual climate of the day rather than just reacting to it. Many other Christians feel that we have to preserve our Christian faith and Christian truth in very strident ways. Thus, anything that is taught outside acceptable evangelical theology is an enemy to the faith and needs to be knocked down and destroyed. IV was never like that—it always had a more holistic theology that affirmed all truth to be God’s truth. So that’s the key theological pivot point. If you were raised in IV, and someone comes to you and says, Asian American Studies is important, an IV person would say “let’s talk about that.” Whereas some other Christians might say, “Away with you! You either do it my way, or I won’t have anything to do with you.” So the IV people were early adapters and able to make the change, based on their ability to read the changing contexts of campus life.
There’s Cru’s Epic, and lots of other groups recently that seem to be taking on this mantle…
Yes, they are all trying now because they’ve realized they have to.
How are they did they make this realization?
It might be a generational thing. When I teach and preach these days, I’ve noticed younger people are much more open to discussions about inclusivity and contextualization. The older generation tended to say, “we need to guard our faith.” The younger generation seem to be saying “we don’t have to focus on guarding the faith. Let Jesus do it.” So I think there’s currently a division in the heart of many conservative Christians. The younger generation is pushing them to become more open, more open to contextualization—and the older ones are holding back.
Why are these newer millennials feeling more open?
I would even go as far back as Generation X. A whole generation has been raised on the gradual acceptance of multiculturalism of America. And recognizing and hearing forever that the center of Christianity is moving from the North to Africa. So this generation has been raised with the understanding that Christianity is no longer exclusively a white western European phenomenon.
But isn’t it true that not all younger Asian Americans are sympathetic to ethnic identity issues?
Yes. I’ve also observed that many, many Asian American young adults are not open to these discussions. I blame this on the narrow, color-blind teachings that they have received from many of today’s popular fundamentalist preachers.
Furthermore, many Asian immigrant churches don’t really address the issues raised by Asian American Studies. For example, the Chinese churches know that their ethnic identity and experience as minorities in the U.S. matter. But they don’t deal with it because they no longer care if Christianity is perceived as a Western colonial religion. Many either idolize Western missionaries for bringing the gospel and are so comfortable with their indigenized expression of Christianity that they rarely think about the challenges that their children face in American society. Furthermore, so many of their kids have uncritically embraced a color-blind faith that they don’t hear this issue. It’s not their issue.
The issue of Chinese churches is that they want to spread the Gospel?
Yes, to the Chinese!
I bet you if you ask them about it, they’ll say, “We know. We know that the de-Westernization of Christianity and Asian American issues are out there. They are just not relevant to us.”
How would you answer them? How does spreading the Gospel connect to all this Asian American Studies stuff? How is it relevant to glorifying God? Isn’t it all about the Great Commission?
Isn’t it all about the Great Commission and making disciples of all nations!?! How do you do that? The vision is the same. The process cannot be done through the traditional colonial approach which is akin to saying “I’m going to bring my gospel and unconsciously impose my culture and make everyone like me.” That colonial approach to the Great Commission is ineffective, unbiblical and immoral.
So you’re saying that so much emphasis on saving souls is a colonial approach; it’s very narrow and blind to its own context?
I would say, not narrow, but it’s really too colonial. It unconsciously imports the evangelist’s cultural baggage and tries to make everyone a clone. I don’t think this is intentional but it does happen. This happens with many Korean and Chinese pastors too. Wherever they go they do the same thing. For instance, immigrant pastors who don’t learn how to do contextual theology and ministry are inept at relating to the next generation and the wider American scene. As a result, too many Korean and Chinese language churches are not just ethnoburb ghettos, they are transnational colonies that cannot or will not adjust to the changing realities in the U.S. Most believe that they proclaim a colorblind gospel, but like so many white evangelicals, they wind up unconsciously imposing their ethnic baggage into their ministry and theology.
Asian American Studies, therefore, can be a surgical knife that helps us cut out the colonial, white supremacist underpinnings of Christianity today. Furthermore, engaging the Asian American context is important because it helps us separate the wheat of the gospel from the chaff of colonial practices. It helps us discern truth from falsehood.
We’ve talked about what Asian American Christians can learn from Asian American Studies. Does Asian American Studies have anything to learn from Asian American Christians?
Yes, anything we can do to overcome stereotypes and to provide a fuller understanding and appreciation of the whole truth is fine within the academic world. We all work within stereotypical boundaries, even academics do too. So our job is to enhance academic studies and Asian American Studies and provide a more comprehensive and holistic and truthful account.
My personal gut feeling is that the academic conversation will only go as far as there are Asian American Christian academics who are in the field. We can’t push that idea too far, because we still need a very specific space for Asian American Christians to talk in our theological language and to practice our own faith.
Nevertheless, I would not got to an American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting or Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) meeting and expect my expression of Christianity to be accepted without qualification. I have to first translate my understanding of Christian faith so I could be understood in the academic world. Its very important to change the perceptions that many people have of Christian Asians. Thus, AAR and AAAS are very important places. They are public spaces where Christian Asian Americans have a voice.
When Christian scholars can point to studies similar to McClain’s exploration of Chinese Christians who fought against the Chinese Exclusion Act and anti-Chinese laws, that’s a way to introduce an apologetic for Christianity in the academic context. We have to be there. We must shed our anti-intellectualism in order to bear witness in those spaces.
This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity.
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