I Didn't Know Brian McLaren was Asian-American

Preoccupation with Jeremy Lin continues among evangelicals and it has produced an effort to distinguish Asian-American evangelicalism from white evangelicalism. The result, in the case of Carl Park’s piece, is an attempt to avoid the constraints of one kind of particularity (the white kind) by appealing to the experience of another kind of particularity (Asian-American). (Why folks can’t recognize that Asian-American is as much a construction devoid of particularity as “white” I do not know. After all, Park is a name associated with Koreans and Lin is of Thai Taiwanese descent and Asian hardly does justice to differences among all the ethnic groups produced by Asia. China and Taiwan are vying for Lin, which raises an entirely different problem for the concept of Asian-American.)

Asian American evangelicals also have a different history than white evangelicals. We have, by and large, never been a part of the Religious Right. We never marched after Roe v. Wade, and we didn’t know who Pat Robertson was. We knew James Dobson from Focus on the Family tapes, but we did not know his politics.

We weren’t a part of the fundamentalist-liberal divide from the early 20th century. So we, as gospel-pondering Christians, might attend a debate about whether or not social justice is an essential part of the church’s mission, but we’re sort of perplexed by the question. In our history, immigrant churches preached the gospel and took care of the everyday needs of the immigrant community—explaining the water and electric bills, providing loans to one another, helping each other’s children get into college—without any bifurcation or angst.

Our Presbyterians spoke in tongues, our mainline pastors preached the exclusivity of Jesus. We wondered how any Christian could have qualms about something called “liberation theology,” until we read Cone and Guttiérez, and we were shocked to learn that some “Christian” seminaries do not confess the Nicene Creed. Our piety and worship tend to feel trans-denominational. Today, Asian American evangelicals in New York who don’t join a predominantly Asian American church are happy to be a (large) part of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, but we are also happy to be with Times Square Church. Both churches’ spiritualities feel familiar.

We aren’t quite Emergents or New Calvinists, because we’re not emerging from a white 80s-and-90s megachurchish spirituality that those groups take to task. We can identify with some aspects of those groups—we are urban and charismatic-friendly, and we were the Other long before it was cool to be—but much of the rhetoric does not connect. We have had more than our share of problems, but a mechanistic or programmatic model of church has not been one of them, and our parents’ churches sang plenty of hymns.

If Park’s point is that evangelicalism a religious identity that obliterates ethnic differences and the history of distinct peoples, well, he has a point. And that point applies in spades to distinct Protestant communions (which happened to fall along ethnic [read: national] lines). Evangelicalism can’t do justice any more to Thai-American Protestants than it can to Reformed Protestants.

But what is curious about Park’s piece is how he is willing to affirm the particularity of ethnicity but not grant a similar import to the specificity of fundamentalism, neo-evangelicalism, or the Religious Right. It is a denial similar to the one that emergents make of evangelicalism; you reject the political provincialism of Falwell for the social justice cosmopolitanism of Campolo. But how that works for affirming ethnic identity is a question that needs more attention. (BTW, interesting to see how this cosmopolitan, yet ethnic, faith is comfortable at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City where Presbyterian particularity is often in short supply compared to identities supplied by modern urban demographics.)

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9 thoughts on “I Didn't Know Brian McLaren was Asian-American

  1. Wow, I didn’t know Redeemer Pres. was such a good fit for Asian Americans! I wonder if their spirituality would also appeal to Irish Americans? I’d like to hear from an Irish American Evangelical leader on this point. I’m quite sure they’ll say, “why yes, of course!”

    I know that Irish Evangelicals were welcome at the Crystal Cathedral and I’m glad that there is a place for us in NY as well!

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  2. Park’s article is overstated, but it does reflect a real social history that Chinese and Korean immigrant churches have had in common to a certain extent. Insofar as he describes those churches he’s not far off the mark (although by “hymns” he means a whole slew of 19th century choruses with a few hymns that predate that time).

    And by the way, Jeremy Lin is not Thai. He’s Chinese.

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  3. Maternal side is Chinese but Father’s side is Taiwanese.

    “While acknowledging that the maternal grandmother is still fond of mainland China, where she sponsors a scholarship at her hometown’s high school, Lin Chi Chung[ [Jeremy Lin’s uncle] said that mainland Chinese culture and Taiwanese culture both dictate that Jeremy Lin’s identity should be determined by his father’s side of the family.

    “We are a male-dominated society, so while I know there are relatives on the mother’s side on the mainland, you should go by the father’s side, and that is Taiwanese,” he said.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/16/sports/basketball/jeremy-lins-grandmother-watches-along-with-taiwan.html?ref=jeremylin&pagewanted=all

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  4. Hi, I’m a “lifelong reader but a first-time commenter.”

    It is interesting to me that it takes a guy who passes the basketball to his teammates in one kingdom (e.g., Madison Square Garden) to generate discussion about the passing of the baton in another kingdom (e.g. Redeemer Presbyterian Church). In other words, what type of “team play” is expected in the context of the PCA? Can polity co-exist with personality?

    More than the race question, I am hoping Old Life would also treat the class question: is there something inescapably bourgeois about Presbyterianism in America?

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  5. Ken, the answer is yes. But is Presbyterianism any more hopelessly bourgeois than any other faith that exists in the United States? Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Pentecostals all look fairly middle-class. How can you not be, unless your part of OSW’s 1 percent? (Kidding somewhat. I know poverty exists. But the bourgeoisie are rampant in the USA — a good thing — and any church hoping to minister in the nation better come to terms with middle-class existence.)

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  6. Hello Dr. Hart!

    WSCAL Alumn here! I honestly am a little lost with the point being made in the last two paragraphs (which is probably due more to my ignorance =/ ), but I completely agree with your critique on Park’s “attempt to avoid the constraints of one kind of particularity (the white kind) by appealing to the experience of another kind of particularity (Asian-American).”

    I was not delighted with joy like some to run across his article. Though I am Asian American, I just don’t see all of my life, my Christian experience and other Non Asian American Christians Park’s way. I thought it was a very harsh, ungracious and simplistic view of Asian American Christianity and Non Asian-American Christianity (whatever that is/amazed that it can be jumbled into one group).

    Park does confess that “we [Asian Americans] have had more than our share of problems” but his thoroughgoing contrast of Non Asian American Christianity and Asian American Christianity doesn’t seem to represent that in fairness.

    Park’s ultimate point is: “Can what happened to Lin in the NBA happen to him and other Asian American Christians in the broader American church?”

    As much as I think this is a legitimate inquiry and maybe even hope/desire, I’m not quite sure how the rest of his article adds or contributes to this process. It seems as though by drawing such caricatured lines in the sand, he has rifted even further already such a sensitive issue.

    I just wanted to let you know that I’m glad that someone who people take seriously (unlike me) wrote something about that article. Thank you and God bless.

    Grace and peace,

    Richard

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