A Feature Review of
Doing Asian American Theology: A Contextual Framework for Faith and Practice
Daniel D. Lee
Reviewed by Joshua E. Livingston
Doing theology is a personal and a political activity. Our personal stories of agony and joy, struggle and liberation are always connected with our socio-political and religio-cultural contexts. Theology, therefore, is a discourse both intimate and public. -Chung Hyun Kyung
The first time I met Byung, I gave him a bloody nose. We were in sixth grade. He had just arrived from South Korea, adopted by the older white couple who lived right next door. I remember he was outside of his house. He was tying his shoe. I came up to him and punched him. I have no memory of what preceded or followed this incident. Looking back, I can only imagine that he felt that this was his welcome to America. At least it was honest. Byung also smelled way different. I can smell it now. Kind of hot doggy.
Decades later, I can begin to see why I punched Byung. As a fellow Korean adoptee taken in by white parents, it was my way of punching myself. Only I had to transfer my fist to Byung’s face because mine, in my own estimation, no longer existed. Being that I was adopted when I was three months old, I had an approximately eleven year head-start in American evangelical assimilation. My desires had been thoroughly colonized by a white, Christian, Eurocentric, even nationalist, imagination. In the words of my adoptive mother, I was white–much like Gwen Stefani is Japanese. Whiteness just works both ways. That’s the rules.
Daniel D. Lee’s new book, Doing Asian American Theology, offers up countless different ways that the Asian American experience, broadly and “fluidly” construed, has fallen victim to “internalized nativism” and the idolatry of white approval. What’s curious here, as more and more Westerners are doing the hard and prophetic work of decolonizing and properly contextualizing their theologies, we find that once again, it’s not simply a problem of right or wrong belief. A book like this is necessary for putting a blacklight on the messy residues, the evidence left, of colonial desire and imperial imagination.
Lee makes it clear that the themes in this book are the outworking of his personal journey to uncover the “hidden normativity of White theology” (34), particularly in the Reformed tradition. Towards the beginning of the book, Lee takes the time to make his own confessions of the unconscious scripts that both he and his wife brought to their marriage from their respective families of origin. This is something we all do all the time. Life just becomes sticky when we begin to see how “origins,” let alone theological ones, are deeply contested conceptual narratives, ones in which the violent take it by force.
So this is how the practice of theology works and it is precisely why Lee’s book is so damn important. Many of us, myself included, tend to think of theology as one academic discipline alongside a smorgasbord of others, only ours is “sacred.” This, of course, only reinforces the secular imaginaries that frame the practice. While drawing out the theological implications of engaging with culture, Lee’s book implicitly reminds us that, in the end, secularization is itself a theologically charged projection of desire. He draws upon missiologist Andrew Walls who has described how the gospel, in any given context, simultaneously “indigenizes” and “makes a home.” For instance, in describing his family’s enjoyment for the fantasy world of Harry Potter, he reminds us of how Christ “haunts” seemingly Christless incidents and places. This is a critical framework for the contextual practice of theology in a land of diffused religion where “Western tradition, missionary and colonial history, and American evangelicalism” (128) have deeply entangled histories.
It is in this spirit that Lee acknowledges the need for “intrapersonal reconciliation,” which “involves all of ourselves, even parts that we do not value or are aware of” (24), and then presents us with his central offering: a heuristic tool designed to expand the church’s capacity for “global theological mapping” called the “Asian American Quadrilateral (AAQ).” In his own words, this tool is “for mapping diverse Asian American identities and experiences as residing in the intersection of four closely related themes: Asian heritage, migration experience, American culture, and racialization.” He continues, “We cannot meaningfully ask the theological question of what the gospel means in a particular context if we cannot even grasp the scope and boundaries of that context” (57). The bulk of the book goes on to expound on each of these four themes and the ways they are unwittingly bound up in Asian American Christian imagination.
Of particular interest here are the ways this imagination plays out in Asian American churches. As Lee reminds us, via Willie James Jennings, supersessionism has a subtle way of reinforcing White Eurocentrism. Supersessionism is a theology that says that the people of God in Israel “serve[d] its purpose as a source” (44), but is no longer of any use to the church. This amounts to the erasure, not only of Israel, but also of the Jewishness of Jesus (and Paul). We forget that Scripture, and Jesus himself, centers the lost sheep of Israel, and we, as Gentiles, are graciously grafted into that story. It’s but another upside-down Kingdom inversion. We might be the overwhelming global majority, but as Gentiles, we are still guests in the house of Israel under the host of a Jewish Christ.
So, while the ethnic identity of Jesus and Paul have major importance for doing theology responsibly today, these affirmations are foundationally different from the work of contextualization for Asian Americans. Asian American identity is “not rooted in divine command in the same way that the Jewish identity was throughout Scripture.” Even though we struggle under “perpetual foreigner” tropes in American and resonate with a diasporic framework, we still “fall into general Gentile identities that have no covenantal significance, except for the fact that God’s Spirit is not limited to Jewish flesh” (113).
I admit this is a tough pill to swallow. In my own experience, the narrative of Asian American communities is invisibility, particularly in the midst of “black and white binary” modes of racialization. Perhaps in recent history our churches are more often met with charges of quietism and cultural irrelevancy. This is a profound tension. While Asian ethnicity might not be theologically and covenantally chosen like Jews, in the context of White American Eurocentrism, it is still a structurally marginal and prophetic witness to a sociopolitically (non-)normative posture for God’s people on earth. Lee references Russell Jeung (founder of Stop AAPI Hate), who recalls his Hakka heritage as a “guest person.” Jeung “imagines Jesus as a Hakka, a marginalized traveling person having no homeland … show[ing] solidarity with the poor and the powerless” (123). This, again, is a hard word, challenging Asian American aspirations for false securities in the context of racist and nationalist forces.
In the end, Daniel Lee’s book covers a whole lot of ground. While there is an overabundance of resources that cover Asian American experiences more broadly, and these are very important for the American church to grapple with, I’m grateful for a primer that succinctly accounts for these cultural perspectives, while applying it to the practice of Asian American theology specifically. Yet, as Chung Hyun Kyung notes, if theology is at once public and intimate, perhaps the real gift of this book is its aims to awaken a Freirian “critical consciousness,” exposing the internalized ideologies of colonial imagination in the Asian American church that result in a profoundly unconscious sense of self-hatred towards their own Asian bodies and Asianness in general. I am beyond grateful for Lee’s primary aim of healing and integration in Christ.
To close, I’ll share Lee’s own thoughts on identity, characterized as an all-too-often unreconciled collection of selves–”…some favored and some abandoned.” The Good Shepherd “leaves the ninety-nine ‘found selves’ in order to seek and find that one ‘lost self,’ bringing it back into divine fellowship” (182-183). Whenever I feel like a stranger to myself, when I cannot untangle the emotional and psychological knots within me, I pray…
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139: 23-24)
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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