By now, especially after his game-winning shot vs. Toronto on Tuesday night, many of us have seen or read about Jeremy Lin, the came-out-of-nowhere starting point guard of the New York Knicks. Some of the stories and blogs are about Lin the Asian American, and some are about Lin the Christian. Some, like my friend Michael Luo’s very personal piece in The New York Times, are about both. In his article, Luo talks about a “species” of Christianity, Asian American Christianity, and wonders why he, a Christian and an Asian American, connects differently to Lin than he does to Tim Tebow. He asks, and starts to answer, What is Asian American Christianity?
Before I, a Christian and an Asian American, dive in, let me first respond to two possible objections to the question. First, aren’t we all Christian? Why do we have to talk about Asian American Christianity? Yes, it’s true that there is one faith, one Lord, one baptism. It’s also true that we are not disembodied children of God but ones who think in particular languages. We are perceived in particular ways based on our faces and last names, and have learned particular sensibilities and ways of relating to other people that the gospel both challenges and affirms. And this applies to all of us; we shouldn’t imagine that white American Christians have a culturally neutral perspective, while Asian Americans have a culturally specific one. Second, isn’t any description of the particularities of a group, much less a diverse and pan-ethnic one like Asian American Christians, going to be oversimplified? Again, yes; with that caveat in mind, though, it seems helpful to identify some general characteristics of Asian American Christianity.
First, in some pockets of the country, such as Harvard and the New York that Luo knows, we’re majority—not minority—Christianity. In much of the country, Asian American Christians may be relatively unknown: they don’t top best-seller lists, they don’t pastor largely white megachurches, and they are not a large presence in smaller cities. But, as Luo writes, if you are a part of an historically orthodox church in New York or San Francisco, or if you’re a student involved in a parachurch at Harvard or Stanford, chances are that you know plenty of them. Christianity’s non-white face in these places reminds us what Christianity increasingly looks like at a global level.
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.
In our overseas mission involvement, our churches are sensitive to potential paternalism. But this is not because we studied missiology; it’s because our countries of origin experienced the colonial missions of churches within empires. We are passionate for his glory, not because we rediscovered Edwards, but because our culture was not as pervaded by individualistic humanism. We tend to be culturally sensitive, not because we studied sociology, but because we ourselves have been constantly misunderstood—in school, at work, in our parents’ homes, in our countries of origin, and in the larger American church.
We don’t bemoan large-scale erosion in the American church; we’re rejoicing over vibrant congregations, even revival, in America. Soong-Chan Rah, who led a predominantly Asian American congregation in Boston, recounts in a recent book how he came to realize that when people talked about the spiritual desolateness of Boston, they were really talking about white Boston; minority churches, Asian American ones included, have been booming in that area.
We didn’t experience the white version of the “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem” question, as few of us—even the most devout—attended Christian schools and colleges. Our parents never seriously considered them; we went to secular universities and joined campus ministries, sometimes Asian American ones. We wrestled with what seemed to be conflicting goals of material success and Christian faithfulness when we got there, but few of us decided that the answer was to set up Christian schools and universities.
We have other big issues: How does confessing sin work in a shame-based culture? How do you preach the gospel effectively in a high-context language culture? How does the gospel help us consider traditional American images of masculinity alongside Asian ones like the samurai and the sage, archetypes who valued listening over speaking, deference to others over self-assertion?
This is not to say that Asian Americans cannot care about or discuss the aforementioned issues. It’s just that we come into those conversations as outsiders, to some degree, and often keep feeling that way once in them. In other words, our experience in the American church can mirror our experience in American culture more broadly.
Linsanity, for Asian Americans, is only partly about basketball. More significantly, it’s about that outside experience being recognized by others and, even further, evolving into inclusion. Can what happened to Lin in the NBA happen to him and other Asian American Christians in the broader American church? Can it encourage Asian American Christians to give more of their gifts and leadership to the community—and Community—at large? It sounds grandiose, insane. But, as we’ve seen the last two weeks, insanity happens.