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(Post)Modernity and (Post)Colonialism

I’ve found one of my “missing links”.

For a while now, I’ve been trying to tie down the connections between being marginalized as an Asian in America and then seeing nothing but White America in Asian American churches. I’ve noted before how much people who look like me worship God in the same ways (to an absurd degree) as White people who don’t look like me.

Now this sounds strange, I know. It sounds like I’m the one being racist. After all, white people can eat Chinese food with chopsticks and Koreans can breakdance, so who am I to say we shouldn’t all worship the same, right? But usually, when we segregate ourselves for that ninety minutes or so on Sunday, I find it very odd that what we do in that segregated hour is no different and has little to do with our ethnic identity. Sure, a strong case that it is high time for the multi-ethnic (culture-neutral) church to begin, but when you speak to most Asian Americans, there is this eerie sense of belonging when they’re around other Asians. So we gravitate towards one another, but we clearly imitate and emulate some other archetype other than ourselves.

I believe there are issues of self-hate, techno-envy, lack of creativity, identity crisis, etc. involved in Asian American churches. But there was something more…larger and systemic…a bigger force than just individual angst.

In reading the book, “An Emergent Manifesto of Hope“, there was an article written by Brian McLaren which provided insight into the missing link between modernity and colonialism.

Here are some key excerpts from McLaren’s chapter, “Church Emerging: Or Why I Still Use The Word Postmodern But With Mixed Feelings”. I apologize for the extensive quoting, but I find it expresses the argument well the need for the postcolonial outlook, while not overglorifying postmodernism. Also I find that the cautionary warning about taking either modernism or postmodernism to its extreme as a very valid one:

By colonialism, I mean “the extension of a nation’s sovereignty over territory and people outside its own boundaries, often to facilitate economic domination over their resources, labor, and usually markets. The term also refers to a set of beliefs used to legitimize or promote this system, especially the belief that the mores of the colonizer are superior to those of the colonized.”

….It’s not that postmodern thought is irrelevant to postcolonialism; the two are in fact more deeply related than many of my religious colleagues seem to realize. I see the postmodern conversation as a profoundly moral project in intention at least, a kind of corporate repentance among European intellectuals in the decades after the Holocaust. They began assessing the causes of the Holocaust, which led them to see a dark side in Western history, including colonialism….

As I see it, these European intellectuals diagnosed intuitively the disease that caused a range of related symptoms–including the Holocaust and colonialism–as an excessive confidence among Western Christians and the civilization they created. These Western Christians never seemed to question whether, for example, they had received the God-given right to take the lands and resources of people in the rest of the world. Nor did they seem capable of doubting that their own European culture was superior and advanced and civilized, which gave them the right to despise as “savage” all other cultures, annihilating and replacing them with white European culture….

Having made this diagnosis, these European intellectuals treated the cancer of excessive Western confidence with the chemotherapy of pluralism and then, when that didn’t work, they mixed in the stronger chemotherapy of relativism. In this way, the postmodern project is an attempt to weaken Western overconfidence….

My religious friends seem quick to understand the weaknesses and dangers of the pluralist/relativist chemo cocktail….But few…seem able to acknowledge the existence, much less the dangers, of malignant, modern western overconfidence–whether in the distant past or in the present.

McLaren then quotes Dr. Mabiala Kenzo, a Twa theologian from the Congo:

Those non-Western thinkers who have embraced the notion of postcolonialism join hands with all those who, wherever they may be found, are seeking to come to terms with the experience of colonization and its aftermath. Postmodernism turns out to be an ally of postcolonialism in…not only the possibility of an alternative discourse that affirms and celebrates otherness, but also a strategy for the ‘deconstruction of the concept, the authority, and assumed primacy of the category of ‘the West'”

McLaren continues:

Many of the people who are most critical of Emergent conversations about postmodernity and postcolonialsm, I have noticed, seem to package Christian faith and Western Civilization (or American Manifest Destiny) in a single box, so that the two are inseparable. but our brothers and sisters from the global South cannot follow that path so easily. They love Christ and have bonded with the Christian message….They are seeking to unbundle the package so they can keep Christianity, without Western civilization and its colonial discontents thrown in….

Here in the United States we see large sectors of the Christian community associated with American hyperconfidence, white privilege, institutional racism, civil religion, neocolonialsim , and nationalistic militarism–often fortified by a privatized faith in a privatized nationalistic/tribal god.

And check out the final Kenzo quote:

Evangelical faith encounters in postcolonial theology what it always wanted: a contextual theology for the so-called Third World. Indeed, for many years, evangelicals have championed the cause of a self-theologizing Church, which they argued is the fourth woefully needed addition to the classical three-selves of the indigenous Church (self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating). In postcolonial theologies, their dream has finally come true. The latecomer has finally spoken in her own native idiom. Evangelical faith, which hitherto had been articulated and formulated in the stable idiom of Western rationalism that guaranteed its sameness, suddenly finds itself confronted with their idioms that disturb both the stability of classical formulations and the appeal of sameness. Will evangelical faith break or stretch? Therein lies the question.

The identity crisis for many Asian American Christians is that we are the colonized who still emulate the colonizers. Furthermore, the landscape has been made more complex by the fact that in America, we entrench ourselves further into Whiteness, without daring to ask the question of what could have been. In many ways, we have lost our divine imagination.

For many Asian Americans, to be Christian means to have forfeited part of one’s Asian identity.

Check out this article on, “A Comment on Asian Christians”.

The article goes on to make the case that Asian American Christians create a great divide between themselves and Asian non-Christians:

Asian Christians, even more zealously than White Christians, impose Western ideologies on East Asia, name-calling any Asian non-Christian who refuses to be indoctrinated a pagan doomed for hell. In effect we create amongst ourselves yet another fissure to Asian Unity.

In essence, we have co-opted the narrative of the colonizers. What would be helpful here is to begin to ask the hard questions of what it would look like…what could it look like to be Asian and American and Christian at the same time? For the sake of our missional calling, it is worth using the tools of postmodernity and deconstruction to shed some of the colonial vestiges and dig into a more authentic response to this Jewish messiah.

I’m not asking us to become Emergent or postmodern, I’m simply asking us to use the tools and inspiration to become more fully aware of what is lost and gained, what has been given and taken, and what can be and should be. It’s time to go beyond.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

6 responses to “(Post)Modernity and (Post)Colonialism

  1. jadanzzy

    but what does it look like? would our “music style” be distinctly asian in quality? do we embrace and/or redeem some eastern-style meditative practices? i would assume we deconstruct our confucian influences… very non-comprehensive, this list. also, a pan-asian incarnational, missional church? how does one be missional in the american mission field without inevitably being multi-ethnic?

    more specifically, will emergent asian-american churches will look vastly different in atlanta than in other cities? not that eugene cho’s church is asian-american, but there is an incredible diversity. but we look at the city and understand that whites and asians SEEM to have a much healthier relationship than in atlanta.

    food for thought.

  2. elderj

    One place to look that could be instructive is to Europe, which is, taken together,much more diverse than the United States despite rhetoric to the contrary. Like wise it is experiencing incredible surges of immigrants as well, many from former colonies in South Asia and Africa. Many of these immigrants are indeed revitalizing European churches with a definitely Christian, but distinctively non-Western orientation combined with a missionary zeal that sees Europe not only as a promised land of economic advancement, but also a place in need of the gospel.

    Many immigrants to this country do not share this zeal, and also view the US as being somehow already Christian, and so downplay, even in their ethnic churches, those elements which could lead to broader revival especially if those things are “cultural.” That combined with pressures and benefits of assimilation mean the question of “what could have been” is never asked.

    Just food for thought

  3. jadanzzy,

    kevin doi of epic church gave me priceless insight in that we’ve had it backwards most of the time. we presume that our ecclesiology will lead to a healthy christology. but we’ve got it backwards…a strong christology will lead to healthy ecclesiology.

    i think the work is two-fold (at least!). first, we need to have a cultural “awakening”, and talk about the elephants in the room in the existing church structures. Christ was willing to tear down some cultural assumptions of temple-mindedness and bring in kingdom-mindedness. in essence, to be honest and face what we’ve become and how dysfunctional we are is a good place to start because for so long, we’ve trusted the institution to bring us to Christ that our “revivals” move from leadership down, but it’s one and done. we need to prick ourselves sharply in our wounds for we have lost sensation.

    secondly, for the contingent of asian ams where church is not central, missional thinking needs to incorporated so that we would be willing to leave the institution of church to live incarnationally in the clubs, bars, noraebangs, street racing, and wherever asians who would never meet Jesus gather. our goal is not to get them to come to church, but to show ourselves as not afraid to be their friends and live our lives before everyone that to be Asian and Christian is not and oxymoron.

    i believe it is very possible to be missional in america without being multi-ethnic, in as much as you could be missional in papua new guinea and not be multi-ethnic.

    while i wouldn’t say that such a church needs to be emergent (as many people are allergic to that term in atlanta, yourself not included), emerging people understand that models of church must be highly contextualized and would not expect a church in atlanta to be similar to say, quest church in seattle. there are too many different influences that shape our cities and communities.

  4. randplaty

    don’t read Kenzo… read the real postcolonial thinkers like Edward Said and Homi Bhaba.

    I don’t think you can take Christianity and get rid of the Western culture in which it is bound. Nothing is culture separate. You can’t separate Christianity from western culture in the same way that you cannot separate Christianity from Jewish culture. Both are an indelible part of Christianity. Sure Christianity can change and continue to develop into new cultures and new forms of expression, but you’ll never be able to get rid of Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Luther, Calvin etc… in the same way that you’ll never be able to get rid of Peter and Paul. Any new expression of Christianity will have the fingerprints of Western culture all over it. And why would you want it any other way?

  5. Thanks for the comment randplaty, love your blog.

    Kenzo can’t be that bad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crazy about all his stuff, but this quote I felt was on target.

    Obviously, with the massive contributions the West has made to the preservation and transmission of the Christian faith, I’m not suggesting that we ignore that or dismiss it. I’m merely suggesting that we not swallow everything as though it were “truth” when it is clear that historical context influenced the traditions there which would differ greatly when and as the intersection occurs with the rising Christian East and South. Basically, we’re cautioning against a perceived Western Christianity being raised up as a Tower of Babel to which all the ethnos and identities are subsumed. Certainly we have a great deal to learn from Luther and Calvin,, but that is not the whole of Christianity, nor do we want to even say that they are the limit of Western culture.

    My criticism is actually directed towards the many of us ethnos who practically operate as though we have nothing to offer and that since Jonathan Edwards (or substitute with theologian of your choice…) has spoken, the matter is settled and we need only replicate what is currently available. I have the sense that we were called to be more than practitioners, but also artists in the ways of God. This demands something of us, not merely technique in planting churches or preparing worship services, but imagination and distinctiveness that acknowledges our cultural particularities for the universal whole. And yes, i’m quite the incurable idealist.

  6. randplaty

    “My criticism is actually directed towards the many of us ethnos who practically operate as though we have nothing to offer and that since Jonathan Edwards (or substitute with theologian of your choice… 😉 has spoken, the matter is settled and we need only replicate what is currently available.”

    I know quite a few people like that… hahah so reading that gave me a chuckle. From your intro I thought you were talking more about worship and how we worship in a “western” way.

    I guess I don’t mean not to read Kenzo… but rather read the people that Kenzo is reading…

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