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Asian and Asian American Women in Theology and Religion: Embodying Knowledge, edited by Kwok Pui-lan

In: International Journal of Asian Christianity
Author:
Leo D. Lefebure Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA ll253@georgetown.edu

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Asian Christianity in the Diaspora Series (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), pp. xii + 263. US$50.99, isbn 13: 978-3030368173.

This wide-ranging and informative volume presents essays by Asian and Asian American women who have shaped new forms of the study of theology and religion and related disciplines.

As editor, Kwok Pui-lan sets the tone for the volume, emphasizing the interdisciplinary and intersectional character of these inquiries, the formation of new areas of study, and the transnational context of these feminist conversations that have formed a new intellectual neighborhood. This new community is comprised of a variety of authors: some are Asians who are studying in the United States, some are immigrants from Asia to the United States, and others are descended from families who came to the United States in earlier generations.

The subtitle, “Embodying Knowledge,” signals attention to the various roles of embodiment in human knowledge and a rejection of some western epistemologies that have separated body and mind. Authors discuss the dominance of white racism in the United States, and the ways in which the bodies of Asian American women have traditionally been disvalued. In response, they study the body both as a locus of knowledge that remembers experiences and also as related to national and international political disputes over bodies, especially of women. Issues of race, gender, colonialism, and class constantly intertwine with questions of religious identity in the discussions.

Kwok Pui-lan laments the absence of any book exploring Asian American women’s religious history. One result of this lacuna is that this volume bears witness to the birth of a new field, since many of these questions have not been part of any traditional fields of study. To provide a thread of continuity among very diverse essays, the editor asked each author to reflect on her embodied understanding of her identity as an Asian or Asian American woman, to recount the changes in this understanding through the years, and also to describe her hopes for future research in this area.

Because space does not permit discussion of all the contributions, I will note just some. Rita Nakashima Brock explores the pioneering concept of interstitial integrity, reflecting on her search for integration through varied experiences on three continents, most notably war and dislocation. The title of her essay, “Anamnesis as a Source of Love,” expresses the key that she has found to healthy orientation as exemplified in her gripping personal reminiscences. Jin Young Choi explores biblical wisdom tradition and its later contribution to Christian theology, noting the contrast between sophia, often understood as theoretical knowledge of essences in the Greek philosophical tradition, and the practical applied wisdom known as phronesis. Gale Yee reflects on her trailblazing journey as a Catholic Asian American scholar seeking to integrate her embodied identity into her academic work on the Hebrew Bible. Najima Syeed challenges the dominance of white male Christians in interreligious studies and questions North American Christian-oriented definitions of “religion”, and highlights the importance of intersectional interreligious learning.

Sharon A. Suh explores resources in trauma studies, trauma-sensitive yoga, and Buddhist meditation for healing in a sexist and racist society, in light of her difficult personal journey. June Hee Yoon explores the significance of home and homelessness as a queer Korean Christian woman from a Buddhist family in a Confucian society, who came to the United States and wrote a dissertation about constructing an ethical home community.

In an evocative essay, Jane Naomi Iwamura imagines the possibility and impossibility of the scene, “When Buddha and Jesus Danced,” in the movie, Eve and the Fire Horse, in which a young Chinese Canadian girl dances with the two religious leaders. Iwamura herself came from a Buddhist family; but she learned in Catholic, Episcopalian, Seventh Day Adventist, and Mennonite classes that Buddhism was to be rejected. Suggesting that books are increasingly outdated, Iwamura turns to films as expressions of emerging Asian American religious identity.

Helen Jin Kim argues forcefully “Asian American women’s history is American religious history” (89). Using transnationalism as an orienting concept, Kim locates Asian American women in the larger Asian Pacific context and, as an example, explores the history of two Japanese Maryknoll sisters who voluntarily entered the American internment camps during World War ii to minister to the Japanese and Japanese American internees. Sharon Jacob reflects on her identity as an Indian postcolonial feminist biblical critic, born in India and coming to the United States to study, but belonging “neither here nor there” – not fitting into any usual location. Accepting neither traditional Anglicist nor Orientalist biblical interpretation, Jacob proposes a hermeneutics of shuttling, faithful to her multi-layered hybrid identity, in order to articulate her experience concerning the Bible.

As Kachin women from Myanmar, Htoi San Lu and Ban Htang, came to the United States to study theology. In the decades-long conflict between Kachin military forces and the government of Myanmar, women’s bodies have often been sites of violence for “masculinist militarism” (138). They reject the demand to maintain one’s cultural heritage because the heritages in Southeast Asia are formed by oppressive androcentrism and patriarchy. Warning that the Bible is ambivalent because certain passages support patriarchal structures, they interpret Jesus Christ as Samphwi Nang Majan (Life-giving spirit) in relation to Kachin indigenous images of God as both male and female.

Nami Kim recounts that she became “Asian” only when she moved from her native South Korea to the United States. She questions the ways in which the “imperial university,” with its market-oriented structures of production of knowledge, serves the agenda of U.S. imperialist hegemony in the world; and she explores the possibilities and challenges for Afro/black-Asian cross-racial solidarity in relation to other oppressed groups in the United States, and in theology.

This volume is a welcome and valuable contribution to this important emerging field.

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