Asian Americans have been readers and interpreters of the Bible for a long time. It is well known, for example, that mission schools played an important role in “Americanizing” the early Chinese populations who landed on US soil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by trying to Christianize them, including the use of Bible classes as a vehicle for the teaching and learning of the English language. In 1853, the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions helped establish the very first Chinese Christian church in the US in San Francisco. While historical records or traces of such readings are admittedly scarce, they are not entirely absent. For example, the writings of Sui Sin Far—who has the distinction of being called “the grand maternal figure of all Asian American letters” (Shih 2005, p. 48)—are full of allusions to and quotations from the Bible. It is even suggested that the Bible was “the single most important model” of Sui Sin Far’s own writings, as it accounts for their “short,” almost parable-like format and “didactic bent” (Ferens 2002, pp. 95–96).

Contextual Theology, Sociopolitical Contexts, and Racialization in US Society.

Following the Second World War, the US economy was reorganized around capital that became increasingly global and globalizing. By the 1960s, new patterns of migration and new laws of immigration also became evident. Most pertinent to our topic is the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened the US door wider for immigrants (even refugees) and with less concern over their national origin. This Act turned out to be the single most important legislation for the current growth and diversity of Asian American communities. Without a quota targeting persons of Asian origins or from an Asian region but with economic and even military engagement by the US in various parts of Asia, large numbers of Asian immigrants began to arrive from East Asia, South Asia, as well as Southeast Asia.

As far as readings by professional scholars within the guild of academic biblical studies are concerned, Asian American biblical interpretation is indebted to the rise of contextual theology in the 1960s in general and the work of African American biblical scholarship in the 1970s in particular. The 1960s was a time of popular or grassroots movements against racism and imperialism within the larger US society. Aiming to construct a sociopolitically relevant and thus contextually specific theology, Christian theologians from within and outside of the US, like Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone, Choan-Seng Song, and Ahn Byung Mu, developed theologies that were variously located and differently called, from liberation theology and black theology to story theology and minjung theology. Since these theological innovations were often undertaken with reference to and grounding in the Bible, African American biblical scholars also began to read and re-read the Bible in ways that became more and more explicitly contextual to their communal histories, lives, and experiences in the US

Asian American biblical interpretation does not bypass material and sociopolitical realities; it also cannot be limited to the discipline of biblical studies. In fact, rigid disciplinary boundaries are built upon assumptions of origin and purity much like those used in national debates over immigration. Such assumptions idealize an “originator” or “owner” of a certain intellectual space that will only be sullied by trespasses or transplants. Those of Asian heritage in the United States, despite their nativity, are often racialized with this logic as perennial border-crossers who do not really belong. Analogous assumptions and arguments are used to patrol not only racial/ethnic borders within a nation but also disciplinary borders within the academy. Asian American biblical interpretation resists this tyranny of purity in both academic and racial/ethnic terms. It is therefore about much more than identity formation or cultural heritage; as important as these issues are, Asian American biblical interpretation confronts and challenges the ideology of “purity”—and hence the politics, practices, and realities of exclusion and domination—in academy and society. It is about not only different readers of the Bible (a matter of demographics) but also reading the Bible differently (a matter of disciplinary practice).

The Bible is of particular importance because the exclusion of and discrimination against Asians in the United States have long been enacted in terms of a struggle to protect not only the nation but also Christendom from these racial and religious others. Just as society and academy are interconnected, race and religion are also intricately intertwined. Resisting such denials of relations (including the denial or separation signified by the question often asked of Asian Americans, “Where are you from?”), Asian American biblical interpretation not only refuses to let particular readings rule by default by reviewing the Bible and its interpretation, but also requires all readers of the Bible to realize that Asian Americans and the biblical traditions of Christianity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the “Good Book” has become one generative site for Asian Americans to pursue and push conversation, recognition, and education about various issues, especially, though not exclusively, those related to race and religion, or inclusion and exclusion.

Stage One: Finding Asian American Presence in Biblical Interpretation.

When African American biblical interpretation—to which the development of Asian American biblical interpretation is much indebted—gained prominence in the 1970s, one of its major concerns was recognition of black presence in and contribution to both biblical narrative and biblical interpretation, as Charles Copher (1989, 1991) and Cain Hope Felder (1989, 1991, 1993) argue in reference to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, respectively. For instance, Felder argues not only that Mary and hence Jesus are more like “Yemenite, Trinidadian, or African American today” in appearance (1993, pp. 192–94), but also that ancient writers of the Bible acknowledge and admire ancient Africans for having a great and glorious culture (1991).

Following the pioneering work of their African American counterparts, the first generation of Asian American scholars of the Bible also gave attention to Asian presence in the Bible, but were reluctant to claim particular biblical characters as Asians because they are mainly of East Asian heritage and thus geographically far from the “biblical lands” of West Asia and North Africa. Instead, they made their contributions to biblical interpretation by identifying racializing dynamics in biblical texts familiar to Asian Americans, and then by identifying with particular biblical characters in that text who might be important and relevant to Asian American communities. Chan-Hie Kim, for instance, compares the Cornelius story in Acts 10—11 to his own experience as an Asian immigrant to the United States, since both Cornelius and Kim are outsiders interacting with and integrating into a community of another racial/ethnic group (1995). As Kim reads these chapters in terms of both politics of inclusion and practice of integration in a racially/ethnically diverse community, Kim does not specify the race/ethnicity of Cornelius beyond the fact that Cornelius is a non-Jew.

As Asian American biblical interpretation continues to develop, this attempt to find one’s presence in the Bible does not disappear. For example, Uriah (Yong-Hwan) Kim, whose scholarly career began a generation after Chan-Hie Kim’s, reads the Uriah story in 2 Samuel 11 by focusing on Uriah as a “foreigner” who is readily sacrificed: Uriah is murdered and forgotten by Israelites despite or perhaps because of his attempt to join and even fight for the people of Israel (2002). Without suggesting that the biblical Uriah is an Asian, Uriah Kim simply juxtaposes Uriah the Hittite not only with Vincent Chin as scapegoat victims while their respective killers get away with murder, but also with himself as a “minority” person involved in identity struggles.

Uriah Kim’s reference to identity struggle conveniently clarifies two underlying dynamics in the early stage of Asian American biblical interpretation. First, these readings are concerned with the power differential between Asian Americans and the majority white population. Second, they also seem to assume a collective—if not necessarily a stable and known—identity, which all Asian Americans will need to embrace precisely because of their power differential vis-à-vis the white majority. In fact, Uriah Kim makes these two points rather explicitly to conclude his reading of Uriah:

"It could have easily been Uriah Kim, a Korean American, killed instead of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, because I would have looked like a Japanese male to the perpetrators as much as Vincent or any other Asian male. After all, we all look alike—Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, pick your choice, oh Asian, the “others,” non-“Americans.” (2002, p. 82)"

These overlaps between Uriah Kim’s work and those of the “first generation” show that an individual scholar’s work might develop and span over different stages within the conceptual and heuristic mapping of Asian American biblical interpretation provided here. Similarly, the beginning of a “new” stage does not necessarily mean the end of a previous stage; stages do overlap and run alongside each other.

Stage Two: Foregrounding Asian American Contexts, Interdisciplinarity, and Internal Diversity.

Having said that, Uriah Kim’s essay does reveal stark differences representative of a new stage in the development of Asian American biblical interpretation. While Chan-Hie Kim starts his reading of the Bible with the Bible and the history surrounding a biblical text (including both the context of the biblical passage as well as how a passage has been read), Uriah Kim starts with his context and experience as a twentieth- and twenty-first-century Asian American. In addition, one finds, on the basis of footnotes and bibliographical entries in his essay, that Uriah Kim’s reflection of his context and experience is informed by scholarship in Asian American studies. In contrast, besides biblical and theological scholarship, Chan-Hie Kim’s reference is limited to one mention of the 1965 Immigration Act. In what can be called the “second stage,” Asian American biblical interpretation becomes more thoroughly informed by scholarship in Asian American studies and hence increasingly interdisciplinary. As Asian American biblical interpretation enters this second stage of development, the interdisciplinary nature of the enterprise involves crossing the boundary not only between theology and biblical studies but also biblical studies and disciplines outside of theological or religious studies.

The combination of these two changes—beginning with a reader’s contemporary experience and venturing into the repertoires of other disciplines in general and those of Asian American studies in particular—means that the earlier emphasis on reading the Bible to find and understand race, as far as Asian American biblical interpretation goes, begins to mix with and perhaps even give way to a new priority of reading and understanding race as a lens to read and make sense of the Bible. This is clearly indicated in the title of an essay on the intersection between Asian American racialization and gender by Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan and Mai-anh Le Tran: “Reading Race Reading Rahab” (2009). The Bible, in other words, is now explicitly not the first entry into an exploration. The concern is now less what the Bible might have to say about Asian American lives and experiences, but more what Asian American lives and experiences have to say about the Bible. Inverting this process is important because biblical studies as a discipline is not unaffected by the infection of racial/ethnic discriminations and colonial impulse. Asian American biblical interpretation at this stage is no longer only about demographics, but a shift of (inter)disciplinary framework. This change in framework leads to a different set of questions and thus the development of alternative understandings.

Another significant change as Asian American biblical interpretation enters this next stage of its development is how the assumptions about struggle and identity mentioned earlier also begin to change, even if that is not visible in the work by Uriah Kim. In this stage, readings begin to manifest a much greater diversity within Asian America. As identity struggle involves internal differences, identity becomes multiple, contradictory, no longer singular, and less than stable. Since biblical scholars began to explore, in the first half of the 1990s, how to integrate their racial/ethnic identity as Asian American into, e.g., feminist criticism (see, for instance, Yee 1997), intersections between the racialization of Asian Americans and other identity factors—like gender and sexuality—increasingly emerged in the discussion. Rita Nakashima Brock, a theologian who crosses the disciplinary line and contributed to an anthology of feminist biblical criticism, suggests that an Asian American feminist “hermeneutics of wisdom,” through an emphasis on Asian cultures and age-old wisdom but rejection of “innocence,” respects the many voices found within the Bible and thus enables Asian American women to reject the Bible’s authority without abandoning the Bible (1997). According to Brock, this hermeneutic, or simultaneous adoption of two seemingly contradictory attitudes (like the nonexclusive embrace of two cultures: Asian and American), not only shows Asian American women to be resourceful and responsible agents but also helps cultivate and develop multiple perspectives, and hence “a fluid, multilayered self” and “a multifaceted identity” (1997, pp. 65, 68). Of no small significance is how Nakashima Brock both begins and bases her identification of and argument for this hermeneutic of wisdom by way of Asian American literature (1997, pp. 64–66); such literature is, of course, a primary resource for and constant focus of Asian American experiences and studies. Nakashima Brock’s (inter)disciplinary crossings are, in other words, also multiple.

Another example that demonstrates the internal diversity of Asian America can be found in the work of Patrick S. Cheng (2002), yet another theologian who has contributed to the development of Asian American biblical interpretation. On the basis of their shared status as “radical outsiders” in terms of both sexuality and geography in general, and their many shared multiplicities in particular (“multiple naming,” “multiple silencing,” “multiple oppression,” and “multiple fragmentation”), Cheng argues that the concubine in Judges 19 can be a “foundational text for understanding the experiences of queer Asian Pacific Americans” (2002, pp. 119, 120). If Cheng’s language here seems closer to reading the Bible to find and understand race (in connection with sexuality matters), Cheng’s bibliography also shows an interdisciplinary engagement (particularly those of Asian American queer studies) that is characteristic of Asian American biblical interpretation in its second stage of development. Also of significance is Cheng’s emphasis that (1) queer Asian Pacific American readings should focus on multiplicity; and (2) such a hermeneutic of multiplicity would look to other Asian cultural and religious traditions of the divine that reflect queer Asian Pacific American identities. If the former emphasis strikes a resonance with Nakashima Brock’s Asian American feminist hermeneutics of wisdom, Cheng’s later emphasis suggests a priority of queer Asian American experiences over the biblical texts; this latter emphasis also characterizes this second-stage development of Asian American biblical interpretation.

The desire for recognition mentioned in the early stage, while still present, becomes perhaps less desirable once Asian American biblical scholars acknowledge that a recognized identity can become one-dimensional and hence restrictive, with pressure to conform coming from one’s own racial/ethnic minority community as well as from the white community. A minoritized people, in resisting racialization, might resort to a rigid identity politics that ends up as monolithic, limiting, and imposing as what they are contesting.

A good example that demonstrates this more complicated identity struggle within Asian American biblical interpretation is an essay by Gale A. Yee, entitled “Yin/Yang Is Not Me” (2006). Yee compares recognition by whites to being an animal in a zoo through what Rey Chow, an Asian American critic in literary/cultural studies, “calls…‘coercive mimeticism,’ in which racial/ethnic persons are expected to resemble and replicate certain socially endorsed preconceptions about them” (2006, p. 154). At the same time, Yee relates experiences of Chinese Americans in China, including her own, when they are forced to become either Chinese or American but not both, as well as research about Asian American women who self-identify as simply “American”—that is, white—to distance themselves from stereotypical images of Asian women living under patriarchal Asian cultures. Yee’s rejection of a single and stable racial/ethnic minority identity leads her to conclude that “an Asian American biblical hermeneutics [is] a hard one to pin down” (2006, p. 163).

In addition to paying tributes to contextual theologians, like Peter Phan and Jung Young Lee, who helped develop Asian American theology and hence inspired Asian American biblical interpretation, Sze-kar Wan (2006) illustrates the methodological divergence, diversity, or fluidity of Asian American biblical interpretation by featuring a “hermeneutics of hyphenation” that can be somewhere or anywhere “betwixt and between”—for lack of better terms—a “historical” or an “ideological” emphasis (2006). This struggle to highlight and clarify the heterogeneity among Asian American readers and readings of the Bible can further be seen in Mary F. Foskett’s reading—as an Asian adoptee in the United States—of adoption in Romans 8—9 (2002) and the scholarly search for early Christian origins (2006). One can also see this turn toward Asian America’s internal diversity in works that feature generational difference (Yamada 2006), ethnic specificity (Ahn 2006; Liew 2008, pp. 18–33, 57–74), or a mixed racial heritage (Rietz 2002, 2006).

Stage Three: Circularity within Asian American Interpretation and Intercommunal Readings across Minority Groups.

As Asian American biblical interpretation moves with the emphases on intersectionality, internal diversity, or intracommunal negotiation into the twenty-first century, there are signs that it is approaching a third stage. The relations between reading the Bible to understand race and reading the Bible through the lenses of race or racialization become, first of all, more and more circular. As one can already see in Cheng’s work, beginning with Asian American experiences to read the Bible does not necessarily preclude a reader from seeing a biblical text as also influential or even “foundational” in one’s reading of Asian American experiences.

This more circular way of reading is present even more explicitly in a recent essay on Paul by Wan (2012). Focusing on two myths (“perpetual foreigner” and “model minority”) that function to racialize Asian Americans in general and have been experienced by Wan personally in his particular context as a professor of the New Testament, Wan spends the first six and a half pages describing and explaining these racial myths and how Asian Americans develop a certain ambivalence (that is, a simultaneous attraction and repulsion) toward “whiteness” and the dominant society. This focus on Asian American experiences as a lens for reading is unmistakable, as Wan only mentions Paul in two short sentences within this opening part of his essay. Wan is also explicit that what he is doing involves “a self-understanding or perhaps a ‘pre-understanding’ that enables [Asian Americans] to approach the biblical text with boldness and humility” and “inscribe the Asian American experience in the biblical text” (2012, p. 181).

Proceeding then to read Galatians through the dual lens of “perpetual foreigner” and “model minority,” Wan argues that Paul’s simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by the Roman Empire cause him to be similarly ambivalent toward the Jewish leadership of the Jesus movement. Wan, however, loops back to state that “Paul in turn can help Asian American readers come to terms with the ambivalence of their own social location,” as “Asian Americans find in Paul a mirror to understand their own experience of ambivalence” (2012, pp. 176, 187). This “coming to terms” or “understanding” is, for Wan, twofold. First, Paul’s “double exclusion” by the Roman Empire and the Jewish leaders is analogous to the marginalization Asian Americans often experience in not only “the white culture of the US” but also “their ancestral cultures in Asia” (Wan 2012, p. 187). Second, the Jewish leaders’ “hierarchical” treatment of Paul is a replica of the imperial hierarchy of Rome (ibid.); as such, reading Paul’s Galatians serves to remind Asian Americans how Empire institutes a hierarchical “power struggle exclusion” on all levels of a society and provides “the material cause for internal conflicts” (ibid.).

In addition, Asian American Bible scholars in this third stage also begin to work intentionally on inter-communal conversations across minority groups. Aside from an early attempt to establish contact between African American and Asian American Bible scholars in 2002 (Liew and Wimbush 2002), the strongest indication of this inclination is the 2009 volume, They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism (Bailey, Liew, and Segovia, eds.). While individual essays within this volume do not necessarily demonstrate this crossing, the volume as a whole—by putting three racial/ethnic minority groups together in one volume even if they are not necessarily in one accord—does gesture to a desire not only to seek recognition from each other as racial/ethnic minority communities but also to facilitate communication across color lines for association, affinity, and perhaps even unexpected alliances.

Making scholars of other racial/ethnic minority groups rather than white scholars one’s primary conversation partners signals a potential sea change in Asian American biblical scholarhsip. If Asian American biblical interpretation in the second stage shows that racial/ethnic identity is not only constructed but also composite—that is, it involves and is made up of different and multiple elements—the crossings that take place in this third stage hint that the underlying framework has changed from a bipolar (“majority/whites” against “minority/persons of color”) to a multipolar or multicentric one. Intercommunal crossings will help Asian American and other racial/ethnic minority readers understand not only the New Testament’s role in racialization (both helping and hurting them) but also their role in other people’s as well as their own oppression and liberation.

This shift to intercommunal conversations across different racial/ethnic minority communities is hence not only a comparative but also a connective turn: instead of fortifying boundaries to allow for differences within but arrest invaders and interlopers from without, Asian American readers of the Bible now seem to realize that racializations of different minoritized groups are parallel and overlapping processes that contribute to maintaining the dominant structure and power differentials of the US society; these processes, for instance, facilitate the use of divide-and-conquer strategies against minority groups if and when necessary. In other words, racialization of Asian Americans in the United States does not take place in isolation from but in relation to other racial/ethnic minority groups.

Another new direction in Asian American biblical interpretation is being opened up in this third stage of crossings among minoritized communities. Learning about and conversing with other minoritized communities enable not only a shifting of reference but also an opening to better expose race and racialization as social constructions rather than biologically determined. That is to say, as Asian American scholars of the Bible learn more about the racialization of other racial/ethnic minority groups, these scholars may actually have the repertoire to read the Bible with, say, largely African American resources and through African American lenses rather than Asian American ones. This is, for instance, what I attempt to do in reading Jesus’s death in the Gospel of John (2008). Reading Jesus’s death by the Roman colonizers through the African American experiences of being lynched by white racists, I argue that Jesus’s early “knowledge” of his inevitable death in John has to do with the pervasiveness of this death threat among a colonized population. Asian Americans who read and use other minoritized groups’ resources and reading lenses to approach the Bible might turn out to be one of the most potent and productive challenges against the ideology of racial/ethnic and academic “purity.”



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Tat-siong Benny Liew