Church

Making Paper Cranes: Collision and Fragmentation

mihee1Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, her fastball touches the low 90’s.

The fifth chapter of Making Paper Cranes spins out the vivid metaphors of “Collision” and “Fragmentation” that have been maneuvering behind everything the book’s been doing up to this point. “I use collision,” Mihee explains, “as a metaphor to mean the ongoing encounter of stereotypes, expectations, standards, and conflicting realities that lead to fragmentation.”

In order for Mihee’s Asian American Feminist theology to move the needle, theologically, culturally, or ecclesially, she’s convinced that it must involve the risk of uncomfortable–even painful–collisions that move people’s real, physical bodies, to transformative action.

The result of these collisions is the fragmentation of the body involved, a gritty (if not violent) image. But it’s also creative and constructive. For Mihee, this fragmentation involves “a continuous recognition of the numerous sources of my identity, deconstruction of these influences, and then, most important, a work of intentional reconstruction.”

The sources of identity for a woman of Asian ethnicity living in the United States are multiple. Being an Asian American Woman in a church context adds yet another source. Making Paper Cranes spends a lot of time tracing these identity sources and unfolding them for the reader’s examination. As a white American man working alongside Mihee in that same church context, there’s tremendous value in listening to her description of the collisions she undergoes. But also, as she describes the strain and the promise of “reconstruction,” I’m given new eyes to behold the value that my Asian American brothers and sisters in the church are contributing to our common life, value I was ignorant of before.

As the verbs “collide,” and “fragment” indicate, this value emerges from mess. It has to. It’s produced by flesh-and-blood experience in real time. It grows in particular, real, places:

For collision and fragmentation to resonate as metaphors, theology must be rooted in the physical and flesh-and-blood—in the mess and chaos of humanity. This theology of embodiment is grounded in the reality of God in Christ Jesus. It finds its roots in a doctrine of the incarnation of Christ that highlights the importance of apprehending Jesus Christ in a particular human, social context. This, then, becomes the basis for validating our own social histories and situations. We are able to view our own lives as the center and subject of stories rather than in relation or association to what is considered normative. The emphasis is placed on human experience in the body more than on abstract ideas of the mind as the starting point for understanding God, so body experiences are positively viewed as occasions of revelation.

And so it is that I realize the errors of how I’ve been approaching this book, looking for analogies to my own experience instead of listening for the “social histories and situations” unfolded in its pages. Making Paper Cranes and its Asian American Feminist theology is not an abstract exercise in metaphysics or cultural anthropology. It’s one human beings testament of God from where she is, as who she is.

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Books

Making Paper Cranes: Syncretism

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Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, she’s got deadly opposite field power.

Here are posts one, two, and three about the book.

Making Paper Cranes turns to theological reflection in its fourth chapter, “New Flock: Currents from Asian American Theology.” Here the reader finds expositions of Christian theological pillars like Revelation, Creation, Incarnation, Justification, Ecclesiology, and Pneumatology. Mihee’s main conversation partner in this unfolding is Reformed stalwart Shirley Guthrie (who’s Christian Doctrine was required reading for my “Basic Christian Beliefs” class in college.) Along the way she converses with a whole host of Asian American theologians you’ll probably be meeting for the first time: Boyung Lee, Anne Dondapati Allen, and Gale Yee, just to name a few.

It’s an ambitious chapter well worth the effort it takes to read it carefully.

Tucked neatly into her exploration of Pneumatology is a sparkling little defense of “syncretism,” a theological boogeyman of ages past. My seminary studies of  the Christian missionary movements of the 18th and 19th centuries taught me that syncretism–the blending of the Christian gospel with elements from a “non-Christian” culture–was a crippling theological (and moral) fault. The syncretistic theologian “went native” and forgot his Christian (read: European/American) moorings.

How refreshing, then, to read Mihee’s ode to syncretism. It’s the ultimate reversal. If syncretism = doom to American male missionaries venturing into, say, Korea in 1884, then syncretism = life for the  female descendent of Korean immigrants to America in 2013.

Syncretism simply means “relying on the Spirit to reveal God outside of our own contexts and limited assumptions.” Mihee leans heavily on the work of Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Chung Hyung Kyung to advocate a theological posture of openness to the Holy Spirit’s movement beyond one’s inherited cultural experience. What’s she’s after is “an intentional incorporation of other cultures with the attitude that they will help us understand our own stories even amidst conflict and differences.”

There’s an imperative to descriptive theological work here, over against prescriptive theological pronouncements. Yes please. Show us the way, Mihee. Show us the way.

 

 

 

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Books

Making Paper Cranes: Feminism

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Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, she’s deadly in the low post.

I went to seminary with Mihee, and I was surprised to read this in her book: “I remember avoiding these [liberal] courses and viewing the [theology] department with a sort of desperate fascination.”

Huh. 

Mihee recalls the warnings she received from the well-meaning elders of her home church, alerting her to the pagan dangers of “flaming leftist notions about women’s liberation.” I, too, received warnings like this, and nobody embodied leftism, feminism, and liberation more to me than Mihee. 

Huh.

Now, I was a neophyte of the purest order, the product of Hellfire pentecostalism become hand-wringing evangelicalism become shoegazing emergence. The conventions of mainline protestantism were as foreign to me as haggis. So I had no reason not to assume that the Asian woman knocking people over in flag football games and striding confidently into theology lectures was a lefty feminist in Christian clothing. 

It tickles me to read the chronicle of Mihee’s flirtation with feminism. Men from church stock such as produced me have a suspicion of feminism drilled into us early and thoroughly. Who knew women do too? And who knew that many Asian women are nurtured on a unique distaste for it? Mihee quotes Pandora Leong:

my experience suggests that within the subculture of Asian women, I am also fighting a cultural consciousness that favors a duty to society over the spirit of independence. Individualism may have been a Western male value, but at least it was a Western value. White feminists only had to democratize it; as an Asian feminist, I must introduce it. Asian society places a premium on social order and the advancement of the community.

For Mihee, Asian American feminism “must counter two levels of patriarch by giving voice to individual experience.”

Here’s what strikes me about this. So much of the discourse that pulses through “educated” cultural circles (including mainline denominational gatherings) takes aim at “individualism” as an insidious force that has eroded a communitarian sense of responsibility to one’s neighbor. Yet, Mihee is holding up an experience, shared by many Asian American women, in which that communitarian sense often muzzles the individual voice, to the detriment of one’s neighbor. 

Ragging on individualism, then, is not enough. It seems those of us in the “dominant” culture need to be more clear about the kind of individualism we oppose, even while we look for ways to accompany our brothers and sisters who are working to cultivate a more holy individualism for their communities and, I daresay, for the church. 

How do we do that?

 

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Making Paper Cranes: Foreigner

mihee

Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, she’s not afraid to turn upfield after the catch to gain extra yards. Seriously. That’s not a metaphor.  

” . . . for the most part I will use the phrase ‘Asian American,’ which will potentially include people of East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, and Taiwan), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia), South Asia (Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), and the Pacific Islands (Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia), though not all stories will include all groups.”

“I choose to identify myself and this endeavor as ‘Asian American’ rather than as Korean American, though that is my specific ethnicity . . . I make this move intentionally to be as inclusive as possible, so I might address the basic issues that impact the group(s) of people who are lumped together in this category; how people in the United States view Koreans affects how they view those of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese descent.”

The diversity of experience among “Asian Americans,” as Mihee deftly describes it, is staggering. As an Anglo American, I have almost no relationship to that diversity. Actually, that condition is only influenced by my own ethnicity, not conditioned by it, as the phrase “As an Anglo American” wishes to suggest. I’ve had opportunities. Doors have been open. Afraid, though, I’ve mostly stayed put and so stayed in the dark.

Last year I participated in the ordination of a Korean American pastor. The worship service was entirely in Korean; my English recitations were foreign. It felt so wrong to me that the experience was so novel and that, as a minister in a presbytery where almost half the churches worship in a non-English language, being the only mono-lingual person in the room jarred me.

Mihee’s identification of herself as “Asian American” for the purpose of inclusion makes this project more personal. It’s helping me to appreciate the wide array of Christians–Presbyterians at that– in my own patch of turf who share some aspect of what she’s describing.

Take just one aspect of that experience: being labelled a “foreigner.”  “I have always endured the question of whether or not I am a foreigner,” Mihee writes, even though she was born and raised in the United States. There are remedies available to soothe the discomfort of that question, but they come at a cost.

The “model minority” myth, for example, flatters Asian Americans by marveling at their academic and business success, as well as their family values and deference to the rule of law.  Yet in doing so the dominant culture merely praises what it values most about itself. And not everyone appreciates it, as many grieved white college applicants will attest. Here’s where that leads: “Asian Americans have become pawns, a ‘teacher’s pet’ community, a group resented for their success, who are also targets of violence and hatred by other groups, yet still not even accepted by the dominant culture.”

Keep talkin’ Mihee.

This is hard reading, mostly because I’m not sure what to do with what Mihee’s saying. Perhaps she will have some counsel to offer later. For now I’m grabbing on to her exposition of the way American media stereotypes Asians, an expositions that leans heavily on the work of Franklin Wu. This is something I can pay attention to and work on.

What about you?

Further reading:

Making Paper Cranes, pt. 1 

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Making Paper Cranes

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Mihee Kim Kort has released her first book on Chalice Press. And Making Paper Cranes:
Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology
is exactly what it says it is. 

Mihee was a seminary classmate (and intramural flag football teammate) a decade ago. Since then she’s been a blogging partner and a contributor to PLGRM, the magazine I help edit. She’s a clear and honest voice.

I’ll be blogging through the book over the next few weeks.

A word about my method. I’m not an Asian American woman. My experience of this book is that of a white guy who knows and thinks highly of the author. That’s perhaps not the best draw for a book, but I think any author would take it. In reading Making Paper Cranes I’m trying to understand better my friend’s experience, as well as that of the many Asian Americans that make up the church in which I serve. Finally (and this is not that big of a stretch, is it?) I’m looking for myself. 

Collision and Fragmentation

The soil of Mihee’s project is her experience of collision and fragmentation. Born to Korean parents, Mihee grew up in the American west, surrounded by white people. Her recollection is vivid:

Growing up going to mostly Anglo schools in Colorado, I got along with anyone and everyone. My close friends were Anglo-American and African American, and I had one Latina friend. I had a few Asian American friends, but in terms of those who were non-Anglo, there were only a few of us. I never received any overtly violent gestures of racism but there were those typical cliché moments when a kid would chant at me in an annoying, singsongy way, speaking gibberish and asking if I understood it, or our class would get a new student who happened to be Asian but Chinese, and the teacher would ask me if I spoke Chinese and if I could translate for them. Every so often there was a breakdown of groups, whether for kickball teams at recess or for projects in class, and though I remember watching groups of white kids sit together immediately, and the black kids slowly congregate together, I would look around, wavering, trying to feel out where I felt I belong the most.

Her upbringing yielded the “ongoing encounter of stereotypes, expectations, standards, and conflicting worlds” that she calls “collisions”. Those collisions, in turn, produced a kind of “fragmentation” for Mihee, “a disjointed state, like being in the middle of a pile of shattered, broken puzzle pieces.” 

I’m struck by the violence of these images. Hidden in that violence, though, is a loveliness trying to emerge. This is where the book gets its title and central image: the paper crane. Recalling her experience of folding cranes with her mother, Mihee describes the task as making “something delicate and lovely out of [an] intersection of creases.” There’s gospel in there. 

These collisions and their resulting fragments are all around, born by people I see every day. Half of the people I share a presbytery with don’t worship in English, and most of those are Asian. My experiences with them bear evidence of the kinds of collisions and fragmentation Mihee is describing. Clearly, I need to do more to understand them, to listen to them, and to honor their experience.

I’ve known collision and fragmentation too. They seem to be markers of modern life. The variety explored in Making Paper Cranes is specific, and it produces specific effects that need to be heard and understood. In listening to it, I’m eager to pay closer attention to the creases, collisions, and fragments of my life to see, as Mihee has seen, what “delicate” and “lovely” things they offer.  

Read Bruce Reyes-Chow’s review of Making Paper Cranes here

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