The therapeutic excess of white evangelical psychology in Chinese evangelicalism (My conversion to liberation theology #11)

The therapeutic excess of white evangelical psychology in Chinese evangelicalism (My conversion to liberation theology #11) December 24, 2017

My best attempt to look like a Chinese evangelical therapist - photo by either my mom or sister
My best attempt to look like a Chinese evangelical therapist – photo by either my mom or sister

This is the eleventh in a series of posts testifying about my conversion to liberation theology. For previous posts, here are the firstsecondthirdfourthfifthsixthseventheighthninth, and tenth.

In 1972, the journalist Josephine So Yan Pui 蘇恩佩 sat down to write a letter. She had recently moved to Hong Kong from Wheaton College, where she had studied journalism. Her letter turned into a manifesto, the social philosophy of what came to be known as Breakthrough Youth Ministries. Translated into English in her book Death Be Not Proudit reads:

The city is growing too fast. There are too many changes. The only thing that has not changed is the sky…Apart from this, even the ocean has changed (many bays have been filled as reclaimed land). The colors of the mountains have changed (many once green peaks have been razed to the ground). But the greatest change is in our society, our young people!

Young people, she continues, have been the perpetrators of horrendous crimes. In the North District’s reservoir area, a mother and her child were found murdered during their early morning stroll. High school students felt pressured to join gangs. ‘Brute force,’ So writes, ‘the diminished value of life, the distortion of humanity has reached the limit,’ and all that the churches were doing was to host their weekly Bible studies for middle-class people. ‘These are our own young people!’ she protested. ‘Whose responsibility is that?’

And then, the iconic words: ‘”Oh God, what can I do for this city?” – all I have is a frail body, and my pen. I have never felt so utterly depressed about the sins and crimes of this world. I have never felt so drastically inadequate’ (p. 98). So’s body was indeed frail. The energy in her pen contrasted her sickly comportment. By the early 1980s, she was dead of cancer. Many of her admirers felt that she had been taken before her time.

Despite So’s untimely death, Breakthrough became a wildly successful ministry. Its calling card was therapy. It had a counselling centre that operated out of the Kowloon district of Jordan. It had a magazine that focused on youth issues, which often translated into problems that could be dealt with in therapy. It had training sessions for youth ministry that focused on their psychological growth and development. This was what Breakthrough could do for the city: curb the violence through an emphasis on the psychological well-being of youth and then channel their energy into productive contributions to urban life. In one word, then: therapy.

The emphasis on therapy in Chinese evangelicalism might sound a little bit strange for those outside the network. Chinese evangelicalism (like Korean evangelicalism) has often been portrayed as authoritarian, with parents pressuring their kids to ungodly lengths to do well in school and make lots of money while suppressing the emotional lives of English-speaking congregations. This is true to some extent, and I experienced it too, as I wrote about in my last post. What most people don’t know is that this portrayal is also racist and doesn’t tell half the story.

The truth is that Chinese evangelicals are not stupid. It’s not like they don’t know that all that pressure is making their young people crack, and it’s not like they don’t gossip behind closed doors about the sexual misconduct that goes on in their churches. They’ve known about these problems for a long time, and there is a strand within Chinese evangelicalism that has been trying to fix it since the 1970s. Maybe we can call these people the therapists.

In many ways, Breakthrough has been a central node within that network. But the bigger deal has to do with the encounter of Chinese evangelicals, mostly students in Winnipeg from Hong Kong influenced by Chinese revivalism, with white evangelicalism in the United States and Canada. The general idea that they picked up during these encounters, mostly refined by studies at Wheaton College in Chicagoland, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and Regent College in Vancouver, is that the freedom of the Gospel as preached in the Bible should lead to a kind of psychological wholeness. In this way, the excesses that might be caused by ‘Chinese culture’ could be restrained by Jesus. Accordingly, counselling centres began to open everywhere in Chinese evangelicalism, such as at Breakthrough, but also at Chinese Christian Mission outposts in major American and Canadian cities and at Breakthrough imitators in those same cities as well.

My connection with Breakthrough is very direct. Since the 1980s, my parents have known the founder of Breakthrough’s counselling ministry, Ruth Chan Wai-ming, through churches in Vancouver. Dad later became a pastor in his own right, and then a chaplain and a psychotherapist too. In the 1980s, though, my parents were the self-described ‘lousiest’ of Christians. Ruth had saved them during their membership interview at a Chinese evangelical church. When the pastor had asked them what ‘salvation’ was, they were so theologically illiterate that they had no answer. Ruth jumped in and explained that it was how Jesus’ death on the cross delivers us from our sins. Sometimes, this story makes no sense to me because my dad was a Winnipegger just like Ruth. Of course, he was a ‘lousy’ Christian in Winnipeg because he was actually a kung fu master and only went to church to chase girls, but one time he went to a Winter Conference, and they read him Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws until 2 in the morning, when he gave up and asked Jesus into his heart. He should have known what salvation was, but he didn’t, so Ruth saved him – and my mom too, who is not from Winnipeg, and therefore not one of those Winnipegger church girls, which means that the dirty secret about chasing girls at church is that it doesn’t work.

I got to know Ruth when I was five. We were living in the Bay Area at the time, and Ruth came to visit every so often. She had been an English major at Bethel College and told me many stories that I later learned were from Jules Verne, like how some people got to the centre of the earth and it was hot, or spent a lot of time in a submarine eating seafood, or traversed the world in eighty days, or went up into the sky in a hot air balloon. In time, I learned that Ruth gave my dad lots of advice about how to be a Chinese church pastor. She was ruthless in her criticism of the Chinese church. She even suggested that, in order to blow off steam, we should watch a forbidden movie called Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Chinese churches would find that kind of thing scandalous, she said, but because we were smart people, we’d understand that they were seeing themselves as if in a mirror and were offended because they were being made to look ridiculous.

This was the way that the Chinese evangelical therapy people would talk. We were the sophisticated people, educated as we were in a white world beyond Chinese superstition. What was scandalous to the masses was entertainment to us. The average person in the pews is an intellectual child, they said. Their concerns are often not very spiritual. They will not understand the intricacies of biblical exegesis, church history, and systematic theology. They just want to live their lives, and sometimes they have problems, usually with their families. Our job is to help them. In this way, ministry is therapy.

This provided a good explanation, moreover, for Chinese church politics, especially in the tensions between a Chinese congregation and the young people in the English one. This was the difference, we were told, between ‘OBC’ (Overseas-Born Chinese) and ‘ABC’ (American-Born Chinese). OBCs are collectivistic, they said, and because of that, the trauma of warfare in Asia and immigration to America made them insecure about their communities. They’d pass that on by repressing their second-generation, the ABCs who are supposedly taught in school to be free, individual agents in the world. I remember thinking that being saddled with AP exams, SATs, and college applications didn’t sound like freedom to me, but that didn’t factor into the analysis. In fact, the dirty secret behind this analysis is that the ABCs are usually portrayed as smarter than their stupid parents. The explanation for why OBCs have to take power is basically that they’re uneducated, jealous, and dumb.

This reading of Chinese churches was legitimized by a certain reading of Asian American history and literature. There was a Christian psychologist who visited our church who gave a talk in Cantonese on how Chinese culture is about silencing and suppression. He told the story of one case when a member of the family committed suicide by throwing herself down a well, the family never spoke about it. He also said that when mothers come to America, they pass on their generational trauma to their daughters. He mentioned that he got all of this from Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and we ate it all up. Huddled together on the couch, my family all cried together watching The Joy Luck Club because the mahjong politics felt just like what we had experienced in the church. It will interest readers to know that that same psychologist played a pretty big role in trying to ban same-sex marriage in California, also for reasons of developmental psychology – if kids do not know a father and a mother, he reasoned, they will be developmentally impaired. He also promoted the reparative therapy group, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and their abilities to convert gay and lesbian people into straight folks, and was a board member of Exodus International until that whole thing fell apart when they stopped doing reparative therapy and therefore lost their whole reason for existence. Horrified as Kingston and Tan might be to learn this (one can also picture Frank Chin rubbing his hands with glee), there was no contradiction between their work and these socially conservative politics. It was all just therapy.

What we might learn from this is how Chinese evangelicalism actually works. It may have its global networks and local institutions, but it is not a self-contained phenomenon. Instead, it exists in a symbiotic relationship with the institutional world of white evangelical Protestantism. However, this is usually invisible. Mostly, that’s because the latter world, we are often told by its apologists, doesn’t exist. What is evangelicalism anyway? they ask us as they gaslight us into doubting their existence. (The older tricks in the bag used to be, why are you so into labels? and why can’t you just be a Christ-follower? and I have a relationship, not a religion.)

But if we grant that ‘evangelical Protestantism’ at this point simply refers to normal white people who believe in the Bible and are saved by Jesus so that they are models of psychological wholeness, then this analysis might work. It is no accident, for example, that Josephine So Yan Pui went to Wheaton, that the counseling centres tend to be staffed by Fuller and Regent grads, and that the psychologist who spoke at our church was into NARTH and Exodus International while also promoting Asian American literature. Another very reputable organization was Focus on the Family, which features as its founder the psychologist Dr James Dobson and his methods of discipline in developmental psychology and therapeutic methods for wholeness in marriage. A book that people liked to read was Dr Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages, which taught people how to speak in the emotional tenor of their spouses and communicate love better. All of this was very useful stuff for Chinese evangelicals, who are said to be terrible communicators of love and wholeness in their family lives and have to recover from historical and contemporary trauma, to boot. White evangelical therapy is our salvation; by it will we find wholeness, freedom, and liberation.

No wonder, then, that my obsession became to fix the Chinese church. The way to do that, ironically, was to give Chinese Christians the therapeutic gift of white evangelical theology. The problem, though, is that the question of what is most therapeutically effective is a central debate in white evangelicalism. Can you, for example, use psychodynamic techniques in everyday life, or should you stick to the kind of ‘biblical counselling’ where you quote Bible verses in a bid to model your life after God’s prescriptions for success? Would the latter approach be too much law, and don’t Christians need to understand God’s grace that sets us free? In the latter case, don’t we just need to let go and let God? God is sovereign, after all. Though we are sinners, he justifies us by his grace so that we do not have to live by our performance. He saves. He provides. He sees. He heals.

Any of these questions puts you in a certain camp within evangelicalism, and that is certainly what happened to me. By the time I was asking these questions, I was finishing high school in the Bay Area and moving to college in Vancouver. It so happened that my father, who was by then a small church pastor who is a diabetic who was paying for his own health insurance in the United States in the early 2000s because the church wasn’t paying it, decided to move to Vancouver too so as not to slide down the slippery slope toward bankruptcy. Having been a pastor’s kid in the Bay Area, I did not relish the idea of becoming a pastor’s kid in Vancouver – while in college, no less. However, the church my dad was hired at had girls. Alas. In fact, much later on, I married one of them.

We do not go to that church anymore, though. My dad’s tenure at that church was quite short-lived – less than two years. Looking back on that experience, I now understand at a much more primal level why evangelicals always claim to be anti-intellectual, afraid of labels, avoiding of ideas. It turns out that they know a thing or two about how theology, especially the kind that might claim to give you peace with God and inner stillness, works. These ideas usually come from reading books, going to conferences, surfing the web, and dreaming up things in the shower and finding them verified somewhere else, at which point you claim that you got it from reading the Bible and praying. Once you have a theological idea, you’ll want to make it a reality. Usually, the space where you want to implement that reality is in a community. That community is called a church. However, other people might have other ideas about what is more therapeutically effective. So you form a faction, and they form a faction, and each of you accuses the other people of being a faction, which Paul told the Corinthians he didn’t like, except you are not a faction because you are standing for the truth that sets people free. The euphemism for this kind of thing is church politics.

Notice how the church politics actually works, though. The agents are the church people, and in a Chinese church, most of us are Chinese. However, the ideas that we think might be healing for our community usually come from outside the church. In fact, they might come from any number of authors. Since this is my testimony, I won’t confess anyone else’s sins but mine. My influences were no less a hodgepodge of white evangelical ideas than anyone else’s. I was taking correspondence courses from an unaccredited school called Calvary Chapel Bible College. Calvary Chapel had been one of the flagship churches of the Jesus Movement in the 1960s and the originator of a lot of what we now know as ‘praise-and-worship music’ because the tens of thousands of hippies who became Christians through that church wrote praise choruses that adapted the music of the flower children into love songs for Jesus, which they stamped with a brand called Maranatha – ‘come, Lord.’

The philosophy of Calvary Chapel’s founder, Pastor Chuck Smith, was that if you teach the Bible verse by verse, you will change people’s lives. Part of the action here, of course, was the Holy Spirit; Calvary Chapel was also a node in the charismatic movement, although they had pulled back from the crazy because the guy who converted the hippies, a hippie called Lonnie Frisbee who looked like Jesus, turned out not only to be gay, but also was having sex with the converts. Smith decided to double down on the Bible study, and Frisbee eventually moved on to a Calvary Chapel that left the movement and began calling itself the Vineyard Movement. Eventually, Frisbee died of AIDS, and his legacy was written out of the movement. Vineyard, however, became influential in its own right through its own praise choruses, healing ministries, and mainstreaming of the charismatic movement because its gurus, John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner, taught folks at Fuller Theological Seminary how to grow churches by focusing on home ministries in small groups that could harness their people’s spiritual gifts. Eventually, they managed to get a theology professor called Wayne Grudem on side who wrote a very large textbook in systematic theology that emphasized the need for verse-by-verse biblical teaching, the charismatic gifts, and the importance of following the Bible’s prescriptions on manhood and womanhood.

At face value, one might say that this has nothing to do with Chinese evangelicalism. But that would be quite untrue because this is a description of how I understood Christian practice. By letting God speak his word by explaining the text verse by verse, the Holy Spirit would work through the close reading to generate excitement about Jesus and lead hearers to salvation and holiness. This in turn became my philosophy of how to do a kind of Christian therapy for people at church. I also tried to make this part of my undergraduate work in history. For many papers, I found myself working on Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening congregationalist preacher in the eighteenth century and his musings on how enthusiasm and ‘religious affections’ worked. Because of this, I also became interested in Puritan theology, and it just so happened that the writers and preachers who were inspiring me at the time – John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Tim Keller, especially – also enjoyed this kind of Puritan theology. It would be easy to look back on that period and say that I was a ‘New Calvinist.’ The problem is that the term was not really coined until 2006, and by the time the movement was consolidating in the late 2000s, it was already fraying at the seams. I prefer to call what I was doing a kind of charismatic exegetical lecturing that I thought would generate a kind of spiritual healing.

What this also meant is that I also clashed with people with different ideas. For example, some people thought that the Bible should be used to generate principles and models to which people should conform their lives. I was quite against this because a model is not the same as charismatic enthusiasm. Other people had really taken courses in counseling psychology, educational philosophy, and social work. Because they were taught to have a lot of class discussion, they tended to oppose my use of the lecture to work through texts. I often thought that their discussions were going nowhere. They thought I was arrogant. Of course they were right.

My strong views made me a lot of enemies, and it made me a lot more imagined opponents whom I imagined to oppose me. The truth is that I didn’t have as many people who opposed me as I might have had folks who just couldn’t care less. Even so, because of this, I flitted about various Christian communities. It helped that my dad was also getting himself into trouble, and with more trouble came more moving around. The funny thing is that as I moved around, I found myself working as a volunteer at the Vancouver knockoff of Breakthrough called Enoch Youth Outreach Society. The person who introduced me to it, of course, was Ruth. She thought I should get more experience counseling young people. I had all the answers, and I think for the people at Enoch that I didn’t alienate, I was well-liked for my confidence and ability to exegete people’s souls.

Soon, I was identified by the guy who really ran Enoch, a Chinese Anglican priest, as young talent who could be shaped for ministry. This is the true story of how I got into Anglicanism. It had nothing to do with the liturgy, which I hated, or with an interest in becoming Catholic, which I was not because I was really an evangelical. Instead, I brought my evangelical therapeutic package into the Chinese Anglican parishes in Vancouver. They needed it too. I found out through working in Chinese Anglicanism that there were actually two networks of parishes that were breaking away from the Diocese of New Westminster over what they said was the exclusive claim of Christ to salvation and the authority of the Bible, although it really probably was more about same-sex marriage. This Chinese Anglican priest was from the one that was in the process of breaking away. Eventually, I worked at the other one, which had already broken away years before and was charismatic, although the rectors of both parishes – who both became bishops later on in their respective networks – were both self-proclaimed disciples of the British evangelist John Stott. Because my dad found himself in that same charismatic parish for completely different reasons from me later on, he got himself re-ordained as an Anglican priest in the Province of Kenya. At that service, our whole family was confirmed. And so I became canonically Anglican even though I had no interest in Anglicanism.

The reason the Anglican parishes liked me was that apart from fighting their global Anglican realignment politics, they had young people who were not very interested in going to church. For this, evangelical therapy brought a kind of enthusiasm that could awaken a kind of new excitement. The only problem with being a passionate young person bringing an evangelical therapy package aimed at revival is that – apart from making even more enemies by being too enthusiastic – it can get a little bit out of control. Eventually, the charismatic exegetical fireball that I started blew up in my face, and the youth group I started imploded.

It was in the wake of the implosion that I decided to go to graduate school to study Chinese Christians. I also picked up some new theologies that I thought would put me back together after I was scared out of my wits by the firestorm I had created. From some courses I took at Regent College, I began re-reading C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien together with the Catholic account of the supernatural in the works of Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as the Orthodox account of communion in Metropolitan John of Pergamon. Instead of trying to perform therapy on Chinese churches, I now thought that I could remove myself from the picture and study them from a distance. I did this by going to a white Anglican church and then starting to blog as Chinglican, which led me into considering a larger picture of Anglican Communion politics that had room for evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, and liberals alike. Eventually, I found myself reading John Milbank and William Cavanaugh, and I analyzed Chinese Christian churches eventually as theologically secular spaces in the dissertation that I wrote.

But as I look back now, these were the seeds of the crisis that led to my final conversion to liberation theology in Eastern Catholicism because there was in fact no conversion between the charismatic evangelical therapy package and my supposed shift to the high church. I was still standing above the community as one of the ‘therapists,’ a cynic who still wanted to fix the community. Liberation theology, however, is not about standing above the people, as if to give them the gift of liberation, as Paulo Freire calls it. It is to be among the people in our struggle to be free. The truth is that the therapy I was offering to Chinese churches in contestation with the offering of others was not freedom. It was basically just us borrowing from white evangelical accounts of the human person and imposing it onto the lives of the people we thought were beneath us. The conversion to liberation theology entails repentance from this posture. It is with that I shall conclude in my final post in this series.

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