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this book may be for You: How Would you Read It?

May 2, 2012

I’ve been wondering about this book for some time now. How would I read it?

The book is The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology (Pilgrim P, 2002; Wipf & Stock P – February 2, 2010).

The author, in her CV, has this short description. It some gets at the authorial intent, and it very specifically identifies her audience, developing what is already so descriptive in the subtitle:

The Grace of Sophia reaches out to Korean North American women, including former victims of severe religious and cultural suffering in Korea and current casualties of racism, classism, and sexism in North America. By sharing her own views on racism, the patriarchal Korean society, and multifaith understandings of wisdom, Kim offers strength for the journey to empowerment and hope in the search for a liberative Korean North American women’s Christology.

The Grace of Sophia is by Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Dr. Kim (Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) is the author; if you find and read her CV, or her biographies, then you see that she herself is included in her audience.  It seems to be a book also for her, and to her, and for and to her sisters who also are women, but who are Korean women, who are Korean American women, but who are North American women, who are Korean first; and they are Christians.  This language is important.

I do not know if the book is yet translated from North American English into Korean, but these adjectives, the modifiers, the specific descriptors are intentional. They are, therefore, important. They are self-descriptors in an overlay of cultures that tend to use the descriptors as objectifiers, as markers of subjects being studied. To read the book in Korean, in the East, or to read the book as a woman in any language anywhere in the third world necessarily has to get at some of the problems that Dr. Kim is trying to get to. To read the book as not a Christian but as someone interested in Christology from some other or some a-religious commitment may also get at some of the solutions that Dr. Kim is hoping to get to. We have to, whoever we are, see how she, writing this book, avoids the powerful and astute critiques of narrowly marginalized women.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, for example, is a woman writing in the south, from a southern hemisphere vantage. She also self identifies as one from the East, particularly from the “third world.” And she has said:

[E]ven though I am dealing with feminists who identify themselves as culturally or geographically from the “West,” what I say about these analytic strategies or implicit principles holds for anyone who uses these methods, whether third world women in the West, or third world women in the third world writing on these issues and publishing in the West. (I am not making a culturalist argument about ethnocentrism; rather, I am trying to uncover how ethnocentric universalism is produced in certain analyses, and in the context of a hegemonic First/Third World connection, it is not very surprising to discover where the ethnocentrism derives from.) As a matter of fact, my argument holds for any discourse that sets up its own authorial subjects as the implicit referent, i.e., the yardstick by which to encode and represent cultural Others. It is in this move that power is exercised in discourse.

Kim, writing in the First World, in the North, would at first glance seem to be one whom Mohanty would want to critique. And yet Kim’s own authorial subject and her yardstick and her cultural Other seems to be herself. To me, this is fascinating. The explicit subjectivity defies the problems of Western objectivity of the sort that tends to Objectify the Other.

I think, in some ways, this is like the texts of the Bible. By this, I mean both the The Grace of Sophia and also the issues of insiderness and outsiderness for the author and her readers.

Two readers, I see, are not Korean North American women. One is not even a woman. He is Bruce Reyes-Chow, who self-identifies as a “native Northern Californian and 3rd generation Chinese/Filipino [in the USA].” Well, I just suppose he’s read Kim’s writings because he lets her write on his blog, in a guest post, “to expose new/different voices to a larger audience.”

The other reader I want to mention who is not a Korean North American woman is another Grace: Grace Yia-Hei Kao. She self-identifies as a member of “both the Taiwanese American and larger Asian American community” and discusses these identities in her friend’s father’s public terms – “台灣之光 美國之寶 (tái wān zhī guāng, měi guó zhī bǎo)—a phrase that loosely translates as ‘the glory of Taiwan, the treasure of America'” and that is, to her, “hyperbolic accolade” which causes her to blush; these identities and descriptions she mentions in her blog post entitled, “Getting Tenure, Part II: On Being the First of My Kind.”

It was Kao’s recent blog post, “The Boldness of Grace,” that got me wanting to read Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology. Kao says there, the following:

The two things that shocked me about the book when I first read it still do not fail to amaze me now. In the first case, Dr. Kim unabashedly champions a concept that many believe is hopelessly laden with negative connotations—syncretism. In the second, Dr. Kim not only writes from her particular social location (as many feminists and other contextualists are wont to do), but devotes her book (only) to the same niche demographic—Korean North American women.

Well, I’ve made a big deal already out of the fact that Kim’s book is particular, particular in its authorial intention and particular in its intended audience. And I’ve suggested or at least imagined to myself that this particularity is complicated by an Eastern-and-Western and Northern-and-Southern and First-World-and-Second-World location; it defies Mohanty’s anti-colonial and anti-orientalism critiques, and yet it remains very particular even in North America, in Christology. To Kao’s great surprise, the author “not only writes from her particular social location (as many feminists and other contextualists are wont to do), but devotes her book (only) to the same niche demographic.” And I’ve wondered if this is what Bible text authors and perhaps insider translators of the Bible have done.

So now I’d like to make a big deal out of the other thing that shocks Kao:  Kim seems to give a positive spin on what’s normally seen as negative, on “syncretism.”  How can Christology not be heretical if it is mixed with ideological and theological substances that are not, well, not particularly Christological?  Kim has written a second book that seems more to get at and seems more to engage in syncretism. The book is also described in her CV; it’s described as follows:

The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

One task of Christian theology is to embrace the Other and overcome the problems of Orientalism and difference so that the relationship between the self and the Other will not become destructive and debilitating, but rather welcoming and accepting. Therefore, Christian theology needs to reconceive itself so that theology will nurture and enhance the understanding and respect for the Other. A step towards this reconception will be to examine the notion of the Spirit as understood in Eastern traditions and religions, as well as in Christianity, in an attempt to widen the scope of theological discourse and be inclusive of Others and embrace them as we stand on common ground.

For Christian theology, which embraces not only Christology but also Pneumatology, Kim suggests that the notion of the Other (not to mention Chi also) is the key to the mix. The shockingly narrow and self-identified particularism of  The Grace of Sophia broadens into a general inclusivity. This book too is written in the West, but includes the East, the Globe, the cultures inter-mingling. Again I wonder about reading now. I wonder about reading the Bible as an outsider, who appreciates its authors’ perhaps intended embrace of a wide audience on the outside. How does one’s text retain the particularities of one’s culture(s), of one’s self/selves, and still invite readers in, Others?

Now you’ve read this blog post. It’s interesting to discuss from the outside looking in. If you, like me, are not a Korean North American woman christologist, then would you read The Grace of Sophia by Grace Ji-Sun Kim? how?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2012 8:55 pm

    I must admit that I have a fair degree of difficulty reading this post. I’m not certain what the point is.

    Is it not normally the case that many authors write for audiences that include themselves? E.g., theologians write for theologians; chemists write for chemists; etc.

    What does it mean to be a “North American wom[a]n, who [is] Korean first”? The Korean immigrants I have met — both male and female — seem to me to be by and large happy to enjoy the relative freedom of US culture. While this is necessarily an anecdotal group, does it mean that those immigrants are no longer “Korean first”?

    And what does “North American” mean? Does it include the diverse cultures of Quebec, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Nunavut, etc.? (Yes, there are Korean immigrants living in all those places!) Or is this just shorthand for “Women of Korean descent living in Anglophone Canada and US”?

    For that matter, what does “Christian” mean to Kim? Does it include the substantial number of Korean-American Roman Catholics? Or Korean-American Mormons? Or does she mean “Protestant”?

    How does being a “North American wom[a]n, who [is] Korean first” relate, for example, to Korean-American family shop-owners who run shops located in primarily African-American or Hispanic-American neighborhoods? (Consider, for example, this little bit of racism included on Wikipedia.) Is Yoo Soon-taek (spouse of Ban Ki-Moon) — who lives in the official UN Secretary General’s residence at Sutton Place in New York included in Kim’s category? Or is Kim limiting her discussion to a specific socio-economic group?

    Many Asian-Americans object to gross cultural stereotypes, that portray them as a “model minority” or “over-achievers” or “smart but not athletic,” etc. But how does Kim’s model of her audience avoid creating a gross culture stereotype?

    Is not Christianity the ultimate example of syncretism, with its admixture of Jewish religion, Greek philosophy, mystery religions, and indigenous adaptations? If I wear Birkenstocks made in Germany, jeans made in Honduras, and a T-shirt made in China, should I feel that I am somehow syncretic and not able to present myself in public? Is not America entirely based on a syncretic model? Is physics (or philosophy) developed by Buddhists or Jews or Hindus or Muslims or Atheists somehow less valid than physics (or philosophy) developed by “Christians”? If a Protestant reads a biblical commentary by a Jew or a Catholic or an atheist, is she somehow committing syncretism?

    What, exactly, is Kim’s point?

  2. May 3, 2012 7:53 am

    Your good questions help make my point(s). (Let me leave aside the questions of stereotype and of syncretism in relation to Christianity / christianities, for the moment, although these are important also. And let me also focus on the second half of some of your binary “either/or” questions.) For example, you write: “Or is this just shorthand for ‘Women of Korean descent living in Anglophone Canada and US’?” And you ask: “Or is Kim limiting her discussion to a specific socio-economic group?”

    The questions of import are those about position, power, and politics. I was a bit reluctant in the post to quote Mohanty at such length. Now I realize I should have elaborated on her points more. She says:

    It ought to be of some political significance at least that the term “colonization” has come to denote a variety of phenomena in recent feminist … writings in … its use by feminist women of color in the U.S. to describe the appropriation of their experiences and struggles by hegemonic white women’s movements, colonization has been used to characterize everything from the most evident economic and political hierarchies to the production of a particular cultural discourse about what is called the “Third World.” However sophisticated or problematical its use as an explanatory construct, colonization almost invariably implies a relation of structural domination, and a supression—often violent—of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question. What I wish to analyze is specifically the production of the “Third World Woman” as a singular monolithic subject in some recent (Western) feminist texts. The definition of colonization I wish to invoke here is a predominantly discursive one, focusing on a certain mode of appropriation and codification of “scholarship” and “knowledge” about women in the third world by particular analytic categories employed in specific writings on the subject which take as their referent feminist interests as they have been articulated in the U.S. and Western Europe.

    Mohanty is using adjectival phrases for women to particularize a few in minor positions: “feminist,” “of color,” and “in the U.S.” (If you’re familiar with this essay I’m quoting, then you see how I’ve … by ellipses … elided her reference also to Marxist theorists, namely “Baran, Amin and Gunder-Frank,” whom Mohanty conflates with the women, i.e., the feminists, of color, in the U.S. My point is to focus on what she says about the women.) In the U.S., some white feminists have called this group, whom Mohanty notes, “afrafeminists.” And the black feminists who have felt excluded by women in the majority waves of feminism in America and by their own more particular communities in the movements of abolitionism and of civil rights in the U.S., have sometimes self identified, not as feminists of any kind at all but as “womanists.” The question is whether or how or how desirable it is for black women themselves to appropriate the power and the epistemological and rhetorical methods of those over them; hence, individuals such as Audre Lorde have found themselves writing essays such as “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Lorde and white Christian theologian feminist Mary Daly, as we all know, got into a very heated public debate over the alleged exclusions of the minority by the majority.

    In the U.S., in this context, Kim finds herself. I should have quoted Kao more too. Kao, in contrast to Kim, notes these things:

    How is it possible that simply being a newly tenured Asian American who is neither Korean nor male would be enough for me to make institutional history? …. prominent faculty who hold full professorships elsewhere but who teach for us in our bilingual D.Min for Korean Contexts (e.g., Namsoon Kang, Andrew Sung Park), etc. …. It’s both interesting and flattering that the Koreans who have approached me thusly have wanted to claim me as one of their own.

    It is in this context of her being not a male and not a Korean that Kao writes. She expresses shock. And yet she appropriates Kim’s Korean book and assigns it for her “Asian American Christianity course.” The issues of position and of power and of politics abound here.

  3. Grace Yia-Hei Kao permalink
    May 3, 2012 10:21 am

    J.K. Gayle: I appreciate that you have read some of my blogs and that one in particular prompted you to read to Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s book. Here are two thoughts.

    (1) A simple mistake: it’s not my father who called me 台灣之光 美國之寶 (tái wān zhī guāng, měi guó zhī bǎo), but the father-of-the-bride at a wedding at which I was introduced as an honored guest. (Even if my dad really did believe that I was “the glory of Taiwan, the treasure of America,” I wouldn’t describe my identities in these ways).

    (2) Did you mean to imply with her quotation from Mohanty and your last lines that my assignment of Kim’s book for my Asian American Christianity course was itself an act of colonization? Could you say more about where you believe I have “appropriated” Kim’s book – was it in assigning it for my course, or blogging about her book? There would certainly be troubling implications for Asian American solidarity and intercultural learning and understanding if so.

  4. Grace Yia-Hei Kao permalink
    May 3, 2012 10:23 am

    Sorry, I should have wrote in #2 “did you mean to imply with YOUR [not her] quotation…”

  5. May 3, 2012 1:14 pm

    Dr. Kao: I’m sorry for misreading and for mistaking the comment of this one father as something your own dad said. Thank you for the correction (which in the blogpost now is corrected). Thank you very much for blogging so candidly and so inspirationally. Congratulations to you for all that you are gaining, for yourself, and for so many others. Yes, you have inspired me to read Dr. Kim’s books, and I have both right here.

    As I respond to your #2, let me also do some self identification. I’m a third-culture kid (the child of Euro North American Southern Baptist missionaries who spent a decade working in South Viet Nam, another decade plus in North Sumatra Indonesia, and another twelve years with a North American Chinese — 臺灣人 / 香港人 / 大陆人– congregation in North Texas USA). I’m a white male (with all of that privilege – who also is a native speaker of American English and Southern Vietnamese, a learner of other Asian and Indo-European and native American languages). I’m a theist (with considerable leanings toward monotheistic trinitarianism). I’m the main administrator for the ESL learning programs at Texas Christian University (who has done sociolinguistic research in Chinese uses of English — mainland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan –and Vietnamese uses of English –although my doctoral dissertation was an engagement of feminist rhetorics with the Rhetoric of Aristotle). From my childhood to my growing up years (in two different somewhat but not very Christianized South East Asian former colonies), I’ve struggled with identities, with the labels for the Other by the privileged of dominant cultures.

    What you’ve said about Kim’s book, and what she says about herself and about her intended readership, somewhat defies the sort of post-colonial feminist critique that Mohanty, or I for that matter, or anybody else might give. Kim seems to work somewhat the way Lydia He Liu works. Liu, as you probably know, is a Chinese historian working in the USA, in part, to examine ways Chinese have appropriated Western culture. Of course, a Post-Colonial critique of these Chinese appropriations of the West simply does not work. China has, for one thing, never been colonized. For another thing, what Chinese do epistemologically is to work outside Western paradigms when adopting and adapting westernisms.

    Your work seems to be influencing in positive ways the Asian American communities in particular and making gains, indeed, for intercultural learning and understanding generally. I apologize for not knowing more of what you’re doing (not yet). Your research, teaching, and service – at least how you use Kim’s book that you’ve read much and blogged about some – appears to be doing “rhetorical listening.” This is a “canon” of rhetoric that rhetoric scholar Krista Ratcliffe has worked to recover (most notably in her book Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness). The approaches include eavesdropping, listening metonymically, and listening pedagogically. On page 1, she writes: “Defined generally as a trope for interpretive invention, rhetorical listening signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture. Defined more particularly as a code of cross-cultural conduct, rhetorical listening signifies the stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in cross-cultural exchanges.” I read your blogpost as suggesting you’re “listening rhetorically” to Kim’s book, in both the general and the particular ways Ratcliffe calls for. At least you’ve got me reading it that way.

  6. May 3, 2012 1:33 pm

    Dr. Gayle: Thanks so much for introducing yourself to me. It seems like you have a wealth of personal and professional experiences with intercultural and transnational exchanges. I am not familiar with Ratcliff’s book, but have just put it in my summer reading list because I am intrigued. I teach a feminist ethics course and this might come in handy, so thanks again for the reference. (Oh, and please call me Grace!)

  7. May 3, 2012 2:01 pm

    Grace, Please call me Kurk (which is the nickname my father gave me and what all my friends call me now). Hope we talk more together (about Kim’s and Racliff’s books).

  8. May 3, 2012 4:49 pm

    Kurk – sure! Looking forward to reading more of your stuff in the future!

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