Review: Doing Asian American Theology

Doing Asian-American Theology, Daniel D. Lee. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A book laying out a framework for doing Asian-American theology considering both the shared and diverse cultural contexts of Asian-American peoples.

For too long we would “do theology” without cultural modifiers. It was assumed that the theology that arose from European and American contexts (at least among the dominant culture) was theology. Only in doing mission did the awareness arise that there was a lot in the theology of European-Americans that was contextual, and out of context in indigenous settings. To truly be embraced in indigenous contexts, the faith had to be translated not only into the language but also the culture of the people.

Daniel D. Lee contends that this concern for context is no less true for Asian Americans who believe, and in this book he attempts to set out the cultural context that frames doing theology as an Asian American. “Neutral” theology really is White theology, and risks the loss of distinctive Asian American cultural identity and the contribution of Asian Americans to the global and national mosaic of the church. Just as Jesus entered the world as a Jew in all the particularities of Jewishness, so the particularities of being Asian American matter.

Before we launch into the framework Lee proposes, we should note his definition of Asian American theology. He writes:

“Asian American theology is about God revealed in Jesus Christ in covenantal relationship with Asian Americans qua Asian Americans. Thus, Asian American theology is about Asian Americans as human covenant partners with God.”

For Lee, particularity matters and can be lost when we are blind to the cultural normativities latent in so-called “neutral theologizing.”

The framework he then proposes is what he calls the “Asian American Quadrilateral.” The four themes he articulates are:

  1. Asian heritage. These are the cultural, religious, and philosophical inheritances that inform an intuited sense of “how things are done.” As there are many Asian peoples, this is hardly monolithic and sometimes conflicting. There is a danger of essentializing or giving way to stereotypes (e.g. the “tiger mom”). He develops the use of cultural archetypes such as Confucian filial piety, some consonant with the faith, some distorted by fallenness, some neutral but which may be considered through the eyes of faith.
  2. Migration experience. This addresses the immigrant or refugee experience, acculturation and assimilation, intergenerational conflicts and identity formation.
  3. American culture. This addresses everything from American cultural and theological heritage to colonialism to the secular and post-modern turn of the culture and what it means to live amid different ways in which “things are done” and how the Asian and American aspects of one’s identity are integrated personally and in congregations.
  4. Racialization. This involves understanding the process of racial identity formation, the black/white binary, the particular experience of microaggressions Asian Americans experience, often summed up in the “perpetual foreigner” status.

After devoting a chapter to each theme, Lee offers two concluding chapters where he begins to do some theological formulation around identity and the church. He first discusses fragmented and integrated identities in the Asian American experience and the trauma of self-editing that comes with living bi-culturally. He believes healing comes when mental categories to describe one’s experience, such as the Quadrilateral, are developed, leading to storytelling that constructs a coherent narrative of one’s life, and spiritually formative communities where narratives are shared, affirmed, and offer insight.

Finally, he addresses the idea of the Asian American church, addressing the flaws in various proposals of multi-racial churches, particularly that these often lead to being blind to the structural aspects of racism as well as submerging identities, often for the sake of White normativity. He draws on Rowan William’s idea of “mixed economy” to explore the various layers of diversity that may exist within a community, going beyond race and ethnicity. Drawing on the Quadrilateral, he proposes contextual communities for Asian heritage, transitional communities for migrant communities, missional communities for American culture and liberational communities for racialization. Some will come more to the fore than others at times and they will exist in tension with each other.

The subtitle of this work is important to make sense of what Lee is doing. “A Contextual Framework for Faith and Practice” helps one see that before one engages in the work of theology proper, one must be aware (and self-aware) of the context within which it is being done so that theological reflection both reflects and engages one’s Asian American identity and the Asian and American contexts in which that is lived out. As an onlooker in this enterprise, I look forward to see what is built upon this framework and how it enables Asian American Christians to flourish, the wider church to see Christ more fully, and the wider culture offered a fresh witness to the God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

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