Religious Language and Asian American Hybridity

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Julius-Kei Kato
Asian Christianity in the Diaspora
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , August
     2016.
     206 pages.
     $99.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781137582140.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Religious Language and Asian American Hybridity Julius-Kei Kato explores the positive potential of hybridity for religion, and Christian theology in particular. Kato defines hybridity as the coexisting of different worlds and their intermingling and fusing with each other in a single person’s—or community’s—very being (190). He believes that hybridity can be utilized to purge the unhealthy imperialistic impulses of religion, and to promote creative, harmonious, and non-binary interpretations of reality in a postmodern age.

In chapter 1, Kato decries the monocultural binary mindsets that plague religion, and offers hybridity as the antidote in our postmodern age. “The goal in all this is to build a world in which the thick all between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can be hammered and broken down in favor of a worldview in which the intimate connections among different worlds are highlighted instead and in which the presence of what we typically consider ‘other’ is increasingly found within our very own selves” (4). He further states in chapter 2 that we are all hybrids of sorts in a globalized yet heterogeneous world filled with complexity. Kato insists that hybridity should, and will, affect all interpretation.

In chapter 3, Kato makes an analogy between Jesus’s dealings with the Pharisees when his disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, and Peter Phan’s dealings with the Roman Catholic Church when he promoted openness toward other religions in Being Religious Interreligiously (Orbis Books, 2004). According to Kato, guardianship of orthodoxy evidences a hermeneutic ruled by exclusive identity politics. Chapter 4 describes hybrid theological interpreters as capable of combating exclusive oppression and affirming plurality.

Chapter 5 features Kato’s response to the atheist Sam Harris: the problem is not religion, but dogmatism. Kato argues that to do away with religion is to do away with identity. Instead, he argues that hybridity is the solution to dogmatism because it forges new identities by cherishing positive aspects while simultaneously using a hermeneutic of suspicion on the separate worlds that one inhabits. Chapter 6 delves into the tension that Asian American Christians often feel as Asian and Christian. Kato asserts that hybridity is “intrinsically part of Christianity itself” (79).

Kato applies hybridity to Christian themes in chapter 7, starting with the New Testament canon, which he argues is a hybrid with its various parts and interpretations. Here he eschews a canon-within-the-canon approach that often leads people to believe they have a monopoly on truth. Instead, Kato believes that a hybrid reading of the canon fearlessly affirms interpretive pluralism as natural and beneficial. In chapter 8, Kato proposes that the experience of hybridity, namely the dynamic of change and adjustment, comports with the developmental view of Jesus, in which Jesus had certain hopes, acted on them, realized that his expectations would not be realized, and then adjusted his expectations and actions.

In chapters 9-10 Kato turns his attention to the Johannine literature. He believes that hybridity problematizes the common binary/dualistic reading of John with its insistence upon the superiority of religious belief in Jesus. No one falls perfectly into black and white categories of belief/unbelief or good/evil. He also applies a hermeneutic of suspicion to the telic binaries in Revelation, arguing that we should resist what needs to be resisted, and retrieve what can be retrieved. In chapter 11, Kato argues that the apocalyptic worldview of Christianity—as seen in Revelation with the final triumph and domination of God and his people—is the root of Christian intolerance. This demon of imperialism must be exorcized for the sake of peace.

In chapter 12, Kato praises the postmodern moment as the most recent point in history in which God has revealed the true nature of things. He has revealed it through diversity and thus, Kato urges that we all convert, as hybrids, from upholding a fortress mentality to open engagement in interreligious interactions, for “religious diversity is the divine will” (181). Chapter 13 summarizes Kato’s book, which he understands as the beginning of a conversation that will hopefully combat the fundamentalist counter movements that he perceives are on the rise in various religions.

Kato’s work is accessible and his desire for unity and harmony commendable. He demonstrates well the promise of hybridity for contextual theology. However, readers may find some points to be contrived—such as the connections made between Phan and Jesus, or the hybrid experience and the developmental view of Jesus. Also, Kato seems to assume an anthropological definition of religion and the superiority of postmodernism, sentiments that may not be shared with the very readers he is trying to convince to be “religious interreligiously.” Furthermore, one might wonder if Kato’s argument—that the Judeo-Christian belief in God’s final victory and judgment over the world is the root of Christian intolerance—is overstated. A definition of legitimate tolerance is lacking, and Kato himself demonstrates intolerance toward the traditional telos of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Most importantly, one might wonder how consistently Kato applied hybridity. For even as Kato espoused hybridity for its ability to tear down the walls of demarcation between “me/us” and “the other,” has he not erected such lines between his views of a healthy inclusive religiosity and an unhealthy fundamentalist religiosity? Does this not violate the principle of inclusive hybridity that he promotes? Would not true hybridity make room for the monocultural, imperialistic, and binary worldview that Kato so vehemently rejects? According to Kato, the principle of hybridity both resists negative aspects of religion and embraces positive aspects, but he does not provide any criteria for discernment. To be fair, Kato does admit the deep subjectivity of his approach, but this is unhelpful for those seeking to discern what is healthy and unhealthy in religion, as Kato inevitably does himself. Hence, Kato’s attempt to utilize hybridity to purge religion of its unhealthy aspects appears highly selective and arbitrary.

Still, Religious Language and Asian American Hybridity is a welcome addition and a thoughtful contribution to the developing field of Asian American theology. Those seeking to understand the direction of this field today will benefit from reading this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Ong is a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh.

Date of Review: 
April 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julius-Kei Kato, a proud Filipino-Japanese-Canadian hybrid, is Associate Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at King’s University College, London, Canada. He has previously served as Assistant Professor at Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan, and Visiting Associate Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan. He is the author of How Immigrant Christians Living in Mixed Cultures Interpret Their Religion (2012). He has lived and studied in Manila, Tokyo, Rome, Jerusalem, and Berkeley-California, among other places.   

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