It’s that time in the academic year when classes are winding down and when faculty and students alike are looking forward to the summer. While putting together a final oral exam study-guide for my doctoral students, my mind kept returning to one of the books I assigned in my Spring 2012 Asian American Christianity course—Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology (2002).
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.
The Grace of Sophia is an openly “syncretistic” work. It adopts an explicitly “multifaith hermeneutics” by “relating Christian biblical interpretation positively to other religious texts and traditions” (p. 24). It affirms that truth and wisdom are found in the “cultures, histories and religions of other people”—not solely in the Bible (p. 26). It offers that when syncretism is done well, the “insights of two or more religions are genuinely integrated without violence or loss of identity on either side” (p. 37). That’s fairly radical for an ordained Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) clergywoman.
More specifically, what Kim does constructively in her book is link biblical wisdom (Hokmah, Sophia) to the feminized notions of wisdom in Asian cultural and religious traditions (e.g., prajna, Kuan-yin) as well as to the ancient near East (e.g., Isis). In my view, Kim’s boldness on this first count has less to do with how ultimately comparable or assimilable these models of wisdom are than with her willingness to even attempt to syncretize them.
Kim’s second move is no less shocking, particularly when one keeps in mind current realities in the academic publishing world. Kim doesn’t offer her Sophia Christology to all Christians or even to all feminists. She doesn’t even present her findings to all Asian Americans. No, her book is explicitly for Korean North American women, for she hopes to present a model of Christ that can liberate them from their han—from their unresolved resentment against injustices suffered.
Why is this move so bold? The answer, in short, is that Kim has deliberately narrowed her target audience. While I don’t know the figures for Asian Canadians (n.b., Kim emigrated to Canada at the age of six), Asian Americans in the U.S. make-up a small minority—5.6% (17.3 million) of the total U.S. population and among that racial categorization, Korean Americans comprise only the fifth largest ethnic group (behind Chinese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, and Vietnamese) at 1.6 million.
I don’t know anything about the negotiations she might have had with her publisher, but I can imagine that there might have been pressures to market the book not specifically for Koreans, but at least for Asian Americans (and still much better: for Christian women in general). Even putting aside the issue of marketing are the larger pressures that many of us experience to homogenize our discrete experiences under a pan-Asian umbrella and accordingly minimize our differences. But because I am an Asian American who also takes seriously her particularized second generation Taiwanese American identity, it is precisely because this book was NOT written for me that makes me appreciate it all the much more.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her latest book is The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (2011).
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. She is also co-editing with Rebecca Todd Peters an anthology of articles exploring women’s theological lives that will feature, among others, a chapter by Grace Ji-Sun Kim.