Going Back, Moving Forward: A Journey of Identity

“I don’t think so.” My reply sounded calm, but perhaps it was the stiffening of my back or the tense twitch of my hands that gave it away. Whatever it was, Dr. Lee knew he had irked me.

He was an odd mixture of civility and force; his words gentle, his ideas subversive, and he took an almost a visceral pleasure in watching me squirm that one New York summer. We met–in both senses of the word–because he ran the internship I had applied for. “Free money!” my pastor said, tongue-in-cheek. And in all honesty, perhaps that had been my motivating reason. I had little interest in Asian-American Christianity, which was what the ISAAC internship was all about. I saw the issues of Asian-American Christianity as in the past, a former life. I had moved on from the immigrant church and the Asian identity of my youth for something better–or so I thought.

It’s not an unusual narrative among bicultural youth: The first-generation immigrant church pours into its children an ethos of spiritual and mental vigor, along with a deep respect for Scripture. And because our parents save and sacrifice in innumerable ways, we are afforded the highest educational opportunities. So, like the rhythm of lapping waves, we wash ashore onto college campuses every fall.

Once there, our intellectual cylinders begin to fire. First in our chosen major, but then also in regards to the faith we have come to own. Undoubtedly this narrative is shaped by the rise of New Calvinism in recent years, but the outgrowth of our strong Scriptural foundation coupled with our intellectual curiosity is a shared desire for a more robust theology.

Whereas I came to embrace my Chinese identity more in college, I simultaneously distanced myself from the Chinese church. I pushed back against the social impetus to assimilate in the white-dominant neighborhood of my youth. But I also felt constrained by the culture-bound trappings of my Chinese-dominant church. So when I first had the doctrines of grace unfolded to me verse by verse, text after text at my college church, I marveled at how each sermon seemed to pulse, bleed, and overflow with Scripture. Here Scripture informed not only every aspect of theology, but also life and practice. Here was Christianity scrubbed clean of culture and founded upon Scripture as it ought to be. Here was a robust, cohesive Calvinistic theology, wonderfully God-centered and God-exalting. I felt I had sloughed off the Chineseness, the Asian-Americanness of my Christianity, emerging fresh and clean in my new, thoroughly Biblical world.

They say ignorance is bliss. And those years were wonderful in many ways. Post-college, I continued in my journey towards “Capital-R” Reformed theology as personal experiences and study moved me away from the unique blend of Calvinism and dispensationalism I was taught in college towards covenant theology. I fell in love with a unified view of Scripture, the one grand narrative of God’s love expressed towards his creation. But my own identity lacked unity. Socially, I was Asian-American, Chinese-American, or even Taiwanese-American, depending on how you cut it. Ecclesially, I was cultureless. I went to Biblical, multicultural churches.   

“Consider your churches. What kind of church would you say you go to?” Dr. Lee looked at each of us.

“Multicultural,” I offered.

“And what kind of theology would you say it has?”

“Reformed theology.” I paused–“Maybe Reformed Baptist would be most accurate.”

“And how’s your worship? Do you rotate worship styles? Is there a Latin-American worship style one Sunday, followed by an Asian-American worship style the next? You see, I’ve seen a lot of young Asian-Americans who go to these Reformed, “multicultural” churches, without realizing the whiteness of Reformed theology. It’s most evident in that despite the “multicultural” label, these churches worship only like white churches. Almost every church has a dominant culture, and for most Reformed churches it’s white. If we as Asian-Americans join that church, we must conform to their culture–our strengths, values, and voices are muted. What do you think? Do you agree?”

“I don’t think so.” My reply sounded calm, but perhaps it was the stiffening of my back or the tense twitch of my hands that gave it away. Whatever it was, Dr. Lee knew he had irked me. I probably objected strongly, but the rest of that meeting I paid little attention as my mind churned furiously for retorts and counter-arguments. I went to sleep troubled that night.

Over the course of that internship, I felt as if I was revisiting my past. A personal history I wanted to leave behind. We talked about our bicultural identities and how by embracing our identity as biculturals we could benefit the church at large. We talked about the need for Asian-American theology in a post-colonial age, to throw off the shackles of our white theological captors and forge new paths as Asian-American theologians. We talked about the immigrant church, the oft-mentioned tension between the first and second generation, and the hope for healing. I disagreed and continue to disagree with many of the ideas he put forth, but many were also stimulating and helpful. The strangest part was the act of bringing my Chinese-American identity back into the church context when it had languished in a dark corner for so long. Yet there was a wholeness to it. 

In my white college church, our white pastors often called us to repent of our cultural sins. They called us to have a better identity in Christ. To this I say Amen. But the implication was often: “You bring too much of your ethnic identity into your Christianity. Be more like us Biblical Christians who are free of cultural identity.” And while I continue to love Reformed theology, believe that it reflects the teachings of Scripture in a faithful way, and hope to grow in it, I believe that being a Reformed Christian does not mean abandoning my cultural identity. Nor does being Reformed mean you are cultureless or make you immune from cultural sins, especially those of the West and of white culture. But most strikingly, I learned to value the Chinese immigrant church, even with all its warts and foibles. I once saw Chinese churches as inferior to Reformed churches because they adhered to a single culture, but now I see that many Reformed churches, even multicultural ones, are no different. No church is Biblical in the sense that they are devoid of culture. And such an identity is not Biblical at all.

My identity is foundationally and primarily in Christ. But now having gone back to reassume my ecclesial identity as an Asian-American Christian, I hope to move forward and see how this ecclesiocultural aspect of who I am intertwines and strengthens my theological identity as a Reformed Christian. I hope to live out my identity as one unique tribal tongue before the throne and before the Lamb, as one Chinese-American Reformed Christian, and to cry out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

David Cheng

Born and bred in Orange County, David has wandered quite a bit both geographically and theologically. After graduating from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, he moved back to sunny Southern California and married his beautiful wife Jessica. He is the Assistant Pastor at King's Church in Long Beach. In his free time, David enjoys reading, writing, cooking, and rock climbing.

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