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A theological engagement with Dr. Swarup Bar’s Spirit-Shaped Church: A Spirit Ecclesiology in India

In 2023, it is not uncommon to see South Asian (also called Desi) Americans holding political office, managing fortune 500 companies, and starring in the most trending Netflix television and films. According to a recent article in NPR, in 2016, there was only one South Asian in the U.S. Congress, but now that number has raised up to five. Additionally, “There are now 35 Desis elected to state legislatures in 16 states.” Some of the top Indian American CEOs include Laxman Narasimhan (CEO of Starbucks), Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google), Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft), Arvind Krishna (CEO of IBM), Shantanu Narayen (CEO of Adobe), Parag Agrawal (CEO of Twitter), and Raj Subramaniam (CEO of FedEx). There are also those dismantling the stereotypical careers of South Asians (doctor/lawyer/engineer/tech), and pursuing the arts. Not only are they pursuing it, but they are succeeding. Actors and comedians like Mindy Kaling and Hassan Minhaj are dominating Netflix and producing their own shows and specials. 

All of this begs the question, what does it mean to be South Asian in America? This question is becoming unavoidable for South Asians. According to the India Times, “Indians are the second largest immigrant group, following Mexico, and are the main beneficiaries of the non-immigrant H-1B visas for highly skilled individuals.” The population continues to grow exponentially, and since 1965 (the passing of the Immigration Act, which removed the ban on immigration against Asians), so does the population of ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis). The waves of immigrants that came in the 70s, 80s, and 90s raised children that are now adults, entering the workforce and holding great socio-political and economic power. So what does it mean to be South Asian American? How does it impact not only our political spheres but our theological formation and our faith communities? 

For me, it has been wrestling with these questions: What does it mean to be Indian? What does it mean to be a Christian? Can the church(es) be both? As I wrestle with these questions, they are not merely cognitive and intellectual, but questions that can alter someone’s embodied experience in the places they inhabit. Can it be done? Can someone synthesize what it means to be both an Indian and a Christian? The answers to these questions are essential to my being. They guide my lifestyle and how I perceive my own identity in this world. In fact, the answers to these questions determine who I believe God to be. 

As seen in the examples above, being South Asian American impacts the way one participates in the world around them. According to NPR, “South Asian Americans are the most politically liberal of all Asian Americans.” Does this apply to South Asian American Christians as well, and if so, how does their faith interact with their politics?

As a second-generation Indian American, I live between two worlds. Being in the diaspora has taught me how to survive in social situations. I learned to act a certain way, speak a certain way, and dress a certain way to fit into the American culture around me. Unfortunately, my individual story is just a microcosm of greater history. It fits within the patterns of global colonialism, as well as Christian history. Throughout Indian history, colonialism forced ethnic and spiritual conformity, and the Indians assimilated to survive. For example, throughout history, India was encountered by Portuguese, Dutch, and British missionaries. Each time they forced assimilation into their worship style and cultural practices. In my own experience, I attended a predominantly white, evangelical church in which there was a singular, monocultural worship experience. It was narrow and exclusive, synonymous with proper and holy worship. Incorporating non-Western worship was seen as “walking a fine line” toward syncretism.

In my own journey, I have seen many Indian Christians attempt to bridge the gap between their faith and culture–some negative, some positive. There have been some that sacrifice their culture, especially in the US, because they are conforming to the “American Dream” and contributing to the assimilation narratives required to fit the “model minority” status. I will describe later the details of this and how it plays out in worship practices. But there have also been some, who take the narrow path of incorporating their culture into their faith. It might even be easier to compartmentalize your faith and culture as a South Asian Christian, but the harder task is integrating. The epistemological task is allowing your Eastern worldview to penetrate through the global Western influence because, as a South Asian American, you are carrying generations of racialized philosophy through British colonialism and American idealism. I will also later describe how this plays out specifically through worship practices. But I thought it beneficial to begin by tracing my perception of Christianity along the way. This will shed some light on some of Dr. Swarup Bar’s main arguments in his book, The Spirit Shaped Church: A Spirit Ecclesiology in India, and how his work is influential for the Indian diaspora as well.

Growing up, faith to me meant identifying with my family as a Brahmin Hindu. Yet, if you asked me what culture I belonged to, I would do or say anything to convince you of this: although my family was Indian, I had become an American. My ability to compartmentalize my Hindu faith from my cultural identity was not something I had learned from my parents, but rather the new land that was forming me. 

Bar takes the first chapter to address the contextual landscape in India. In large brush strokes, he captures the complexities of pluralism, marginalization, and internal ecclesial tensions. As someone who has never lived in India, I began to understand why this conversation is so vital to the church in India today. Without a doubt, the work that Bar is doing in the rest of the book is a pertinent and urgent conversation.

I started going to church around the age of eleven. I knew very little to nothing about Christianity. I didn’t know Catholics and Protestants were any different. I also didn’t know which God they meant, but I didn’t think it was any of the gods who were characters in my Avva’s (grandmother) elaborate stories. There were no epic stories full of color and character, like that of the story of Ramayana. Jesus was a Western God, a foreigner to India. He was a white, European man who wore long white robes. I was urged to confess the same propositions regarding Jesus’ supernatural resurrection without understanding the narrative of Scripture, or that He was a Jewish man. But, since I was already trying to be like the white people, why not take their God as well? The problem was that Christianity was not being “translated” to my embodied experience, as Dr. Willie James Jennings describes in his work After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Rather, it was a “hegemony” forcing “homogeneity”. To equate Western worship expression as the ultimate and only form of expression is “hegemonic” and has historically been caricatured with the image of “White Jesus”. 

In the second chapter, Bar turns to several western paradigms, analyzing how each one might hold the potential to be integrated into a more cohesive model. Now, as I find myself in a western context studying at a Bible college, these models are familiar to me. I appreciate how Bar is able to bring in global, ecumenical dialogue. This enlivens the church as it strengthens its unity and is a prime example of what he calls a permeable spirit ecclesiology. This allows the person of the Holy Spirit to bring empathy and moldability to the nature and definition of the church. Allowing our differences to sharpen us, while our shared humanity keeps us together.

The Indian Christian community met for Bible study every Friday night in my town. Christians of different denominations came together to eat their own food, sit cross-legged on the floor, and sing songs in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Hindi. They would go through the book of Matthew and answer any questions that anyone had, adults and children altogether. From the surface, this was a beautiful thing, but looking back, I realize that these Christians stood on a tradition of faith that sacrificed their culture, all while adopting Christianity. This is because they sacrificed their Indian epistemology and refused to participate in the world as who they really were. They came to worship together once a week but they all went to predominantly white churches — churches in which their children were the minority, adopting Western faith practices and values, erasing the ties from their culture to their faith. They did not want to appear as if they were syncretists, which is how many westerners would view them if they did not perform into the white faith. 

But this goes beyond worship practices. Indian Christians in the US still cave to the model minority myth, out of fear. As Dr. Jonathan Tran describes in his work, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, the myth of the model minority is that it pits Black Americans against other minority groups, pervading issues of political-economic injustice perpetrated by American capitalism. As Indian Christians chase the American Dream, they are saying “yes” to the very capitalism that held their Black brothers and sisters in chains. As Indian Christians persist that their children become doctors, lawyers, and engineers, they are fearful that they might not be able to stay in this country if they do not maintain occupations that are both vital to the social fabric and economically stable for their families. Recently, I attended a conference hosted by South Asian InterVarsity and sat in on a workshop titled “9 Steps to Achieving the South Asian American Dream” by Benzi George (Executive Director of Strategy & Innovation & Chief of Staff for the InterVarsity Red River Regional Staff Teams). By the end of it, George was basically begging the alumni students (all South Asian American) to consider full-time or part-time ministry. This was a big ask. Since I have been in Indian Christian spaces, I have noticed how unlikely it is compared to their white American counterparts for South Asian Americans Christians to answer the call to vocational ministry. This is deeply rooted in a fear of disappointment. They do not want to fail because their parents have set them up to achieve the South Asian American dream.

In the third chapter, Bar introduces the larger trends present in the Indian church, and how they compare and contrast with each other. The Indian diasporic church is just as diverse, exhibiting on a microcosmic scale the same trends that exist in the motherland. As the readers can now understand the larger context, Bar dissects the views of three prominent Indian theologians in chapter four. At this point in the book, we have been following Bar on his historical-theological quest to find the right model, allowing him to curate a view that can adequately fit the Indian context. Bar always has a theological defense as to why he rejects some propositions and accepts others, and it is an exciting journey to process alongside him.

As Bar calls the Indian church to material ministry, either through dismantling caste structure, anti-feminism, or other socio-economic struggles in India, so too are the South Asian American Christians called to apply their faith in material ways. The biggest way I see this is by identifying the need to assimilate into the American Dream. This is motivated by forces that were against us for so long, the “racial capitalism” that Dr. Tran discusses, and forces outside of us that we did not invent. But now that we see it, and even secular media is calling it out, we need to rise up as the church. The second and third generations of South Asians in this country are vividly identifying the issues. Hassan Minhaj and Mindy Kaling are perfect examples. But as the church, shouldn’t we be called higher? Shouldn’t we be preaching the message of Jesus Christ and his heart for the poor and oppressed? If South Asian Americans are the fastest-growing and most politically liberal, how are South Asian American Christians applying this political theology? I am not saying it is an easy task, because it would require going against every single ideology that has formed us. It would go against the assimilation our ancestors faced in India, our parents faced in America, and that we still face today. It is an overarching global-socio-political issue, but it is also intimate as many young adults would be beckoning shame from their communities, their aunties and uncles, and potentially disappointing their own parents. I truly believe that if we stand up, and go against the grain, we are actually bringing healing to the generations that came before us, that suffered so that we might find liberation. I think our parents will slowly come to understand this. 

These issues apply more broadly, to the Asian American experience overall. Most Asian American groups are caught in the myth of the model minority. Asian American Christians have to wrestle with the question: how does your faith interact with your culture? Beyond that, how is your culturally embodied faith expressed alongside your socio-economic and political presence in this world? 

In his final chapter and conclusion, Bar calls for the Indian church to take up the work of healing through a permeable ecclesiology that is both pneumatologically-driven and Christologically-rooted. I would argue that Bar’s ecclesiology can be applied in the global arena, since many countries suffer from the effects of colonialism, thus creating layers of marginalization and a tense pluralistic landscape. Bar is advocating for a culturally authentic, justice-oriented, interfaith dialogue as a salve for the history we have inherited.

Dr. Swarup Bar’s task seeks a framework to build a postcolonial and liberation theology in India, specifically a trinitarian one. This is vital as it does not conflate an incarnational model against a pentecostal model but rather joins the two in a beautiful and rich dialectic. Just as the Trinity is both diverse and unified, the spirit-shaped church is distinct and permeable, which is what India and the diaspora needs.

Shreya Ramachandran is a writer, poet, and speaker. She has a BA in Linguistics and is currently pursuing her MA in Theological Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary at the intersection of race, postcolonialism, and Asian diaspora studies.

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