The Work of Religious History

An Interview with Helen Kim


As a doctoral student at Harvard with interests in Asian-American religion, Helen Kim has simultaneously drawn on a deep commitment to the study of evangelical Christianity at HDS and worked to establish connections with scholars who work in her developing field, or who also employ transnational historical perspectives. Her work likewise speaks to her own field, while also approaching questions that resist the limitations of specific places or times. Helen spoke to the journal about this dual approach to scholarship, as well as her own academic development, research strategies, and reflections on Harvard and beyond.

Could you give an introduction to your work and the driving questions behind what you’re doing?

Helen Kim: This is a topic I’ve been thinking about in a variety of ways since I was a master’s student, so around five or six years. Maybe even longer than that—actually, as an undergrad, some of these ideas were already formulating. My dissertation project is a transnational religious history. I seek to understand the rise of evangelicalism in the late twentieth century through a transnational lens. Most narratives about evangelicalism in the twentieth century frame it as a national narrative, but one of the key features of the evangelical tradition is that it is constantly reaching out to other nations. There’s a global spread—some call this imperialism, some call it a mission. There are many different names for what it is; my project is basically about how critical those international connections, regardless of how one frames them, were to the movement. I focus on the United States and South Korea.

You mentioned this has been five or so years in the making. Was there something that originally drew you toward this project?

HK: It’s related to some of the questions that I wrestled with as an undergraduate, which is now a long time ago for me. It’s even related to our capitalism and religion class—“Christianity, Capitalism, and Consumerism in Colonial North America and the United States” with Catherine Brekus—and specifically how Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. Is religion in fact an opiate? This question led me to thinking about evangelicalism in particular: the evangelical tradition is one that has appealed to the masses. In my advisor David Hempton’s work, he writes about the spread of eighteenth-century evangelicalism through the Methodist movement, and he talks about how evangelicalism appealed to poor people, to African-Americans, and to women. It appealed to the marginalized. As an undergrad, I wondered about why the marginalized are attracted to a tradition like Christianity, and, specifically, to pretty conservative forms of it, if it’s an opiate. Of course, Marxists would say, because it’s an opiate! This was a fine answer, but seemingly limited as well, since it was hard for me to believe that the masses lacked such agency that they were duped by their religious tradition. Liberation theology was an option for the poor, but a lot of people chose, even in Latin America, Pentecostalism. Why? These are the types of questions I’ve had since my time as an undergrad, and that I continued to think through when I got to HDS as a master’s student and into the PhD program.

In your dissertation prospectus, you talk about religion’s role in shaping the way we talk about “model minorities.” How do you see religion as affecting the development of these conversations?

HK: Rudy Busto, who works at UC Santa Barbara, wrote an important article that I read as an undergraduate about Asian-American evangelicals. One of the contemporary stereotypes or ideas about Asian Americans is that they’re model minorities; that’s a construction that developed in the late twentieth century. Busto observed that an unprecedented number of Asian Americans were attracted to evangelicalism, and that the tradition exacerbated the myth of the model minority; it held Asian Americans to standards of piety that exoticized them, and straightjacketed them not just as model minorities but as model moral minorities.

That was a really important essay for me as a college student. I was active in an evangelical organization at the time—I thought, “This is a really fascinating perspective!” I was an English and ethnic studies major, so I was also taking the critiques that come from ethnic studies really seriously, too. Busto is trained as an ethnic studies and religious studies scholar, so that’s were his critique comes from. What I share with Busto is in seeking to understand why people are attracted to religious traditions that seemingly inhibit their “progress” and liberation. That, of course, means we have to interrogate what assumptions undergird our definitions of progress.

Since your work is centered on the recent past, what challenges have you found dealing with topics that are still changing and evolving?

HK: When I was taking my qualifying exams, I was able to study evangelical history from the eighteenth century and the history of Christianity in general from 1650 to the present. That was helpful because it helped me see how many of the themes and scholarly questions continue into the twentieth century. One of the things I enjoy about reading Dean David Hempton’s work is that he addresses perennial questions that also come up in my own thinking on the late twentieth century. That’s what’s really nice about studying a tradition that’s been around for so long.

At the same time, not all the characters I’m going to write about are dead. Many of them are, but not all. Even the movements I’m writing about are alive and well. Campus Crusade is an organization about which I’ve written; they’re still going strong, and are one of the largest missionary organizations in the world. During my PhD coursework, I wrote a paper about how the archives speak back: in my case, going to the archives wasn’t just encountering dead peoples’ sources. It was also encountering real people who gave feedback about my work. It’s good because I get a lot of insider perspective, but it’s also a challenge because I have to contend with live feedback. It’s a negotiation with my subjects. I took an ethnography class with Marla Frederick, and some of the work we did there was very helpful. Obviously, my project is a historical project, but she trained us to work with real people.

How has HDS in particular shaped your project and pushed it in new directions? What sorts of resources have you found most useful at HDS?

HK: First and foremost: the people. They choose really, really, good faculty. In American religion and history of Christianity especially: Dean Hempton works in that area, and Jonathan Walton and Marla Frederick have been pivotal in my doctoral studies. Catherine Brekus and David Holland are now at HDS. Not to mention Ann Braude, Dan McKanan, and Healan Gaston have all been crucial for our field here. As a master’s student, I was also trained by Marie Griffith and Leigh Schmidt. The school brings in all these great people—you don’t really realize how privileged you are to work under them until you are in different circles, and you understand you’ve been trained by people who are themselves also exceptionally trained.

I never thought I could study a tradition like evangelicalism in a serious, academic way. For some reason, while I’ve been at HDS, so many great scholars who work on this tradition have taught here. They take the tradition seriously, but they’re also ready to critique it, just as the students here take it seriously but don’t hesitate to critique it. Given that we’re in a religiously diverse context, there’s always many perspectives at the table. I never feel that I’m seeing things from a skewed or uncritical perspective. I think it’s a good experience for a scholar, to be sharpened from so many sides.

People talk about this a lot, but the library as a resource is a big deal. You can get anything and everything. Having Andover Library right there, a theological library right there, fully devoted to us, is such a privilege. By now I’ve studied at other campuses, and religion is just not that central. Even as an undergrad at Stanford—Silicon Valley dominates a place like Stanford. To have our own corner devoted to religion, even though I know sometimes we’re under fire too, is really, really nice. I’ve loved that.

Beyond the American religious studies faculty, have you found interesting connections in other academic areas of focus?

HK: Definitely. One of the professors with whom I really loved taking classes was Laura Nasrallah. Her “Letters of Paul” class was transformative. Interestingly enough, it had fun connections to my work. She’s a historian of an earlier period, but she raises really fascinating questions about Paul as a missionary, and Paul as a Jew. There are questions of race, ethnicity, power, empire, and the spread of a tradition that have relevance into the modern and contemporary periods of Christianity that I study. We’ve also discussed how scriptures get interpreted and used in the context of the contemporary United States; she’s interested in talking about those sorts of things, as well.

The flipside of the last question is whether there have been any challenges that have come up over the past few years working on your project, either in terms of HDS, academia, or the research process in general.

HK: I don’t think academia is for the faint of heart. It’s serious work, and it has required a real devotion on so many levels of my life. It’s intellectual work and it’s physical work; it’s emotional labor and it’s spiritual labor. I’ve appreciated Stephanie Paulsell’s perspective on academic study as a formational experience, especially in reference to Simone Weil’s essay “Reflections on the Right Uses of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” Weil and Paulsell have pushed me to think about the quality of my attention and engagement with my work as something that goes beyond the books that I read and the words that I write.

This has come up with my advisor, too. We’ve talked about how you get the sense that there is something more at stake in writing history, and in writing religious history. These are peoples’ lives. It’s pretty weighty work and it requires a lot of great mentors, professors, and resources.

Another challenge I have negotiated is in taking the initiative to pioneer a space for me to think about Asian-American religion. Harvard doesn’t have any tenured faculty who teach in this area. I have strong academic networks with folks outside of Harvard through conferences and professional friendships, where a lot of those interests have developed. It’s an enduring interest of mine that I have cultivated independently and with my advisor’s support. He’s the one who let me take an exam in that field and he’s the one who really advocated for my interests.

What did that involve, when you decided that was something you wanted to pursue in more depth?

HK: It has meant that I have had to take on a pioneering mentality, take initiative at every step, and learn all of my academic languages very well so that I can bridge old and new ideas. I also maintain close professional friendships outside of Harvard through conferences, take writing and publishing opportunities to do work in this area, and I keep my advisor in the loop about all aspects of my research interests.

How have you thought of the way that teaching fits into your time here, not only as a student, but also as someone who’s helping lead a classroom?

HK: Students here are really bright. That’s one of the benefits of being at a place like HDS: people ask really good questions. Maybe it’ll be in a reading response, like in the capitalism class, and also in the women and gender class I did with Professor Brekus. People will raise questions, in some cases about material you’ve already read or about which you’ve already had a certain thought. I had a student, maybe the first semester I was a Teaching Fellow, write about a book I had read multiple times. They took it, did a good reading of it, and then took it to a whole other level—it was inspirational, actually.

I enjoy reading student papers. I get to learn a ton from the way people think, and I love seeing how people think on paper. It’s a huge privilege to go line by line and see how someone is putting ideas together. How does it affect my research? Sometimes I do feel that there’s a pretty strict separation between teaching and research. There isn’t always a one-to-one correlation. I see professors do this. For example, they don’t like to announce their work in class too much. There is a sense of separation, which implies, “here’s my work—here’s the work of the class.” What I’ve observed from other professors, too, is that you want to make space for students’ ideas to germinate, so that you’re not feeding them ideas or telling them about your research the whole time.

Have you experienced challenges addressing issues of gender, capitalism, race, and religion in class settings, as those are evolving topics but also ones that are relevant and, for some, contentious?

HK: Honestly, at a place like HDS, it doesn’t feel that way. I think I’ve taken more classes on women and religion than almost any topic in my field. And I’ve been trained by a lot of people—Professors Braude, Griffith, Brekus, and Frederick—whose writing has worked to re-center the narrative on women.

As we know, race can be a heated subject, especially when one considers everything that’s happened—and is still happening—this past year in our country. We have to do a better job everywhere, including in the academy and in American religious studies classrooms. When the Charleston shooting happened, all of the exam material that I did on interrogating the concept of the “black church” with Professor Frederick immediately came to mind. The time we are taking to think and write does have bearing on real life problems. We’re not studying contemporary events at HDS, especially in American religious history, but the past does have relevance for the present, and I hope it sharpens how we respond to present-day issues.

How do you think academic work like this should speak to people outside of academia, and, specifically, how would you like your own work to move through academia and outside the university?

HK: That’s a great question—and a controversial one. It seems that academics have strong opinions either way. Certainly, I have an understanding that academic work needs to be accountable to the standards of the academy. As a budding religious historian, I’m primarily accountable to the intellectual standards and conversations of the community.

I think some of the best intellectual work, some of the best books, and some of the best research, not only meets those criteria, but also goes above them and speaks to enduring questions that we struggle with in the present. If my work could do that that would be great—that’s an ideal. But when academic work is done well, when you’ve done your homework, when you’ve really dug, I think you can get to that point when you hit the perennial questions, the ones that touch on human lives even today. As historians, we’re asking questions of the past, but we’re asking questions that also have bearing on the present.

If we can hold ourselves to those high standards, if we can produce work that hits that sweet spot, then we can ask hard questions that help us address crises and problems in the world today. Especially for those of us doing American religion and thinking about race—if you look back at our history, it has to give you a confidence about what’s at stake and what the problems are. I hope this sort of historical outlook sharpens our ability to respond in ways that have integrity.