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Ancestral Feeling: Postcolonial thoughts on Western Christian heritage by Renie Chow Choy

by
22 April 2022

Peniel Rajkumar reads a very personal post-colonial reflection

WHAT’s in a name? For Renie Chow Choy (Comment, 4 February), it is the “complex questions of identity” that she as a Hong Konger bears, “brought about by an English (spiritual) inheritance without the concomitant privileges of ethnicity or nationality”. It is this “under-acknowledged imperial legacy” of “ancestral feeling” for “Western Christian heritage”, which evokes great attachment from global-majority Christians and yet excludes them from any share in this heritage on the premise of “genealogical pedigrees”, which she tackles in Ancestral Feeling: Postcolonial thoughts on Western Christian heritage.

For Choy, thinking about the development of Christianity in historical terms — as “outgrowth from origin, evolution from the prototype, derivant from the predecessor”, foists on it a Eurocentrism (“Europe first”) that relegates colonised people to “perpetual belatedness”. Giving a critique of such historicism, she lifts up how an “intergenerational narrative” framework, which enables her to read her Western Christian spiritual ancestry while bearing her family ancestry in mind, can facilitate an inclusive memory and belonging.

Through an autobiographical reading of three sites (canon, heritage places, and cultural capital) where her Western Christian legacy meets her family history, she demonstrates how this framework can open possibilities for diasporic groups to insert themselves into histories that bypass them and “counteract the dominance of Western ‘genealogical pedigrees’”.

Choy concludes that the answer to the post-colonial dilemmas that she probes is for Western Christianity to strip “the ‘our’ in ‘our Christian heritage’ of its nationalistic and racial connotations”, and for ethnic-minority Christians to assert that the Western Christian tradition is also “our heritage”. The book’s hope is that “Christianity in England can distribute an inheritance to those in its former empire who claim descent.”

Reading this in juxtaposition with Kehinde Andrews’s comment (in his The New Age of Empire: How racism and colonialism still rule the world) that “diversifying those dining on the spoils of the empire does not change the menu,” I can say that this is one aspect of the book which some post-colonial critics will disagree with. Undergirding the book is also a strategic essentialism, which, while being pivotal for the book, yet deprives the categories “Western Christian” and “ethnic-minority Christian” of their fluidity and renders them unempirically monolithic.

The focus on nostalgia allows very little wriggle room for “elective amnesia” that is employed by post-colonial subjects as decolonial practice. In contexts such as mine from India, ancestors, as bearers of the Christian tradition(s), blotted out imperial Christianity and created (through architecture, songs, and liturgy) ecospheres where one could inhabit Christianities beyond Eurocentricity. Of course, the context of Hong Kong is very different.

Refreshingly original, the book offers enormous additional benefits — including an incisive critique of the various attempts to decolonise the Eurocentrism of Christian historiography (7-18), and an expansive post-colonial vocabulary. For me, however, its real gift lies in the way in which it combines intimate style with insightful substance, to offer a compelling rebuttal to the reckless (mis)conception that post-colonial theological thinking is little more than theoretical abstraction and theological flotsam. This makes it a must-read.


The Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar is a Global Theologian with USPG and an Hon. Canon of Worcester Cathedral.

 

Ancestral Feeling: Postcolonial thoughts on Western Christian heritage
Renie Chow Choy
SCM Press £19.99
(978-0-334-06090-1)
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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