by Jane Iwamura
Slim were his chances in the NBA / Burdened with an Asian face / He conquered all through hard work / And the mercy of God's grace.
So goes “The Ballad of Jeremy Lin.” You would recently have had to crawl out from under a rock, especially if you are a sports fan, to have missed the news media coverage of NBA phenom Jeremy Lin. In less than a month since his start for the New York Knicks, Lin has turned the flailing team around. This impressive play, however, is not what has made Jeremy Lin the media sensation that he is today—witnessed by a Time feature article, two consecutive Sports Illustrated covers and countless other reports. The backstory is what has fueled Linsanity: first, NBA coaches overlooked his potential because Lin is Chinese-American and, second, Lin prevailed despite this obstacle with a winning combination of perseverance, hard work and humility.
Race and religion are two key dimensions of this compelling narrative. Numerous reports have focused on how Lin's playing time was influenced by the stereotypes of the emasculated Asian American male, as well as racist slurs and comments by sports commentators. Others have cautioned that the buzz around Lin follows the typical “model minority” script: Asians succeed because they work hard (and they have Tiger Moms). Lin's 4.2 high school GPA, as well as his Harvard degree, are often cited as evidence of this. Lin's “miraculous” rise is thus attributed to cultural characteristics rather than physical prowess—in contrast to African American players, whom the American press often defines by the latter. The disbelief that an Asian American player can be “this good” is loaded with racist assumptions.
Lin's Christian convictions have also become a significant part of the story. Tagged the “Taiwanese Tebow” (a nod to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow), Lin's religious background has been heavily referenced and explored. Lin spent his formative years in the Redeemer Bible Fellowship—the English ministry of the Chinese Church in Christ in Mountain View, California. During college, he was also a small group leader in the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Christian Fellowship.
In a recent CNN report, Steven Almasy discusses how Jeremy Lin has emerged “as an emblem of burgeoning Asian American Christianity.” Asian Americans have become the new face of Christianity, especially on college campuses. Outside the walls of the university, the Asian American faithful fill the pews on Sunday; in cities and suburbs, they have resuscitated dying congregations, taken over abandoned churches and created fellowships of their own. They are revitalizing American Christianity in new and arresting ways.
Few stories (if any) have probed the deeper phenomenon of the ethnic church or fellowship. (After all, religion is supposed to be colorblind.) But if one takes into account the work of sociologists who study Asian American Christians, some interesting insights begin to appear. Beyond one's devotion to God (which should not be discounted), Taiwanese American immigrants view their faith as a way of transmitting Chinese cultural values to their second-generation children. Furthermore, Chinese American Christians create “adhesive identities” that draw together Chinese and American influences, and these new identities are expressed through their devotional practices. For Asian American immigrants marginalized in society and in white churches, and especially for their American-born children, ethnically defined religious institutions become a comfortable refuge. They also are a way for these Christians to theologically explore and express the “haunting memories of race” and oppression they possess.
Michael Luo in the New York Times states: “Like Lin, many Asian-American Christians have deep personal faith, but they are also, notably, almost never culture warriors.” Perhaps, but culture and race have much to do with the contours of Lin's faith even though they may not appear on the surface of his profession of it.
This suggests that there are unplumbed differences between Jeremy Lin's and Tim Tebow's religiosity. But again, one must be cautious of how the usual script comes into play. As religious studies scholar Rudy Busto notes, it is too easy to embrace Asian Americans as a “spiritual model minority.” In this narrative, Lin emerges as an incredibly devout and humble exemplar of a colorblind faith. As such, Lin becomes a yardstick of personal discipline against which the likes of Tebow and a multitude of African American Christian athletes are measured.
The news media's emphasis on Lin's “religion, education and hard work” makes the Chinese American player's journey less of a “Linderella” story. It is more in line with the tale of Horatio Alger—a “rags to riches” or rather “no contract to stardom” account of exceptionalism. A quintessentially American tale, but one that erases ethnic influences and the brutal facts of race. While the ballad of Jeremy Lin may sound triumphant, it is laced with troubling tones that journalists would wisely learn to hear.
Jane Iwamura is a Visiting Scholar at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She is the author of Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America.