Tony Tian-Ren Lin, author of Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream, is vice president of Institutional Advancement and Research at New York Theological Seminary.
Get to know Tony in this Q&A and then join us on Friday, March 26 at 2 PM EST as part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book to hear him discuss his work in the event Seeking More than Salvation: Religious Communities.
Festival: What motivated you to become a writer and scholar?
Lin: My intellectual curiosity grows out of my desire to see a more just world, in part out of my frustration for my personal inability to bring about significant progress. I wanted to understand the logic behind cultures and the ways we share our lives. My motivation to be a writer comes from the people I studied. Their lives and stories are worth telling. The world is a better place if we know more about those who are often invisible, which is the case for many of the immigrants I studied.
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
Reading Junot Diaz was transformative for me. My book focuses on Prosperity Gospel Latin American immigrants who are living through the fortunes and the cruelty of American life. It’s a very messy process. Scholars tend to want clean and precise ideas, for good reason, but it’s not how life is lived. Artists are experts at drawing the beauty out of the murkiness of life. No one is better at capturing the multiple and conflicting layers of immigrant life than Junot Diaz.
What was your favorite part about writing your book?
My favorite part by far was the research. This was an ethnography so I had the privilege of sharing the lives of Latin American immigrants in three different cities across the U.S. I worshiped with them, went to their homes, attended parties, visited their workplaces, all as a researcher but welcomed as a friend. That’s a gift I don’t ever take for granted.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
Again, the people I met through my research and that I hope you meet when you read my book. The immigrants who left everything behind for a chance at a better future for their children. The guys with multiple jobs who still show up at every church meeting. I’ve met some amazing people in the research of this book. Their stories encourages me to keep writing even when writing gets hard.
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
My goal with this book was to offer a window into the lives of Prosperity Gospel Latino immigrants. I’d like readers to realize that there is more than the eye can see. We live in a time where we make quick judgements, often at the most superficial level. I hope this book can inspire readers to look deeper. That in fact, people, religions, and institutions, are more sophisticated than we often give them credit for.
Describe how a book changed your life or perspective.
I’m a Christian so my life is shaped by a number of ancient texts. Academically I’m fascinated by really good ethnographies. But like I said earlier, reading Junot Diaz was transformative for me. His ability to convey the experience and struggles, specially of Latino young men, opened my eyes to the power of literature. His stories were the first time I saw “my voice” in public. I was born in Taiwan, grew up on Argentina, moved to Boston, now live in New York City. None of my identities are clear. Diaz’s work validated “misfits” like me.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
If you are interested in the intricacies of immigrant life, I recommend Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I mentioned Junot’s work because it connects with me but I also know that no single perspective can capture the range of immigrant experiences to America. These writers help us live, if only for a moment, into the varieties of those experiences.
What are you working on next?
I’ve written fictional stories loosely based on some of the people I met in my research. As in any ethnographic, I collected more data than I was able to include in this book. But I feel obligated to those who share their lives with me to bring their stories to the world. I’m pretty excited to see where they lead me. Academically, I’m working on a book focused on the uses of multiracialism in Christian communities and churches based on a series of interviews I did across the U.S.