During his years getting started as a film producer, Christopher Chen (陳羲) took a great many meetings. He had his favorite places in California, like the Griddle Cafe in Hollywood and Nate ‘n Al in Beverly Hills. Even if the movie he was pitching never came together, the deli served great corned beef hash.
Then, in late 2009, Chen received a request unlike any other in his career. The prospective subjects of a documentary wanted him to meet at their church. And they had a question for Chen in advance of the meeting: Are you a Christian? Which, conveniently, he was.
So on a Sunday morning, Chen found himself worshiping at the Chinese Church in Christ, an evangelical congregation in Mountain View, California, part of Silicon Valley. After the service, he sat down with two members named Shirley Lin (吳信信) and Lin Gie-ming (林繼明). Their son, Jeremy (林書豪), was in his senior year at Harvard as a star guard on the basketball team. Chen wanted to capture him on film.
Four years later, Jeremy Lin is a brand name and a phenomenon, having burst into fame with the New York Knicks last year and gone on to a lucrative free-agent contract with the Houston Rockets. On Thursday, he put up 21 points at Madison Square Garden in a victory over his former team.
The documentary, Linsanity, has been shown on the festival circuit and in art houses and is now moving into the download and DVD part of its cinematic life. At one level, the film is a quintessential saga of sporting triumph, with Lin as the perpetual underdog who defies every doubter and conquers every challenge to achieve his dream.
In a deeper way, though, Linsanity brings to a mass audience not just an Asian-American sports star, but an Asian-American Christian. The film shows Lin tossing in three-pointers, piercing down the lane and repeatedly speaking of divine direction, divine intercession and divine will.
“I think God did something supernatural to me,” he says near the film’s end. “Something that I couldn’t do on my own. Something that I may never be able to recreate.”
Earlier in the documentary, when Lin is on the verge of being cut by the Knicks, his mother offers a prayer: “God, if this is your will for him to play in the NBA, you need to show us.”
Lin proceeded to score 25 points and rescue his career.
In the contemporary sports scene, such testimonials are common enough, but they usually come from white or black athletes. When the Web site Beliefnet ranked the 12 most famous evangelical Christians in sports several years ago, eight were white, three were black and one was Hispanic.
So Linsanity offers a rare window into another part of the US religious landscape: Asian-American Christianity. In addition to its star, several of the film’s creators are active Christians. Their fervent faith typifies a trend for Asian immigrants and their families.
Although Christians form a minority of the population in Taiwan, they constitute a disproportionate share of the immigrants to the US, said Peter Cha, an ordained minister who is a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Once in the US, Asian immigrants and their American-born children use churches as a kind of bridge between the old world and the new.
“It’s a very paradoxical combination,” Cha said in a telephone interview. “How does one institution facilitate both maintenance of the ethnicity from the homeland and also the process of adaptation and acculturation into American society? The effectiveness of immigrant congregations is precisely because the same institution provides both roles.”
Chen, one of the producers of Linsanity, lived out just such a situation. The grandson of a famous Chinese evangelist, Moses Chow, Chen was born to parents who had immigrated from China to Taiwan to the East Bay area of Northern California. He grew up attending an evangelical church that conducted services in both Chinese and English.
All along, as a basketball fan, Chen had followed Lin’s career, from high school in Palo Alto to Harvard. Once Lin made it to the NBA and consented to be the subject of a documentary, Chen and the film’s director, Evan Jackson Leong (梁伊凡), faced a decision about how to treat the issue of faith.
“We talked about that from Day One,” said Chen, 37. “Even during our initial lunch meeting, Jeremy’s parents asked, ‘How do you want to handle the religion part?’ I said then what I say now, which is that you can’t tell Jeremy’s story without addressing his faith. It’s really cornerstone. You can’t ignore it or just brush it aside.”
Leong, 34, approached Linsanity from two directions. He was a lifelong basketball player himself and he had plunged deeply into the subject of Christianity in Asia as the director of a 2010 film about it, 1040.
“If Jeremy Lin was a devout Buddhist, we’d have to put that in the documentary,” Leong said in a recent interview after a pickup game in New York. “But because he’s Christian, people think they know it already. They’ve got this attitude of ‘don’t preach to me.’ But if it’s good material, it’s good material.”
While he did not grow up in a religious home, Leong has increasingly explored Christianity in his personal as well as his professional life. So Lin’s unlikely ascent to stardom — not recruited to a major college, not drafted by an NBA team, cut twice in the same season — spoke to him.
“You can do everything you possibly can to perfect your game, and train all you can, but there’s still an X factor about who makes it,” he said.