The Intersection of Korean Architecture, Religion, & Economics

I never owned a camera in the US. Never felt a need for one. But here in Korea, everything is different, and interesting, and seems deserving of a photo (or two, or three…). I’ve probably taken 150 photos in the 24 hours I’ve owned this camera.

I walked downtown today and then up into the mountains north of Chungju. It’s amazing how you can be standing next to seven huge, 30-storey apartment blocks one minute and be on the ridge of a tree-covered mountain thirty minutes later. The city is literally ringed with mountains, none of them more than half a mile from the wide avenue that rings the city. You can literally be hiking out in the wild, and still hear cars honking. It’s wonderful! because you can be sitting in your apartment, decide you want to go on a hike, head out, be on top of a mountain, and then be back in time for dinner (or lunch, for that matter).

"And thus God sayeth unto me, 'Jeresalem shallest be spellt S-E-O-U-L'."

Anyway, enough of my extolling the virtues of cities-in-mountain-ranges. One of the things I noticed when I first got to Korea was how diverse–and downright odd, at least to my Western eyes–many of the church steeples here are. It’s rather surprising, but more than a third of Koreans are Christian–more than are Buddhist. I’m really interested in the history of evangelism here, because Christianity is all but non-existent in China and Japan, and yet it’s this huge force here. Current president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, even said that “Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea, is a divine city ruled by God and Seoulites are God’s people.” Which sounds like something that, you know, Isaiah or Jeremiah might say. Anyway, the point is that Christianity is a surprisingly important influence here. But 200 years ago, it was basically absent. So Korea’s ‘Christianization’, as it were, was both recent and rapid. What has that meant for the nature of Christianity here? To what extent was people’s enthusiasm for the Word tied up in their enthusiasm for modernism, or Western culture, or whatever else they may have seen Christianity as tied to?

My totally unsupported theory is that Christianity’s spread here, like the spread of Fundamentalism currently in Africa, has at least as much to do with the desire of many people in developing economies to identify with the material trappings of the West as it does with any deep-seated embrace of the spiritual message they’re receiving. That’s not to say that Korean Christians are inauthentic, or unfaithful, or anything of the sort–but I do think it has likely influenced how the faith is understood and practiced here.

Radio Tower? Church? Post-modern Art?

How does any of this tie into my interest in steeples? I’m so glad you asked! Get ready for more crackpot theories and generalizations! (But seriously, it’s a blog; what did you expect?) While in the West steeples are generally built to look old, traditional, and familiar, here I see  all sorts of odd-looking steeples. And it’s not at all that they look traditionally “Korean” or “Asian”. What’s really struck me about most of the steeples I’ve seen in Korea is how often they seem very modern/post-modern/industrial/commercial in design. There are some more traditional (either after the Western or Eastern example) approaches too, but they really seem to be in the minority. I’ve seen glass and steel steeples, vast concrete steeples that resemble the bridge of a cruise ship, steeples that basically seem to be idealized radio towers, even steeples that seem to have been just built on to the side of existing commercial space.

A great example of traditional(ly western) architecture in Korea

Obviously my thoughts on this didn’t develop in a vacuum–Korea is arguably one of the most consumerist societies in the world today. And I’m really curious how the intense (and even more recent and rapid) commercialization of the country (which was basically an agrarian country at the beginning of the 20th century) interacted, and continues to interact with, the recent and rapid Christianization of the country. I don’t really know much yet, so once I actually get a paycheck I’m going to start scouring the interwebs for books on the history of Christianity in Korea. In the meantime, I’m going to keep taking shots of steeples here. If you have any thoughts on any of this,  please leave comments! I’d love to hear any alternate theories or any suggestions for how to go about the research.

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8 Responses to The Intersection of Korean Architecture, Religion, & Economics

  1. Pingback: Hiking North of Chungju | Korean Steeple Chase

  2. Peter Moody says:

    Interestingly enough, I’m currently taking a class called Korean Christianity. You’re right, it has been quite a phenomenom.

    For both Protestantism and Catholicism, Christianity in Korea was homegrown. Koreans first succesfully brought it there after interacting with foreign missionaries in China, and Koreans demanded the foreign missionaries come to them. At first, Christianity (specifically Catholicism) was an object of curiosity among the Yangban aristocratic elite. Eventually, when word spread that everyone was equal under the eyes of God, Christianity spread among women and the disenfranchised classes, especially in the countryside. Sadly, Catholicism was heavily persecuted, but ironically that persecution led many Korean Catholics to be more committed to their faith. When American Protestant Missionaries first came to Korea, they found congregations already there. These missionaries were careful to work with the Korean government rather than against it and won its trust by providing educational and medical services to the Korean people, even saving the life of a relative of the royal family. Not that the American missionaries didn’t face hurdles and resistance along the way, but compared to the Japanese, Koreans held these new visitors in higher esteem and were thus relatively receptive to their worldviews. Probably the most explosive growth of Christianity in Korea (for both Protestantism and Catholicism), though, occurred during the rapid urbanization period from the 50s on. As society shifted from close-knit networks to a sense of anomie and alienation, those Christian dens under the neon lights (perhaps strategically placed near bars..in some cases) and the intensely powerful conversions experienced there indeed had some impact.

    I too am fascinated by the way steeples conspicuously decorate the Korean urban landscape. There’s also some interesting elements of Korean Shamanism that have been preserved in Korean Christianity. Good luck with your research. If you ever want to talk about some things you discover, let me know.

    • staplovich says:

      Peter,

      Thanks for all the info! I was reading about a lot of what you mention on wikipedia this morning. But what I’m really interested in is that burst of evangelism in the second half of the 20th Century that you mentioned. Sure, Christianity had been present for centuries, but had remained a minority faith. What exactly led to its popularity and resulting social and political power in such a short time? I think that sort of rapid rise is unprecedented in the history of Christian evangelism. And I’m interested in a comparative study between the rise of evangelism in the Korea and the Protestant evangelism in Latin America and Africa. What’s interesting is that it was and is Protestantism that sees these big booms in popularity. To what extent could that be due to Protestantism’s links, real or imagined, with America’s economic and political strength?

      And it’s the fact that the growth in Christianity coincided with the economic and political development of Korea that makes me suspect they were and are intricately linked. Do you know of any good English-language resources on the topic?

      • Peter Moody says:

        I actually have two books in front of me now: Christ and Caesar in Modern Korea: A History of Christianity and Politics AND Protestantism and Politics in Korea, although we haven’t gotten to them yet in the class. Here’s a short review for one of them: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-295-98149-9 . I don’t know how you’d get access to them in Korea, but if you check a university library or something, you may be surprised. When I was in Korea, I found a very interesting book on Korean Religions in Practice.
        I’m also doing my project on Minjung Theology, which is the Korean equivalent to liberation theology. It was a big part of the democratization movements of the 70s and 80s, but I’m not sure if it’s any substantial part of Korean Christianity today. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Korea is a Christian country; it’s a religiously pluralist country. Dan Baker has called Korea “a department store” of spirituality, and from the March 1st independence movement against the Japanese to the food aid to North Korea today, religious groups have worked in harmony to pursue social and political goals.

        Korean Christianity itself is pretty diverse. Not only do you have the offshoots of Christianity such as the World Mission Society of God and the Unification Church, there is a clear gap between the gospel of wealth and the social gospel. The current president of South Korea was the president of Hyundai, a minister, and the mayor of Seoul before becoming president (kind of a hybrid of Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney), and his center-right policies leave little room for protection of the poor and the disenfrancished and peaceful coexistence with the North. The first genuinely democratically elected president in South Korea as well as the first president to go to Pyeongyang for a North-South summit, Kim Dae Jung, was a Catholic. A military dictator of South Korea, Park Chunghee, who led the first stage of South Korea’s economic development at the expense of social and political rights, was a Buddhist.

        The answers to your questions are very complicated, considering that Christianity’s social and political power was not always in line with itself and not collectively agreed upon by Korean Christians..even within denominations. As for American influence, I doubt much was needed since churches were already well organized and well established by that time. The only white missionaries I ever saw in Korea were Mormons. It appears that after the Korean War, the explosive growth of Christianity was the working of Koreans themselves.

        I suspect the explosive growth has little to do with materialism (along American consumerist lines), which is a different kind in Korea. Korean materialism is more linked to quality, while American materialism is more about quantity.

        Again, I’m really not sure about the answers to your questions, but I do think you’re on to something linking Korean Christianity’s growth to politics and the economy. And you have to consider Korea’s congested space and ethnic homogenity, especially if you are interested in a comparison with South America and Africa.

  3. staplovich says:

    Peter,

    Thanks again for the detailed responses! Yeah, I don’t expect any easy answers to the questions I raised. I posted them here more as food for thought and impetus to further research. I hope to post my ideas/answers/further questions on the topic on this blog as I do some research. I don’t imagine I’ll find any conclusive answers, at least not any time soon. But I’m hoping to get a dialogue going here with other interested folks.

    Bookwise, once I actually get my first paycheck I’m going to look into the books you mentioned on amazon. It’d also be nice to get in touch with some Korean historians here, but that’s probably a much more long-term task.

    • staplovich says:

      I’m sorry you don’t like my writing style. But I don’t think I ever claimed to be “doing academy” (this is a new phrase for me, actually), and the lack of any citations whatsoever seems to preclude that judgment. If I had written like this in college, I would’ve gotten an F. But I’m definitely interested in the articles you linked, because as I indicated in this post, I’m really curious about the development of religion here in Korea. And it’s great to see that other people are too, and to have access to some first-hand experience–so thanks for the links!

  4. Your style is unique compared to other people I have read stuff from.

    Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just book mark this web site.

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