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).
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.
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.
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.