Pictures of a Night Scene

Broadcasting the Good Word directly?

I’ve mentioned the unique architecture of steeples here in Korea, but I haven’t talked yet about what happens with the steeples at night. Most Protestant churches are outfitted with bright red neon lights that outline the crosses atop their steeples, making them more visible, for sure, but also rather ominous-looking. My interest in this phenomenon definitely intersects with my curiosity about the rapid expansion of Christianity, especially Protestantism, in the second half of the 20th Century. Lit-up crosses are not a traditional aspect of Christianity in the West, and if they were, it seems that red would not be the first color of choice. So what exactly is going on here?

My first instinct was and is to say this is linked to what I perceive as Christianity’s being tied-up with commercial capitalism to an extensive degree here. What looks gaudy and tacky to a–or at least to this–Western viewer, is likely seen only as effective advertising to Koreans. Or is this analysis totally off? Google searches along the lines of “Korea steeple night light” don’t yield a lot, though I did find a book that mentions it. It looks like I can read the whole text online, and I’m going to delve into it this weekend and see what I can find out.

In the meantime, I wanted to post some pictures I’ve taken of steeples here in Chungju. I’m especially interested in contrasting the same church from the same angle, both at night and during the day. Here’s a giant Methodist church near the center of town:

It’s truly massive; cathedral-scale. The main structure is probably 5 storeys tall; the steeple an additional two storeys easily. The cross atop the steeple is huge, and visible from many blocks away. What does the red light lend to it? I feel like it sort of undermines the grandeur of the church itself. Sure, it’s really visible, and impressive on its own right. But I’m not a big fan of gaudiness, especially in religious architecture, which I feel should impart feelings of sublimity, grace, and penitence, not power or financial muscle. Of course, this is hardly the first church to step over that line, but I feel like the red-light crosses step over it in a new and odd way.

Here’s one about a block from my house:

I actually had no idea this church existed until I saw a huge banner over the door showing Jesus and some sheep. The steeple is basically just bolted on to a multi-purpose building (there’s a bakery and a restaurant on the bottom floor), and I presume the church just rents out one of the units upstairs. These radio-tower steeples are actually quite common, and I don’t know if it’s because they actually double as cell-phone towers (this isn’t unheard of, even in the US) or just because the steel lattice approach is a cheap way of elevating your cross higher in a city riddled with high-rises. The glowing red cross actually adds to the “radio tower” feel, I think, sort of like a giant on-air sign.

In the foreground, a large Catholic church, unilluminated. In the distance, a very brightly lit up Protestant steeple.

These glowing crosses are absolutely ubiquitous, though the Catholic and Anglican churches I’ve investigated don’t seem to ever have illuminated steeples. I’m tempted to drag Hegel and his “Protestant Work Ethic” into my analysis–Protestant churches, I think, tend to be much more comfortable with overt commercialization. This is well exhibited in the mega-church phenomenon, which began in the US but is (regrettably) spreading all over the globe. Now Pastors aren’t just spiritual leaders and scholars, they are entrepreneurs, CEOs. Instead of questioning the influence of money and power, they’re peddling that influence themselves. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the Catholic Church has had clean hands on this account. Corruption is rife within any powerful organization. But it is interesting that so many Protestant churches don’t even feel the need to try and hide or obscure their commercialization. The Catholic Church, for all its faults, continues to at least pay lip service to simplicity and advocacy for the poor. And at the very least, that broadens the political and social context within which Catholics operate. Is the absence of red-lit crosses on Korean Catholic (and Anglican) churches a sign of this ideological divide? Or am I just connecting any dots I come across?

This last pair of photos captures the aforementioned entanglement pretty well, I think:

I apologize for the less-than stellar day shot. I thought I had a better one. But I think you can still see how this large, very modern-looking church is jammed into this commercial block–and fits right in, especially in the night shot. It’s an odd, but at the same time, appropriate juxtaposition, I think (did I really just use that word!?)  I wanted to end this post with a video of Pretty Girls Make Graves’ “Pictures of a Night Scene, but it won’t play embedded. You can check it out here, though. The video is fan-made and not that great, but the song is wonderful.

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5 Responses to Pictures of a Night Scene

  1. Mike Hicks says:

    There’s a church in Roanoke that has a giant neon sign that says ‘JESUS SAVES’. It’s strange because everyone in that part of Virginia has already heard that. The sign was damaged in a storm a few years ago, and the local newspaper ran a story on it; members of the congregation strongly identified with the sign and felt like the church would lose something important if they couldn’t be known as the ‘JESUS SAVES’ church.

  2. Carly says:

    In regards to pure personal aesthetics, I think all neon looks gaudy, and neon crosses seem particularly so. Maybe because religious places of worship feel like they should be old, antique, classic — and seeing modern churches doesn’t gel with my modern mindset? Hmm, I don’t know….but I definitely don’t like those crosses.

  3. Peter Moody says:

    Looks like you have already found the book that I just recommended to you. Might I point to chapters 15 and 16 as the chapters you would most be interested in? In the 1990s, Evangelical Protestant Christianity had a very interesting ride. One president, Kim Young Sam got 90% of the Evangelical vote after promising that if elected, “hymns would continuously ring out from the Blue House.” By the end of his term, due to a bribery scandal involving his son and public officials, the economy spiraled out of control and the president’s own church abandoned him. Other scandals too damaged the reputation of the religion.

  4. staplovich says:

    Peter: I just started Protestantism in Korea this morning. It looks like it’ll be a bit more in-depth than Christ and Caesar, and more focused on the socio-economic forces at work in the rise of Protestant influence in the 20th Century, so I’m looking forward to it.

  5. Peter Moody says:

    As for the neon light crosses, here’s my take:

    Many of these urban churches were built during the 60s and 70s, when Protestantism made its biggest inroads (a 450% growth rate) inroads as Koreans struggled to adapt to the new realities of urbanization, modernization, and a subsequent sense of alienation resulting from a loss of close-knit social networks that characterized traditional Korean society. From what I remember, the steeples appear to be strategically placed near bars and sometimes the churches were open as long as bars were. Imagine yourself as a Korean ajoshi (middle-aged man), whose business has just failed and who has found himself without any social support nor hope for the future. And then imagine yourself stumbling out of a bar catching glimpse of a cross in the sky that seem familiar, but you do not know what they are at the time. You follow the cross, hear singing or intensive devotional prayer, feel the warmth coming from the ondol heated floors, and enter the building. The minister welcomes you inside, responds to your hopelessness and BAM conversion experience.

    Call it compassion..a reminder that God is always there. Call it guerilla marketing. Call it institutional survival in a congested neighborhood. Call it what you want. I think it’s kind of magical. And in contrast with flashy, moving, extravagant signs that accompanies other buildings..even Christian buildings in America, it’s usually just one cross….alit (sometimes the name of the church too). I think its function comes close to that of Buddhist temples being constructed to heal and protect the earth…just in an urban environment, but maybe I’m just seeing too much into it. Also worth considering is the fact that the Chinese character for 10 is the cross symbol. Early Korean Christians related the cross to the 10 auspicious places prophesized in a text that predicted the fall of the Joseon dynasty.

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