Random reflections after two years of teaching the Bible in South Korea

After spending most of my life never planning to go, much less live, in Asia, I can now say South Korea is my home. I haven’t posted a blog since being home in the US and reflecting on what it was like to be gone for a year and a half, longer than I had ever been away, and then return. Since then I’ve been busy. My new principal, whom I love, green-lighted a proposal a colleague and I made to completely reshape the Bible curriculum at our school. The changes were so severe we were taking class time away from other core classes, classes that help Korean students on their version of the SAT, which is the most sacred of all sacred cows in Korean society. The cut was deep, and the fallout was not small, but we are doing it. I say that to say my head has been down, buried in curriculum design and implementation, trials and errors and fixes, collaboration, and tirelessly learning about the full scope of Christian education and then ruthlessly defending my key convictions when they are threatened (I say with equal measures of pride and shame). And all of this in an ESL, cross-cultural context (AKA hard). Yesterday was the last day of the semester. I’m tired, but yet again, like a switch being flipped, I’m reflective, and I am blogging. I don’t know why this is a pattern for me, but it is.

One of the things that takes up a lot of my brain space is comparing the history of Christianity and evangelicalism in the western cultures that are very native to me with what I see here in Korea, particularly how the youth I teach are aware of and responding to it. There are similarities to be sure. They have been brought up in Sunday school learning basic stories of the Bible. They have a basic framework of what the Bible is and says, and what a biblical worldview is, or what it should be. However, Christianity is very young in Korea. While young, in some ways it is deeper. Christianity attached to Korea in a time of desperation and identity crisis at a culturally systemic and deeply profound level. Korea has been invaded countless times and its people forced to change and be subservient in ways that most Americans can’t comprehend. It leaves a lasting impact, an imprint on the collective psyche, especially as a collectivist culture. There are words in their language that capture this deep sadness. They all carry it, and I as a fellow human can grasp it generally, but as a foreigner will never grasp deeply. Christianity in Korea steps into that sadness, and sinks into the souls of those who follow Christ here, and it gets into crevices of the human soul that I’m still learning about. In the West Christianity goes deep intellectually, and historically. In Korea it goes deep spiritually and emotionally.

That distinctive in Korean Christianity buys it something. It buys passion, and community. It buys profound and energetic prayer lives and assertive evangelistic efforts. Korean churches send more missionaries out into the world than any other nation with the exception of the USA, and I think per capita they take the cake. However, there are clear and present deficiencies and I see them all the time. I teach many Korean missionary children and the other children I teach are usually kids of faithful, local Korean Christians. I think it is fair to say I see a sample of the future of Korean Christianity every day in my classes. To be honest, there are some disturbing realities on the horizon.

The lack of Christian history in Korea specifically, but Asia more broadly, combined with the increasing rate of secularization, is concocting a potent mix. I see many of the same trends from when I was in high school, trends that mirror the American millennial generation. The same questions and concerns that arise from those who are done with church, and/or claim no religious affiliation. This is concerning on a few levels.

One is almost purely cultural. This collectivist culture is losing its collectivism in relation to family and religion, which is being replaced by the internet. What do we all know about the internet? It’s good and bad, but there’s a lot of porn, there are a lot of video games, and there’s a lot of advertising. With the diminished voice of family and church in the lives of youth, these other sources of “knowledge” and “pleasure” are becoming the primary sources of “life.” Korea boasts the fastest internet in the world, and I love it and hate it. Content needs curation, and curation is the fruit of wisdom, or the lack thereof. I see a great dearth of wisdom in Korean Christian youth. There’s a cultural gap between old Korea and the new as well as Korean culture and western culture. There is some overlap, but not all of new Korea can be called western, per se. It’s complex, and there are few if any contemporary, native, Korean Christian leaders speaking to youth in a way that makes sense to them. One of the biggest complaints in my class is they want to talk about the stuff we talk about in class with older Koreans, but can’t due to these cultural gaps in experience, knowledge, identity and worldview. They are being told what to think but not how. Korea, with its fast internet, the longest working hours in the world, it’s reputation for its rapid rise as a capitalist economy, has a fast paced culture.

Another level of issues is ecclesial. The church has syncretised with this fast paced cultural reality without enough reflection, and the youth are paying the price. I find my biggest asset as a foreigner is that I have to go slow by default in order to do anything. It turns out that that is what these kids need. The language barrier helps us both slow down enough to process the information in the Bible, and in Christian history, and the intersection between those things and modern Korean culture and what it all means, in general, and for them specifically. I’m still learning how to do this well but it is being done. I know I’m not a savior, for sure. I hate anything I see or find in myself that smacks of spiritual imperialism. I have much to learn from Korean Christians. But missionaries and/or Christian educators, empowered by God the Spirit and equipped with the Bible, are nothing if they are not able to speak with at least some authority on these matters. I tell my students, “as an outsider I’m an observer who can serve as a mirror to let you know what I see, but it’s up to you to change things.” After two years I can say with authority that Biblical literacy in Korean youth is poor, theological literacy is dismal, and ethical literacy is a flaming meteorite penetrating the atmosphere and is going to hit with epic impact. These students have been so primed to focus on their math and science education such that the humanities are not an afterthought, they are hardly a thought at all. It’s Korean SAT (KSAT) or die. Churches have full days of prayer for the their youth on test day. Students, by government mandate, are allowed to skip a huge majority of my (and all) classes in the Fall semester order to receive special tutoring  for the KSAT, and churches are falling in line. The suicide rate in Korean youth is highest the day the KSAT result come out. It’s literally life and death. Most of my seniors say the number one reason they haven’t committed suicide is for fear that they will go to Hell. I appreciate the church’s discipleship around biblical authority on the doctrine of Hell, but I find their lack of discipleship on Christian identity deplorable. My Korean colleagues are mixed on this issue, and my head goes spinning most days when something related to this comes up in staff meetings. Welcome to my life, and my personal lack of ability to be diplomatic despite my best efforts, I read the biblical prophets too much…

At this point, I’m just tired as I write, but I felt compelled to do so. I’d like to think that others can benefit from my reflections in some way as I do from so much content I try to curate on the internet. I hope this is the case. I’ll try to write more as I have energy. These reflections are fresh, and born out of the tired end of a long and laborious semester in a foreign context. I love what I get to do, and what I do feels important. I feel inadequate to the task, but I trust God brought me here for a reason, so I rely on him as exclusively as I am able day to day.

 

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Active awareness of the anatomy of the Gospel as key to spiritual formation in Christian education. Part 3 of 3: Glorification

glorification

The time has finally come to conclude this blog series, as I also conclude this school year and the year overall as well. My writing fell off a cliff the last couple of months as other priorities anchored me to other tasks. It feels good, right and appropriate to have waited until now to reflect on the wonderful doctrine of glorification and it’s implications on my life and particularly in Christian education.

In part one I laid out the need for a robust understanding and active awareness of justification as critical to a distinctive learning and working environment for Christian education.

In part two I laid out the need for a robust understanding and active awareness of sanctification as critical to the same ends.

Now I turn to glorification, and I’m glad to on many levels. In justification we are saved from the eternal penalty of sin by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. In sanctification we are being saved from the power of sin day by day, which is made possible by Christ’s justifying work, and enabled by the Holy Spirit’s presence and power in us helping us fight sin day by day until we die or Christ returns. But what happens then, why does it matter, and why is it crucial to spiritual formation in Christian education?

Justification achieves it’s goal, it saves us completely from the penalty of sin. But sanctification has a goal yet to be realized, and that goal is to make us perfect, just like God is perfect.

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5:48)

Glorification is the truth that one day we will be saved from the very presence of sin and evil. Justification saves us from sins penalty, sanctification is saving us from sins power, and there is an end to that, and that end is when we are glorified, made perfect, and our salvation is complete when we die or he returns.

There are many worldviews one can have. There are many ways, both subtle and not so subtle, that competing worldviews will take root and corrupt the Christian worldview by attaching itself to it. Most worldviews have a goal of some form of their own version of glorification. The perfect humans, the perfect cities, the perfect world, that is built by that worldview’s version of a superior class or race or religion. Christians don’t believe in a man made utopia, but that God through Christ by the Spirit’s power is preparing us to be perfect in a redeemed world that he is preparing to dwell with us in once Christ returns.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Php 1:3–6)

Without a deep understanding of this and an ongoing and active awareness, two potential pitfalls present themselves. One is pride. We will allow humanistic worldviews to seep in and corrupt the truth that only God has the power and the effective plan for making things perfect, and saving us from the evil that is within and without. We will believe in the power of men to save and put our hope in them and ourselves otherwise. The second is despair. We, as Christian educators, could allow a nihilistic worldview to corrupt the truth that God has a definite plan and purpose for the evil and sin in the world, and that he is and will save us completely in the end. We will believe in the absolute power of the evil we see and experience and lose all hope and devalue life including our own if we fail at this.

Glorification is the truth that is the antidote to pride and despair, and it completes a full picture of our spiritual formation from beginning to end, and it must actively penetrate every facet of the Christian education initiative wherever it is found such that all involved are actively aware. We must remember, and remind often, we must consider it at every turn with every decision.

Personally, if it weren’t for these truths, which are so masterfully and beautifully captured in the pages of the Bible, and so incredibly teased out through the history of salvation from the beginning of time, through church history and to the present day, I would not teach at a Christian school. I definitely would not teach the Bible. And I certainly would not do it in an international context where I am misunderstood, constantly put in positions where I can only fail, and treated like an outsider most of the time. In spite of all that, fighting to make Christ known fully, to make the details of his grace actively known and not passively assumed, is worth it. It’s the only thing that’s worth it to me. I don’t always live or act like that, because I am weak and easily distracted, but I have been saved from sin’s eternal penalties, I am being saved from it’s destructive power day by day, and one day maybe I’ll forget what sin ever felt like, because I’ll be in a glorified state with Christ for thousands of years, perfect and purified. If I don’t have that, I have nothing. If I do have it, I have everything.

This concludes a rough and tumble display of my firm convictions and beliefs about the anatomy of the Gospel and it’s critical role in the spiritual formation of staff and students at Christian education institutions. I hope it has been helpful, or at least a decently presented grouping of ideas to disagree with or improve upon.

Beyond requirement in theological education: a reflection on longing

Though I’ve tried to change this about myself many times, my singular passion is for theological education. I wish I could switch, I’ve tried, but it stays with me.

One of the frustrations with theological education is that for many Christian traditions it is required in order to officially lead in any capacity. Many jobs within Christian institutions are reserved for those with official training of some kind, with official documentation. I’m certainly not against training, merely the result of taking a movement built by the unschooled and ordinary and putting them through a system to make them, at least seemingly, schooled and extraordinary. Many Christian leaders in the making have a passion for a great number of things, all filtered through the singular belief that Jesus Christ and his gospel will bring about his kingdom of peace, joy, love and truth. When that passion is pushed through the sieve of  institutionalized theological education the result is often varied, and too often with unfettered passion diminished under the weight of canned knowledge.

One of my primary theses regarding theological education is that it doesn’t have to be like this. We can acquire the necessary and helpful knowledge without losing passion, and even have them serve one anther. Even as a middle and high school Bible teacher, this is my goal (albeit a bloody challenge, no doubt).

I was reflecting on issues related to this this morning, and contemplating moments in my own formal training that were positively transcendent. For instance, in an otherwise dry Hebrew class when the professor sang “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” before exegeting  Isaiah 53, pausing to explain what each detail had meant to him personally over the years, and the entire class had done more than learned about Hebrew Grammar, Jewish history, prophetic imagery, Old Testament Christology and Biblical theology, we were worshiping Christ through all of it.

In this brief reflection I just want to share an idea. Theological education happens in and out of formal training, and in all contexts I believe it transcends mere knowledge acquisition with at least one key ingredient, a deep sense of longing. And this, while always a challenge, is most helped by a pastoral teacher whose heart is heavy with gospel saturation so that with everything they do the blood of Christ is dripping everywhere.

More on this later…