Steamed pork, wild sesame, cross-cultural preaching, and the Illuminati

My first blog of 2018. I’m really good at blogging. If you’re looking for an example, look no further. For those interested I’m listening to Lauren Daigle’s new album, Look Up Child, as I write this. I know nothing about her other than she apparently reemerged on the music scene recently and sounds a bit like Adele, and I think I read somewhere she’s a Christian. I peruse Amazon’s streaming music selection to see what I can listen to on my Prime membership and she was front and center featured. So far her music seems to carry meaningful themes, and she’s clearly an amazing singer, but it’s just not my jam. I’m from the bluegrass state, I’m minimalist in my music taste, just rednecks who’ve tied strings to a shovel to pluck at and sing with accents that nobody outside a 100 mile radius can understand suits me just fine. But I also really like trying new things, so I’m content for now. 

I’m rounding the corner to three-and-a-half years living as an American expat in South Korea. I don’t know that I’d say I have more to say than non-expats or those with otherwise “normal” lives, but I would say that living abroad provides a friction that makes you notice your life differently, and perhaps more, than those who do not. It’s like the difference between driving normally inside a car, and being tied behind the car with a rope and dragged on your hind parts. Both are traveling, but one is experiencing it….more, you might say. It’s not really that bad, but working cross-culturally is no joke. Sometimes it’s the challenge I signed up for, and I embrace it. Sometimes it’s the challenge that has been thrust upon me and I question everything. Often both are happening at the same time.

In many ways I’m enjoying life to its fullest. My wife and I live and work on the same campus. We’re both doing what we went to graduate school to do. We love foreign food and experiences. We really enjoy movies and Korea boasts some of the most innovative theater tech in the world. Last Friday we saw Crimes of Grindelwald at a ScreenX theater where the movie will get projected all the way around the walls of the theater during certain high-flying scenes. It was awesome though I was very skeptical when my students recommended it. The movie itself was a disappointment as it seems the narrative is getting a bit unwieldy and simply not making much sense. Hopefully Rowling will recover. I’m also getting a lot more opportunities to preach at international congregations here, and at English services in Korean churches, both of which I feel very honored to do. Last Sunday I preached at an English service in a Korean church. Lots of Cambodian and Thai university students attend as well. I take a lot of joy in communicating across cultures and then getting to have conversations afterwards where I learn a lot about how people think and process, and how we are all learning about faith in so many different ways. After church one of my wife’s colleague’s, his two sons, and a Korean church member went out for bossam, steamed pork, and kalguksu, a chicken and noodle soup. The bossam was covered in garlic and served with many awesome side dishes. The soup had wild sesame in it and had this incredible earthy flavor to it. It was great. 

In other ways the struggle of working everyday before a massive cultural gap, that I will never cross even if I master the language and get a visa that allowed me to vote, wears me down. My work involves Bible education and Christian spiritual formation. Just this week my seniors are in mental recovery after they have taken the Korean SAT, which is the closest thing to a god in neo-Confucian Korean secularism that exists. Many lives are sacrificed upon its altar. My units take a turn towards easy street this time of year because many of the near-graduates just can’t be bothered to give a crap about anything other than which university will welcome them into their glorious ranks. I created a new unit on the Ethics of Entertainment, which is aimed at forming a distinctive Christian way of thinking about the creation, consumption and worldview of various entertainment media. It has been quite a popular unit for the most part. Naturally, being in Korea, KPOP culture was considered and I asked what the students had been taught in their churches about how to engage culture. To my dismay a good number of them had been told that the Illuminati uses KPOP to control the masses and that that was why they should not listen to it. I paused, looked them each directly in the eye, and told them in no uncertain terms, that that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, and that it was no wonder youth are fleeing the churches in masses. I’m certainly no fan of KPOP. It’s shallow and empty like so much of pop culture around the world. But Christian leaders need to do much better than conspiracy theories and fear tactics to steer their youth in a wholesome and holy direction. My students were offended I disrespected their pastors, yet another great cultural error that will go against my permanent record, God and Confucius forgive me. It’s not all churches or pastors here, and it’s most definitely not just a problem in churches on this peninsula, but lazy thinking with absolutely no nuance is killing the church, and is pastoral malpractice in my opinion. This is but one example in my developing story here, and only the latest, surely not to be the last. 

Well, there’s my mental vomit for now. Daigle just started singing Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus to me, the second to last song on this album. Her stock is rising in my music market. In many ways it’s an appropriate prophetic word to me in this season (and any season really). I can be a bit of a Puddleglum, and I need more Jesus at every turn. Whoever you are, I hope you found something I wrote useful and I wish you well. 

Advertisements

Frodo as Pastor

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex  blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.

Preaching and teaching, and the distinctive opportunities for Bible teaching in secondary Christian education

Preaching is proclaiming and teaching is explaining. There is more that can be said of course, but this summary is true. Too often there is a harsh dichotomy of emphasis placed between these two. There is also too often a false confluence, that if one has preached they have also taught, or if they have taught they have also preached. These errors may seem small until you witness the results, which are usually some kind of confusion on a spectrum of severity. I’m thinking about it now because I see the results in my students all the time. They have been proclaimed to their whole lives with very little explaining, and have even been told that asking questions is bad. Has this kind of discipleship achieved the desired results? No, it hasn’t, not here in Korea nor in the USA. We don’t want an unquestioning faith, nor a questionable faith. The Bible presents it in balance and Christians are always to strike the balance. The issue is how well we do.

My contention is that there are few to no opportunities for doing the explaining ministry of biblical teaching as well as can be done in Christian secondary schools. Between 7th and 12th grade, six years of education, longer than any Bible college or seminary program and in a much more holistic environment, students under solid instruction and guidance with appropriate curriculum, have the best opportunity to experience the fruit of teaching ministry. I must add, this is not all that is needed for true discipleship and spiritual formation. The word must be proclaimed from pulpits and lived out in homes, and teaching happens in those contexts too, just not like it can and often does in school.

There are many questions that need to be sorted out to do this well, issues protestants, especially of the non-denominational variety tend to avoid, such as what’s the distinction between the role of parents, churches and Christian schools in the character formation and biblical literacy of their children? Answering these questions will also help solving the category errors I wrote about before, such as the distinction between pastors, parents, lay church teachers, and Christian school chaplains and Bible teachers. What I see happening now in my context, and why I’m thinking and writing about it, is that my students are confused and therefore have shut off much of their attention from what they rightfully perceive as a chaos of authority. Their church proclaims a neutered gospel and a fundamentalist ethical system. Their parents proclaim society’s expectations for academic and financial success. And at school they get everything in between. When I try to both proclaim in chapel, and explain in class, the reality and centrality of the Gospel of Christ, I’m looked at with no small amount of confusion. They are too busy avoiding the sins their pastor told them about to consider the majesty of Christ, and they are too busy trying to get in to the best university they can to understand and own their identity in Christ as a gift that changes them, and not something they earn with their good works as defined by neo-Confucian social ethics and modern materialistic standards of living, all baptized into a syncretistic theological soup.

I’m hopeful, because God is the one who unwinds all our confusion for us, but he also ordains his people to be part of that process, and uses the friendships, fellowships, churches, families and schools those relationships build and maintain to do his work. He gives the gifts of teaching and preaching, and it’s his work. He’s done it from the beginning and he’ll continue. But the process of doing it is part of the his refining for those doing the work, and it should be taken seriously and worked at with discipline and thoughtfulness. We live in thoughtless times, the body of Christ should be known for more, and what I’m talking about here is a big part of that.