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 damn 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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Remembering when I was my student’s age

The first semester of the Korean school year is rushing towards it’s conclusion. This means preparation for all the end of term activities, a rise in discipline issues along with colleague frustrations, and the inability to not daydream of summer plans. It also means we’ve been with our students for the better part of five months now, week in and week out, along with some weekends. For me, it means that my Korean students are used to the weird American, with a hair style featuring what they tell me is the potato look, a way of thinking that is decidedly more cosmopolitan than the homogeneity they are used to,  and a body modeled after the spoon as opposed to the chopstick. Their getting used to me, and my getting used to them, this event horizon in one of millions of globalization experiences of our time, brings many unknowns with the joys and pains of openness and honesty, the glory and burden of trust.

While attention spans, including my own, have all but flown the coop, at least once a week a class discussion emerges bearing this weight of trust, and with it questions that land with growing penetration each time I receive them. Time for reflection is short in this busy season, but when I get it I return to the times when I was in 7th grade and 12th grade respectively. I try hard to think about how I understood the world at those times, and then try to imagine being Korean, or being a third culture missionary kid, as this covers the full range of my student base. It feels like a futile attempt at contextualization every time, enough so that I wonder if I’m doing more harm in my attempt at relevance than any good.

Kids of any culture are playful if nothing else. This play weaves in fluidly to my student’s every social interaction, as many of them have known each other for years, and as Korean culture binds it’s people together with a type of bond I don’t think I will ever know. They all know what seems like hundreds of games they grow up playing with each other. Guess which way I’m going to look, get it wrong and get slapped on the back. Rock, paper scissors, lose and get slapped on the arm. Say a number in a really dainty voice, do it wrong and face the shame of the room until you do it right. These type of quick and silly games break out like a pandemic and retract as quickly when something else takes focus, all while holding hands, massaging arms, shoulders, sharing snacks and drinks, notes for class and leaning on each other’s shoulder. In a given day I’ll watch two of my most macho seniors touch each other more than I have made physical contact with my best bro in my life. There’s not an ounce of sexual tension. One of my best friends is from India, and we discussed how friends of our respective cultures acted around each other at length. The western discomfort of Indian male friendship made the global scene in popular Canadian comedian Russel Peter’s joke about how they often hold each other’s pinky finger while they walk together. I watched that stand up show with a group of Indians while in grad school, and we all laughed hard, because many of them had made their American friends uncomfortable without knowing it and some had learned in harder ways than others. Comedy is often the medicine the globalizing world needs. I try to offer it as often as I can myself, to much less success than Mr. Peters thus far.

Often when teaching, my entire periphery is dominated by this cadence of play and learning. When a class discussion emerges, the play may subside completely or just in the immediate area where the student or students are talking to me and each other. I teach, play in all these small ways takes place, a discussion emerges, I shush those who are too loud and distracting us, someone goes to the restroom, a class activity, play and touch in various forms passes around the room like a virus, the class comes back together, a time of reflection and response, someone loses what was once a quiet game of guess which way I was going to move my hand and gets smacked loudly, a video is watched on the theme of the class, various postures are attempted to find the best way to lean on friends to achieve the maximum comfort of all, the video ends and complaints that the lights came on too quickly are silenced by a round of relevant questions before class ends. This is somewhat typical. As the semester has progressed this planetary system of social and educational behaviors in orbit around each other have been interjected with the deep realities of life, so deep they appear as black holes in an otherwise controlled chaos. Suicide, parental neglect, abuse, spirituality, sexuality, the purpose of life and the meaning of death. These realities fall into the scene with ease for my students, part of the cadence. As a foreigner my cadence is, assumption, fail, embarrassment, sadness followed by anger followed by acceptance, repeat, one point of wisdom added, one million points needed to win the game.

I sometimes feel like the well constructed walls of adulthood and culture block me from being helpful. But I remember my adolescence well enough. I remember sadness, confusion, unending questions, new feelings, doubts and despair. I remember parents, teachers, friends and student workers who offered wisdom, hope, friendship, hugs, pats on the back, and the appropriate rebukes when needed. Nothing I learned in school prepared me for life more than those things. As the bond deepens between my students and I, and as the welcomed honesty flows with all its joys and burdens, I’m trying to remember when I was there age as much as I am able to help me teach and offer the best wisdom. This week I realized their questions were helping me deepen as a person. That my kids honesty was helping me be more honest with myself, and consider my past more carefully. As I climbed this existential mountain, I realized that I was becoming part of the cadence of the classroom too, that my place in this community was spanning age, culture and sometimes creed. As I processed the revelation, someone got slapped hard to my left, the loser of a Korean folk game I’ll never understand or be able to pronounce. One point of wisdom….