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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Ranking the books I’ve read this year.

reading

Last year I started tracking my reading goals, successes and failures with a couple of friends using Goodreads. I set the not so lofty goal of reading two books a month, but moving across the world and starting a new career cut me pretty far short of my goal. I sought to set a more modest goal this year and I know I’ll meet it. One book a month is really nothing. I’d love to get to a book a week, and I’d love to write more as I’ve stated not too long ago. I know some people who read 100 books a year. I’m jealous. It’s going to take some real commitment or becoming a full time student again to get to that point I think.

While I enjoyed most of the books, only the last one in the ranking ended up being a real disappointment. So here’s my ranking with brief explanations.

1. Story by Robert McKee

I really enjoyed this book. I had been wanting to read it for a long time because I want to know more about screenwriting and what the methods were behind really good stories on film and TV. I was not disappointed. It’s very straightforward and technical but also fun, because the subject matter is always interesting. Even though it takes a lot of practice to get good at it, everyone can relate to the innate sense of knowing when a story is good or bad, and this book gets a little in to the details of why that is, and how to harness that for your own writing. It’s specific to screenwriting, though many principles will be applicable to any writing I believe. A big book, but a lot of fun if you like film and/or stories.

2. iWoz by Steve Wozniak

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. Having read two other books connected with the legacy of Steve Jobs before this, I just wanted a bit more perspective on the personalities behind the Apple phenomenon. But what I found in Wozniak was a relatable guy caught up in a world of power. I felt a lot more pathos from his account than I planned to. Having worked in tech and seeing how poor relationships can be in any organization, especially with a lot of youth and ego, I found Woz to be a bit of a mentor while much of the world tries to emulate Jobs. Woz was a good friend. Every time I read a book on Jobs or watch a documentary, I’m impressed just like everyone else, but I wouldn’t want to work with or for him. When I read about Woz I feel like he’d be an incredible guy to work with or for. His version of events is much more emotional and lighthearted, and I really appreciated his wisdom.

3. Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Barth is theological force to be reckoned with. This book of his though, is very accessible. He definitely deals with deeper theological issues, but this short 150 page book was derived from lectures he gave to lay leaders in German churches. If this were the only thing he’d written I don’t think there would be much controversy regarding him. But he went on to write much, including his massive “Church Domatics,” which perhaps I’ll read one day. As an introduction into his thought, I really enjoyed this quick little read, and I found it helpful for the same kind of people today he was speaking to then, lay church leaders.

4. The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

Alan Hirsch is one of the most popular authors and speakers of the missional church movement, and this was his breakout book. I had read bits and pieces of his books for years but I wanted to finally finish this one, and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it a lot, but I do have a growing concern that the missional church movement has become excessively works oriented and tribal. There’s an entire subculture of missional churches now that have a language not shared with much of the Christian world, and rituals and practices that wouldn’t be recognized by much of the global church, including places like China, which Hirsch references a lot, where the church is growing rapidly while under oppression. I fear this is becoming a trendy way to do church for white hipster evangelicals more than anything else. That’s not a bad thing, because the goal is good, but I think there is a sanctioning of sub-cultural lingo and practice that is used as a judgment of spiritual character, when those things are best left on the spectrum of possible appropriate adaptations to cultural contexts. All that said, it’s a good read with good challenges to an all to stagnant western church.

5. What to Expect when No One’s Expecting by Jonathan Last

I was just curious about this one after seeing it on a reading list by Pastor Tim Keller. It ended up being a fascinating look into the issue of fertility around the world, and particularly in America. The primary concern of the book is the impact of various sociological forces that lead to many things, one of them primarily being a dearth or growth of baby making, and what it tells us about the American political environment. In many ways it’s a timely read for an election year such as this. I don’t know enough about demographics and sociology to critique anything Last says, but that being said, I really enjoyed reading it, and I want to read more books like it in the future.

6. Clowning in Rome by Henri Nouwen

Nouwen was a prolific Catholic writer for many years, particularly in the genre of spiritual formation. This book is a collection of lectures he gave in Rome to a group of clergy people. He took his cues from the clowns around Rome who he viewed on the periphery of society, very humble, yet whose live’s entire purpose was to bring a smile to people on the periphery. That’s the major theme, the clownishness of the Christian life as a way of standing against the worldly powers. It’s an interesting and humble read, and I felt humbled by reading it. Nothing too heady, just a reminder that we’re all clowns, and to do the best with that we can. Who can’t use that reminder from time to time?

7. Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen

Another short one by Nouwen just focused on solitude. It was yet again a very simple reminder, this time on the importance of being alone as a spiritual discipline. In a noisy world, it’s certainly a hard practice to cultivate, but his wisdom was a welcomed reminder to put up that fight for the sake of spiritual health.

8. The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom

I had been aware of this book for the better part of a decade before finally getting around to reading it. It’s on decentralization in organizations and movements, with a lot of case studies from history to modern times. In many ways it is a secular version of the Forgotten Ways, Hirsch even sites it in the book. It’s a helpful book on the power of culture and ideas, and how when those are the things that unite people for a long period of time, the staying power is enormous. The title captures the idea well, if you cut the leg off a starfish, another starfish is born, but if you get the head off a spider it dies. It’s pretty much that simple, but requires a lot to make it apart of your organizational culture.

9. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I enjoyed this book, but it was just too long. There is a lot of narrative about how much leisure time the author as an awesome scholar had to run all his thought experiments, when he should have dived into the fruit of that labor a lot more quickly. Even so, the fruit of his labor is very fascinating, and quite helpful to me as a teacher. Basically his research highlighted how powerful human instinct is, fast thinking, and how we don’t really appreciate that enough. However, it needs to be reigned in under the discipline of slow thinking, and careful reasoning. The real key is developing the skills associated with how to switch back and forth depending on the context. A very interesting if not overly long read.

10. A Life of Jesus by Shusaku Endo

I read this book for two reasons. One was that it’s a popular book from a Japanese author about Jesus. This is significant for many reasons. One being that Japan is less than 1% Christian. This book is older now, but Endo wrote it as a help to Japanese people to understand and empathize with Jesus from their cultural perspective, so I really read it for that insight. I’m quite familiar with the life of Jesus, but living in Korea, I don’t know enough about what Korean culture specifically, or Asian culture more generally, find most appealing about him. I know it’s different from the West in at least some ways. I wanted Endo to shed whatever light he could on that cultural note in his telling. Secondly, I wanted to read this because another book he wrote, “Silence,” about Jesuit missionaries being persecuted in Japan a long time ago, is being made into a movie by Martin Scorsese soon, staring Liam Neeson. So I wanted to see what this guy had to say about Jesus. The reason I came away disappointed is because he was heavily under the influence of German higher criticism. He quoted Bultmann a lot, as well as other mid-century German textual critics of the Bible. In the end, he didn’t believe in a real resurrection of Christ, but instead a very humanistic interpretation I’ve read in other liberal theology, that Jesus’ legacy rose in the lives of his followers such that it lived in them, and in that way, he was resurrected. Along the way, I didn’t feel like I gleaned much cultural insight from him either, so I left feeling pretty disappointed and sad. If he’s one of the few Japanese authors who wrote about Jesus, I can’t be surprised Jesus isn’t a bigger deal there. I have several friends who are missionaries in Japan, and I pray that they will lovingly teach and correct this where it is found.

My Conversation with Dr. Marc Cortez

To listen to my conversation on SoundCloud, click here

I almost studied with Dr. Cortez at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He is now teaching theology at Wheaton College and I was thankful for the opportunity to reconnect with him. While his research focus is theological anthropology, Dr. Cortez has a very sincere passion for youth ministry. In our conversation we weave the two together and dive head first in to some very practical issues in modern ministry. I hope you enjoy our conversation.