11 April 2016

Korean Christianity

A higher percentage of Koreans are Christians than almost any other country in Asia.  Having married into a Korean Christian family and attended a Korean Presbyterian Church for about a year after I got married, I'm well aware of that.  But, an article at The Diplomat does a good job of explaining the phenomena and how it came to be for those unfamiliar with it.
“We think of Korea as the Second Jerusalem,” says Hong Su Myeon, an older volunteer at Somang Presbyterian, a megachurch in Gangnam. He says Korea is leading a wave of evangelization around the world.

At the same time, Hong says, “It’s true that [a lot of] Christianity is corrupt. But there are a lot of hidden true pastors working hard, and their passion for God is why we are so successful in Korea.”

What can be most surprising to a visitor to Korea is that only 29 percent of the population actually identifies as Christian – about three-quarters Protestant, one quarter Catholic. But their zeal is so enormous that it overshadows the 23 percent who are Buddhist, and the 46 percent who say they have no religion at all.

“It is kind of amazing” how zealous Korean Christians are, says Dr. Hwang Moon-kyung, Professor of History at the University of Southern California. “They give you the impression that South Korea is a very religious country when in fact it isn’t. But the ones who are religious tend to be very fervently religious.”
Basically, Christian churches became parts of coalitions against the occupying Japanese, against communism, and finally against totalitarianism.  By picking and winning the right battles, the churches rose in popular esteem.

Protestant affiliation seems to have leveled off, but the Roman Catholic church continues to grow in Korea.
Attendance rates, and the number of Koreans claiming to be Protestants, have stalled. The democratization movement caused many young Koreans to resent the largely conservative, pro-regime roles most churches held. Corruption, internecine battles within the churches, and a singular focus on growth at all costs have also hurt church attendance.

By contrast, the Catholic Church has continued to grow, largely because it is perceived as being progressive, anti-regime, above corruption, and more democratic, ironic as that might sound to reform-minded Westerners. Kim Dae-jung, a well-known dissident during the dictatorships who would later go on to become president and win the Nobel Peace Prize, was Catholic. Though there was a “minjung” theology among some Protestants, that emphasized democracy and freedom during the dictatorship, it was only preached in a minority of churches.

The question remains about how relations between South Korea’s religious factions will continue. Protestants remain a powerful conservative force, picketing LGBT Pride events, demonstrating against North Korea, and even protesting against the introduction of halal meat in some stores, a move meant to attract tourists from Muslim countries. In 2009, some evidence for evolution was removed from high school science textbooks because of pressure from religious groups, and a full third of Koreans – more than the number of Christians – do not believe in evolution.

Former President Lee Myung-back was criticized by Buddhists and the non-religious for stacking his cabinet with members of his own church, Somang Presbyterian, where he is an elder. Current president Park Geun-hye is an atheist, but her conservative power base relies on Christian support.
One fine point that isn't really clearly captured by the article, but it quite important on the ground, is the extent to which Korean Christians they have theologically infused Confucian concepts and morals into the larger evangelical Christian message.

Also, along the same lines, the 46 percent who have "no religion at all" are normally classified as "Confucian" by scholars of religion.  While this philosophical and moral code does not implicate metaphysics as religions usually do, almost everyone in this group would adhere to the Confucian philosophical ideology.  The practical implications of this in the Japanese context has been discussed cogently in T.R. Reid's book "Confucius Lives Next Door" (1999), but can be applied by analogy in the Korean context in most respects (except the rarity of Christians).

Furthermore, while Korea is not as syncretic as Japan (e.g., there is a history of strong tension between Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Korea, rather than the partial adoption of certain Buddhist practices by almost everyone in Japan), it is common for superstitions such as determining baby names based upon the casting of lots and astrology, sometimes viewed as "Chinese folk religion" in China, or "Shinto" beliefs in Japan, to be followed in South Korea even by people who formally identify as Christian.  The formal name for the traditional shamanistic folk religion of Korea is "Sinkyo" which was suppressed not only during Japanese occupation, but also during the preceding Choson Dynasty (1395 CE to 1910 CE).


Is there an accepted name for the collective pagan traditions adhered to by Western Christians in the modern day in the field of comparative religion?

Perhaps folk religion?

For example, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, "don't step on a crack or you'll break your mother's back", fear of the number 13, Leprechauns, the tradition of not looking behind you until the very last moment because if you do you will never see someone again, ghosts, etc.

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