Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sign Wars II: The Christian Empire Strikes Back

One of the very first things I noticed about Korea, (as we careened down the freeway at 130km/hour, in a van without seat belts or safety seats) after having been picked up from the airport, was the vast abundance of church steeples, all with red neon crosses. Churches occupying space in commercial buildings will erect their steeples on ordinary slab roofs, and if more than one church occupies the same building, then (because if your neighbor does it, you most definitely must do it too, in order not to "fall behind" - a phenomenon known as "keeping up with the Kims" - similar in a way to "keeping up with the Jones", but much, much more extreme and competitive)... anyway, if more than one church occupies the same commercial building, chances are there will be more than one steeple on the roof. It's quite common to see buildings with two or more steeples all competing for souls. And, of course, the church with the biggest and tallest steeple is undoubtedly the best....
Korea is the only country in Asia (other than the Philippines) with such a high population of Christians. In the past 35 years alone, nearly 35% of the country's population have become Christian (after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945 and after the Korean War). In fact, the five largest Christian churches in the world are all in Seoul. But Korean Christianity is much different than the Christianity found elsewhere in the world. Because Koreans are so fiery and extreme, they will take things to the limit of common sense and soar beyond it without a second glance. Korean Christianity is, as a result, the most extreme and evangelical version of the religion found on the planet. On our third day here, my boss, claiming that she "loved to evangelize," told Matt that she knew the reason we had come to Korea, and that it was "to find Jesus." I have personally (and unwittingly) bore witness to an impromptu sermon in a subway train by a preacher who changed cars at each stop, and would wander up and down the station spouting the word of God with his megaphone. I really like this aspect of Koreans, though. They're very passionate about what they believe in.

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