Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review of Korean Preaching

Review of Jung Young Lee, Korean Preaching

by Yung Suk Kim

In his book Korean Preaching, Jung Young Lee states that the practice of Korean preaching should be reformed and that it needs to be strengthened by keeping the cultural root of Korean traditional religions. According to the author, an inherited culture of Koreanness validates Korean preaching in a creative way. Moreover, he envisions a new preaching that embodies Korean American identity in a multicultural society.

Lee approaches Korean preaching from the point of a Korean culture. That is to say, Korean preaching is evaluated and understood through the vantage point of culture. This culture of Koreanness has been shaped and was handed down through the ages of religious, cultural synthesis of Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Because of this kind of cultural approach to Korean preaching, Lee sees both the positive and the negative influence of Korean culture on Korean preaching. By positive side he affirms Korean cultural root and asks Korean preachers to reaffirm that inherited Koreanness in a way that Korean preaching can contribute to the multicultural society. By negative side he warns Korean preachers to change the practice of Korean preaching, because Korean preachers' shamanistic orientation of visible, materialistic blessings is distant from the gospel preaching. That kind of preaching alienates Korean churches from the other social religious groups. Lee moves on to the discussion of how Korean preaching has been ineffective in living out prophetic witness to the Word of God (Christ). First of all, the author points out the unhealthy phenomenon of Korean preaching that has been caused by distortion of the gospel. That phenomenon has to do with the materialistic blessings and the otherworldly escapism as typical examples. This phenomenon is evident especially when the characteristics of Shamanism are mixed with modern materialism and the early Protestant missionaries' pietistic orientation (fundamental and evangelical). According to Lee, this distortion took place not only because of preachers' shamanistic orientation (as a charismatic figure) but also because of the church members' need for the immediate and visible blessings. This orientation blinds both preachers and members of the churches, because this orientation does not take the gospel as seriously as the gospel needs prophetic justice in the real world. In the meantime, Lee points out that the ardent prayer meetings and revival meetings are an influence of Shamanism, and the early Morning Prayer meeting is of Buddhism. As a matter of fact, the author does not reject the Shamanic, Buddhist and Confucian elements themselves in the churches. The problem is the preachers' mind and heart that they do not concern the situation of the poor and the oppressed around them. Instead, the orientation of materialistic, individualistic and this worldly blessing intoxicated them.

What, then, does Lee say to this undesirable phenomenon of Korean American preaching? He does not reject the received religious heritage as a whole. Rather, Lee suggests that the Korean American preachers reaffirm Koreanness in a creative way in the new Korean American context. This means that the preacher needs to preach the gospel involving prophetic witnessing in everyday lives, while using Koreanness of ardent prayer. By doing so, Lee says that Korean preaching can contribute to the American churches in a multicultural society. This influence of Korean cultural, religious heritage such as the early morning prayer meetings, zeal for scripture study, respect for the elder make Korean preaching distinctive. In fact, Korean churches have grown faster than any other churches because of this kind of cultural and religious tradition of Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Lee now presents desirable Korean preaching in a Korean American context. First of all, Korean preaching should be based on the preacher's play of the whole body in a sense that a preacher interprets the scripture in view of context and his/her audiences. In other words, the preacher's real life stories should be interwoven with a text and a congregation, in a way that the preacher and the congregation is united around the preacher's central act of preaching in worship service. A corollary is that Korean preaching is changed from a doctrinal, deductive approach to an inductive and a contextual one. With the preacher's active play of the text and the congregation, preaching becomes folktales, stories and dramas. The other aspect of desirable preaching has to do with the faithful interpretation of the text in light of historical exegetical methods.

Unfortunately, Korean preaching has been dominated by allegorical interpretation. In fact, Lee's urge to use exegetical methods together with story telling shows his social commitment in Christ. In other words, for the author the ministry of Korean preaching is none other than the direct involvement in Christian witness. He believes that through the faithful interpretation of the scriptures we can live for God's justice.

Thus so far as we observed in this report, Lee may contribute to the improvement of Korean preaching in the Korean American churches and shed light on the way of Korean preaching today and the future. His most important insight is his cultural confidence in Koreanness by which Korean preaching can be distinctive. And at the same time it is his accomplishment that the practice of Korean preaching should be reformed because of distortion of it. In fact, Korean churches have enjoyed fast growth in terms of numbers, the reality of that growth does not look sound because Korean churches remained silent about society's needs. He showed this aspect of Korean church by pointing out the wrong application of Christian gospel with syncretistic influence on the Korean churches. At this point, Lee's imperative to challenge Korean preachers to preach differently, by embracing bodily embodiment of the gospel is very constructive to the preaching pulpits of the Korean churches, especially when we are entering the 21st century's new ministry world. Lee's challenge is at this point very fresh and sound because he embraces both Korean culture and the gospel. Bodily embodiment of preaching is closely related with the gospel of suffering and liberation through which people live out the gospel in their daily lives.

Despite several strong points, I cannot go on without pointing out some weak points. Lee's presumption about culture is very strong. In other words, he seems to be a culture-bound or a culture-destined person, who really believes that a person is solely influenced by the culture (including religions). He didn't present or talk about an evidence of a strong connection between culture and Koreanness (our being as a Korean). There might be other factors to affect our being as a Korean: education, politics, social psychology, personality, aesthetics, and so forth. It might be true those Korean cultural, religious characteristics of Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism is the most important part of Korean culture today. But his argument is very weak; Lee did not open up any room for us to examine other possible relationships between the salient practices such as the early Morning Prayer meetings and the traditional religions' influence. For example, the possible connection between the two can be found in the modern politics, international trade and businesses, economy, social science, philosophy and psychology, and so forth. In fact, Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism are not the only product of Korea and it has been prevalent in other countries as well. And the question is why especially Koreans are so caught up in that religious traditions in such way that Korean Christians are so much influenced by those traditional religions. I feel somehow that Shamanism for example has been oversold to the outsiders and academia in general. In reality, for the people of young generations who live both in America and Korea, Shamanism is not very part of their lives any more. Furthermore, Lee didn't discuss about the relationship between Christ and culture, even though he discussed about preaching on the basis of his presumption about culture and Christ. According to Richard Niebuhr's book, Christ and Culture, there are many different relationships between the two: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and Culture in paradox and Christ the Transformer of Culture (Niebuhr, 1951). Lee does not clearly show his position about that relationship. His consistent mind-set seems to be a both-and approach or at least a synthesis of Christ and culture. Finally, his approach about preaching is a very human-centered one. Preaching is not a "human response to the Word of God" (Lee, 58). It is rather dialectical in its relationship among God's Word, the preacher and the congregation. He said that "the embodied self is being disclosed and given to the congregation" (Lee, 65) and also said "preaching is the offering of myself" (Lee, 65). If one role of preaching is to communicate the gospel to a congregation, the gospel or Christ is to be preached. Maybe preaching can be the offering of Christ in essence. Because preaching functions in many ways, depending on the occasions and the congregations, the only possible event of offering oneself (as a preacher) is not complete so far as preaching is concerned. "Myself-centered" preaching might be dangerous; a preacher is different from a shaman who plays with self-centeredness. A Shaman is concerned about his/her well-being in reality though he/she appears to bless for the others.

In conclusion, though there are substantial weak points in Lee's book, readers are again and again asked to reflect on the validity of an ethnic preaching. One challenge is as to how Korean preachers cross Korean boundary on one hand and how they keep Koreanness on the other hand. It sounds paradoxical. Though his vision seems to be based on syncretistic religious romanticism, his zeal for living preaching with prophetic faith in a multicultural society should be appreciated.

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