The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America
Reviewed by Young Lee Hertig, Global Studies and Sociology, Azusa Pacific University, Co-Founder/Executive Director of Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC)
The book title, The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America, can set different expectations than when first turning the pages. After empirical research of the fundamentalist sectarian group, the University Bible Fellowship (UBF), one wonders how such an esoteric sect is emblematic of Korean mission activities, as the title implies.
Once the reader recovers from this initial surprise after opening the book, one can then see why Kim chose the UBF as the only case study regarding Korean missionaries in America. First, it is an organization that has boldly targeted white Americans as their mission since the 1970s. As a mission strategy, the UBF intentionally decided to enter into white America, which it has perceived as a modern-day Roman Empire, so to speak.
Building from Philip Jenkins’s and Lamin Sanneh’s thesis on the shifting center of Christianity, Kim conducts in-depth research on how the global South is converting the West over time. For this task Kim chose the UBF as her empirical research target. According to Kim, the term “reverse mission” is limiting because of its one-dimensional direction. Therefore, Kim utilizes the term “U-Turn mission” to capture multi-directionality of missions flowing from “everywhere to everywhere” (4).
Based on the literature reviews, Kim addresses the indigenous traits of Korean Protestant churches: 1) theological conservatism; 2) intense devotional practices; and 3) Confucian-influenced hierarchical organization (36-40). Kim states, “Within Korean evangelicalism, UBF and its missionaries represent hyper Korean evangelicalism” (41). Whether it is considered “evangelical” is, however, disputable. Basically the UBF is “Korean evangelicals on steroids” (45).
The central argument of the book is twofold. First, the South Korean evangelicals who were sent to the United States, as in the latter part of the 20th century, were “Korean world Christians,” hyper-Korean evangelicals shaped by both Korean indigenous culture and “the underside of history.” The second main argument is about the motives and methods that propelled the UBF Korean missionaries’ pursuit of white Americans as their missional target which Kim shows is influenced by “American imperialism,” “American global Christianity paradigm,” and “white dominant racial hierarchy” (5-6, 19). Although Korean Christianity has its indigenous religious integration, rooted in Shamanism and Confucianism, it has also entangled paternalistic relations with American global Christianity.
The chapters address the growth of Korean Protestantism, UBF missionaries in America,
the UBF’s ethos, the “solider spirit,” the pioneer generation’s practice of theology of sacrifice and obedience, criticism and conflicts, the generational shift, and Americanization, concluding with a summary of the findings and implications regarding hyper-Korean evangelicals and American global Christianity.
Chapter 1, on the growth of Korean Protestantism, focuses on the UBF but falls short of including other para-church organizations’ vital role in mobilizing several millions at gatherings starting with Billy Graham Crusade in 1973, Explo 74 by Campus Crusade for Christ, and ’80 WEC (World Evangelization Crusade), which all took place at Yeouido Plaza. These several-million-people gatherings, parallel to the industrialization fervor, contributed to the explosive growth and missionary zeal of Korean Protestant Churches.
Among all the chapters, what strikes me the most is chapter 6 on “Criticisms and Conflict.” Kim boldly included criticism from former UBF members and a description of how the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) revoked their membership in 2004 and readmitted them in 2008. The UBF’s militant faith practice and proselytization was controversial enough to fill the newspaper headlines in Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Seen from American context, its militancy clashes intensely. For example, what is claimed as “solider training,” regardless of cultural differences, is borderline religious abuse. In the winter, “Lee once instructed a few missionaries who did not have enough Bible studies in a given week” to walk five miles from the church to a Chicago suburb in Skokie, without shoes, so that they could develop a “solider spirit” (72). Kim describes Lee as implementing this as “a form of training or punishment” (71).
Although Kim attributes the UBF’s troubles in the United States to cultural differences (130), this interpretation is simplistic. Kim observes that parallels have been drawn by the general public in the United States between the UBF and Moonies; this is not a surprise, nor can it simply be depicted as racism as Kim seems to imply (131). Its militant practices cannot be simply interpreted as Korean Confucian culture. There are strong indicators about the founder, Samuel Lee, and his personal traits that partly fit a cultic personality. Nevertheless, Kim’s open and honest treatment of the criticisms of the UBF wins the reader’s heart.
One of the major contributions of the book is that, unlike Lamin Sanneh’s distinction between “world Christianity” (the “new Christianity of the global South”) and “global Christianity” (the “old European Christendom”), Kim sees hyper-evangelical Korean Christianity as both indigenous and Americanizing. The book offers honest analysis of the interplay between American global Christianity and Korean global Christianity in the 21st century through an in-depth case study of the UBF since the 1970s.
Kim’s literature reviews and empirical research provides flesh and bones for understanding both Korean and American evangelical Christianity. In particular, the reader will understand the differences between American evangelical and Korean hyper-evangelical culture as they clash on American campuses. Kim’s analysis of UBF culture would have been stronger if she reviewed some of the Korean literature, such as A History of Korean Christianity,1 that documents Western mission influence in Korea.
With regard to her research method, I think the author, as the child of a pioneer generation of UBF leaders, is the perfect fit for the research. She leveraged both an insider’s connection and an outsider’s objectivity by offering both emic and etic perspectives at best. The research Kim conducted is rigorous in its scope and contents, and the literature review is extensive.
Below I wish to make a few recommendations. First, the title does not correspond to the contents of the book. It would have been clearer if specifically titled, U-Turn Mission: A Case Study of the UBF’s Mission Focus among White Americans. Second, if the book began with chapter 7 that offers macro Korean historical and sociological contexts in 1970s and 1980s, it would have offered many insights from which the UBF’s hyper-evangelical Christianity emerged and the frequent blame of Confucianism for the extremely militant faith practice would have been spared. Demanding leaders to walk more than five miles barefoot in winter in Chicago for not meeting the weekly bible study quota reflects more than Confucian hierarchy. The founder’s responses to the war’s end, his own survival in military experiences, and familial dynamics shaped the culture of the UBF as much as Confucian culture. There is a grain of truth about cultic personality traits in the UBF founder that caused the NAE to revoke its membership in 2004 (although they readmitted them in 2008). In this regard, the founder’s hyper-militant languages and practices, such as absolute obedience to his leadership through “soldier” training and “dead-dog” training, constitutes a cultic personality that involved documented spiritual and physical abuse that transcends mere Confucian authoritarianism (the author’s bone to pick).
Without deeper research on Samuel Lee, the founder of the UBF who has wielded absolute power and has demanded absolute obedience, the book weakens its analysis of the organizational culture. The postwar-era generation grew up with military dictatorship and the uncompromising quest for modernizing Korea with industrialization. The founder of the UBF not only represents the postwar generation but also comes from the most oppressed city, Kwang Joo, where (as is documented in this book) the military dictator massacred people in 1980. Multiple contextual and personal factors that would have contributed to the absolute militant Christian faith practice of the UBF beg for further in-depth research on the personality of its founder.
Furthermore, in her analysis of both American global Christianity and Korean global Christianity, Kim exhibits a binary division between this world and other world. Just because one claims the separation of the two does not mean that they are separated. For example, Samuel Lee’s theology is, indeed, a projection of this world onto the other-world realm that allows him to demand absolute obedience from his followers in the name of God.
Kim’s contribution to the guild resides in providing empirical data on the shifting multidirectional movement of Christianity. Her research provides much-needed empirical data as to how the global North and global South practice Christian missions. The clashing of the differing contexts and cultures reveals two sets of shifts in Christianity: 1) from the global North to global South; and 2) from the pioneer postwar generation to more succeeding generations.
I give credit to Dr. Rebecca Y. Kim’s rigorous research on hyper-Korean evangelical Christianity that made a U-turn to North America. I look forward to future comparative studies on Korean evangelical Christianity that include various denominations that originated from the global North to global South. This is a beginning step in deciphering the interplay between the Western fundamentalism and Korean Confucian fundamentalism.