The Spirit Moves West

Korean Missionaries in America

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Rebecca Y. Kim
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2015.
     256 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199942121.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

To understand religion in America, it is useful to see American religion contrasted to a religious other. In Rebecca Kim’s book, The Spirit Moves West, Kim illuminates American religion by placing it next to a hyper-Korean evangelical organization: University Bible Fellowship (UBF). Kim’s central arguments are twofold: first, Korean missionaries coming to the United States in the later part of twentieth century were “hyper-Korean evangelicals” and not “carbon copies” of white American evangelicals; second, the “motives and methods” used by Korean missionaries in America “demonstrate the enduring influence of American global Christianity” (6). Essential to Kim’s argument is her description of American Christianity as compared to Korean Christianity. An implicit theme, therefore, is the description of the American religious setting as interpreted by hyper-Korean evangelicals. In other words, Kim describes how American religion is seen by Christians in the global south.

Kim begins her primarily sociological work with a chapter on the historical development of Christianity in Korea. Unlike many other countries, Christianity came to Korea in large part due to the efforts of Korean missionaries themselves. With a long history of conflict and colonialism from non-Western countries (most recently Japan), Koreans viewed Christianity as a faith that would allow a believer to be both “patriotic and modern… [making Christianity] positively associated with democracy, equality, freedom and human rights” (23). With US military involvement in Korea, South Koreans saw the United States as “the great nation,” further facilitating Christian conversion (33). Social and historical factors lead Korean Christianity to exist in three varieties: “conservative, very conservative, and extremely conservative” (37). Kim argues that Korean evangelicalism is different from American evangelicalism and fundamentalism in that it is more conservative, more intensely devotional, and more patriarchal (37, 40-41). These uniquely Korean aspects of Christianity are caused by the predominance of evangelical missionary influences from Western nations, mainly the United States, interfacing with a Confucian-based culture. Kim uses UBF as a case study, characterizing them as “Korean evangelicals on steroids” (45).

An interesting element of racial inequality exists, according to Kim, between UBF missionaries and the white college students that UBF missionaries focus on converting. For the UBF missionary, conversion of a white American represents the culmination of the evangelical purpose of UBF. If Korean missionaries can revitalize the Christian “big brother,” motivating America to once again engage in world Christian evangelism, then the status of Korean Christianity will rise from that of a “rice Christian” to that of a “history making” nation (60). Thus UBF missionaries largely neglect native or ethnic groups in favor of white Americans. This theme of racial inequality is a significant element of Kim’s work. Though the “spirit transcends” racial barriers, UBF missionaries ultimately mirror the “white dominant racial hierarchy in America” (108). Though the conversion of White Americans is difficult due to their “strong racial pride” (99, 107, 109), they are the “treasures” of UBF missionaries, being seen as the only “real American” converts (99, 105, 111).

In terms of the conversion of white college students, Kim’s work would benefit from three inclusions: first, more voices of American converts; second, a comparative element, with information from other evangelical campus ministries; and third, conversion rates and diversity statistics from other evangelical campus ministries.

While Kim fails to give a comparative element of conversion, she does relate successful conversion methods. UBF missionaries train to receive “soldier spirit,” which includes “being absolute about the veracity of the gospel,” as well as a willingness to “undergo trials and to receive the training to be soldiers of Christ” (65). Along with a “soldier spirit,” missionaries are to sacrifice, denying self and serving to an extent that relationships with family and other Koreans are jeopardized or destroyed. Missionaries are taught that a lack of success is a result of a lack of faith and sacrifice or laziness. In order to have success, one must avoid the “theology of comfort” and maintain the “theology of sacrifice” that makes their cross-racial evangelism possible (84).

Why has it been so difficult for the UBF to succeed in converting white college students in America? Part of the equation must consider the “Korean missionaries’ own deficiencies” of language, but more important, Kim argues, is that evangelization “clashes with the dominant white American culture and racial hierarchy” (136). Kim’s argument lacked a discussion on the difference, if any, between a religious racial hierarchy and the influence of American racial stereotypes. Do American college students reject Korean Christian missionaries due to a racial hierarchal structure, or because of religious stereotypes? Perhaps Kim’s lack of discussion on the point is her point. In the end, the individualistic nature of American culture and its rejection of hierarchal, authoritarian structures creates a cultural disparity that has proven to be difficult to overcome. The intensity with which Korean missionaries and the Korean church operates is also at odds with the God of American Christianity, who is increasingly seen as the disseminator of comfort, security, and a “subjective well-being” (126).

With the death of Samuel Lee, UBF’s founder and authoritative figure, in 2002, UBF began to evidence its own Americanization. Kim argues that UBF confirms the global Christianity paradigm that “global South churches in the West will eventually lose their fervent and sectarian character and become more like the mainstream churches in their midst” (137). Kim indicates that it is not just UBF that is experiencing this Americanization. As second generation Korean Americans age, they are pulling the church towards a more mainstream and accepted position in American culture. In South Korea, as the economy flourishes, the Christian church has also begun to show signs of a reduction in zeal. Korean missionaries have also engaged in a neo-colonial approach to other nations in Asia and beyond. Perhaps the best predictor of what the future holds for Korean Christianity is what is happening within American Christianity.

Kim’s book deals with significant issues in the history and sociology of religion such as sect to church development, neo-colonialism, the religious other, the rise of Christianity in the global south, and the supposed secularization of America. This book is well organized and informative and can be digested by individuals new to the academic study of religion while being illuminating for the seasoned scholar.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maclane E. Heward is a doctoral candidate in the history of Christian and religions of North America at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rebecca Y. Kim is the Frank R. Seaver Associate Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Ethnic Studies program at Pepperdine University.

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