Seoul: Conversions and Transformations: Interweavings No 12, August 2016

Graham Kings

by Graham Kings

Date added: 24/08/2016

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Seoul: Conversions and Transformations

Interweavings Number 12, August 2016 by Graham Kings



In 1443, King Sejong the Great created the Korean alphabet. With the help of his scholars, and using a scientific method, he created an entirely new script to replace the Chinese characters. By simplifying the writing system, he made learning accessible and transformed the country and its literature. Today, it is the fastest of the alphabets of the world to use on a computer keyboard.

I learned about him, and the creation of the alphabet, from Thomas Key Jun on Sunday 14 August 2016. I was in Seoul for a conference of the International Association for Mission Studies on the theme ‘Conversions and Transformations’. Thomas was the translator for my afternoon lecture at Seoul Anglican Cathedral on ‘Cathedrals and Mission’, and he offered to be my guide after that. He is an education consultant, was head of protocol for the World Cup in Seoul in 2002, and had recently returned from organising and chairing an Anglican youth conference in Kuala Lumpur, 26 July to 1 August, for 90 young people from Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Australia, Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar and Malaysia. I greatly enjoyed my time learning from him about South Korea.

In these reflections, we consider the context of Korea, the conference and discussions on art and mission.

  1. A.   Context

The politics of South Korea over 5000 years have included: the longest dynasty in the world, the Joseon  Dynasty from 1392-1897 (the country was then officially renamed the Korean Empire); colonisation by Japan, 1910-1945; occupation by the USA in 1945-48; the Korean War, 1950-1953; the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee, who came to power through a coup in 1961 and was elected President in 1963, till he was assassinated in 1979. In 1980 a student uprising was viciously repressed, which is powerfully related in the Man Booker prize-winning novel by Han Kang, Human Acts(Portobello, 2016). The protests against this contributed to the establishment of democracy after 1997. Park Guen Hay, the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, was elected the first female President in 2013 and, under her, the link with the USA has become even stronger.

The Sunday I was in Seoul was the eve of the annual celebrations of liberation from Japanese rule. Thomas Key Jun and I noticed a large police presence, with riot shields, in the squares and back streets to cover three demonstrations: NGOs calling for peace negotiations with North Korea (the President of South Korea will not begin these, because of the nuclear threat); hundreds of young people protesting outside the Japanese embassy, against the treatment of Korean 'Comfort Women' during the Second World War; and a campaign against thaad (the Korean word for the USA nuclear shield) being put in place against North Korea. I heard a dissident American voice proclaim that it was an aggressive installation. We saw no violence or police violence.

South Korea has a population of about 50 million (North Korea has about 25 million), with 10 million living in the centre of Seoul and 20 million within its metropolitan area. It is not clear how many refugees from North Korea are in the South, but it may number around 27,000.

The dominant religion of the country has shifted from Buddhism to Confucianism to Christianity, with aspects of the first two still influential.

Christianity is vibrant in its considerable Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal forms: the Anglican presence is smaller. Seoul has three of the ten largest Protestant mega-churches in the world. The phenomenal and famous church growth has slowed in recent years – which has coincided with the birth rate down turn. In our conference bags at registration, we were all given four complimentary books relating to theology and mission. I read one on the plane back to London, Jinbong Kim et al (eds) Megachurch Accountability in Missions: Critical Assessment through Case Studies (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2016). These were papers given at a conference in Seoul in November 2015.

In 2015, according to the statistics presented at the Korea World Mission Association annual meeting, the Korean church has 26,677 missionaries working in over 170 continents (p. 44). However, a critical chapter by Chang Ju Kim, a Pastor and Presbyterian missionary in Madagascar (lecturing at the Ambatonakanga Faculty of Theologie, Antananarivo), perceptively analyses five current problems with the Korean missionary movement: too proud of numbers; too eager for fruit; too hasty to send back people who are retired; the drawbacks of short-term mission; and the dominating influence of Senior Pastors in Korea. 

  1. Conference

This was my fourth ‘Assembly’ of the International Association for Mission Studies (IAMS), the ecumenical professional body for the academic study of mission. It was joy to meet up with so many old friends and to make many new ones.

This was the fourteenth ‘Assembly’ since 1972. While lecturing in Cambridge, I attended the ones in Hawaii (1992), and Buenos Aries (1996), and, as a member of the executive, helped plan the one in Pretoria (2000). While Vicar of Islington and Bishop of Sherborne, I missed the ones in Port Dickson, Malaysia (2004), Balatonfüred, Hungary (2008) and Toronto, Canada (2012).

About 180 academics from all continents of the world gathered at the Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary in Seoul, from 11-17 August 2016. We reflected on the theme: ‘Conversions and Transformations: Missiological Approaches to Religious Change’.

The four plenary addresses, and four responses were diverse in subject, perspective, gender and geography.

Christine Lienemann-Perrin, Professor Emerita of Ecumenics and Mission Studies at Basel University, spoke on ‘Configurations and Prefigurations of Conversion in the History of World Christianity’. She reflected magisterially on six periods: 1st and 2nd centuries of early Christianity; 7th to 12th centuries in the Arab Muslim context; 16th to 17th century conversion between denominations in Europe; 17th to 20th centuries in China; 19th to 20th centuries in Colonial Africa; and 18th to 19th centuries in secularlized Western Europe. As chair of that session, I gave the written response.

Joel Robbins, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, spoke on ‘Can there be Conversion without Cultural Change?’ and drew on his research amongst the Urapmin people of Papua New Guinea, who converted to charismatic Christianity in the late 1970s. David Singh, lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and the Treasurer of IAMS, responded.

Hyung Keun Paul Choi, Professor of Mission Studies at Seoul Theological University, considered ‘Missional Conversion and Transformation in the Context of the Korean Protestant Church. From a systematic theological perspective, he described and critiqued various recent movements in Korea. Rose Uchem, Professor of Mission in the University of Nigeria, responded.

Elas Tamez, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Latin American Biblical University in Cosa Rica, lectured on ‘Letter from James to the IAMS General Assembly in Seoul’, and from a liberation theological perspective, applied the Letter of James to our academic work in mission studies today. Paul Kollman, Professor of Mission Studies at Notre Dame University, and the incoming President of IAMS, responded.

Apart from the plenary sessions, most time was spent in various study groups, where about 180 papers were presented. The groups were: Biblical Studies; Children and Youth; Documentation, Archives, Bibliography and Oral History; Gender in Mission; Healing and Pneumatology; Interreligious Studies; Religious Freedom and Persecution – in which I presented a paper ‘Developing Anglican Theological Responses to Persecution’, outlining ‘Out of the Depths: Hope in a Time of Suffering’ (Anglican Communion Office, 2016); and Theology of Mission.

The conference was very well organised by the executive committee of IAMS and the local committee in Seoul and included a choice of exposure trips on the Sunday, including to the Demilitarized Zone, to three megachurches and to the Palaces of the capital. In the final session, the President of IAMS, Mika Vähäkangas, Professor of Mission Studies and Ecumenics, University of Lund, and the Secretary of IAMS, Dr Cathy Ross, Lecturer in Contextual Theology, Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, and MA Coordinator for Pioneer Training at the Church Mission Society, handed over their roles respectively to Paul Kollman, Professor of Mission Studies, Notre Dame University, and to Aron Engberg, PhD student at the University of Lund.

The plenary addresses and responses will be published, with some study group papers, in the IAMS journal, Mission Studies. This is published by Brill and edited by Kirsteen Kim, Professor of Theology and World Christianity at Leeds Trinity University. She, and her husband, Sebastian Kim, Professor of Theology and Public Life at York St John University, UK, wrote the acclaimed A History of Korean Christianity(Cambridge, 2014), which had to be reprinted within a few weeks of publication.

Launched at the end of the conference was a new book series, published by Brill, ‘Theology and Mission in World Christianity’. The three editors are Professors Kirsteen Kim, Steve Bevans SVD (Catholic Theological Union, Chicago), and Miikka Ruokanen (University of Helsinki and Nanjing Theological Seminary). The first book was presented at the conference, Mission and Money: Christian Mission in the Context of Global Inequalities, edited by Mari-Anna Auvinen-Pöntinen and Jonas Adelin Jørgensen.

  1. C.   Art

Three aspects of art and mission in particular moved me during my visit: a cathedral, a missionary in China, and a museum.

The Anglican Cathedral was first built between 1922 and 1926, by Bishop Mark Trollope, the third Bishop, and designed by the British Architect, Arthur Dixon. The first three bishops were single and supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. It is in the centre of city, near to the spectacular architecture of the new City Hall. There is a very fine mosaic of Christ in the apse, designed and executed by an Englishman, George Jack, between 1927 and 1938, in Sicilian style. The service of Holy Communion, with incense and bells, was led beautifully by the Dean, Moses Joo. The robed choir sang the psalm to Anglican chant, accompanied by the Harrison and Harrison organ, which was made in Durham. The Bishop of Seoul, and Primate of the Anglican Church of Korea, Paul Kim, whom I had met in May 2015 in Salt Lake City, was preaching in another parish. I gave greetings during the service and an afternoon lecture on ‘Cathedrals and Mission’. Jonny Baker, Director of Mission Education at the Church Mission Society, led a seminar in the Diocese after the conference on Pioneer Training.

At the conference, I greatly enjoyed meeting a young Korean scholar, Jean Kim. She kindly gave me a copy of her 2013 Yonsei University PhD dissertation, Jesuit Missionary Giueseppe Castiglione’s Mission and Artworks at the Qing Court: The Jesuits’ Art Mission Policy and the Response of the Qing Chinese. It is extraordinary. Castiglione (1688-1766)was an Italian Jesuit who served as China’s court artist from 1715-1766. He tried to depict God through the representation of beauty in nature. She wrote:

When the Chinese saw Castiglione’s paintings which integrated Chinese and Western art techniques, some literati and common Chinese people showed positive responses and appreciated his work both artistically and religiously. However, the Emperor separated art and religion, and fully embraced his perspective and shading art technique while denying his religion. On the other hand, most literati painters who believed that art can only contain appearances and not the essence, rejected both the Western art technique and religion. (vii).

Jung-Sook Lee, the first female President of Torch Trinity Graduate University, Seoul, is a Church Historian and scholar of Calvin, who gained her PhD at Princeton University. She has founded an art gallery at her University and the day after the conference generously took me around the Leesum Samsung Museum, with her son Albert, who is an art student. There are three fine buildings interlinked: traditional art; contemporary art (with the branding ‘Memories of the Future’); and an education centre with special exhibitions. The pioneering digital guide was intriguing and provided 360 degree manipulation of many of the objects in the museum. Over lunch and dinner, Jung-Sook, Albert and I discussed developing the theme of art and mission on our Mission Theology web site and elsewhere.



It was my first time in South Korea and it coincided with the defection of the North Korean diplomat in London, Thae Yong Ho, and the controversial plans for the US protective nuclear shield against North Korea. Eerily, I noticed a box in my hotel room for an emergency mask.

I was astounded by the beauty of the culture, the generous hospitality of the people, the speed of life in the city, the large number of universities, the long working hours and the surprisingly low birth rate. The latter plummeted after a too-successful campaign of reduction and is now one of the lowest in the world. In a population of about 50 million people, 37 is now the average age of marriage for men and 33 for women.

The theme of Conversions and Transformations of the conference could have been seen as a response to the theological concepts of ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’. Conversions may be personal and corporate, the beginning of Christian life and its regular ‘turning back towards Christ’ in daily repentance. Transformations may be the ongoing development of change in Christians and societies into the imitation of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

An Anglican scholar who studied these themes over the centuries was Owen Chadwick, Regius Professor of History, University of Cambridge. It was a delight to meet for the first time at the conference the Revd Dr Jaakko Rusama, Mission Theologian of the Lutheran Church of Finland. We both studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge during the 1970s. He told me of Owen Chadwick’s academic personal influence on him and on the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. They were both in the Master’s Lodge at Selwyn exploring possible subjects for their PhDs. Chadwick pondered and suggested: ‘Jaakko, it may be good for you to explore the work of Bishop George Bell and John the influence of Charles Kingsley.’ They both followed his mentoring advice on subjects and were supervised respectively by Donald McKinnon and Geoffrey Lampe.

I conclude with the poem that I used at the end my response to the first plenary session of the conference. In 1996 I wrote it about God speaking to Augustine of Hippo, in the garden through the voices of children, and in his study through his Word. He was converted to Christ in AD 387. The background is his wandering in the dualistic, missionary religion of Manichaeism and his pondering on the influential sermons of St Ambrose in Milan. After his conversion, Augustine, from north Africa, was transformed into the father of western theology.


Turning Point for Augustine


 “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine, Confessions VIII, 7.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” Romans 13:14


Stalking in the garden in the heat of the moment,

Reflecting on complexity of voluntary movement,

Slunk in listless and leaden despair,

Tangled, contorted and tearing his hair,

Rapping his head and wrapping his knees,

Rabidly ravaging under the trees,

Wanting to wait and waiting to want,

Weighing the longing of laying and font,

Augustine hears the Word of the Lord

Drifting, insisting the voice of a child:

“Tolle, lege: take it and read.

 Tolle, lege: take it and read.”

Vocative discourse spoken by God,

Evocative sing-song challenge of a child.


Turning and turning he opens to read

The Word of the Lord in the words of St Paul:

“Lust and debauchery, revelry, rivalry,

Now is the time to wake from your sleep.”

Eloquent professor professes his call.


Now, no procrastination, delay;

Later is now, tomorrow today.


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Wood panel

A bronze

Wood panel

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