Jolly, Merry, Happy, Blessed Xmas

So, Merry Christmas to everyone out there who happens upon this. You shouldn’t be online today, you should be with people you care about, doing something else.

Okay, I’m one to talk. But I just saw Lime off. Christmas, you see, is her birthday. So after a long day of running around town, I made her a dinner—she requested pasta—and opened some presents from one another and my folks. My folks sent a lot of great stuff, including wonderful girly skin creams and the like. I got her a few nice surprises, too.

Lime got me the greatest presents, too: a Korean cookbook and a 뜩배기 (a ddeukbaegi). That’s probably spelled completely wrong, but anyway, it’s a kind of stone/ceramic bowl (with a lid) that you use to when cooking Korean food. (My friend John also uses it to make pot pies, feed his cat, serve cereal… etc.) This one’s big enough to make a meal for two people, which is great since I rarely have more than one person over. Lime had me worried since she said the gift was for me, but that she also knew she would enjoy it. She knows how much I love cooking and I’d recently mumbled something about buying a bowl like the one she got me.

As for the recipe book, it’s got some “Korean food” I’ve never seen before along with a lot of familiar dishes, including even instructions on making certain kinds of kimchi. She got it because, every time we try a new dish, I proclaim my desire to learn how to prepare it myself. Well, now I’m fully equipped. I think this winter holiday there’s going to be some good eatin’ at my place.

There’s two more things I want to write about: first, last night, we went to Midnight Mass. I’m not a believer, but Lime’s a Catholic. Last night she told me the story of how she became Catholic, which was pretty interesting, actually. In any case, she wanted to go to Midnight Mass, and though she didn’t push me, offered not to go, I said we ought to since, it being her birthday and Christmas, we could do as she wished deep down.

A lot of things surprised me about being in that church. For one thing, the people weren’t dressed the way people seem to in Protestant Korean churches. Those Protestant Korean churches I’ve seen seem to have “conspicuous consumption” as one of their articles of faith, but the Catholics had come out in jeans and sweaters and the like. They looked like normal folks. Well, until the women (the majority of the women) in the church took out these big lace doilies and put them on their heads. That shocked me, since that’s the kind of thing my Mom told me she had to do when she was a little girl.

I didn’t understand the readings or the sermons—at all!—but the choir (accompanied by organ and string quartet) sang Handel’s Messiah in Latin. The Latin was the most comprehensible part of the Mass for me. As for the rest, it wavered between very familiar and shockingly alien.

[A tiny note here: Koreans seem to have much less trouble pronouncing Latin than English. There was almost no accent to choir last night. Perhaps Latin would have been better as a global language, if only the Romans hadn’t dropped the ball way back when.]

For example, I knew the structure of the Mass. I had gone so many times during my childhood and young adulthood that I intimately know the structure of the mass, what’s going on and what’s coming next, even in a foreign language. And yet, I couldn’t understand most of what was actually being said, didn’t know what words were being used in the responsorials, couldn’t read the hymnal at all (as it was, obviously, in Korean). And the gestures were different. Where people just bow their heads in Western Masses, Koreans actually bow to the church. It was like attending a service in a completely unfamiliar religion, at times.

There were things that also kind of gave me a very strange feeling. For example, sometimes I really think being freed of language comprehension is a useful thing in seeing the world. I realized something I had felt a long time as a kid: that hearing large groups of people speaking the same thing in unison is a little disturbing. Well, hearing them do it in a foreign language can be even more disturbing, if you’re not used to it. I was also shocked when, during the Eucharistic sacrament, a large bell that sounded somewhat like a Buddhist temple bell was used instead of the little tinkerbell sort of bell we normally used in Church when I was a kid.

Anyway, as an experience it was fascinating. I am actually thinking that a pictorial photography project might be worthwhile. I betcha Catholics would love to see how Catholics in other parts of the world worship. Maybe that’s a worthwhile photo-essay project for sometime down the road.

There’s one last thing I want to write about, which is less joyous. I’ll put it into the extended entry section, which means that to read it, you need to click a link. This is probably just the place to put in a cut, so for those who don’t read on, once again I wish you a Merry Christmas!

Okay, what I wanted to write about:

It’s about the Church next door. They’re the conspicuous-consumption type pseudo-Christians I wrote of above. Now, I can imagine some people will be angry with me for being arrogant enough to judge another’s Christianity, since I am not a Christian myself. But read on and I think you may at least see my side of things. I was so mad seeing that, last night, that I wanted to write about it in Korean. I may yet try, and submit it to a newspaper here, after a good editing job. We’ll see.

Well, last night was Christmas eve. It ought to be a time of joy, and happiness, when peoples’ generosity and kindness emerges a little more than usual. Sure, we’re supposed to be as good as we can all year round, but it’s supposed to be a time when the kindness we sometimes must hold in reserve is poured out generously.

Mind you, generosity is not ostentatious. Generosity, in other words, is not making a show of generosity; the show more often than not detracts from the generosity itself: the energy that could have been used in giving more, is used instead to draw attention to a smaller act of giving. Devoutness becomes less important than the presentation of devoutness. Instead of praying hard, people pray loud. And in the place of love, is the semblance of love.

The Presbyterian church next to my apartment building has been covered in lights for the last month. Most Christian churches in my city have actually held back a lot, deciding not to waste energy and money on ostentatious decoration when the Korean economy is doing so badly—as badly, some say, as it was a few years ago during the Asian economic crisis. But the church next to my home not only put up a massive Christmas tree covered in lights, but also lit up its steeple and put little white lights on all of the trees in the church courtyard. It then proceeded to have those lights on from early evening until after 2 am every day, which not only is a waste of energy but is also annoying to all those into whose windows the lights flooded well past the average person’s bedtime.

Now, inconsiderate behaviour is nothing new. The people in this Church have been annoying the residents of my building for years. All summer long, they keep their windows open and sing at the top of their lungs. They sometimes hold prayer sessions involving the horrifying noise of people speaking in tongues until late into the night. They continue to do this though residents of the building have complained, blasted music of their own in retaliation, and even lobbed eggs at the Church windows.

But I know some people who have defended such behaviour as part of their worship. Okay, maybe. I think it’s inconsiderate, but fine. There are, however, acts that are so contradictory to Christian ethics that they cannot be excused or reconciled.

You see, the Church next door has been expanding. They’ve been constructing a new parking lot, putting up a fence around it, expanding part of the Church building, adding a couple of new structures inside the Church grounds, and I believe they’re developing a vacant lot that is located beside the Church. The noise of this construction has been evident for weeks as the workmen have been turning up early, working until late.

Contruction is a dangerous job in Korea, by the way. I don’t know if it’s because there’s no labour standards law, or if it’s not enforced, but everyone knows it’s a 3D job: dirty, dangerous, and difficult. People who do construction work usually support their families doing that work, and it’s not the best paid work; certainly better than working in a convenience store, but really not as lucrative as construction work elsewhere.

Well, last night, when Lime arrived at my place, she drew my attention to a racket outside. I hadn’t noticed, because I was so busy cooking and playing music. Well, it turned out that the construction workers in the employ of the Church hadn’t been paid. They came out on Christmas Eve to demonstrate, to try to get the Church officials to pay them for the work that they had done. They wanted, it’s safe to assume, some money to treat their families on the special occasion of Christmas.

Did the Church officials pay them? No. They called the police. As Lime and I left to go to Midnight Mass, we saw no less than five police cruisers, plus a paddywagon ready to haul the demonstrators away to lockup, stationed outside the Church.

I know, I don’t know the situation intimately. A language barrier stood between me and the people involved, and Lime and I were trying to get to Mass, since we never go and it was a special birthday wish for her. But I think it’s pretty unlikely that those men would have come to the church to demonstrate for their pay if they didn’t need it. I think it’s pretty unlikely that the Church couldn’t afford to pay them if it could afford to string up immense numbers of lights.

Maybe the demonstrators threatened them; that’s maybe why the police cars were called. After all, when we arrived back, just after midnight, the church was abandoned, dark, and the paddywagon remained outside, watching suspiciously as we walked up to the gate of the church to see what had happened.

Still, given this particular church’s history, given the way the people who go there look, behave, and dress—always in very fine, expensive clothing, driving fine, expensive cars—I cannot help but think that they have no pity, no charity, and no Christian feeling in their hearts. It reminds me of the supposedly Christian administrators I and co-workers have had to take lies, deceit, and trickery from, which in Korea were never (to my knowledge) the Buddhists or the Catholics or atheists, but always Protestant Christians. Lime said, quite pointedly, “I see the workers in one crowd, and the church people in another crowd, and you know, Jesus is with the workers, not the church people.”

To me, it seems all to clear that the people who attend the Church next door are not Christians at all. What they worship is a god that gives them wealth and political power (for this Church is linked to a more powerful mother church in Seoul, one with enough political power to prevent public criticism). What they worship is a god that doesn’t even ask them for mercy on their fellows, let alone demanding change and repentance.

In other words, those people are not Christians. They worship, as far as I can tell, Baal, the Golden Calf. What’s saddening is the bad name they give other Christains. I see none of that profoundly equalizing, civilizing(*) force that I could feel in that little Catholic Church with its midnight mass. Nobody there made such a big deal about a white man coming around, about half the congregation in jeans, about the pitiful scraggly little string of Christmas lights outside (a la Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree). The people in the Catholic Church, at least to me, seemed gathered to do something outside of themselves.

In contrast, at the Church next door, I think everyone is so lost in individual fantasies of what their god can give them and do for them, that they feel not even the slightest impetus to try to be decent, to try even to be fair, let alone good, kind, or generous. They’re so far lost, I fear, nobody will help them see what crap and lies they found their life upon.

And so, one more thing to be thankful about this Christmas, is that the people I’m surrounded with are not like that. In the past, the people in the Church were normal examples I could hold up of Christianity, but I’ve met some people since coming to Korea, like Lime and my friend John, who may be quite unorthodox, who may even at times question the supernatural component of the religion, but who actually listen to the message that their teacher spoke out thousands of years ago.

While I cannot and, I believe, will not be a Christian in any of the senses of the word (since people never accept the term to mean people who agree with the philosophy of Yusu), his teachings on ethics and how to look at the world (being drilled into me from childhood, as they were) had a profound effect on my impulses and understanding of the world. And now, I find, I am not alone. Shock of shocks, some Christians actually get it, too. Some people distinguish the point of all that teaching, not as leading to the founding of several soccer teams (er, denominations) but as the impetus to live in a more loving, giving way.

Which means, perhaps, that there is hope for the species, still, a little.

(* I should like to clarify what I mean by “civilizing” here. I do not mean to imply that Catholicism was the only force that “civilized” Korea, nor that outside force was necessarily needed to do so. Confucianism, and the Korean development of it, could be said to civilize Korea in the same way; Buddhism, as well, has historically done this. So did the invention of movable type here, and in some ways, indirectly, so did several military inventions that found root here. Hell, even agriculture did not originate in Korea, despite what the ancient legends claim.

Literally, the word “civilize” means to make civil, to make more peaceful coexistence between people possible. Without manufacturing too many illusions, I found that the mood, the interaction, and the attitude of the people I met in the church was more “civil” than it has been in other, comparable situations.

That I need to write a note about this word suggests something about the debased nature of its meaning, which is understandably reviled, since it—and its general equivalents in other langauges—was such a major part of the colonialist propaganda in all the major Empires of history: the Chinese, the Japanese, the British and French and Ottoman and other major empires.

And a final thing to consider in the postcolonialist corner: despite the various options available to them, and perhaps in some ways for the wrong reasons, such as equating modernity with Western culture, including Western religion, in Korea at least people seized upon Christianity themselves. They were not, in large part, forced into it. Sure, some of the firmness in grasping at the Western faith was drawn from the desire to throw out the Buddhist legacy, which to some Easterners is as rife with wickedness as the Western Church’s in Europe is to Western dissenters. Family pressures surely drew them into the fold as well… but this is as much an effect of Korean society as of the imposition of Western society upon it. Which is to say, Westerners didn’t civilize Koreans by introducing them to Western religion. Like Buddhism and agriculture and medieval chivalric codes like Hwa Rang Do and the rest of it, some Koreans have used Catholicism to continue the self-civilization project.

The error is that Westerners and Koreans alike now mistake modernity for completion of the project of civilization—with Francis Fukuyama being one of the major proponents of this pipe dream in his The End of History notions from the 90s. This mistake is tragic, as it is one of the roots of our current political and philosophical Dark Age. More on that another day.)

4 thoughts on “Jolly, Merry, Happy, Blessed Xmas

  1. Merry Christmas Gord,

    Great post! I look forward to your photo essay, if it comes to fruition, and I hope it does.

    I also find “that hearing large groups of people speaking the same thing in unison is a little disturbing.” The first time I went to a Catholic church in Korea, when I was in the process of leaving Protestantism, I was really a bit disturbed by the chanting of the Angelus by the laity after Mass.

    Also, I think you captured some of the key differences between Protestantism and Catholicism in your addendum.

    Thanks for giving me pause to think and reflect.

  2. I have a certain amount of respect for the “unorthodox” Christians you mentioned; I used to be one myself. At some point, I found that, paradoxically, it was orthodoxy that guaranteed freedom. The danger is that orthodoxy without orthopraxy can lead to ossification.

    The prime example of othodoxy and orthopraxy was St. Francis of Assissi, about whom my friend Jeff Culbreath of El Camino Real wrote recently:

    “The Church in America would be thoroughly scandalized by another Saint Francis, to say the least.We know what the present modernist hierarchy would do with his rigid orthodoxy. But what would the wealthy, glitzy, celebrity-makingneo-conservative establishment do with his preaching of acesticism, poverty, and obscurity? What would the fire-breathing know-it-all traditionalist attack dogsdo with his charity, humility, and obedience? What would the respectable and worldly-wise among us do with his bizarre and other-worldly quirks?”

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