What I’m Reading Now: Dickens Surprise and the Roots of Protestant Korean Ecstatic Rites

Quick Note: That “and” in the title isn’t meant to suggest a connection between Charles Dickens and evangelical Christianity in Korea. There might be such a link, somewhere—hell, one of Dickens’ sons came to Canada and worked for the government, who’s to say someone else from his life didn’t end up in East Asia?—but I’m not posting any such thing.

Although I have two other books on the go—The Golden Ass, a brilliant and hilarious Roman tale by Lucius Apuleius “Africanus”, and Philip E. Baruth’s political SF satire The X President—I have also taken the time to dig into a book about traditional Korean folklore and folk religion, and a literary biography of Charles Dickens. Well, not so much a biography as a critical survey of the man’s work, of the history of critical responses to his work, and so on.

I remember a scene in Dickens’ novel Dombey & Son when a train pulls into London. Dickens recounted not just the arrival of the train, but the arrival of trains… how it came to be that trains were suddenly part of the world of London. All of that craziness he recounted in a brief couple of pages, and when I read it, I nodded. I was just starting out writing SF at that time, and I knew I should be taking notes; Dickens had done, in supposedly “realistic” novel, what I was trying to work out how to do in SF, describing the arrival of a significant major new technology.

In any case, here’s something else Dickens had in common with SF writers of today; even when he was praised by his peers, it was a kind of damning, halting praise. They found his caricatures too hallucinogenic and over-the-top compared to the writings of Ruskin-cultists and realists like George Eliot. When he wrote tragicomic novels, he was mocked for sentimentality; when he began to express political opinions, he was mocked for that too. And yet, in the long run, Dickens’ work has endured. The man basically changed both the novel and the way we read it.

And I’m only on page 8…

I also ran across something else quite interesting. It’s a collection of Korean folklore and folk-religion studies. A lot of the articles have to do with shamanic practices and fortune-telling, but so far I’ve found one article particularly interesting. It involves a kind of ecstatic possession dance that used to be performed by country women on certain occasions, with other local women and a shaman and drummer in attendance. The women basically took turns dancing, led first by the hostess in her very best clothes. Others would follow suit, donning some nice clothes passed on by other women in attendance, and would enter a kind of “trance” and dance ecstatically. I haven’t finished reading the article yet, but it sounds familiar; I’ve read of similar activities by rural Taiwanese ghost-cultists, and of course this kind of practice—a “speaking with the voices of spirits” version, was common in Southern China and pseuco-Christianized by the Taiping Rebellion followers, who claimed to speak with the voices of certain saints and of Mary, while leaders claimed to channel the voice of Jesus and even Jehovah.

Well, what’s interesting is the notion of the Christianization of these kinds of practices. While I fully understand that speaking-in-tongues is something that also has roots in Western Christian tradition, I have never noticed it enjoying much popularity as a Christian practice, at least not in Canada. Granted, we don’t have snake-handlers, either, but if you take a walk around my neighborhood on Sunday morning, you’ll notice that speaking-in-tongues is a rather popular way to spend time. There’s an elevated park near my home from which you can hear the voices from half a dozen nearby churches ringing out insectile nonsense at full ecstatic tilt. And as mentioned before, there’s no shame or sense thatit’s a “weird” activity, or that anyone else would think it disturbing; the church next door sometimes has people do it in the parking lot!

My point is that it seems pretty probable to me that the acceptance of this kind of ritualistic behaviour is probably based on earlier, indigenous, non-Christian beliefs and practices. If those practices had not been in place in Korea at the time in which Christianty was first imported and repackaged for Koreans, I have doubts as to whether people would be speaking in tongues in the same numbers, or with the same zeal, today.

And the fact that having this pointed out would probably anger most people who do it also delights me to no end.

3 thoughts on “What I’m Reading Now: Dickens Surprise and the Roots of Protestant Korean Ecstatic Rites

  1. Heh. Funny, from an anthropological point of view, these kinds of ecstatic practises have been grafted onto chritianity in other parts of the world. Here in Brazil there is the cult of Candomblé, which is an African rooted religion which has transferred the saints onto the african gods ( much like voodoo), but there’s also a lot of speaking in tongues and spiritual possession. The centre for most of these cults is here in the Northeast, which is also the fomenting ground for the rapidly frowing evangelical churches, where the worshippers speak in tongues and experience various types of spiritual possession. Funny old world, innit?

  2. Alistair,

    Yeah, I was also thinking of the traditional West-African ecstatic possession rites and the link to Vodouon and Candomblé and such. In fact, those were the first forms I knew of; I was quite surprised to find, during my early research into the Taiping Rebellion, that such things were also common in South China, and after reading about their existence in Taiwan, began to suspect they’d existed elsewhere in East Asia. So this comes as little surprise to me, that it existed in Korea too.

    Also, I am not very surprised at all that the center for such cults in Brazil is also the center for the explosion of evangelical Christianity. Not only because of the cultural link, but because, I suspect, extremist forms of Christianity do tend to spring up in areas where the dominance of Christendom does not exist. (ie. When there is a lot of religious pluralism, you find the extremist get more vocal and try to assert the “truth” of their own beliefs with greater force than otherwise.)

    Joshua, I’ve never actually set foot in one. An ex-girlfriend once wanted me to do so, and I told her I wouldn’t. As you know, I’ve been to a Catholic mass here, and that was fine—mostly familiar, though a little more traditional than I’m used to—but even just walking past Presbyterian churches during services freaks me out; it’s downright scary, the noise that comes out the windows sometimes. I wonder how so many people can gather and nobody points out that what they’re engaged in has NOTHING to do with the core teachings of their Messiah.

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