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  • Ethereal Christianity:Reading Korean Mega-Church Websites
  • Kirsteen Kim (bio)

Introduction: Korean Christianity and the Internet

Among the many remarkable features of South Korea, two particular facts about the nation merit attention in the context of this article. The first is that in 2002 it became the most Internet-connected country in the world (Schofield, 2002), and it continues to lead the field in broadband use. Not only do more Koreans use broadband Internet than almost anywhere else, but connections are also faster than in most other countries because of superior cables (OECD, 2006). The second fact is that, according to the 2005 census, nearly one third (29.2%) of the population of South Korea is now Christian (Protestants 18.3%; Catholic 10.9%; Korea National Statistical Office). With the exception of the Philippines, this makes itthe most Christian country in Asia. The spiritual and technological lives of Korean Christians come together in church websites which, in their vivid colour, vibrant animation and all-round sophistication, reflect the dynamic spiritual life of Korean Christianity.

The anthropologist couple Roger Janelli and Dawnhee Yim, who have carried out extensive studies of Korean culture for about thirty years, show how the widespread use of the Internet by almost all sections of society, the intensity of its use and the range of purposes to which it is put make it possible to use the Korean language Internet as a tool for anthropological research into the whole society, and not just the lives of dedicated enthusiasts. Not only is the Internet a rich source for information on Korea, but its content and the online interaction reveal the dynamics of Korean society, which appears more 'saturated' by the Internet than any other nation on earth (Janelli and Yim, 2005). Korea's religious life is also open to view on the Internet. Before 1910 Christians were a tiny minority of less than 1%, but Christianity grew very rapidly in the twentieth century. The [End Page 208] other main religion in Korea is Buddhism (22.8%); both Zen (So˘n) Buddhism and popular Pure Land Buddhism are practised. The numbers of adherents of other world faiths are negligible. The census figures do not include those who practise Confucianism and Korean shamanism, which are not recognised as separate religions. It can be said that Korean society has been thoroughly 'Confucianised' (Grayson, 2002: 1), retaining a strong Confucian social and moral code, and that Korean primal religion – commonly referred to as shamanism – is a pervasive influence on religious life and outlook (Grayson, 2002: 2).

Korean church websites offer themselves as 'texts' from which to 'read' the spirituality of contemporary Korean churches. The graphics and audios of the site present conceptions of holiness, the divine, and spiritual life; the organisational aspects of the site show the interests and priorities of Korean Christians; and particular pages disclose current issues and spiritual understanding. The 'reading' of the Korean Internet is not onlyof interest for what it reveals about Korea itself but, because Korea is sofar ahead technologically, it can also help predict the future of cyber-development in other societies. So our study of Korean church websites will also have a second function: it will lead us to raise issues about how spirituality is shaped by the emergence of 'ethereal' or cyber religion, which will be increasingly applicable worldwide.

Limitations of space mean that we will restrict our discussion of Korean spirituality to two Protestant churches: Myung Sung Presbyterian Church and Yoido Full Gospel Church. Both are 'mega-churches' offering populist forms of Christianity, but we shall see that they represent two different strands of Korean spirituality. Although these websites are well established, the sites today do not appear exactly as they were when this paper was first presented.1 We will look at the sites in turn, interpreting them with respect both to the Korean social, cultural and religious context, and also with respect to Christian traditions. We will note points of comparison and contrast along the way, and then place these two different Christian expressions within the spectrum of Korean spirituality. The paper will conclude with observations about the interaction between the medium of the Internet and...