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Reviewed by:
  • Christianity in Korea
  • Kirsteen Kim
Christianity in Korea, edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Timothy S. Lee, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006, viii + 408p.

The growth of Korean Christianity from mere thousands in 1905 to approaching one third of the population of South Korea in 2005 is the great success story of twentieth-century Christianity and is an inspiration to other evangelists and missionaries around the world. This edited volume gives something of an inside story of the Korean Christian movement, emphasizing the complex nature of Korean reception of the faith, showing the inter-relationship of Christianity and politics, analyzing statistics to reveal the rise and fall of different forms of Christian belief and practice, and revealing a darker side to the story. In so doing, it adds depth and nuance to it and brings it up to the end of the twentieth century, from which vantage point contributors are able to assess the contribution of Christianity to Korean life and make suggestions for the future.

This fascinating book is the most comprehensive text for students of Christianity in Korea that has been produced to date. The editors are well qualified for their role: Robert E. Buswell, Jr. is founder of the Center for Korean Studies at UCLA and Timothy S. Lee is a leading scholar of Korean Christianity based at Brite Divinity School, at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The work they have commissioned is mainly historical, political and socio-cultural, with some theological and inter-religious interest. Christianity in Korea contains seventeen chapters contributed by established experts—including James Huntley Grayson, Gari Ledyard, Wi Jo Kang, Donald N. Clark, Yi Man-Yol, Anselm Kyongsuk Min, and Donald Baker—as well as promising doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. The chapters are neatly divided into five parts in rough historical order: overview, beginnings, nationalism and colonialism, struggles for democracy and reunification, growth and challenges. Inevitably the book suffers from the disadvantages of such a compilation, including uneven styles, repetition of background material (especially Korean Christian history), and significant gaps in coverage of the subject. However, the editors have done well to ensure that writing is generally of high standard, and there are some cross-references between chapters. [End Page 217]

Christianity in Korea adds significantly to the literature in its attention to Catholicism, to Christian women, and to Korean and other East Asian players in Korea’s evangelization. Although Catholicism has a much longer history than Protestantism in Korea, Protestants have dominated the twentieth century and have tended to monopolize the literature in English on Korean Christianity. This book offers a more balanced approach: two chapters address Catholic origins (Cho and Ledyard) and many of the others include the Catholic case, offering a much needed correction. There is apparently also an intentional effort to address women’s faith and concerns, with three chapters focusing on women (Ledyard, Clark and Chong), but the emphasis on the public dimensions of religion and the paucity of relevant literature means that women are invisible in most other chapters. Although emanating from the USA, this book also moves discussion of Korean Christianity further away from being seen as a North American mission initiative toward greater appreciation of its global setting in East Asia, and its nature as a Korean enterprise. Some significant omissions include separate consideration of Korean Pentecostalism, reference to Orthodox Christianity in Korea, and information about Christianity in North Korea. The title Christianity in Korea leads to the omission of another important topic: the diaspora and missionary Korean Christian movements and the worldwide impact of Korean church growth.

Chapters which stood out for this reviewer include the excellent yet succinct historical overview by Grayson at the beginning, which rightly emphasizes Korean initiative in the importation, appropriation and dissemination of Christianity in Korea. Cho Kwang’s short contribution highlights effectively the clash between Confucian and Catholic thought and ethics in the early period. Ledyard’s study of Kollumba Kang Wansuk gives fascinating insight into the life of a woman Catholic leader against a detailed background of late eighteenth-century Korean society. This chapter is one which brings new material, drawn from primary sources in Korean and French, to...


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